Tag Archives: Robert Redford

The Parallax View (1974) All the President’s Men (1976)

One of my earliest childhood memories involves the Watergate hearings. My father was shopping for a new car battery. We were in the auto-parts store at the Watchung, New Jersey Sears. My mother, my brother and I were in the waiting area. A television was playing. Suddenly a crowd gathered. I stood up. I don’t know if it was the live feed of the hearings or simply a replay on the local news, but a man I now recognize to have been Senator Howard Baker was interrogating a man I now recognize to have been John Dean.

“What did the President know and when did he know it?”

Little did I know at that age how fucked my country really was. Vietnam, the assassinations of almost every major progressive leader the decade before, the riots in Newark and Detroit, the gas lines, the beginning of the neoliberal push against the New Deal, the America I would grow up believing in was already dead. In 1974 and 1976, Alan J. Pakula made two important, if flawed movies that caught some of the national mood, the sense of paranoia and societal disintegration that came out of the Kennedy assassinations, plural, and the fall of the Nixon administration. Watching them back to back will give you a good idea of what an honest journalist, or anybody interested in the truth, was up against in the mid-1970s.

The Parallax View can be a frustrating film to watch. There’s no emotional or dramatic payoff. It’s easy to get confused if you’re not paying close attention. There are no sympathetic protagonists or charismatic villains. Even Warren Beatty’s star power is overshadowed by the film’s overwhelming sense of dread. It’s also the best Kennedy Assassination movie ever made.

The Parallax view opens with a political rally at the Space Needle in Seattle. Lee Carter, a local TV reporter introduces Senator Charles Carroll, who she clearly admires. Carroll, she tells us, is a cranky independent, a liberal Republican or a conservative Democrat, a man of great personal integrity if unpredictable ideology. Someone also wants him dead. An assassin, who, in turn, is assassinated by a shadowy man we’ll see later in the film, blows his brains out in the restaurant at the top of the Space Needle. One of the witnesses is Joseph Fraday, Warren Beatty, a journalist who writes for an unnamed newspaper in the Pacific Northwest.

Joseph Fraday is a brilliant, if unsuccessful journalist, a malcontent and a social misfit whose ability to uncover the truth is matched only by his inability to get it out to a wider audience. One day, three years later, Lee Carter visits him at home. She’s terrified. All of the witnesses to the Carroll assassination (which a group of men clearly modeled on the Warren Commission had determined to be the work of a “lone nut”) are dying untimely, and, to her mind, suspicious deaths. She fears she’s next. Fraday doesn’t take her seriously. The next day she’s found dead of a drug overdose. Now he fears he’s next. As the film unfolds, Fraday uncovers a link between the Carroll assassination and a shadowy company called The Parrallax Corporation. A lucky accident lets him fake his death. An old contact in the FBI gets him a new identity. Eventually, tenacious investigative journalism, the willingness to take risks, and an uncanny series of lucky breaks lets him infiltrate Parallax — think Blackwater meets MK Ultra— and uncover their links to Carroll’s death.

If the Parallax View is frustrating and confusing, then it has nothing to do with how Alan J. Pakula couldn’t have made a more emotionally satisfying film if he had wanted. Pakula’s goal is not to set Fraday up as the hero and give us a cathartic ending where the bad guys are brought down, and the hero marries some gratuitous love interest. His goal is to put us in Fraday’s head, to make us experience the terror and bewilderment of a rational man trying to get to the truth in a society that’s falling apart, that doesn’t seem to be governed by any rules you can understand, that’s conspiring for his destruction. If Fraday thinks he’s one step ahead of the Parallax Corporation, and we believe him, that makes the ending all the more unsettling. I went into the Parallax View skeptical of Kennedy conspiracy theories. I came out wondering if, perhaps, the conspiracy mongers are onto something, at least as far as Oswald being a “patsy” goes. As the Parallax View concludes, Fraday realizes that all his intrepid reporting, his diligent infiltration of the Parallax Corporation has, in reality, been manipulated by the Parallax Corporation all along. To his, and our horror, we realize who the new Lee Harvey Oswald is.

The Parallax View was made in 1974, All the President’s men in 1976. Most of the dread and pessimism of The Parallax View comes from the sense that Richard Nixon would never leave office, that the shadowy security and surveillance state that, most likely, brought down both Kennedys and Martin Luther King, was untouchable, that democracy had been overthrown behind the peoples’ backs and wasn’t coming back. After Watergate and the end of the draft, the rest of the country moved on. Pakula, at least in 1976, did not. If the national myth surrounding Watergate was about two crusading journalists bringing down Nixon, and about the restoration of democracy, All the President’s Men, in spite of its reputation, doesn’t buy into it. Indeed, what pleased me the most about All the President’s Men is how it’s almost as frustrating and confusing as The Parallax View.

If the Parallax View ends with the complete triumph of evil, then All The President’s Men ends in a draw. Robert Redford’s Woodward and Dustin Hoffman’s Bernstein are Joe Fraday’s brother malcontents. Woodward and Bernstein pursue the Watergate investigation with such determination, not because they’re experienced reporters, but in spite of it. They’re not yet assimilated into the culture of trading silence for access. They don’t see the world from the point of view of the elite. If they succeed where Joe Fraday fails, live where he dies, then that’s only because they have a powerful institution behind them, Ben Bradlee and the old, liberal Washington Post. The Parallax Corporation easily snuffs out Joe Fraday’s ineffectual old editor at his unamed Seattle newspaper. That’s not so easy to do with Bradlee.

But what makes All the President’s Men such a good, frustrating, unsatisfying movie is how confusing it is. If Pakula put us into Joe Fraday’s shoes, made us feel his terror and paranoia, he puts us into the minds of Woodward and Bernstein, not after they became famous journalists, but before they did. At one point in the film, Woodward assures one of the conspirators that he too loves his country. He’s a Republican. He has no bias against Nixon. He just wants to get to the truth. What that truth is, however, is by no means as clear during the Watergate Investigation as it would subsequently become after Nixon’s resignation. All the President’s Men not only shows us the unglamorous side of journalism, but the insecure side of journalism. One false move, one bad lead, one slip into conspiracy mongering, and both of them could end up like Joe Fraday, small time nobodies at an obscure paper somewhere out in middle-America.

All the President’s Men ends on a tentative note. Nixon, we understand, is going down. But democracy, we know, won’t be restored. In the end, The Parallax View would be the more accurate prediction of the future.  From the October Surprise to Iran Contra to the investigation by Patrick Fitzgerald of the scandal around Valarie Plame and Joe Wilson, no more senior American elected officials would resign or go to jail. Watergate was probably the last hurrah of a genuinely free American press. The mainstream corporate press would become a court press, dedicated to protecting, not challenging power. Investigating real conspiracies like Watergate would become about investigating fake conspiracies like Benghazi. Genuine heirs to the tradition of Woodward and Bernstein, like Gary Webb, would find no powerful institutions like the old school Washington Post to protect them. Like Joe Fraday, they would be destroyed.

In the end, The Parallax View seems contemporary. All The President’s Men feels like nostalgia. That’s the world we live in.

Ordinary People (1980)

While not as universally despised as The English Patient or Crash, most people consider Ordinary People one of the weakest films ever to win Best Picture. The elephant in the room was Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. From the Godfather to Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, politically conservative, yet culturally radical Italian American auteurs dominated the 1970s. But the counterrevolution was on. Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, an attempt at a leftist, revisionist take on the old west, had failed so badly it brought down United Artists. Ronald Reagan was on track to become President. Lisa Birnbach had published the Official Preppy Handbook. The counterculture was out. The WASP was back in. Ordinary People, which is set in Lake Forest Illinois, one of the wealthiest towns in suburban Chicago, was just what the academy needed.

Robert Redford, who directed Ordinary People, is anything but a Reaganite. He’s a good liberal who cares about the environment, founded the Sundance Film Festival, and acted in a film about the Cuban Revolution. His next film as a director, The Milagro Beanfield War, ventured as far away from WASP Lake Forest as you can get, all the way to the Hispanic Southwest. So why did he choose to direct a long, glorified, cinematic version of a John Cheever story?

Let’s do a little thought experiment. What if Redford decided to leverage his own popularity in Hollywood, and the culture of nouveau-WASP, Reaganite, neoliberal chic to make a film that’s far more radical and subversive than it’s sometimes given credit for? Indeed, Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting might, in fact, be considered the conservative sequel to Ordinary People. Good Will Hunting, in spite of its superficially leftist politics, at least holds out at least the promise happiness in the meritocracy. Sure, Matt Damon’s Will has a very famous speech where bashes the NSA, years before it was cool, but, in the end, we know he has no intention of staying in South Boston with his working class friends. He’ll get into the upper-middle-class some way.

Ordinary People shows us that the last place any of should aspire to is a mansion in Lake Forest, Illinois.

On the surface, Redford’s Lake Forest is beautiful. Ordinary People opens to the strains of Pachelbel’s Canon. As we drift through a series of autumnal images of high bourgeois suburbia, we are introduced to Conrad Jarrett, a young Timothy Hutton. Conrad Jarrett is half James Dean in East of Eden, half Wit Stillman preppie. He’s a popular, straight-A student with a wealthy tax attorney for a father, Calvin Jarrett played by Donald Sutherland, and the kind of mother Martha Stewart made a fortune marketing as a fantasy. The Jarrett house is perfect, too perfect. Not a blade of grass, not a piece of furniture, not a knife, a fork or a spoon is out of place.

Soon we learn something is very, very wrong. Conrad’s older brother, Buck, died in a boating accident. Conrad survived. Conrad attempted suicide, and was committed to an insane asylum, where he was given electroshock therapy. Beth Jarrett, Mary Tyler Moore, is high WASP, middle-aged perfection. To quote Frank Rich on former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, “she’s such a good example of the horsey set she almost neighs.” Beth is the kind of passive aggressive, upper-class WASP who thinks she’s making a gesture of infinite kindness simply by talking to you. She’s the kind of woman who makes you feel guilty for making her feel guilty that she can’t be nicer to you than she thinks you really deserve. She hates her younger son. Buck, not Conrad, not even her husband, was the most important man in her life. She’s an ice cold, emotional black hole who blames Conrad for not being the one on the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Calvin Jarrett, while he may be an irritating wuss, is far more likeable. We never quite learn what kind of tax law he practices, but, if his gorgeous Lake Forest estate wasn’t inherited, we can be pretty sure it has something to do with helping rich people keep the IRS from taking their money. If the strongest side of Ordinary People is the way it captures the rhythms of the frigid upper-middle class, the way these people keep secrets even when they don’t, the way they deal with people instead of talking to them, their physical discomfort in one another’s presence, then its weakest side is in the way it refuses to engage class as class. Calvin Jarrett is the sensitive 1970s WASP male from central casting.  Money is etherealized into style. In real life, a Calvin Jarrett in corporate America would get eaten alive. Here, he never seems to work, and he never seems to worry about money. Beth Jarrett, the angel of the hearth become emotionally withholding devil, bears the entire burden of Redford’s dissection of the neoliberal, Reaganite meritocracy.

But if Ordinary People is a misogynistic film, it’s a great one.  TV shows like Mad Men still try to sell us on a fantasy of high WASP chic. Ordinary People rips it to pieces.

After Conrad starts psychoanalysis with Dr. Tyrone C. Berger, Judd Hirsch, we learn that what he needed all along was a dose of earthy Jewish warmth. Judd Hirsch is not only marvelous as a psychoanalyst, the film captures the dynamic of what it’s like for a young man to try heal himself in therapy only to have to go back home to the same upper-class household that made him need therapy in the first place. To watch Ordinary People back to back with Good Will Hunting is to realize what a reactionary film Good Will Hunting is. For Matt Damon’s Will, getting in touch with your feelings is a first step towards abandoning your emotionally stunted blue collar childhood. Once Will heals his soul he’ll be ready to join the Calvin Jarretts of the world in the corporate boardroom. For Timothy Hutton’s Conrad Jarrett, it’s not that easy.

The healthier Conrad gets, the more he comes into conflict with Beth. “Aren’t I supposed to feel better?” Conrad asks Berger. “Not necessarily,” Berger answers. Berger doesn’t want Conrad to fit in. He wants him to get mad. Whether or not Berger intends it, Conrad is the revolutionary agent of change who will bring down the film’s microcosm of the corrupt, bourgeois order. Indeed, we begin to realize that Buck’s death and Conrad’s suicide attempt, as tragic as they were, also made it inevitable that the Jarrett family would finally crack up, and that, in the end, it’s a good thing. Had Buck not been killed, Beth Jarrett would have been able to maintain her emotional tyranny over her husband and her younger son for decades. But once the crisis presents itself, Conrad has to rebel or die, and Calvin either has to support him, or lose the only child he has left. Ordinary People ends on a sad note. We don’t know what will happen to Conrad, but we have seen him grow from an angry teenage boy into a man. That’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment in a two hour movie. Conrad, the least favored son, the Cain marked out for destruction by a withholding bourgeois female God who dotes on his older brother, survives. After Beth gets into a taxi and drives off into the night, we feel like a cloud has lifted, and it has.