One indicator of how far statism has progressed in American society and culture is the tendency to view everything through a political lens. Feminists used to argue that “the personal is the political,” and this attitude has become commonplace on both sides of the political spectrum.
A recent essay by Slate columnist Dennis Lim slagging Jason Reitman, director of the Academy Award-nominated film Up in the Air, exemplifies this baleful phenomenon. Lim criticizes Reitman for a failure to convey a progressive political vision, expressing open astonishment that the screenwriter-director has not been blacklisted by Hollywood’s allegedly liberal-minded industry self-censors:
[I]t is hard to fathom his success in the supposedly liberal bastion of Hollywood: His politics lean right when they are at all legible, and yet he’s embraced as an insightful social satirist, the second coming of Billy Wilder.
Lim goes on to provide what he sees as the answer to this riddle: Reitman is a fiendishly brilliant manipulator on the order of Fu Manchu or, well, President Obama:
On a deeper level, though, this disconnect makes perfect sense: It speaks to the brazen hucksterism that is so much a part of Reitman’s method. He’s a mediocre filmmaker but a world-class panderer. His movies, which instinctively play to both sides of a charged issue, are the height of smoke-and-mirrors artistry, wholly dependent on the concealment and the semblance of meaning.
Reitman, son of Ghostbusters and Stripes director Ivan Reitman, is the director of three very thoughtful and intelligent films with satirical elements: Thank You for Smoking (2005), Juno (2007), and Up in the Air (2009). His films do feature political themes prominently. Thank You for Smoking tells the story of a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, and the protagonist of Juno is a pregnant teenager who decides not to have an abortion but instead to give up her child for adoption. Up in the Air tells the story of a corporate consultant who makes a living going around the country firing people, but whose real character problem is his failure to establish close relationships in his personal life.
One can see why progressive politicos would find such films difficult to enjoy: they consistently place the personal above the political.
As Lim makes clear with the left-handed compliment of saying Juno “at least triggered some debate about its politics,” the only possible happy ending of a film about abortion, in his view, is evidently for the unborn child to be killed and the young lady to have her decision endorsed by everyone except the obligatory Catholic and born-again Christian villains. Or, of course, to have her killed by said villains, culminating in a lovely closing crane shot moving somberly away from her tragic, bleeding body signifying her martyrdom for the great and good cause of killing children in the womb for money. That would surely be a big hit in downtown Boston and San Francisco.
This need to see one’s opponents as villains rather than human beings is central to Lim’s complaint. In the case of Thank You for Smoking, for example, Lim abominates Reitman’s refusal to make the tobacco lobbyist a conventional, characterless, two-dimensional, mustachio-twirling villain:
Thank You for Smoking (2005), centered on an obfuscating Big Tobacco lobbyist, belongs to the dubious genre that people like to call equal-opportunity satire — which is another way of saying that it sprays potshots in all directions to avoid anything so onerous as a point of view.
Translated: don’t satirize my illusions, just other people’s. Actually, Reitman’s refusal to present Thank You for Smoking as a black-and-white, heroes-and-villains political morality play is a strength of the film, not a weakness. Lim’s criticism of it as unfocused in its satire is really a call for agitprop.
As was typical of old-fashioned Marxist criticism in those great good days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lim characterizes Reitman’s deviancy from progressive political concerns as revolting decadence:
Juno (2007), which won Cody a screenwriting Oscar just as Up in the Air looks set to do for Reitman and Sheldon Turner, works overtime to make an accidental pregnancy look like the cutest, wackiest thing that could possibly happen to a teenage girl.
No one who has actually seen Juno and isn’t entirely demented by politics would consider that a reasonable description of the film. The very point of the film is that the pregnancy is immensely important and that Juno knows it. To pretend that the takeaway from Juno is that teenage pregnancy is kooky fun is to engage in wanton distortion.
The political critique boils down to a complaint that Reitman brings up political issues without resolving them neatly in favor of progressive political panaceas. That’s true, but it’s what makes Reitman’s films interesting, as it did for Billy Wilder’s, whom Lim rightly praises. Wilder, after all, was careful to insert a strong (and often rather bizarre) romance or close personal relationship at the center of nearly all of his films, and that provided a solid structure on which to hang the satirical elements and helped audiences sympathize with the often highly flawed central characters.
His Academy Award-winning film The Apartment is a superb example of Wilder’s craft in this regard, as are other fine Wilder movies such as Some Like It Hot, Witness for the Prosecution, and The Fortune Cookie.
This emphasis is even stronger in Reitman’s films than in Wilder’s. All of Reitman’s films are ultimately more concerned with family affairs and interpersonal relationships than with politics. Thank You for Smoking, for example, concludes with the protagonist’s decision that a father’s relationship with his son is more important than the political lobbying and infighting in which he has been involved throughout his adult life.
Similarly, Juno observes that building a relationship with your child’s prospective adoptive parents is more important than enjoying your senior year of high school unencumbered by personal responsibilities. Up in the Air clearly establishes that although the loss of a job is a traumatic experience, what makes it bearable is the loyalty and kindness of family and friends. As protagonist Ryan Bingham says, “If you think about it, your favorite memories, the most important moments in your life — were you alone? Life’s better with company.”
Thus Lim’s complaint about the “equal opportunity satire” in Thank You for Smoking goes to the heart of the matter. Although the tobacco, alcohol, and firearms lobbyists are indeed satirized — they even refer to themselves as Merchants of Death — so, too, are the legislators, journalists, and assorted satraps who press for ever-greater national regulation of individual choices, a perpetual increase of government. They are depicted as meddlesome busybodies who stand to gain by pursing their political agendas. Neither side is entirely clean.
This eminently fair approach, however, is in fact quite damaging to political demagoguery, as it allows one’s opponents to be seen as human. After watching Thank You for Smoking, for example, a person who resolutely opposes the use of tobacco and wants it banned might well concede that the people on the other side of the issue are not evil, just wrong. Similarly, a strong abortion supporter could leave Juno thinking that the title character is laudable for caring so strongly about a child she has yet to see. And a person who thinks that big businesses require a strong hand of government regulation might feel some sympathy for George Clooney’s corporate executioner after watching Up in the Air.
Lim, by contrast, blasts the latter as evading the real significance of the economic recession:
Up in the Air shape-shifts from a fondly critical view of the cruel business world to a family-values tract. Unemployed men and women attest to the renewed importance of friends and family, and the commitment-phobic Bingham, who has a sideline delivering motivational lectures on the art of traveling light, realizes, perhaps too late, that you do need baggage in your life after all.
Lim also claims that the film “sidesteps the economic plight of the unemployed to wallow in the existential crisis of the lonely corporate executioner.” As noted above, however, the “importance of friends and family” is precisely Reitman’s greatest concern in all of his films, and it is not a distraction from the tragedy of job loss but in fact the only real answer to it, in Reitman’s view. The film’s acknowledgment of the importance of friends and family is by no means an evasion of the significance of unemployment problems but instead a quite mature and intelligent placement of the issue in its proper context of human lives as they are lived, in a great web of personal relationships that provide both responsibilities and support.
Such a mature and equable perspective on contentious issues, however, casts doubt on political panaceas and impedes the demonization of one’s opponents. That is the real offense of Reitman’s films, but it’s something that reasonable people should find quite appealing and refreshing in this time of increasingly grand and uncompromising political crusades.