The Return of the Paranoid Style

How the Iraq War and George W. Bush sent the movie industry back to its favorite era—the 1970s

The ultraviolent genres of the 1970s are enjoying a renaissance as well. The modern slasher flick was born in the aftermath of Vietnam, in shocking, deliberately nihilistic films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Beginning in the mid-1980s, the genre took a detour into increasingly comic territory, with the semi-laughable Nightmare on Elm Street series giving way to outright farces like the Scream films. But now the old nihilism is back. Some of the modern gorefests, such as The Hills Have Eyes (2006), recapitulate or just remake ’70s splatter pictures; others, such as the Saw tetralogy, break new ground in so-called torture porn. And a subset of the genre—Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) and its sequel, Hostel: Part II (2007); John Stockwell’s Turistas (2006)—might be described as “blowback horror,” films in which feckless young Americans are trapped in overseas abattoirs that evoke al-Qaeda’s execution videos.

The slasher renaissance has been joined by a revival of zombie films. The Vietnam era was bracketed by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), and the Iraq era, too, has its defining undead: the fast-moving zombies of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later (2007). (The latter doubles as an explicit Iraq War allegory, featuring marines operating from a London “Green Zone” while they try to reestablish order in a zombiefied Great Britain.) There’s been a broader Romero revival as well, encompassing 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake and its zombie parody, Shaun of the Dead, and Romero’s own return to zombieland, in Land of the Dead (2005) and this year’s Diary of the Dead.

As with slashers and zombies, so with vigilantes. The ’70s had Dirty Harry (1971), Walking Tall (1973), Death Wish (1974), and all their sequels, with Taxi Driver (1976) thrown in for good measure. The ’00s have served up a slew of remakes and imitators—as though the two decades were “twin dark alleys in the American imagination,” Eric Lichtenfeld wrote recently in the online magazine Slate—culminating in the release last fall of The Brave One, a self-conscious homage to the Death Wish movies, with Jodie Foster filling Charles Bronson’s shoes as a violated New Yorker looking for payback.

To all these ’70s revivals we can add yet another: the rebirth of tragic realism. The most talented directors of the Vietnam era set about reworking and darkening archetypal American narratives—the detective story in Chinatown (1974) and The French Connection (1971); the gangster saga in The Godfather (1972); the war movie in M*A*S*H (1970) and Apocalypse Now (1979); and the western in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and the blood-soaked films of Sergio Leone. The Iraq era has produced a similarly gritty revisionism. The past year of cinema alone saw David Fincher’s Zodiac, a deliberately inconclusive procedural about a real-life serial killer from the ’60s and ’70s; James Gray and Ridley Scott channeling Scorsese and Coppola in We Own the Night and American Gangster, respectively; and Sidney Lumet channeling, well, himself in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

But the new realism finds its principal home on pay cable, a more expansive—and explicit—medium than the Coppolas and Lumets and Altmans and Scorseses had to play with. Three HBO shows led the way—The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood, each offering a bleak revision of a classic American genre. (Tony Soprano’s famous whine, “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?,” is a grim counterpoint to the post-9/11 fantasies of a John Wayne revival.) They’ve been joined by lesser lights such as Brotherhood and The Shield, and by the first great revisionist sci-fi serial, Battlestar Galactica, helmed by an ex–Star Trek writer and featuring enough sex, violence, and religious fanaticism to set Gene Roddenberry spinning in his grave.

Insofar as American foreign policy impinges directly on these worlds, it provides ironic context to events on the home front. On The Wire, the beleaguered cops of Baltimore find that their city’s bloody drug wars are near the bottom of a terrorism-obsessed FBI’s list of priorities. The commentary in The Sopranos is more pointed still: midway through the final season, Tony’s hapless son, A.J., abruptly decides to join the Army and ship off to Afghanistan, in search of the moral purpose that’s eluded him as a mobster’s son in suburban New Jersey. His horrified parents quickly buy him off with a fancy new car and a movie-business job—not because that’s what a Mob family does, the show suggests, but because that’s what almost any upper-middle-class American parents would do. For the Sopranos and their law-abiding neighbors alike, the wars that followed 9/11 are for other families to fight.

This last reality brings us to the question of how authentic our back-to-the-’70s moment really is. The Vietnam War was a cultural phenomenon in part because it couldn’t help being one—there was no way for Americans to keep the war at arm’s length, not with more than 50,000 dead, a million deployed over the course of the war, and every able-bodied teen and twentysomething at risk of conscription. In contrast, the Iraq War, a lower-casualty conflict fought by an all-volunteer military, takes place at a greater distance from the everyday lives of those Americans who don’t have a family member deployed overseas. The objective correlatives needed for a truly pessimistic era simply don’t exist for many Americans today. The last time around, we were participants; this time, we’re voyeurs.

This doesn’t mean that the current paranoid, doom-ridden mood in cinema and television was manufactured in Hollywood and foisted on an unwilling public. Up to a point, at least, Hollywood is meeting Americans where they are. Mistrust of government and disquiet about the country’s future have risen to Vietnam-era levels, and reviving ’70s-style paranoia and pessimism is a natural way for the culture industry to connect with a public coping, once again, with a military quagmire, rising oil prices, prophecies of ecological doom, and corruption in high places.

But the ’70s revival isn’t simply a case of supply responding to demand; it’s also a case of Hollywood giving the audience what Hollywood wants to give it. The ’70s were in many ways dreadful years for America, but they’re remembered much more fondly in the film industry. There’s no surer way to establish your artistic (and political) bona fides than to name-drop a ’70s movie—whether it’s George Clooney bringing up All the President’s Men (1976) while promoting Michael Clayton, or Stephen Gaghan remarking that of course he was “thinking about The Parallax View and also Three Days of the Condor” while making Syriana. The suggestion is always the same—that the age of leisure suits and sideburns was also the high tide of politically engaged filmmaking, before the studios embarked on the relentless pursuit of the blockbuster and the Reagan reaction pushed American culture steadily to the right.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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