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

This is a self-serving story line, but it contains an element of truth. The changing economics of the business, and the changing public mood, did make the ’80s a more middlebrow, conservative decade in pop culture. After out-of-control projects such as Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), the film industry grew wary of auteurs and their excesses and used box-office hits such as Star Wars (1977) and the Indiana Jones saga as its templates. On television, All in the Family and Maude gave way to Full House and The Cosby Show. The Oscars that had gone to The Godfather (1972) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) went to Chariots of Fire (1981) and Gandhi (1982) and Out of Africa (1985). Eighties Hollywood was still grappling with the Vietnam War—in Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), among other films—but the rumpled liberal truth-seekers who raced, wide-eyed, through the thrillers of the ’70s were increasingly replaced by the likes of Tom Cruise dogfighting with Russians in Top Gun (1986) or Patrick Swayze leading his “wolverines” to victory against Soviet invaders in Red Dawn (1984).

During the ’90s, the expansion of cable TV and independent filmmaking began to change this middlebrow-or-bust equation: HBO’s Oz, the brutal prison drama that paved the way for The Sopranos and The Wire, debuted in 1997; the “indie” craze kicked off by Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape (1989) built steadily to 1996, the Year of the Indie, when four of the five Best Picture nominees were produced outside the major studios. But the thing that actors and directors seemed to miss the most about the 1970s—the mood of the decade, the mix of paranoia and pessimism and ambivalence about America itself—made for a poor fit with the optimism of the Clinton boom. What nihilism there was came across as winking rather than bone-deep—Tarantino, not Polanski—and even the strongest forays into subversion and social criticism, such as David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) and David O. Russell’s Gulf War tragicomedy Three Kings (1999), felt somewhat weightless.

The age of George W. Bush and the Iraq War meshes much more neatly with the industry’s ’70s nostalgia. Just not quite as neatly, perhaps, as Hollywood seems to think. As we’ve seen, the broad-brush similarities between the two decades have been used to impressive cinematic effect. But because the two decades don’t map precisely onto one another, the ’70s revival is more successful, both artistically and at the box office, when it’s intimated than when it’s made explicit. And the closer a movie hews to real-world events, the greater the strain of making the Vietnam-era mood fit the Iraq-era facts.

The paranoid style of filmmaking, for instance, is defined in both its Vietnam- and Iraq-era incarnations by the insistence that villains at home are more dangerous than any enemies abroad. This was a plausible point of view when the enemy abroad was Ho Chi Minh: the Vietnam War didn’t begin with “Charlie” bombing downtown Manhattan, and there was little chance that VC cadres would follow America back home. It’s a tougher sell in the age of Osama bin Laden, and as a result an air of omission, even denial, hangs over this genre’s contemporary incarnations.

Consider, as a telling example, Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004). The brilliance of John Frankenheimer’s original lay in its willingness to conflate threats domestic and foreign, by featuring a buffoonish, demagogic Joe McCarthy figure who himself turned out to be a pawn of Communist agents (his wife chief among them). The obvious way to update the story would have been to portray a Cheney-like politician being manipulated by an al-Qaeda sleeper cell. Instead, Demme replaces the Red Menace with an evil corporation, in the process transforming a brilliantly murky story in which even paranoiacs turn out to have enemies (a fairly accurate take on the McCarthy era, as it happens) into a predictable rant against corporate power, in which the only thing America has to fear is Halliburton itself.

Islamist terrorism has made occasional small-screen appearances, on shows like The West Wing and Showtime’s Sleeper Cell as well as on 24. But as far as the movies are concerned, the events of 9/11 have proven far less influential than the demands of the paranoid style. (Or the fear of Muslim backlash, perhaps, whether in the form of overseas riots or press releases from the Council on American-Islamic Relations.) More big-budget movies featuring Islamist villains were released in the 1990s than in the seven years since 9/11, and apart from docudramas like United 93, last fall’s The Kingdom—released to hand-wringing over its supposed jingoism—was the first major studio release to feature Muslim terrorists since 1998’s The Siege.

Even in films that aren’t taking thinly veiled jabs at the Bush administration, terrorist baddies turn out to be Eurotrash arms dealers (2006’s Casino Royale), disgruntled hackers (2007’s Live Free or Die Hard), a sinister air marshal (2005’s Flightplan), or the handsome white guy sitting next to you in the airport lounge (2005’s Red Eye). Anyone and anybody, in other words, except the sort of people who actually attacked the United States on 9/11.

The new wave of vigilante films suffers from a similar detachment from certain on-the-ground realities. Whereas the original Dirty Harry–style movies emerged in response to an enormous rise in violent crime, today’s vigilante films are being made in a country where the crime rate has been dropping steadily for 15 years and where ordinary people are safer from violence than at any point since the early 1960s. During the decade of Taxi Driver and Death Wish, New York City averaged roughly 1,500 murders a year; the New York of The Brave One had fewer than 500. (Jodie Foster’s gun-toting avenger alone would have been responsible for more than 1 percent of the city’s annual killings.) Likewise, the slasher films of the 1970s corresponded with a succession of high-profile serial murderers, including Ted Bundy and Son of Sam, the Hillside Strangler and John Wayne Gacy, and of course the Zodiac killer. No such epidemic exists today: the Hostel films may nod to al-Qaeda’s execution videos and Abu Ghraib, but the Saw films and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes and all the rest are pure spectacle, an homage to yesterday’s fears rather than an expression of today’s.

This sense of homage runs through many of the neo-’70s offerings, as though Hollywood were going back to the same creative wells rather than drilling new ones. It isn’t just the run of remakes and revisions, or the too- obvious attempts to imitate Alan Pakula or Scorsese; it’s the slew of projects, such as Munich and Zodiac and American Gangster, that are actually set in the ’70s, as though our own era can’t quite sustain the bleakness that a ’70s revival requires.

Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in last fall’s trio of anti-war “message movies,” all of which seemed incapable of seeing the current conflict through any lens except that of Vietnam. Brian De Palma’s Redacted takes the plot of his 1989 melodrama, Casualties of War—in which American grunts commit rape and murder in the Vietnamese highlands—gives it a “found footage” spin, and comes out with a story in which American grunts … commit rape and murder in Iraq. Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah portrays a Vietnam vet dad (Tommy Lee Jones) investigating the death of his Iraq War vet son and encountering a cocktail of wartime trauma and home-front disintegration familiar to anyone who’s seen The Deer Hunter (1978). And Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs ham-handedly evokes Vietnam in no fewer than three intertwining narratives. In the first, two working-class marines, one black and one Hispanic, are sent to certain death in Afghanistan; in the second, a Boomer journalist (Meryl Streep) quotes the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” to a hawkish GOP senator (Tom Cruise) who’s trying to sell her on a new military strategy; in the third, an idealistic professor (Redford himself) exhorts a spoiled student to live up to the standard of protest and political engagement set by, yes, the Vietnam generation.

The point is not that similarities don’t exist between that conflict and this one—the Iraq War has more than its share of follies in high places, wartime atrocities, and home-front miseries. (De Palma and Haggis both drew on real-life incidents for their films.) But the entertainment industry, in its haste to re-create the ’70s, hasn’t come to terms with the differences. The differences in our war aims, for one thing. The differences in the enemies we face, for another. The differences in our military—not only in its composition, morale, and leadership, but in the way it’s regarded by civilians back home. Nor has the industry come to terms with what this last distinction says about the impact of the Iraq War on the American psyche—namely, that although the conflict has made us doubt our leaders, it hasn’t made us doubt ourselves.

That is, in the end, the key distinction. The Vietnam War was a bipartisan fiasco that took place amid profound social disarray, and everyone was understood to be complicit—Democrats as well as Republicans, ordinary citizens as well as politicians, the soldiers on the ground as well as the Best and the Brightest shipping them overseas. The conflict in Iraq is occurring during a time of relative domestic peace, and as a result the pessimism it’s produced, though real enough, hasn’t shaken our civilizational confidence in nearly the same way.

The difference is readily apparent in our politics. The Vietnam era had riots and rallies, the Weathermen and the Symbionese Liberation Army, because the rot seemed to go so deep that only desperate measures were worth contemplating. The resistance movements of this era, by contrast, spend most of their time raising money for Democratic candidates, because it seems to many people that winning a few elections could make the nightmare go away. And what’s true for MoveOn.org is true for the entertainment industry. The popular culture of the 1970s reflected the widespread sense that only a revolution could set things right. But nobody’s going to write a 21st-century version of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), a book about the revolutionary spirit and countercultural excesses of ’70s Hollywood stars; this generation of stars is too busy fund-raising for Hillary and Obama.

All of this suggests that the ’70s revival, though pervasive at the moment, may not have that much staying power. The original decade of nightmares didn’t end when the Vietnam War did; it persisted through Ford and Carter, oil shocks and stagflation, and the Iran hostage crisis. The new ’70s may go out with George W. Bush.

Ross Douthat, an Atlantic senior editor, blogs at rossdouthat.theatlantic.com.
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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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