The Amer­i­can movie

His­to­rian Jim Cullen on the Os­car win­ners who best por­tray the na­tion’s mis­trust of government

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If the na­tion’s mis­trust of its politi­cians were de­picted by Hol­ly­wood, who would play lead?

Abox of­fice is not a vot­ing booth, but they have their sim­i­lar­i­ties. Nei­ther is en­tirely demo­cratic in the ways it of­fers choices, and each is a lit­tle too def­er­en­tial to mar­ket forces. But both tell sto­ries about the state of the na­tion, pro­duced by teams that are fronted by star per­form­ers.

In pol­i­tics, some of the most suc­cess­ful per­form­ers take on mul­ti­ple roles. Thomas Jef­fer­son, Theodore Roo­sevelt, Ron­ald Rea­gan, Barack Obama: Their sto­ries have of­fered ver­sions of the coun­try — where it had been, where it was headed. Some were sto­ries of restora­tion, oth­ers of progress.

In the Repub­lic of Hol­ly­wood, it’s movie stars, not politi­cians, who rule. And in Hol­ly­wood, as in pol­i­tics, one of the re­cur­ring themes is our na­tional am­biva- lence about pow­er­ful in­sti­tu­tions — re­li­gious, eco­nomic, mil­i­tary or po­lit­i­cal — and their in­flu­ence over ev­ery­day life.

Hol­ly­wood re­flects and projects this am­biva­lence. And the ac­tors to whom au­di­ences have re­acted most strongly since the 1960s — Os­car win­ners Clint East­wood, Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, Jodie Fos­ter, Den­zel Washington and Tom Hanks — have long been en­gaged, con­sciously or not, in this great Amer­i­can con­flict.

Start with Clint East­wood, who was a child dur­ing the New Deal and rose to star­dom dur­ing the Great So­ci­ety — two high points of in­sti­tu­tional ren­o­va­tion and power. Too old to be a found­ing mem­ber of the 1960s coun­ter­cul­ture, which East­wood seemed to ob­serve with some amused de­tach­ment, he in­stead be­came a cul­tural icon in the 1970s and ’80s. His “Dirty Harry” char­ac­ter un­der­scored a quick­en­ing lib­er­tar­ian cur­rent in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. East­wood de­scribed the first of the five films — which ends

with his pro­tag­o­nist toss­ing his badge away in dis­gust with the po­lice de­part­ment in which he served — as de­pict­ing “a world of bu­reau­cratic cor­rup­tion and in­ef­fec­tive­ness.”

East­wood has long been con­sid­ered the quintessen­tial in­di­vid­u­al­ist, one li­on­ized by Rea­gan, who turned “make my day” into a po­lit­i­cal slo­gan. And his skep­ti­cism about big government was cer­tainly on dis­play last year in his empty-chair mono­logue at the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion. Yet East­wood’s movies have of­ten af­firmed the value of com­mu­nity — al­beit a loose, im­pro­vised kind.

In “The Out­law Josey Wales,” he is a rene­gade former Con­fed­er­ate who con­structs a mi­cro-so­ci­ety on the Texas fron­tier that in­volves peace­ful coex­is­tence with Na­tive Amer­i­cans. In “Un­for­given,” his loy­alty to his friend (played by Mor­gan Free­man) and his sol­i­dar­ity with a group of women prove more im­por­tant than a mer­ce­nary act of retri­bu­tion. And in “Gran Torino,” his crusty pro­tag­o­nist, Walt Kowalski, can’t help bond­ing with his Hmong neigh­bors and sac­ri­fic­ing him­self on their be­half. In th­ese and other films, he’s a tough guy who nev­er­the­less tends to his flock.

If East­wood’s ca­reer hints at the com­mu­ni­tar­ian streak in Amer­i­can life, that of Daniel Day-Lewis, a Lon­doner turned Ir­ish­man and avid chron­i­cler of U.S. his­tory, speaks to the power of the fron­tier in the Amer­i­can imag­i­na­tion. DayLewis may have even sur­passed John Wayne in his rugged in­di­vid­u­al­ism.

The quintessen­tial Day-Lewis char­ac­ter is a fron­tiers­man, ob­vi­ous enough in the 1992 film ver­sion of James Fen­i­more Cooper’s clas­sic novel “The Last of the Mo­hi­cans.” But in their tem­per­a­ments and dilem­mas, Day-Lewis’s characters are of­ten rest­less lon­ers chaf­ing against the bound­aries of con­ven­tional so­ci­ety. In “Gangs of New York,” he plays the rag­ing, xeno­pho­bic Bill the Butcher. In “The Age of In­no­cence,” he’s an elite lawyer im­pa­tient with the op­pres­sive con­form­ity of Gilded Age Man­hat­tan. In “There Will Be Blood,” he’s a will­ful Cal­i­for­nia wild­cat­ter whose thirst for dom­i­nance proves self-de­struc­tive.

Like Wayne’s characters, Day-Lewis’s fron­tiers­man is tragic, stran­gled by in­sti­tu­tional forces that de­pend upon, yet fi­nally de­stroy him. His re­cent Os­carnom­i­nated turn as Abra­ham Lin­coln is a par­tial ex­cep­tion, though here again we see a man strain­ing against main­stream racist opin­ion.

In most so­ci­eties, of course, for­mal author­ity is pa­tri­ar­chal. Be­cause the po­lit­i­cal stag­ing ground for eman­ci­pa­tion tends to be per­sonal, fem­i­nism has of­ten had a lib­er­tar­ian cast, al­beit one that leans left rather than right. Th­ese ten­den­cies are on dis­play in the work of Meryl Streep, es­pe­cially in movies like “Kramer vs. Kramer,” in which her char­ac­ter strug­gles to as­sert her iden­tity while her self-in­volved hus­band strug­gles to care for their child. In early Streep films, in­flu­en­tial in­sti­tu­tions — such as the U.S. government of “The Deer Hunter” that drafts her friends to fight in Viet­nam or the se­cre­tive nu­clear power com­pany of “Silk­wood” that en­dan­gers the health of its work­ers — are re­mote, cor­rupt or both.

In the most re­cent phase of her sto­ried ca­reer, how­ever, Streep’s characters have be­gun pulling levers in pow­er­ful in­sti­tu­tions such as the U.S. Se­nate (in the 2004 re­make of “The Manchurian Can­di­date”) and the Ro­man Catholic Church (in 2008’s “Doubt”). She has also re­peat­edly por­trayed tough women who com­mand our re­spect, ev­i­dent in her Os­car-win­ning per­for­mance in 2011 as Mar­garet Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” This cin­e­matic story line is one of hard-earned progress through in­sti­tu­tional en­gage­ment.

It’s in­struc­tive to com­pare this vi­sion of fem­i­nism with that por­trayed by a younger con­tem­po­rary: Jodie Fos­ter, who was hon­ored with a life­time achieve­ment award at last month’s Golden Globes. Un­like Streep’s, Fos­ter’s characters are skep­ti­cal about the abil­ity of for­mal in­sti­tu­tions to im­prove Amer­i­can life. In 1976’s “Taxi Driver,” a film drenched in irony about pol­i­tics and the law, the child pros­ti­tute she plays re­gards the norms of so­ci­ety as a joke. In films such as “Panic Room” and “The Brave One,” the po­lice of­fer as­sis­tance to her dis­tressed and vic­tim­ized pro­tag­o­nists, but they prove use­less. Even when Fos­ter is in a role of author­ity, as she was as a young FBI agent in “The Si­lence of the Lambs,” she must fi­nally con­front evil alone; in that movie, she does so as her fel­low agents are break­ing into the wrong house.

It was for­mal in­sti­tu­tions — le­gal, po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious — that made slav­ery and seg­re­ga­tion pos­si­ble in the United States. It was also for­mal in­sti­tu­tions that de­stroyed them. Un­der­stand­ing this du­al­ity seems to come in­stinc­tively to Den­zel Washington, who dra­ma­tized it in movies like “Glory” and “Mal­colm X.”

One in­sti­tu­tion, how­ever, has con­sis­tently served as Washington’s lodestar: the fam­ily, whether lit­eral or fig­u­ra­tive. As with East­wood, Washington’s roles typ­i­cally in­volve par­ent­ing or men­tor­ing, ev­i­dent in his Os­car-nom­i­nated turn as an ad­dicted pi­lot in “Flight.” Un­like East­wood, how­ever, Washington’s tales al­most al­ways in­volve rein­te­gra­tion into so­ci­ety. (One rea­son he won an Os­car for 2001’s “Train­ing Day” is be­cause his po­lice de­tec­tive char­ac­ter went spec­tac­u­larly against type as the men­tor from hell for his pro­tege, played by Ethan Hawke.)

One of the old­est tropes in U.S. his­tory is “repub­li­can moth­er­hood”: the idea that the success of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety de­pends on pro­duc­ing good women so that they can raise good men. Washington’s ca­reer is an af­fir­ma­tion of “repub­li­can father­hood”: Good fa­thers make good sons, and good sons make his­tory. In “Glory,” Washington plays a prodi­gal son re­deemed by the men­tor­ing of Mor­gan Free­man. In “The Great De­baters,” which Washington di­rected, he’s a men­tor at a Texas black col­lege in the 1930s, shap­ing the per­sona of fu­ture civil rights leader James Farmer (played by Den­zel Whi­taker, who was named af­ter Washington).

Fi­nally, two-time Os­car win­ner Tom Hanks of­fers per­haps the purest archetype in the Amer­i­can story: the arch-in­sti­tu­tion­al­ist. He has re­peat­edly em­bod­ied the team player, whether in a women’s base­ball club (“A League of Their Own”), the armed forces (“Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan”) or a fam­ily busi­ness (“You’ve Got Mail”). Even when he’s a vic­tim of an in­sti­tu­tional wrong, as is his char­ac­ter in “Philadel­phia,” he uses that same sys­tem to make it right. And the pro­tag­o­nist of “For­rest Gump” may be clue­less, but time and again, it is es­tab­lished in­sti­tu­tions — whether the Univer­sity of Alabama or the Army — that give him the ground­ing so sorely lack­ing for his beloved Jenny.

Hanks’s ge­nial Every­man has made a com­pelling ve­hi­cle for lib­eral val­ues in a cli­mate not al­ways hos­pitable to them. At the very moment a Demo­cratic pres­i­dent was declar­ing that “the era of big government is over,” Hanks starred in “Apollo 13,” a paean to a mas­sive government bu­reau­cracy — NASA — per­form­ing with grace un­der pres­sure in re­sponse to the fail­ures of a pri­vate con­trac­tor that pro­vided faulty equip­ment to the space agency. Hanks’s roles af­firm the dom­i­nance of lib­eral ide­ol­ogy in pop­u­lar cul­ture, even at times when it has been re­pu­di­ated in na­tional pol­i­tics.

The elec­tion and re­elec­tion of Barack Obama have been widely de­scribed as re­jec­tions of the con­ser­va­tive at­tack on in­sti­tu­tions as a force for good in ev­ery­day life. Amer­i­can pol­i­tics may be wit­ness­ing a new wave of in­sti­tu­tion­al­ism, ev­i­dent in the high-pro­file government re­forms in health care, im­mi­gra­tion and pos­si­bly cli­mate change. Even the fight for same-sex mar­riage can be seen as an in­sti­tu­tional af­fir­ma­tion; I doubt that many of the par­tic­i­pants at Stonewall, by con­trast, were ri­ot­ing for the right to have church wed­dings.

So how will a new gen­er­a­tion re­act to or re­flect a new po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural or­der? Ben Af­fleck’s “Argo,” for in­stance, shows characters grop­ing their way to­ward a recla­ma­tion of dis­cred­ited in­sti­tu­tions and dis­carded val­ues. It’s hard to imag­ine a baby boomer af­fir­ma­tion of the CIA, and fel­low best-pic­ture nom­i­nee “Zero Dark Thirty,” di­rected by boomer Kathryn Bigelow, is a good deal more am­bigu­ous in its view of the in­sti­tu­tion. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see what story the ca­reer of emerg­ing star Jes­sica Chas­tain will tell.

The spirit of an age is never set, in any case. Ac­tors re­spond to new scenes and any num­ber of cos­tume changes. In a land of eter­nal rein­ven­tion, there’s al­ways an­other take.

Jim Cullen is chair­man of the his­tory de­part­ment at the Eth­i­cal Cul­ture Field­ston School in New York and the au­thor of “Sens­ing the Past: Hol­ly­wood Stars and His­tor­i­cal Vi­sions.”

TRIS­TAR PIC­TURES

In “Philadel­phia,” Tom Hanks’s char­ac­ter, left, turns to the sys­tem to right a wrong: his fir­ing be­cause of an AIDS di­ag­no­sis. Den­zel Washington, right, plays his lawyer, an­other of the ac­tor’s roles with a pa­ter­nal streak.

KEN RE­GAN/ORION PIC­TURES

Like many of her characters, Jodie Fos­ter’s FBI agent in “The Si­lence of the Lambs” ends up con­fronting evil alone.

WARNER BROS.

Clint East­wood, pic­tured as “Dirty Harry,” has played in­di­vid­u­al­ists with a soft spot for com­mu­nity.

THE WE­IN­STEIN COM­PANY

Meryl Streep’s re­cent roles, in­clud­ing Mar­garet Thatcher in “The Iron Lady,” have her por­tray­ing women in power.

DREAM­WORKS

In “Lin­coln,” Daniel Day-Lewis made some­thing of a de­par­ture from his usual rugged lon­ers.

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