As I get down to the last movies before I mail in my ballot to the Academy for Best Picture nomination, I am struck that many of the great films of the year were centered in that weird space where capitalism gets distorted into criminality. My list so far: There Will be Blood, American Gangster, Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men and Zodiac. And the performances of some of the anti-heroes are rather remarkable. Daniel Day Lewis (in Blood), to whom blood ties mean nothing in the pursuit of oil riches. Tilda Swinton (in Clayton) will go to any length to cover up her client’s crime. The incredibly menacing Javier Bardem (in No Country) has his own weird code of corporate conduct in the drug smuggling business, and uses new technology (a particularly lethal cattle slaughtering machine) to kill his victims. And finally, Denzel Washington, who reads the business pages and believes that he has brought productivity and new business models to crack distribution.
Hollywood has been fascinated by gangsters since William Wellman made James Cagney a star in 1931 with Public Enemy. Cagney’s relentless ambition was not sugarcoated and in the end he gets his just desserts, as the Hays office censorship board would demand, dying at his mother’s doorstep. American Gangster is of course an updating of the prohibition tale into the “just say no” world of Nancy Reagan and Drug Czar Bill Bennett. We the audience knows that even many of the cops are hypocrites; if not just corrupt. There Will be Blood and Michael Clayton peer into the belly of the Free Market Beast and reach the same conclusion: free markets are great for those who can pay to distort them. Zodiac and No Country for Old Menseem to be meditations on a cultural interregnum. Both Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac and Tommy Lee Jones in No Country seem truly bewildered by the savagery of the men they are pursuing. It is as if they both long to live in an earlier time where honor and decency were not so easily buried by the pursuit of money or fame.
We are about to go through a presidential election campaign where the fires of a populist revolt against corporate power will be stoked by Obama and Edwards on the Democratic side and Huckabee and Paul on the Republican side. Could it be that Hollywood really did sense this anger two years ago when these movies were being planned?