Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It's a Wonderful Pair

Tom Hanks and Jimmy Stewart, bridged by Abraham Lincoln

The following is the final post in series on Tom Hanks specifically, part of a work-in-progress on Hollywood actors as historians generally.

Other than noting that the two men held parallel roles in The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail, I have thus far avoided making a direct comparison between Tom Hanks and another figure who dominated U.S. cinematic life for much of the 20th century: Jimmy Stewart. Type in the two actors’ names in a typical search engine or periodical database and you will find dozens of hits that do not merely contain their names, but make explicit and sustained connections between the two. There are lots of obvious similarities: both enjoyed long careers as Everyman. Both were unremarkable in their looks but attractive to women in their demeanor, language, humor, and understated intelligence. Both were widely known and liked by their peers, and worked with repeatedly with the best directors of their time. And both played a variety of roles across genres, their versatility obvious and important, but never more so than a star persona that made it impossible for their characters, whatever their demons or frustrations, to ever be seen as true villains.
There are subtle similarities, too. Both men had complicated and difficult relationships with their fathers. Both men had relatively long apprenticeships, the memory of their many flops largely erased by a few early big hits (for Stewart, these were Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939 and The Philadelphia Story in 1940, for which he won his only Best Actor Oscar). The silly but successful Harvey (1950) was Stewart’s Turner and Hooch, though his rabbit was imaginary and Hanks’s mutt was real. Margaret Sullavan, the blond beauty with whom he appeared a number of times, was Stewart’s Meg Ryan.
Hanks, aware of these similarities, has shrewdly—which is to say modestly—distilled Stewart’s appeal in ways that captures his own as well. “Sure I would like to have the class of a Cary Grant. I would like to have the enthusiasm of a Jack Lemmon. But above all I would like to be Jimmy Stewart,” he has said.  “He’s not the most handsome man in the world, and he has kind of a geeky voice, but it doesn’t matter—there are women out there who are rabidly in love with him, and men who admire him. Mostly, without a drastic altering of look or personality, you believed him in everything he did.”
Less commented upon on are the two men’s differences. Stewart came from an illustrious East-coast family; Hanks from an unremarkable one (other than that Nancy Hanks pedigree, an ironic distinction given the lowliness of her origins). Stewart attended a prep school and then Princeton; Hanks a pair of relatively undistinguished California public colleges. In addition to portraying military men, Stewart actually served with distinction in the Air Corps, a forerunner of the Air Force; Hanks never got closer to shots being fired than the set of Saving Private Ryan. Stewart was a lifelong Republican; Hanks, notwithstanding the conservative currents that run through many of his movies and his widely reported unhappiness with Bill Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky affair, is a lifelong Democrat (and at one point in the nineties, a bona fide Lincoln bedroom visiting Friend of Bill).
For our purposes, though, there’s one core similarity and one core difference that really matters in the juxtaposition of Stewart and Hanks. The similarity is that as actors, both men carried the torch of institutionalism in their time. The difference is that they did so at different times.
 This is not the place to rehearse Stewart’s vast output in any detail; suffice it to say from early pictures like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), to middle-period ones like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), to late ones like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), he was always cast as the upholder of community values. As with Hanks, the institutions he represented ranged from the U.S. government to businesses like the fabled Savings & Loan of Wonderful Life, often in contrast to gun-slinging contemporaries who prized their autonomy. Stewart was a fixture of the Western—something Hanks has not been—and here too he is typically the lawman, or, at the very least, the promoter if not enforcer of shared ideals, particularly in the string of psychologically complex Westerns he made with director Anthony Mann in the 1950s.
As such, Stewart was the Lincolnian figure of his generation, and was recognized by such by his contemporaries and those who followed. As Stewart biographer Marc Eliot has noted, “Henry Fonda may have played Abe Lincoln on screen [in Young Mr. Lincoln, 1939], but in real life it was Stewart who as far more Lincolnesque: tall, awkward, soft-spoken, reali-life heroic.” Stewart got one of his first assignments as an MGM contract player in Of Human Hearts (1938), a Civil War movie about a man who rebels against his father’s strict religious upbringing and becomes a battlefield surgeon. There’s an unintentionally hilarious scene at one point in the movie when Stewart’s character is summoned to the Oval Office by President Lincoln (a rather impressive looking John Carradine), who reveals that he knows the young man has failed to write his long-suffering mother and demands the lad do so at his desk immediately (we get a close up of Stewart writing on “Executive Mansion” stationery).  A far more famous example of Stewart’s intersection with Lincoln comes from Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. At the start of the movie we see the naïve boy senator awed by the Lincoln Memorial, hoping that he will be worthy of the Great Emancipator. Later in the movie, disillusioned and in despair over the betrayal of his father’s old friend Senator Paine (Claude Rains), he makes a night pilgrimage to the Memorial alone. He’s joined by the once-cynical Jean Arthur, who has gone from skeptical to charmed to moved by Smith, and now seeks to prop him up. “You didn’t just have faith in Paine, in any other living man,” she counsels him. “You had faith in something bigger than them. You had plain, decent, everyday common rightness. And this country could use some of that.”
Tom Hanks could never appear utter such a line; he could never appear in such a movie, whose widely noted sentimentality—“Capracorn,” in the lingo in cineastes—would be laughable, though as some have noted, Mr. Smith was far more controversial in its depiction of government corruption than a contemporary viewer would realize. Which is what brings us to the key difference between the two men. Stewart’s career corresponded to a time of global crisis, from the Great Depression to the Cold War, when it was self-evident to a great many Americans that only large-scale institutions could respond to the huge challenges of the time. This did not mean that all Americans loved big institutions, nor did it mean that Americans turns a blind eye toward their inevitable defects and corruptions, particularly government institutions that ranged from the presidency to the armed forces. But they recognized the need for them, and actors like Jimmy Stewart helped ease their accommodation to them. Indeed, the fact that Stewart was a Republican made him all the more credible in this meta-role.
Hanks, by contrast, came of age in a very different era, one of suspicion of government on the Right, and just about every other kind of institution, from religion to big business, on the Left. In such an environment, only a much more low-key, even ironic, approach for the kind of institutionalism he represented could begin to work, and in this meta-role, Hanks, who has always had a quicker wit than Stewart, excelled (humor, of course, is a signature Lincolnian trait). The real surprise is the degree to which Hanks has been able to smuggle in (really) big government affirmations like Saving Private Ryan and Apollo 13 into his body of work. Actually, it’s not coincidental that the center of gravity for Hanks’s vision of American history is precisely that Stewart-era locus of the twentieth century stretching from Road to Perdition to That Thing You Do!  He could only serve this meta-role by showing his huge audience that his brand of institutionalism has had a history—a history that worked. And that institutions of the people, by the people, and for the people represent our last, best hope.
The question now is whether we can believe it.

Coming soon: Jodie Foster as historian

Friday, May 27, 2011

The (Other) Good War

In 1861: The Civil War Awakening, Adam Goodheart reminds us that a spirited majority of Americans loved the Union -- and fought the good fight to save it.

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site. 

 In our lifetimes, the political connotation of the word “minority” typically refers to people we think of as underrepresented, even vulnerable. The most common pairing for the word is  “racial”; we sometimes think of women (inaccurately) in this sense as well. But for hundreds of years of North American life, the term “minority rights” referred to a uniquely powerful set of people: slaveholders. These individuals demanded, and got, special privileges, often by threatening to withdraw from national life if their demands were not met. This aggressive gamesmanship finally came to a head in 1861 when a non-slaveholding majority finally said: enough. In 1861, Adam Goodheart captures the moment – a three-month period spanning from April to July of that pivotal year – when resistance to minority blackmail crystallized into a movement which, notwithstanding multiple setbacks, finally liberated U.S. society from the most insistent form of this tyranny (which of course would persist in different form long after).

The role of what was called “The Slave Power” has been a subject of some probing analysis in recent years on the part of fine historians like William Gienapp and Stephanie McCurry. But Goodheart’s work is part of somewhat different, and quickening, historiographic current. We’ve had two full generations of emphasis on the fundamentally racist character of American life – North, South, even abolitionist
– stretching back to Eric Foner’s classic Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men (1970). This view, which has seeped into collective common sense and is evident in movies like Ride with the Devil, Gangs of New York and Cold Mountain, where Union and Confederate are virtually indistinguishable in terms of their racial politics, and in which any loyalties that exist are outside, if not opposed, to the national state. But some historians are rediscovering the power of a concept that has almost disappeared from collective imagination: the idea that there were people who were willing to fight and die for a Union in which emancipation may not have been foregrounded, but which was nevertheless implicit in their notion of freedom, and a meaningful alternative to the Confederate vision of American society. In the approvingly quoted words of Walt Whitman, “The negro was not the chief thing: the chief thing was to stick together.”

Goodheart’s technique for making this argument is pointillistic. He takes a string of widely scattered incidents that will be familiar to any student of the war – Kentucky senator John J. Crittenden’s last ditch effort to craft a compromise bill; Major Robert Anderson’s maneuvers to resist the surrender of Fort Sumter; the sensational death and even more dramatic mourning for Abraham Lincoln acolyte Elmer Ellsworth, et. al. – and renders them in granular detail that glistens with fresh research. 1861 is a book that resists rapid reading; it’s closer to a work of historical tourism, in which you’re invited to luxuriate in the re-creation of young James Garfield’s activist Ohio, or experience the volatility of Jessie Benton Fremont’s California or Nathaniel Lyon’s St. Louis. The unsung hero – well, more like wrongly vilified villain – of the book is Benjamin Butler, the former Jefferson Davis supporter who found himself based in occupied Virginia in the interest of the Lincoln administration’s desire to be been as bipartisan in military appointments. It was Butler who shrewdly conceptualized a legal basis for confiscating slaves through the concept of “contraband,” and then drilled the logic of emancipation forward until it became not simply practical, but inevitable.

One of the more intriguing secondary arguments of 1861 is Goodheart’s assertion that Lincoln had already foreseen, and was in the process of framing, Butler’s ad hoc policies into a sturdy political framework. He places great emphasis on Lincoln’s meticulous preparation for his address to Congress on July 1, in which he stitched majoritarian logic together in ways that not only retroactively justified his mobilization in the preceding months, but amounted a chain of characteristically Lincolnian logic that would guide his actions for the next four years. At the core of this logic was a notion of majority rule in which the citizens of a republic – not the subjects of an tyrannical empire, as Confederates who conflated their secession with the American Revolution would have their fellow adherents believe – would freely deliberate and decide their future. Here, in embryo, was the stirring culmination of the Gettysburg address: “a government of the people, by the people for the people.”

As we know, the patriotic fervor that Goodyear limns in this book would be sorely tested, and stretched the breaking point of the course of the brutally long struggle. But for him the great drama of the Civil War is not that the Union prevailed – once established, the momentum of victory was forseeably likely – but rather that the slumbering spirit of democracy finally sprang to life in those warming months of 1861. The memory of that event is thrilling. One thing that makes it so is the prospect that it may yet happen again – and that powerful minorities like bankers, insurance companies, and their apologists may finally find that the logic of their political blackmail – pay us or you’ll really pay – may yet be refuted.

Monday, May 23, 2011

'Terminal' Points

In recent films, Tom Hanks has explored odd avenues -- and has shown signs of running out of gas

The following post is part of an ongoing series on Tom Hanks specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

In addition to this cops and robbers cluster of films, Tom Hanks explored a couple other side streets of institutional life in the first decade of the new century. In The Terminal (2004), yet another Spielberg film, he plays Vicktor Naborski, a tourist who becomes an involuntary immigrant when revolutionary violence in his fictive home country of Krakozhia causes his passport to be invalid, leaving him marooned in the confines of New York’s JFK airport. This was another juicy acting role, one that required mastering an Eastern European accent. It’s worth reiterating that I don’t find the proposition that Hanks was thinking chiefly in these terms particularly problematic for my argument, as it rests on the way a historically grounded vision emerges amid other considerations. To that end, what we get is a warped immigration saga, in which a man who is pushed into the antiseptic institutional setting of an airport is forced to make a life for himself as a permanent resident in what was made to be a liminal space. He must do so amid a series of challenges, not the least of which is a petty federal official (Stanley Tucci) who is desperate to get rid of him, and eager to punish him when he finds he can’t.
Whatever his legal status, the movie goes out of its way to establish Vicktor Naborski as an honorary American. He’s a jazz aficionado, a hobby that we learn is an act of filial piety to his now-dead musician father, in whose honor Viktor has made the trip. He also befriends a multicultural array of airport workers, making substantial contributions toward forging them into an improvised by real community. Perhaps most importantly, Naborski becomes the quintessential American dreamer when he sets his sights on an airline employee (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who passes through JFK every few weeks. Though there’s a seemingly inevitable Spielbergian sentimentality in a movie that is a fantasy on a number of levels, it’s nevertheless a credit to the filmmakers, especially screenwriters Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, that the story is not quite predictable. Hanks, however, is once again a regular guy with a heart of gold.
He made a serious attempt to challenge that perception with Charlie Wilson’s War (2007). This movie, which closely tracks the 2003 book by CBS producer George Crile, tells the story of how a randy Texas congressman teamed up with a maverick CIA agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a wealthy Republican socialite (Julia Roberts) to quietly engineer the successful U.S. effort to aid rebels in the overthrow the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan and help precipitate the end of the Cold War. Hanks plays the title character, and never quite musters quite enough sleaziness to be truly believable in the part. But the movie nevertheless does a remarkably good job of illustrating the book’s argument, which is to show how a few knowledgeable people can demonstrate enormous leverage in redirecting the entire federal government if they have the knowledge, will, and social skills (which involves literally and figurative odd bedfellows) to get the job done. 
 There is a flip side to this story, which the movie acknowledges, albeit half-heartedly. The very success in the ouster of the Soviets created a power vacuum that ultimately led to the success of the Taliban in taking control of Afghanistan, thus giving Osama bin Laden the base of operations he needed to launch 9/11 a little over a decade later. We see Hoffman’s character express concerns about such an outcome late in the story, and see Wilson unsuccessfully lobby for small allocations for schools in Afghanistan, making him seem prescient rather than an enabler of what came later. As ever, Hanks is finally a good guy. Apparently the original screenplay had a darker ending, but it was reputed that Hanks “couldn’t deal with this 9/11 thing,” according to someone close to the production.
Indeed, by the second half of the decade, it increasingly seemed Hanks was having difficulty choosing material and rendering performances that had quite the freshness and power of his nineties heyday. Whatever their artistic merit, The Terminal and The Ladykillers failed to generate the hit benchmark of $100 million – two successive disappointments, and Hanks’s first in over a decade.
No such commercial problems afflicted The Da Vinci Code (2006) and its sequel, Angels and Demons (2009), two blockbuster movies based on the hugely commercial novels of Dan Brown. But the kind of critical praise that had been routine since the time of Philadelphia was conspicuously absent in Hanks’s portrayal of Harvard “symbology” professor Robert Langdon. Though both are nominally institutional critiques – one negative, the other more positive – of the Catholic Church, both are relatively uninteresting. The book and film versions of The Da Vinci Code generated enormous controversy at the time of their respective release, owing in part to their sensational argument that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene, who gave birth to a daughter (whose heir is Hanks’s co-star, French actor Audrey Tautou). The film version of Da Vinci is all too faithful to the book in its tedious – and historically dubious – lectures on church history. (One can only imagine that the great Ian McKellen, who plays a British colleague of Langdon, focused his mind on the dreck he recites by thinking about his paycheck.) Insofar as Hanks, himself a lapsed Catholic, participates in a project critical of the church, he’s hardly outside an American mainstream with plenty of reasons to be unhappy with it. And as the institution in question is not really American anyway, it’s arguably outside the purview of this chapter. In any case, it can’t really be said that he’s all that hostile to organized religion per se. The movie ends with him kneeling, as people have for thousands of years, at the tomb of Mary Magdalene a woman he and others regard with reverence, regardless of whoever happens to occupy the Vatican.
There’s no evidence that Hanks has any intention of giving up his acting career; I write these words on the eve of the release of Larry Crowne, a movie in which he once again teams up with Julia Roberts and also directs. But it’s also clear his work as a showbiz magnate is important, and is likely to become more so. In 2009, Hanks and his longtime partner Gary Goetzman produced The Great Buck Howard, a movie starring his son Colin, who in recent years has begun to make his own mark as an actor. The elder Hanks makes a pair of appearances as the disapproving father of a son who goes to work for a magician (John Malkovich). It’s a movie that says little, if anything, about the nature of institutional life. Which is a relief: not everything is. Even for a guy whose career has, perhaps unwittingly, rested on it.

Coming soon: a conclusion to this series on Hanks

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Partners in Crime

Tom Hanks took his interest in organizational life in new directions through a series of movies that looked at crime, punishment, and their relationship to each other

The following post is part of an ongoing series on Tom Hanks specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

At the turn of the new century, Tom Hanks continued to deepen his inquiry into the nature and problems of institutional life with a set of films – The Green Mile (1999); Road to Perdition (2002); Catch Me if You Can (also 2002) and The Ladykillers (2004) – from a new angle: crime and punishment. Mile (based on a serialized Stephen King novel) and Catch Me (based on the memoirs of master criminal Frank Abignale) depict the surprisingly symbiotic bond between law enforcement officers and those they pursue and/or incarcerate as conjoined members of a larger criminal justice system. In the case of Mile, we have a community of cops and death-row convicts at a Louisiana prison in the 1930s. That community is hardly idyllic; the title of the film refers to the long path convicts take on their way to the execution chamber where they will be electrocuted. But there is nevertheless a measure of normalcy in the lives of these people and small acts of decency, notwithstanding the malice of two characters, one a cop (Doug Hutchison) and the other a murderer (Sam Rockwell) who disrupt the lives of all around them.  The compassion of corrections officer Paul Edgecombe (Hanks) finds its foil in the character of Coffey (Michael Duncan Clarke), the African American inmate who may or may not have been rightly condemned to death for the murder two little girls. An unusual case of a Hanks movie with supernatural content, Coffey cures Edgecomb of a painful urinary tract infection, brings a dead mouse, named Mr. Jingles, back to life, and goes on to cure the cancer of Melinda Moores (Patricia Clarkson), wife of warden Hal Moores (James Cromwell). For all its gothic qualities, The Green Mile is at heart a sentimental story, with what is by now a tiresome trope of benign black Americans conferring literal or figurative grace on white ones, one that can be viewed as racist in the way it insists on continuing to view black people as somehow essentially different. But it is nevertheless a useful snapshot of Hanks’s ongoing interest in participating in stories about institutions that do not define their identities solely on the basis of paid employees.
In the most obvious sense, Catch Me If You Can, which reunited Hanks with Steven Spielberg, is story about a child prodigy of fraud, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Hanks, who took second billing to his co-star, plays an FBI agent who repeatedly fails in pursuit of his quarry. But their relationship is not that simple. As the movie makes clear, DiCaprio’s dysfunctional behavior is patterned on that of his father (Christopher Walken), a figure he loves but whose failures as a husband and productive member of society become increasingly impossible to ignore. As we’re told, Hanks’s character is also a failure as a husband and father, deficiencies that are implicitly depicted as part of the man’s commitment to his career. Yet over time, Hanks becomes something of a father-figure to DiCaprio, his very commitment to his job a form of male role modeling that turns the movie into a quest for redemption and rehabilitation. It’s significant in this regard that the film is set in the late 1960s and early 1970s; although DiCaprio’s character is not really a hippie, his countercultural behavior is a form of permissiveness run amok that can only be corrected by a straitlaced man who belongs to a large and powerful establishment. As such, Catch Me If You Can becomes one more example of Hanks’s cultural conservatism that can be traced at least as far back as Forrest Gump.
For the second set of these movies, Road to Perdition and The Ladykillers, Hanks chooses the role robber rather than cop. These are two very different films; Perdition is a family drama set in the 1930s; Ladykillers, a remake of an old British Ealing studios movie of the 1950s, is a comedy directed by the Ethan and Joel Coen – a rare case of Hanks making a foray into the realm of independent filmmaking perfected by the Coens. But in terms of this discussion, both become cautionary fables about how personal weaknesses comprise the integrity of organizations.
In Perdition, Hanks plays the role of 1930s Chicago-area mob enforcer for the legendary Paul Newman, in his final movie role. Newman’s character regards Hanks’s, a family man with two sons, as family. The problem is that Newman has an actual son, played by Daniel Craig, who is a n’er do well. When Craig does Hanks irreparable harm and blood proves thicker than water, he finds himself on the run with the older son. They make their way to the Windy City, where Hanks’s character seeks the intervention of Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), the real-life lieutenant of Al Capone. But Nitti is unwilling to intervene on Hanks’s side in this family quarrel, leaving him to fend off the hitman (Jude Law) Nitti and Newman put on his trail. Hanks is desperate to avoid his son paying the price of his choices, and in this he succeeds. But there is nevertheless a price to be paid, less for crimes we never quite see this gangster commit (a way in which the film pulls its punches; Hanks is never fully credible as a gangster) than his casting his lot with an less than fully organized crime outfit that lacks the integrity to properly police its own members.
Hanks is a far sillier character in Ladykillers. He presents himself as a foppish Southern professor at the Mississippi home of an elderly black woman (Irma P. Hall), who has a room he asks to rent, along with requesting the right to use the basement for rehearsals of “recitals” of his musical ensemble. This ensemble is in fact a group of criminals who hope to tunnel their way into the nearby vault of a casino. The band of crooks encounters a series of complications, which includes their own ineptitude and internecine quarrels. But their biggest obstacle proves to be the old lady, who discovers their ruse and vows to tell the police unless they return the money and repent their sins. Perhaps not surprisingly, their response is a plan to kill her, which goes comically awry. In the end we see not only a set of people who fail because they lack sufficient camaraderie, but also an object lesson in the power of a woman who is securely grounded in her community and has the resources, institutional and otherwise, to respond to malfeasance.

Coming soon: Recent Hanks films

Monday, May 16, 2011

Special Deliveries

With You've Got Mail and Cast Away Hanks returned to romantic form -- but continued to explore issues facing company men

The following post is part of an ongoing series on Tom Hanks specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

Saving Private Ryan was a profound but demanding movie. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tom Hanks's next movie was a light romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail (1998). Yet even here Hanks continued to show himself as a company man (albeit a different kind of company). Mail is remake of the 1940 classic The Shop Around the Corner, which starred Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as rival employees of a Budapest retail store, not realizing that the other is the anonymous but cherished pen pal. The clever conceit concocted by co-writer with her sister)/producer/director Nora Ephron, who worked with Hanks and co-star Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle, is to set their scenario on the upper west side of Manhattan. This time Hanks and Ryan are rival bookstore owners – he a big chain, she a small independent – who meet in a chat room and conduct a relationship via email. A film truly of its moment, Mail became quickly dated in surprising but intriguing ways: America Online (AOL), email, and chat rooms have all become relics, at least in their original form, and chain bookstores, once commercial juggernauts steamrollered all in their path, have themselves become endangered species thank to online retailing and e-books.
In a gentle but unmistakable way, You’ve Got Mail satirizes the righteous indignation of the small businessperson when faced with a corporate challenge. Meg Ryan’s character is utterly charming in many ways, but increasingly embittered by her inability to compete with the new chain. Hanks’s character, for his part, is an unapologetic capitalist who sees himself as providing a real service to consumers. He reacts – again more evident in expression than language – with genuine sticker shock when he takes the children from his father’s second marriage (Dabney Coleman, playing his customary role as roué to perfection) to Ryan’s shop and pays full retail for the books they buy. Ryan eventually comes by his store, and we viewers recognize – as she silently appears to – that its coffee shop, winding staircase, and vast inventory really represent a bona fide booklover’s dream, even if the clueless clerk can’t provide a customer with the name of a prominent children’s author (a service she renders as a bystander). He finds out the identity of his writing partner before she does, and strings her along a bit, but she – much to her own dismay – proves far more spontaneously biting than he ever is. It’s worth emphasizing that in the carefully calibrated character calculus of the romantic comedy, of which this is an exemplar even more deft than its original source, Hanks’s character never pays a price for corporate sin. Which, coming from an upper-west side liberal like Ephron, may be surprising. Yet it’s of a piece with what might be termed the character of Hanks characters.
Actually, it can be plausibly said that the greatest danger for the Institutional Man is not defeat, military, commercial, or otherwise, but rather isolation. This is the premise of Hanks’s 2000 film Cast Away, in which he plays yet another company man, this time a time-obsessed FedEx systems analyst, who becomes the sole survivor in a plane crash and is forced to live on an uninhabited Pacific island for four years. Deprived of companionship, he resorts to inventing it in the form of a volleyball he names after its manufacturer: Wilson. Hanks, who does some of the best acting of his career in this tour de force, conveys just how deeply his companion bonds with Wilson; one of the saddest moments in the movie comes when he finds himself separated from this cherished friend. But what may be the most truly wrenching aspect of his ordeal is his eventual return to society and his only partially successful attempts to recover what he has lost. Perhaps not surprisingly, his work life affords him more solace than his personal life does. 

Coming Next: Organized crime (and law enforcement) in the land of Hanks

Friday, May 13, 2011

Won for the Gipper

In Rawhide Down: the Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan, Del Quentin Wilber provides a galloping account of a literally breathtaking event

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

Thirty years ago, an assassin almost killed Ronald Reagan at the very dawn of what proved to be a long and decisive presidency. We now know that Reagan was more seriously injured than most people believed at the time, and there has also been speculation that the trauma of the experience proved more lasting than realized. In Rawhide Down -- the title refers to President Reagan's Secret Service nickname -- Washington Post reporter Del Quentin Wilber sidesteps such broader analysis and renders a highly detailed, yet remarkably fast-paced, account of March 30, 1981. The book unfolds with the liquidity of a good novel, while at the same time providing a useful slice of social history in terms of matters like traumatic medical care, law enforcement, and the granular dimensions of everyday life for extraordinary people like presidents of the United States.

Though this is presumably a piece of objective reportage, the book is played in a key of quiet heroism. That goes for the agents, in particular Jerry Parr, an important source of the book and one who saved Reagan's life twice, first by throwing him into his limousine so that a bullet ended up in the president's chest rather than his head, and then by making the critical decision to direct the limo to the George Washington University hospital, where timely care made the difference between life and death. Wilber also reconstructs the actions and thinking of Reagan's doctors and nurses, who are portrayed as dedicated professionals with passionate feelings they nevertheless kept under control. We also get sympathetic portraits of the three other victims that day: Washington DC policeman Thomas K. Delahanty, Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy, and White House Press Secretary Jim Brady, the most seriously injured of the four and in whose name President Clinton signed a control bill in 1993.

Of course, not everybody in this story comes off well. Secretary of State Alexander Haig damaged his career by inaccurately asserting he was "in control" in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, though Wilbur notes that Haig's behavior, however irritating to his colleagues, reflected real concerns about the appearance of chaos. And the assassin himself, John W. Hinckley, who performed the act as part of a grotesque strategem to impress Jodie Foster, is seen a very troubled man. But certainly there's nothing here to suggest that his eventual acquittal by reason of insanity was incorrect, or that we should feel much more than pity for him.

The star of the book, perhaps inevitably, is Reagan. His grace under pressure and quips that day ("I hope you're all Republicans," he said to his doctors, who weren't; "Honey, I forgot to duck," he said to his wife) have long since passed into political lore. But learning more about Reagan's behavior in the aftermath of the shooting only increases even a liberal's sense of awe. It's hard not to be moved by his concern for others, even Hinckley, and his profound modesty and gratitude as a patient. Most remarkable of all is the quickness of his wit, whether simply in deploying his stock lines ("Send me to L.A., where I can see the air I'm breathing, he wrote in frustration at having a breathing tube stuck down his throat) or in his deadpan delivery ("I should have known I wasn't going to avoid a staff meeting," he said the next morning, as aides crowded into his hospital room).

A number of people who saw me carrying around this book commented that they couldn't believe it's already been thirty years since Reagan was shot. Such a remark reflects the proverbial speed of time's flight. But it may also suggest that in an important sense, we're still inhabiting the moment that arrived when Reagan became president a mere two months before the shooting. For better (and, as far as many of us are concerned, for worse), it's still the Age of Reagan. Not even his death in 2004 or the ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency five years later have changed that. Having gotten his chance, the Gipper's aim proved better.

Monday, May 9, 2011

'Private' Enterprise

Saving Private Ryan as Tom Hanks's profound meditation on the nature and problem of big institutions

The following post is part of an ongoing series on Tom Hanks specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

That Thing You Do! is a creampuff of a movie, delightfully light. But Hanks’s next movie, Saving Private Ryan (1998) is as substantial a film as he has ever made. Ryan is a landmark in many ways; it is widely regarded as the most graphic World War II movie ever made, and a film which, along with Schindler’s List (1994), stands among Steven Spielberg’s greatest accomplishments.  For Hanks, who played the role of Army Ranger John Miller, Ryan further affirmed his place as the premiere American actor of his generation.
Ryan is also a pivotal movie for our purposes as well. To this point, we’ve been telling a story about a man show struggled to find professional security as an actor. Upon doing so, he began to make a series of movies that affirmed the power of institutions in the lives of ordinary people – pretty much the only kind Hanks ever plays (even those who aren’t are played as ordinary guys). He sometimes has shown us what happens when people fail to play a productive role within institutions, as in Philadelphia, Toy Story, and That Thing You Do! But beginning with Ryan, Hanks began to explore the moral dilemmas and problems inherent in the very nature of institutions themselves – in this case a vast and mighty institution known as the U.S. Army. This is a preoccupation that has marked his work ever since. But it’s important to add that this emerging spirit of critical inquiry is one of engagement, not skepticism. Hanks does not whitewash institutions. But he doesn’t reject them, either.
After a brief opening scene in which we see an old war vet James Ryan visiting to a Norman military cemetery with this family, Saving Private Ryan proceeds to one of the most grueling experiences in cinematic history: a 20-minute sequence depicting the Allied landing of June 6, 1944. It may be worth noting in this age of small-screen downloads and viewing that when Ryan was released in movie theaters, these combat scenes were almost overwhelming both visually and in terms of the noise. (Unlike horror movies that are less scary the second time around because you know what’s coming, I only had to steel myself further to sit through a second screening precisely because I did know.) Whether or not the movie had any details wrong – though one suspects that the production design was scrupulous in detail – the movie communicates the sheer terror of war in a way that is truly unforgettable.
Having demonstrated an almost ruthless ability to induce awe, Spielberg indulges what many consider his signature vice: sentiment. The action shifts to the War Department in Washington, where we see secretaries typing letters to be sent to grieving families. A sharp-eyed woman comes to a sudden realization that she brings to the attention of her superiors, one of whom is an officer who has lost an arm, presumably in combat. Three brothers named Ryan have all perished in combat – two on the beaches of Normandy, another in New Guinea – and a fourth is missing in action. The scene switches briefly to a scene straight out of an Andrew Wyeth painting, where a woman in a farmhouse comes to the gradual and terrible realization that the car in the distance will bring her news that she will not be able to take standing. The action then shifts back to Washington, where we are now in the office of George C. Marshall, who ran U.S. war operations in World War II.  The handicapped officer notes that the fictive brothers have been split up in response to the real-life plight of the Sullivan brothers, five men who died after a naval engagement in the Pacific. He appears to want to send a rescue mission for the missing James Ryan, but another one notes that this would be a difficult and dangerous underaking whose likely result would be casualties in search of a man who’s likely to be one himself.
Because this is a Hollywood movie, Marshall proceeds to his desk and opens up a book. He pulls out a letter that he begins to read, which turns out to be one of the more famous documents in Lincoln lore, the so-called “Bixby” letter that Lincoln wrote a Union woman who lost four sons in the Civil War. Because it’s such a masterpiece (“I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” he wrote, thanking her for having laid “so costly a sacrifice on the altar of freedom”) you kinda wish Spielberg would let up on the Coplandesque soundtrack for a minute. Marshall’s position is clear: the mission will go forward.
It falls into the lap of Hanks’s Captain John Miller, who we saw earlier in the movie moving his men successfully up the beach to disable a Nazi pillbox (we also see some atrocities committed by Americans who shoot surrendering Germans in their rage over what they have just endured). Miller puts together a team of eight men who will go into the German-infested countryside in search of Ryan.
As all these men – who, as per classic Hollywood war movie convention, are the usual mix of Southern boy, wiseacre Brooklynite, nervous intellectual, et. al. – recognize, this is a hideous undertaking. The intellectual, Upham (Jeremy Davies), an outsider to the company recruited as a translator, tries to fit in by engaging his new comrades, who regard his innocence as dangerous (he keeps unwittingly pointing his weapon at them). When another soldier, Private Richard Rieben (Ed Burns) points out the crazy math of sending eight men to rescue one Upham invokes Rudyard Kipling, which only invites greater scorn. When the medic (Giovanni Ribisi) points out that Ryan has a grieving mother, Reiben replies that they all have mothers – even, just possibly, Captain Miller.
The men seem to like and respect their commanding officer, who they treat with teasing that might well be regarded as insubordination by another man. But he spends some of his credibility with them by suggesting that the callow Upham might have a point:

MILLER: Upham’s talking about our duty as soldiers. We all have orders and we have to follow them, and supersedes all, including your mothers.
UPHAM: Yes sir, thank you sir.
REIBEN: Even if you think the mission is FUBAR [fucked-up beyond recognition]?
MILLER: Especially if you think the mission is FUBAR.

Hanks delivers this line with a puckish grin that speaks volumes. The character is making clear that he doesn’t agree with the mission any more than the men do, just as the actor is conveying the same message to the audience. This strategy is important in building credibility among skeptics in conveying honor for the concept of duty. It’s a tactic that’s all the more important because, strictly speaking, Miller’s logic could invoked by Nazis no less than their Allied adversaries. It’s the gestures – the easy humor, the facial expression, the willingness to tolerate a small but real deviance from strict military orthodoxy, all of which contribute to a powerful democratic spirit – that make the difference. It’s this gracefully calibrated measure of deference, both to his orders by men above him as well as to the feelings of men below him, that make Miller a talented leader.
This measure of ability and previously earned respect become crucial later in the movie when Miller faces a real challenge to his authority. He orders the reluctant men to lead a successful attack on German gun emplacement, but this small sideshow operation results in the death of their medic. Miller antagonizes them further, apparently fatally, when he releases a German that they’ve captured. Appalled and angry, Reiben announces he’s going to desert, which leads to a series overlapping recriminations and threats. Amid the noise, Miller chooses this moment to address questions that have been matters of such feverish speculation that the men had started a pool betting on the answers: where he’s from (Pennsylvania) and what he does for a living (high school English teacher).  This stops them in their tracks, as do his memories of his former life, his desperate desire to go home, and his hope that a measure of mercy will make that possible – if not in any direct sense, than at least in allowing him to maintain a measure of humanity so that he will be able to truly live with his wife if he returns.
  Miller will pay for that act of mercy – it happens so quickly amid so much other action at the end of the movie that it’s easy to miss – and the Parkinson-like hand-shaking he exhibits from the start of the movie casts doubt on whether he really ever will be able to go home again.  Moreover, it’s one thing to pledge your own life; it’s another to pledge the lives of others. Some of his Miller’s charges pay for their loyalty with their lives. This is why, in the end, Miller commands the lost Ryan (Matt Damon) to “earn this” – to be worthy of the lives Miller, his men, and by implication, all the casualties of World War II gave their lives so that we, their literal and figurative heirs, may experience a new birth of freedom in the wake of Nazi threat.
In a 2001 essay on Saving Private Ryan, John Bodnar, a pioneering figure in the study of collective memory, argued that the film’s emphasis on patriotic sacrifice invoked the spirit of early World War II movies. He also argued that Ryan effaced more recent cinematic history, which tended to focus more on the personal cost of war and the fate of the individual. Yet what Bodnar termed a form of forgetting might be better described as a self-conscious attempt to resurrect a message that itself has been forgotten. In recent decades, the economic libertarianism of the right and the cultural libertarianism of the left have made it hard to even grasp, much less take seriously, an idea that individuals might take real and unrealized risks in the name of collectivities greater than themselves.
Saving Private Ryan is not only haunting because that we see many people die what more than plausibly can be considered senseless deaths. It’s also haunting in ways that the filmmakers themselves may not intend: I have to confess I found myself wondering, right along with Matt Damon’s old James Ryan, whether, on the basis of the well-scrubbed, not especially distinguished looking family that accompanied him, he really did “earn” the worthy life Miller demanded of him. To the degree that Spielberg &; Co. wants this and we fail to buy it, we may say the movie fails. But our very desire, even urgency, to see a life as a “good buy” may itself be part of our collective existential malaise. Alternatively, we can perhaps take solace in notion of any life, even those as unremarkable as those of the Ryans, as precious. Either way, the movie asks us to remember – even amid justified skepticism that may lead us to make different choices to the degree that we have choices to make – that our lives are finally shaped by collective forces that matter more than our wishes or even our will. By the end of his life, so vividly evident in his Second Inaugural, Abraham Lincoln knew this. by the time his career reached its apogee, in a figuratively less, but literally more dramatic way, Tom Hanks did, too. 

Coming Next: You've Got Mail and Cast Away

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Complicated 'Thing'

With That Thing You Do!, Hanks acknowledged that institutions can have hard edges

The following post is part of an ongoing series on Tom Hanks specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

Though it was in fact an enormously complex undertaking to bring to the screen, Hanks’s participation in the Toy Story saga, while prominent, was relatively minor in terms of his involvement. That Thing You Do! (1996), by contrast, was his most demanding undertaking to date: a film he wrote, produced and directed, in addition to contributing some supporting acting. The story of the rise and fall of a one-hit wonder rock band in the 1960s, the film is a small masterpiece – a perfectly pitched paean to the golden age of pop music, complete with a catchy title tune that you can’t get out of your head. The film also featured some up-and-coming talent, including Charlize Theron, Liv Tyler, Giovanni Ribisi and Steve Hahn, all whom would to on to greater prominence. While one should always take the promotional materials for movies with a grain of salt, the seemingly genuine affection a good chunk of the cast expressed for this production in general and Hanks in particular at a ten-year reunion gathering suggests a deft managerial hand.[1]
That Thing You Do is also a compelling document in Hanks’s evolving vision of the way organizations shape history, in this case cultural history, and a growing sense of the ambiguities involved. The movie tells the stories of the Wonders, four young men from Erie, Pennsylvania, who join forces in a somewhat improvised fashion when Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) agrees to sub for a drummer who has broken his arm (Ribisi). The Wonders are led by Jimmy Mattingly (Jonathan Schaech), a talented, driven, and callous songwriter who neglects his girlfriend Faye (Tyler). Mattingly’s song “That Thing You Do” generates some spontaneous attention, eventually attracting that of the somewhat mysterious “Mr. White” (Hanks), who signs the band to his label, Playtone Records.
Hanks plays Mr. White with an inscrutable, and just possibly, malevolent, air. He’s eagle-eyed, something the band members and don’t seem to notice when he engages them in not-quite casual conversation. They members follow his commands largely without question, though Jimmy becomes increasingly anxious and insistent that the band go in the studio, while the evocatively named White blandly informs them they will continue their tour and milk “That Thing You Do” for all it’s worth. Which, as it turns out, is a lot. The song rides up the charts, culminating with the band’s appearance on an Ed Sullivan-type variety show and a stint at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Most of the band members consider the whole experience a lark, Guy included, though we in the audience and White suspect he has more substance, as indicated by his love of jazz (there’s a great scene of him at a club, immune to the charms of a sultry waitress played by Rita Wilson).
It’s Jimmy who destroys their idyll.  Angry about a caption that he is engaged, he turns on Faye, who has accompanied the band as road manager, at the very moment of their TV triumph. (Guy, by contrast, showed had earlier showed his concern about her missing the show, but is informed by that he has made provisions for her couture and a limo.) Shortly thereafter, Jimmy precipitates a confrontation at the studio with White. White now reveals his power over the band by invoking their contract, which allows him to dictate the content of their album, which will focus on covers of songs from the Playtone catalog. Jimmy quits on the spot, effectively breaking up the band. The group thus founders before it can ever really take flight, ruined by its leader’s egotism. White shrugs this off: He’s seen it all before, and there will always be another Wonders. The ability to extract profit, however, lasts forever. Still, the gimlet-eyed manager does dispense a final piece of good advice to Guy: go and get the girl. He does, and, we’re informed as the credits roll, he has a nice life. Jimmy, for his part, becomes a staff writer for Playtone Records. Life goes on, business as usual.

[1] See the bonus materials included with the 2007 DVD release of That Thing You Do (Fox)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Isolationist Communities

In Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age, Christopher McKnight Nichols offers an arrestingly useful lens through which to view the history of isolationism

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

"My dear Rick, when will you realize that in this world today, isolationism is no longer a practical policy?" Sydney Greenstreet asks Humphrey Bogart in a classic moment from Casablanca (1942). Ever since Pearl Harbor, "isolationist" has been a virtual canard in American life, a term that tars its target (NATO skeptics, Vietnam War skeptics, free market globalization skeptics, et. al.) with the odor of the Nazi apologist. In this important new book, Christopher McKnight Nichols invites a broad reconsideration of the concept by tracing its origins back to the debates over U.S. imperialism at the end of the 19th century and its surprising continuities -- and surprising bedfellows -- over the next-half century.

In brief, Nichols makes a compelling case for thinking about isolationism in a way comparable to that of Michael Kazin's discussion of populism in his 1995 book The Populist Persuasion. (Perhaps not surprisingly, Kazin provides a blurb for Promise and Peril.) Just as the core of populism is located in an anti-elitist sentiment, broadly construed, isolationism rests on a core aversion to avoid overseas conflict. But like populism, isolationism defies easy ideological pigeonholing: depending on the circumstances, it has been claimed by both Right and Left -- sometimes simultaneously. Some isolationist advocates were avowed nationalists for whom unilateral action, including military action, was paramount. Others were passionate pacifists who saw it in humanitarian terms. The concept had commercial, military, and cultural connotations that could overlap or diverge. Recognizing this fact both leads to an at least partial rehabilitation of isolationism, even as it demands precision in grasping and invoking it.

The problem with this book is that it never manages to convey this argument quite so succinctly. The defect is most obvious in the title, which, publishing being what it is these days, may well have been foisted on the author. Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of the Global Age creates the misleading impression that the book is a broad overview of the U.S. place in the world at the turn of the twentieth century. Instead, the it's closer to a (very good) doctoral dissertation in intellectual history: a study of seven figures -- Henry Cabot Lodge, William James, W.E.B. Du Bois, Randolph Bourne Eugene Debs, William Borah, and Emily Balch -- and the way their sometimes evolving sensibilities captured the fluid and competing discourse on isolationism from the 1880s until the 1930s. Nichols offers a very good taxonomy of isolationism in an appendix, but the term could have used a little more chiseling in the introduction -- indeed, much of the conclusion, beginning with the popular distrust and misunderstanding of isolationism, probably should have been points of departure. Nichols doesn't compartmentalize his subjects, who straddle chapters, and that's good. But the book could have been shorter, especially if it continued to evolve away from intellectual portraiture and more toward chapters defined in terms of perspectives rather than people.

But enough with the complaints. Besides having a truly arresting big-picture idea, Promise and Peril offers nuggets of insight in pleasingly granular character sketches. One is intrigued to learn, for example, that Eugene Debs was tapping promising veins of support in the South with his pacifist stance toward World War I, even as his Socialist doctrines made it impossible to build sturdy bridges with old-time Populists like Ben Tillman or William Jennings Bryan. Nichols manages both to convey the nuances of Randolph Bourne's thought and the way his almost egalitarian cosmopolitanism was grounded in Bourne's physical handicap and penurious circumstances.

Nichols is also good at untangling underlying continuity amid sometimes rapidly changing circumstances. Finding consistency in the logic Idaho U.S. Senator William Borah could challenge even his most stalwart allies, but Nichols traces a coherent Jeffersonian strain in his thought, albeit one that could prove, well, strained. (One of the more intriguing relationships in this book is that between Borah and the Nobel Prize-winning Wellesley Professor Balch; the two formed a common alliance in pushing for the Kellogg-Briand pact that outlawed war, even as they maintained cavernous differences in other controversies.) One might discern tension, even contradiction, in Henry Cabot Lodge's avowedly globalist advocacy of the Spanish-American in 1898 and his isolationist hostility toward the League of Nations twenty years later. But no: his stalwart advocacy of economic globalism and political unilateralism proved remarkably stable (and repellent) over the course of his long career. Perhaps not surprisingly, the real chameleon here is Du Bois, whose ambivalence about immigration and the potential of government power led him to make finely-tuned, but always rational, calculations about what geopolitical stance would be most likely to advance the cause of African Americans.

But the presiding spirit over the book, and the isolationist movement -- and, one hazards a guess, Nichols himself -- is William James. Though James's search for a moral equivalent of war amid the drumbeat for empire at the turn of the 20th century seemed quixotic to many at the time and ever since, Nichols makes a good case that his capacious vision could ultimately prove quite pragmatic. Not only do institutions and programs ranging from the Works Progress Administration to the Peace Corps have decisively Jamesian accents, but the critique James and his allies advanced in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War effectively prevented the United States for formally establishing a colonial administration or expanding its army and navy (at least for a while). If this is a partial victory at best, it's no less worth remembering -- and emulating.

Yes: certain forms of isolationism, and aspects of its most compelling critiques of global intervention, can prove dangerous in underestimating geopolitical threats or promoting a callously amoral stance. William Borah was perhaps fortunate to die in 1940, not living to see what strands of his brand of isolationism condoned in Europe and Asia, which is the only one we tend to remember. But similar accusations can be made of any policy, foreign or otherwise. Nichols has done us a valuable service in providing us with tools to see history anew -- and to wield it responsibly.