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Hollywood's Battle with Depression

Amos Posner

It's war to see who really came to America's rescue after the big crash of '29. And the cinematic suspects are a boxer, a ghost, and a horse... of course.

Everyone loves a good Hollywood squabble.

Whether it's Disney vs. Pixar, Lohan vs. Duff, or Freddy vs. Jason, there's a guilty pleasure to intra-Tinsel Town warfare that makes it hard for us to look away. But for five years now, a battle has been mounting in Hollywood that is now poised to threaten the integrity of both our film industry and our nation's sense of history.

It's the battle to determine who actually pulled America out of the Great Depression.

The first shots fired in this epic struggle came from Robert Redford's gun with the 2000 Fox-produced The Legend of Bagger Vance. Backed by the Dreamworks army, Gary Ross fired back in 2003 with Seabiscuit. And this year, 2005, as we head into the summer blockbuster season, we must brace ourselves for what may be the biggest attack yet: Ron Howard's Cinderella Man.

Now, after half a decade of shameless big-screen pandering to the common man, actual common men have to be leaving the multiplex wondering whether to credit the end of America's bleakest hour of the last century to a ghost, a boxer, or a horse.

The Bagger 'n' Biscuit formula is simple enough: Recognizable stars play superlatively talented people swept into emotional or financial misfortune in the face of that pesky market crash -- cue to recognize the parable for the nation. Some combination of warm-heartedly docile women, warm-heartedly deep-pocketed strangers, and warm-heartedly gruff assistants guide them through their travails. As they sink the big putt, cross the finish line, or knock down the other fighter, the country is back on its feet. And as the heroes reach contrived triumphs over artificially propped-up adversities, the saccharine, symphonic score tells you when to cry. Hooray.

Nothing wrong with the formula, mind you. Countless movies, from Rocky to Major League have plugged their own particulars into the age old archetype and crafted wonderful movies. But what this new wave of non-war end-of-Depression films has formed is a downright assault on history. I like the Ghostbusters 2 worldview as much as the next guy - it would certainly be nice if society's greatest adversities were spawned by doldrums of morale that could be easily defeated by grand symbols. But it wasn't good will and uplifted spirits, let alone second-tier sports, that pulled the US out of destitution.

The scariest part isn't even that audiences are about to get their third dose of this non-fiction-flavored fiction, but that audiences and critics haven't seemed to care . Bagger Vance performed miserably both commercially and critically, but its failure was never due to its overtone of blinding historical fabrication. Several top critics, including a gushing Roger Ebert, praised the movie, and those who didn't were mostly occupied with perceptions of the movie as dull, without substance and badly cast (of which it was guilty on all counts).

But the core story of Bagger Vance was that of a poor, mystical black man who quizzically returns to Earth to fix a rich white man's golf swing, saving a golf tournament that makes everyone in the South so excited and inspired that the Depression becomes irrelevant.

The premise and themes are about as nakedly disingenuous as Pepe LePew declarations of true love -- the idea that poor southern black people had reason or means to save rich white people is almost as ridiculous as the idea that doing it to benefit a golf tournament would in turn save the country. Fortunately, the execution was equally flawed to the point that few people could be affected by it.

Seabiscuit is another story. The cast was perfect, from Tobey Maguire's wide-eyed accessibility to Chris Cooper's rugged gravitas. The subject material contained a genuinely uplifting story of triumph that itself had emerged from a bestselling book. It was also one of the year's most beautifully shot movies, garnering a well-deserved Oscar nomination for its cinematography. It even featured noted historian David McCullough to lend narration and credibility.

But in between McCullough's accounts of work projects, war, and the national mood, the movie builds its equine lead character as a parable for a series of characters, then for the nation as a whole. Disguised as a touching historical recreation, Seabiscuit tells the story of the horse that led America to uplift, even having the nerve to tangentially acknowledge the actual reasons for the country's recovery.

Perhaps Howard, aware of the competition's inaccuracy, had a scene written into Cinderella Man where lead character Jim Braddock bombs Pearl Harbor, ends our isolationist foreign policy, and revitalizes our manufacturing industry after a series of New Deal moves mobilized the workforce and bolstered national morale. It wouldn't be surprising from the writer, director and star of A Beautiful Mind, a movie that would have you believe that Nobel Prizes are presented in the same ceremonial fashion as the Emmy's or Teen Choice Awards -- among other, more serious falsities.

With its strong commercial performance and slew of award nominations, Seabiscuit is appropriately enough leading the race to fudge history for profit. But as this battle continues to rage in Hollywood, the only real losers are audiences and the country itself. If we are to grant that motion pictures are a meaningful, influential medium; if we are to say that movies like Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and The Pianist are important for passing along substantive images and themes of dark moments in history, then we have to acknowledge the danger of movies like Seabiscuit that peddle glamorous fraud like so much cotton candy.

These movies might not have such a prevalent opportunity to wreck things if Hollywood weren't off the mark in other areas. HBO just produced a movie about FDR focusing on his struggle with polio as an uplifting character drama -- almost exactly the same movie that Seabiscuit should have been, only with the two movies' lead characters switched.

Meanwhile, war movies have equally gone terribly awry since Private Ryan. Windtalkers mistakenly grafted Vietnam politics onto World War II, and We Were Soldiers mistakenly grafted World War II iconography onto Vietnam. Maybe some studio could use the sports-as-savior period piece trend to get back into war movies proper. Ted Williams lost nearly five years out of one of baseball's greatest careers to serve Uncle Sam in WWII. Let's see Seabiscuit match that.

But for now, audiences are left with these low-calorie cinematic snacks posing as history-a pleasure that may be guiltier than people give them credit for.

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