“Understated” isn’t a word you’d ordinarily use to describe a Jerry Bruckheimer production, but that’s surprisingly what 12 Strong ends up being.
“Die Hard,” “The Goonies,” “Field of Dreams,” “Titanic” and “Superman” are getting the most attention in the coverage of this year’s National Film Registry honorees. And why not? Cineastes might cheer “Memento,” “He Who Gets Slapped,” and “Only Angels Have Wings” a little more jubilantly, but, hell, we love them all—and the list announced every year since 1989 by the Library of Congress has always been cheerfully and unapologetically a champion of the high- and low-brow; the big-budget and the shoestring; the formal and the experimental; the vintage and the modern; the widely celebrated and the unfairly obscure.
This year, despite holding fast to those same far-ranging tastes, there’s a striking theme binding the class of 2017: 13 of the honored 25 movies are explicitly dedicated to values that can only be succinctly described as anti-Trump. “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” “4 Little Girls,” “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser,” “Time and Dreams,” and “To Sleep with Anger” are about the African-American experience and/or the civil rights movement, with “Gentlemen’s Agreement” being more broadly about racism. Mexican-American life is represented by “La Bamba,” “Boulevard Nights,” and the “Fuentes Family Home Movies Collection.” “Spartacus” and “With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain” depict grass-roots uprisings against slavery and fascism. (“Spartacus” also ended the blacklist by publicly acknowledging Dalton Trumbo as its screenwriter, a fact touted in the Library’s official press release.)
The consequences of media corruption and the cost of “fake news” underpin “Ace in the Hole.” Both “Titanic” and “Wanda”’s protagonists are women whose lives are corseted by gender oppression, both at the top and bottom of the economic scale. (“Wanda” is also directed by a woman, namely Barbara Loden, wife of “Gentleman’s Agreement” director Elia Kazan. She’s one of three female directors this year, along with Yvonne Rainier for “Lives of Performers” and Charlotte Zwerin for “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser.”) Windsor McKay’s “The Sinking of the Lusitania” is not only a battle cry against Germany’s increasingly imperialist Kaiser Wilhelm II government, but an act of defiance for McKay, who made it on the sly over 22 months defying the orders of his isolationist and proto-“yellow journalist” boss William Randolph Hearst. If the eerily prescient “A Face in the Crowd” hadn’t already been inducted in 2008, it might have rounded this year’s total to 14. (The only antithesis to this theme on the list is “Dumbo,” which contains the uncomfortable scene of “Jim” the crow and his tar-black, hepcat-talking raven cronies bestowing the “magic feather” that convinces Dumbo he can fly.)
Lou Diamond Phillips, the star of “La Bamba,” issued a public statement of gratitude for its inclusion, saying in part that he “cannot be more proud” and that “'La Bamba' still speaks to the American Dream and to inclusion and representation.” The phrase “inclusion and representation” is an interesting choice of words, because Dr. Carla Hayden, the head Librarian of Congress, has made clear in many interviews that those are the values guiding her vision. Full disclosure: I came in contact with Dr. Hayden several times when I was a television producer at the PBS affiliate in Maryland, back when she was head of the Enoch Pratt Free Library of Baltimore. I was totally delighted by and impressed with her, and was thrilled when Obama appointed her head of the Library of Congress—the first woman and first African-American ever to hold the position, and first actual career librarian (as opposed to an academic or historian) to helm the institution in many decades.
Dr. Hayden’s criticism of the Patriot Act and its limitations on library patron privacy when she was president of the American Library Association might have put her on Trump’s radar. (The Library of Congress’ online store selling a poster of Trump with a misspelled quote that was advertised as capturing “the essence of Donald Trump’s campaign” didn’t endear him either.) But the President has been involved in a subtle war against the Library of Congress for a while. In April of last year, he fast-tracked a bill through the House of Representatives to strip the Librarian of Congress’ power to hire the head of the Copyright Office, in favor of making the position a presidential appointment instead. The prevailing theory is that Trump, a man very vested in the trademarking of his name and image, wants stricter enforcement, whereas Hayden has always been a champion of the freedom of information and would presumably be more sympathetic to ideas like institutional exceptions and the public domain. (The bill is stalled in Senate and currently the Copyright office only has an acting registrar, after Hayden removed the last one for gross mismanagement.)
The bad blood doesn’t stop there. In August, many non-government members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (of which Hayden is an ex officio member) resigned after Trump’s bafflingly insensitive comments about how “there is blame on both sides” for the violence during the Charlottesville protests. And in September, Cambridge, MA school librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro publicly snubbed Melania Trump’s gift of some Dr. Seuss books to her school in an open letter, citing that her well-funded library didn’t need them as much as schools in poorer districts did, and that Dr. Seuss is a children’s literature “cliché” and pointed out that “just down the street you have access to a phenomenal children’s librarian: Dr. Carla Hayden, the current Librarian of Congress. I have no doubt Dr. Hayden would have given you some stellar recommendations.”
In the light of this ongoing friction, and in the aftermath of 2016’s #OscarsSoWhite, this selection of movies does not seem coincidental. So, it begs the question: who’s the valedictorian of the class of 2017? Of all these titles, which embodies the biggest rebuke to Trump’s xenophobic, sexist, racist, fascist, jingoistic, and retrograde outlook? Which most exemplifies the American virtues of diversity, democracy, integrity, perseverance, and progress instead? It’s actually one of the mainstream hits already getting a lot of attention: “Superman,” the ultimate illegal-alien-makes-good story.
Prognostication isn’t one of Superman’s gifts, but 40 years later, Richard Donner’s 1978 blockbuster is an eerily prescient metaphor to our current political situation. The immigrant Kal-el flees persecution in his homeland to seek refuge in Middle America, where his salt-of-the-earth adoptive parents instill a belief that the ways in which he is different are valuable, not shameful—but still impress upon him that he must share their wealth of his talents rather than amass personal gain. He becomes a journalist devoted to truth, justice, and the American way, and the love of his life is a smart, empowered career woman. Lex Luthor’s villainous scheme is to shear off the entire West Coast (which voted ultra-blue in the 2016 election) into the sea with a nuclear blast, destroying the lives of millions of ordinary Americans just so he can make a killing in mega-real estate constructed on the leftover continental edge. (Will he name his flagship skyscraper Luthor Tower?) He nearly succeeds, but Superman prevails by spinning the Earth in reverse, turning back time—the exact thing the over 65 million Democratic voters represented by the popular vote have been fervently wishing for ever since the day after Election Day. But hopefully this year’s list of National Film Registry honorees won’t turn back time, and will instead be a progressive quinvigintuple-matinee befitting the road ahead. Thanks, Dr. Hayden and the National Film Registry. Popcorn’s on me.
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