Yesterday I watched A Face in the Crowd (1957) on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), and I was struck once again by the parallels to today. I’ve seen the movie four or five times, and it always starts me thinking in different directions. Andy Griffith (yes, Sheriff Taylor of Mayberry) is truly terrifying in his movie debut. This is also Lee Remick’s first movie, and she apparently learned how to twirl batons for her role. Patricia Neal’s neuroticism is pitch-perfect. This is an Elia Kazan “message movie,” and his message is the dangerous potential of television to distort the political process, which is likely the main takeaway for viewers these days. There’s also a back story of the HUAC and McCarthy hearings, the red scare and blacklisting, and other socio-politics of the time that inform Kazan’s message, but I don’t want to digress. Hopefully, I’ve motivated you to check out the movie – it’s well worth it!
For me, after this viewing, it was oddly comforting to realize that the conservative agenda of that time hasn’t changed much today and was well established then: anti-new deal and anti-welfare in particular, isolationist, elitist, all about money and power. Lonesome Rhodes’s “people” were ripe for exploitation by a bombastic, swaggering and charismatic fraud (Rhodes). The “new media” of that time (television) was a powerful tool to manipulate them into supporting an agenda at odds with their own interests. I say that all this is somewhat comforting because much of today’s turmoil is a repeat or continuation of the past, and our country has largely survived similar threats, so maybe we’ll survive again now.
What’s not comforting is that the movie’s ending has not been replicated today – at least not yet. In the movie, Rhodes is completely taken down as he descends in an elevator from the 42nd floor to the street in one of the great metaphorical sequences in film history. All it takes is the brief revelation to his adoring public of his narcissistic and cynical megalomania. His public, it seems, has brains and values after all, and they can recognize a con when they see one, to quote a current candidate. Kazan’s faith in the American public was what made this movie a cautionary tale – once they saw the truth, they quickly deserted the charlatan.
Today’s Rhodes in the While House wasn’t stopped by numerous revelations of his lying, ignorance, infidelity and megalomania, both before and after the election. Instead, these traits have been embraced by his base, who insulate themselves from facts in a cocoon of new media mirrors that only reflects what they believe. “Don’t confuse me with the facts” doesn’t begin to characterize their level of isolation from reality.
And that leads me to November 3rd. I believe that our country has never faced a more stark and consequential choice. Do we continue Kazan’s nightmare and retain Lonesome Rhodes in the White House, or do we return to a world of integrity, evidence, logic, and values that used to be taken for granted? In my mind, it’s an open question, because I’m not sure I share Kazan’s faith in the American people any more…