A familiar genre comes back with a vengeance for our modern times.
Something changed in the cinema after Watergate, or rather, something broke. While it’s no shocking development that the infamous political scandal had a major impact on our country as a whole, it is endlessly fascinating to revisit the films of the era and see how in tune with the moment they were. Gone was the familiarity, the comfort, and trust of government; America abandoned idealistic heroes and plots in which good prevailed, opting instead for anxious, cynical narratives in which no one could be trusted and the truth was uglier than we’d ever imagined. This territory of cinema brought us such classics as The Conversation, Chinatown, All The President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor, all films that have entered the canon and have been revisited for their encapsulation of a very specific time and place; even if only one of those films was specifically about Watergate itself. Now, we rewatch these films with a certain sense of dread; these themes have returned bigger and more terrifying than ever before in our political situation today. While everyone and their mother with a Twitter have reminded of us how timely films like All The President’s Men have become, our chaotic and paranoid news cycle now also begs the question: how will modern cinema reflect all of this?
Luckily, it seems the genre is well on its way to prominence within our culture. There have been films like Inherent Vice, adaptations of earlier work that feel dangerously in tune with the mood of now; blockbuster tentpoles that have funneled our worries and distrust of surveillance and the world at large into easily digestible but unmistakably timely narratives like Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And of course, now there are works like Get Out and Mr. Robot that seek to claw at the wallpaper of greater American conspiracies going on behind the scenes, whether that’s institutional racism or rampant corporate corruption.
This incredibly fascinating topic is broken down and edited to perfection in a new video essay by Travis Lee Ratcliff. He provides great commentary on the political atmosphere of both yesterday and today, effortlessly weaving them together with the films that captured, or are capturing, those times. Only time will tell how much worse our current political climate will get, and how films will continue to react to it; it gives this writer a shred of hope, however, that artists have only been given even more incentive to make brave and important work.