"Americans, remember! No matter what anyone says, we're OK."
This shamefully forgotten 1970 drama produced by Paul Newman and directed by Stuart Rosenberg (COOL HAND LUKE) may have been too much of a touchy subject at its time of release - and perhaps it will be now. A box office bomb, if anything the film suffered from too much heart. It has never been released on DVD until this month.
New Orleans in the early '70s looks eerily like the towns of today that have been hit hardest by the recession. Unemployment in "NOLA" at the time had reached disastrous levels, and the film oozes with a general feeling of dread and desperation just beneath the surface.
Paul Newman plays an out-of-work DJ who drinks himself numb every night after accepting a job at right-wing radio station WUSA, specializing in combustive hate speech. Newman's wife Joanne Woodward plays a woman who resorts to prostitution because she can't find a legal job. The two end up moving in together next door to Anthony Perkins, who plays a "concerned liberal" at the end of his rope, in a corrupt world where even the hippies have become apolitical and apathetic. The movie was a prescient look ahead at what Tom Wolfe would infamously call the "Me decade." (The fact that we're now experiencing the hangover of the "iDecade" - or is the worst of it still to come? - makes this film especially timely.)
When Perkins' character finds out that the survey he's been paid to give to black welfare recipients is actually a ploy by the owner of WUSA to discredit the welfare system, his sense of injustice kicks into high gear. Newman, meanwhile, sinks further into apathy and self-defensive sarcasm, belittling Perkins at every opportunity. Woodward is paralyzed somewhere in between, with the suspicion that one of them is losing his sanity and the other his humanity.
At one point Perkins confronts Mr. Miller, a corrupt executive at WUSA, threatening to uncover the fraud of the welfare survey. Mr. Miller is unfazed, telling Perkins without irony (while surrounded by doting Playboy bunnies), "Everybody in this country who's out of line is gonna learn fear." Perkins fires back in what amounts to the film's biggest glimmer of hope, "There are some people in this country who are gonna learn fear, and there's some who are gonna un-learn it!"
The rising tension in the film finally explodes at a political rally put on by the radio station, where the audience waves confederate flags, displays "white power" balloons, and loudly boos a band off the stage merely for saying "peace, ya'all." When all Hell inevitably breaks loose, Newman watches it unfold with drunken amusement, announcing over the chaos, "Americans, remember: no matter what anyone says, we're OK. Say it after me! We're OK!"
Despite its panning by critics of the time (the New York Times said it "fights unreal battles with an unseen enemy"), the film feels like it's merely a mild exaggeration of where the world could be heading today, if one substitutes undocumented immigrants for the welfare recipients, Glenn Beck for WUSA, and the current recession for the one that struck in the 1970s. Chilling stuff! -Aimee