American Cinema of the 1970s: Themes and Variations

By Lester D. Friedman | Go to book overview

1974
Movies and Political Trauma

DAVID COOK

The most striking feature of the year's films is their acknowledgment of trauma in the American body politic. Whether overtly political like The Godfather: Part II, The Parallax View, and Chinatown, or symbolically so like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, many of these films spoke directly to corporate malfeasance and corruption in high places, with strategic recourse to political assassination barely concealed. Even though the Watergate scandal did not reach its climax until the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency on 9 August, the events of the break-in, coverup, and subsequent investigation weighed heavily on American minds throughout the preceding year. If Nixon had not resigned, he surely would have been impeached, and many at the time felt a constitutional crisis—or worse—would ensue. “Worse” was that Nixon might be impeached but would remain in office during a lengthy and tortuous Senate trial, refusing to resign. Unless he did so, the president would remain commander in chief of the nation's armed forces with his finger on the nuclear button amid a growing sense in Washington that he had become mentally unstable. As the Watergate scandal came to a head and the authority of the Nixon administration began to crumble, as our war effort in Vietnam became increasingly futile, and as book after book critical of the Warren Commission appeared, the American public lost faith in its institutions as never before. There was, in effect, a mainstreaming of late-1960s counterculture: political and social criticism became popular pursuits, traditions were pilloried, and norms inverted. The best-selling nonfiction title was All the President's Men, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's account of how their Watergate investigation for the Washington Post had led to the imminent demise of the Nixon White House; the highest rated television show was Norman Lear's iconoclastic “All in the Family” (CBS); and the top-selling single was Barbra Streisand's nostalgic “The Way We Were,” the theme song from the first Hollywood film to address the McCarthy-era blacklist. Everywhere producers of popular entertainment rushed to capitalize on these trends, and the films represent their first full-blooded manifestation.

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