Hollywood prospers by exploiting what’s festering in the heads of millions of Americans—enough heads to make a blockbuster or, maybe, carry half a dozen swing states on an election day. Consequently, political junkies follow American film. (Wild audience enthusiasm for Dirty Harry certainly provided plenty of guidance on how to navigate and understand Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority and Law and Order campaigns.)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant new film The Master offers something entirely different, and better, than any of Hollywood’s contemporary political dramas.
Overwrought post-debate partisans and political analysts who believe that presidential elections are in-depth profiles of—and telling battles over—the minds of American individuals, should find it rather relaxing. The Master demonstrates that today’s tricksters aren’t especially talented and that our stresses today are not especially insane making.
Anderson doesn’t explicitly address the political strains of the1950’s, Joe McCarthy, the Bomb, the Cold War, white hypocrisy, or racial segregation. He concentrates every scene on a manipulative cult leader and a seething, unsettled veteran of the Second World War. For aggregators and “cleavage politics” marketers, he offers nothing but a couple of hours of dazzling escape.
However, you will get a feel for a time of extraordinary newness, curiosity, and unmanageable anxiety. It’s humbling and reassuring at the same time.