Why, in troubled times, does America turn to a hard-drinking, half-blind US marshal? Frank Rich on how True Grit speaks to the Obama generation as profoundly as it did to Nixon’s
A month before John Wayne won the 1969 best actor Oscar for True Grit, Richard Nixon wrote him a “Dear Duke” fan letter from the Oval Office: “I saw it in the WH with my family and for once we agree with the critics – you were great!” Some four decades later, his rave was echoed by another Republican warrior, this time in praise of the True Grit remake with Jeff Bridges in the role of the old, fat, hard-drinking, half-blind 19th-century US marshal Rooster Cogburn. Shortly after New Year, Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice-president Dick, told the New York Times that her parents saw True Grit at the Teton theatre in Jackson, Wyoming, and gave it “two thumbs up”.
The double-barrelled success of True Grit, then and now, spreads well beyond those conservative gunslingers. In America’s current winter of high domestic anxiety, as in the politically tumultuous summer of 1969, it is a hit with the national mass audience and elite critics alike. The new version is doing as well in New York and Los Angeles as it is in Cheneyland.
That True Grit still works is first a testament to the beauty of the remake, as directed by the Coen brothers, and to the enduring power of both films’ source, a 1968 novel by Charles Portis that refracted a western yarn through a scintillating and original comic voice. But the latest True Grit juggernaut also has something to say about Americans yearning at a trying juncture in their history – much as it did the first time around.
The original film opened at Radio City Music Hall, New York, on 3 July, 1969, the same day that antiwar protestors incited a melee at the adjoining Rockefeller Centre, shutting down Fifth Avenue. In that climate, the movie’s success was hardly preordained. The previous year, The Green Berets, Wayne’s jingoistic Vietnam potboiler, had divided audiences, been ridiculed by the press and shunned by the Oscars. The western, like the war movie, was seen as a dying genre, usurped by darker and ever more violent takes on frontier mythology like 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch, which opened just a week before True Grit. July of 1969 would also bring Easy Rider, the iconic 60s dope-and-biker movie in which Dennis Hopper, who played a villain in True Grit, would reinvent himself as an era’s archetypal cultural antihero. The Easy Rider tagline ran: “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere.”
Such was the dyspeptic mood of a nation deep into a fruitless war and a year after a summer of assassinations and riots. Yet True Grit was warmly received, including by the New York Times critic, Vincent Canby, who put it in a year-end list of bests dominated by such anti-establishment fare as The Wild Bunch, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, and the ultimate anti-western, Andy Warhol’s sexually transgressive Lonesome Cowboys. Canby described True Grit as “a classic frontier fable that manages to be most entertaining even when it’s being most reactionary”.
He was right. Its story and themes could hardly have been more retro. A 14-year-old girl from Yell County, Arkansas, named Mattie Ross hires Rooster to help track down an outlaw who murdered both her father and a Texas state senator before fleeing into Choctaw territory. Though Mattie is a stickler for the law, she’s not averse to frontier justice if that’s required to avenge her dad. But to the grizzled old Rooster’s dismay, the girl insists on joining him on the trail to make sure the job gets done.
Matties had to outlive Roosters
Like classic Hollywood westerns before it, True Grit in all its iterations has an elegiac lilt. Uncivilised hired guns like Rooster may have helped tame the west and dispatched bad guys, but they were also capable of lawlessness and atrocities. As a young Confederate soldier, Rooster had joined in the 1863 Lawrence massacre in Kansas. Ultimately, law, religion and domestic institutions like marriage – which Rooster failed at – had to prevail if America was to grow up. The Matties had to outlive the Roosters. And so they did. For a weary mainstream 1969 audience, and not just a reactionary one, the restoration of order in True Grit, inevitably to be followed by Rooster’s ride off into the sunset, was a heartening two-hour escape from the near civil war raging beyond the cinema walls.
In 2010, expectations for the new True Grit may have been lower than they were for the first. The western has once again been written off as an endangered species. The Coens’ critically admired film-making has never generated blockbuster box office. An added indignity was the complete shutout of True Grit from Golden Globe nominations – a measure of a movie’s advance buzz, if nothing else.
Nonetheless, it is already the biggest draw of any Coen brothers film – poised to at least double the business of No Country for Old Men, their biggest previous hit. Revealingly, I think, it is attracting an even larger audience than The Social Network, a movie of equal quality with reviews to match and more timely cultural cachet. It turns out that True Grit is as much an escape for Americans now as it was in the Vietnam era.
Our age is hardly identical to that one, whatever the resonances between the Afghanistan and Vietnam wars, and whatever America’s own bouts of domestic violence. The new True Grit took off before the Tucson cataclysm in any event, and the movie’s broad appeal, like the demographics of its audience, transcends the running right-left debate. What is most stirring about True Grit today – besides the primal father-daughter relationship that blossoms between Rooster and Mattie – is its unalloyed faith in values antithetical to those of the 21st–century America so deftly skewered, as it happens, in The Social Network.
At its core, the new True Grit is often surprisingly similar to the first, despite the clashing sensibilities of their directors (Henry Hathaway, a studio utility man, did the original) and the casting of an age-appropriate Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) in lieu of the 21-year-old Kim Darby of 1969. But what leaps out this time, to the point of seeming fresh, is the fierce loyalty of the principal characters to each other (the third being a vain Texas ranger, played by Matt Damon) and their clear-cut sense of morality and justice, even when the justice is rough.
More than the first True Grit, the new one emphasises Mattie’s precocious, almost obsessive preoccupation with the law. She is forever citing law-book principles, invoking lawyers and affidavits, and threatening to go to court. “You must pay for everything in this world one way or another,” says Mattie. “There is nothing free except the grace of God.”
That kind of legal and moral cost-accounting seems distant now. The new True Grit lands in an America that’s still not recovered from a crash where many of the reckless perpetrators of economic mayhem deflected any accountability and merely moved on to the next bubble, gamble or ethically dubious backroom deal. When we think of the law these days, we often think of a system that can easily be gamed by the rich and the powerful, starting with those who pillaged Lehman Brothers, AIG and Citigroup and left taxpayers, shareholders and pensioners in the dust. A virtuous soul like Mattie would be crushed in a contemporary gold rush even if (or especially if) she fought back with the kind of civil action so prized by her 19th-century incarnation.
Talk about two Americas. Look at The Social Network again after seeing True Grit, and you’ll see two different civilisations, as far removed from each other in ethos as Silicon Valley and Monument Valley. While The Social Network fictionalises Mark Zuckerberg, it mines the truth of an era – from the ability of the powerful and privileged to manipulate the system to the collapse of loyalty as a prized American virtue at the top of that economic pyramid.
In contrast to Mattie’s dictum, no one has to pay for any transgression in the world it depicts. Zuckerberg’s antagonists, Harvard classmates who accuse him of intellectual theft, and his allies, exemplified by a predatory venture capitalist, sometimes seem more entitled and ruthless than he is. The blackest joke in Aaron Sorkin’s priceless script is that Lawrence Summers, a Harvard president who would later moonlight as a hedge fund consultant, might intervene to arbitrate any ethical conflicts. You almost wish Rooster were around to get the job done.
Battle of the blogslingers
The Social Network is nothing if not the true sequel to Wall Street. The director, David Fincher (no less brilliant than the Coens), makes the atmosphere almost as murky and poisonous as that of his serial killer movies, Seven and Zodiac. In The Social Network, the landscape is Cambridge, Massachusetts, but we might as well be in the pre-civilised wild west. Instead of thieves bearing guns, we have thieves bearing depositions. Instead of actual assassinations, we have character assassinations by blogpost. In place of an honourable social code, we have a social network presided over by a post-adolescent billionaire whose business card reads: “I’m CEO . . . Bitch!”
This hits too close to home. No one should have been surprised that those looking for another America once again have been finding it in True Grit.