Hollywood's Contribution to Public Policy Debate: The Liberal Morality Play—John Q and Changing Lanes

  • Angry, Yet Sympathetic, Minorities
  • Greedy White People
  • Populism!!!!


Directed by Rage Against the Machine
"Seriously, man! I saw your motherfucking ass on 'Project Greenlight'! You were all kinds of fucked up, man! Here, let me call my man Charlie Sheen and he'll come over and pick your ass up."

But It Makes a Good Point Though....Doesn't It?

We may remember Al Franken primarily as the guy with the satellite strapped to his head on "Weekend Update" during the 1988 Presidential election, or perhaps for his titanic battle with lisping as Paul Tsongas during "Saturday Night Live"'s 1992 election coverage, but I will always remember him for his 1996 assault on the "expanding" popularity of the Republican Party, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. The work is offensively snide, reducing itself to playground epithets like, "Rush Limbaugh is ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag," or the declaration that Dick Armey is "a big dick." The point being, of course, that the difference between this and the rhetoric of the real political arena is a split hair. My favorite chapter, entitled "Apocryphal Anecdotes: The Republican Contribution to Public Debate", dissects the annoying habit of "proving" points by telling absurd, extrapolated horror stories. Franken declares none other than Ronald Reagan as the master of the strategy, citing his story of the Chicago welfare queen who had taken the government for $150,000 (the real figure was $8,000) by creating false identities. Reagan's heir is Newt Gingrich, who gave us such whoppers as a Danish heart pump held hostage by bureaucrats at the FDA (not true), and 800 babies left in dumpsters in Washington DC in 1994 (the actual figure was four). Franken also recounts a Dick Armey standard, the "warm yet tragic" tale of Charlie, the semi-retarded janitor who lost his job because of a raise in the minimum wage.

Franken stops short of a complete analysis of the strategy, however. Essentially, the Republican Apocryphal Anecdote is a rhetorical disguise of prejudice—an ethical framework whose appeals touch conservatives' emotional nerves such that even the most absurd non sequitur goes unquestioned. The variables of class and race become irrelevant because, well, how can you argue in favor of a "welfare state" with all those scheming welfare queens running around? The Republican Apocryphal Anecdote has license to make whatever points it wants, using any statistics it wants to make up, because it is designed to pander to its core audience—who, once enraged by stories of twenty-times convicted DWI offenders roaming the streets, are galvanized to follow a candidate wherever he pleases, especially if it means saving our hard-earned tax dollars from providing social services to poor minorities.

In contrast, Hollywood has a long history of the populist liberal fairytale, the most recent Oscar-nominated examples being The Hurricane and Erin Brockovich. These stories, though powered with undercurrents of social anger, are primarily appeals to our compassion for victims of injustice, be they boxers or blue collar families. Yet 2002 has brought us another brand of angry liberalism—the liberal response to the violent, irrational prejudice of O'Reilly conservatives—The Minority Revenge Fantasy. As if Falling Down told by Jesse Jackson, The Minority Revenge Fantasy gathers the discontent of the lower and middle class and personifies it in an oppressed underdog—played by the two black actors most palatable to white America—who channels his anger into a heroic protest against The System.

No matter what we might think of the politics of John Q's portrayal of health care coverage in America, it's impossible to take seriously because, simply, the movie is too damn crazy to be taken seriously. Denzel Washington's son needs a heart transplant because it's too big, and the only available donor is a rich white woman. Never mind the potential loss of life, crowds cheer John Q on in his siege of a downtown Chicago emergency room. And of course, the rich white people in this movie delight, as if engaging in some sort of heavy foreplay, in enforcing "the rules" designed to oppress the hero.

Yet no matter how true this may be, the movie strikes false notes because it descends into binary, polemical rhetoric. Anne Heche and James Woods are so evil that they aren't even real, which undermines the integrity of the film's message. The Anne Heche character is such a caricature that it's the rhetorical equivalent of Reagan's welfare queen, an equally fictional invention. The film doesn't seem to trust its own message—or the audience—enough to create real characters that, rather than underscore its message, explore the real moral ambiguities of the situation. By polarizing the characters, like James Woods' golf-obsessed doctor, the third act moral revelation is almost always a stretch, thus compromising the dramatic power of the piece. The existence of such evil antagonists grants John Q the permission to do almost anything he wants for the sake of his son, so the film descends into chaos, like the inevitable conclusion of a segment on "Springer." The initially justified anger of John Q becomes the moral equivalent of tossing chairs at the Ku Klux Klan on an episode of "Geraldo."

Changing Lanes is painted with the same brush, yet somehow has been mistaken for some sort of morally ambiguous cross-section of the class divide in America. The purported "shifting allegiances" of Changing Lanes smells like a collective purge of liberal guilt, that somehow we can cheer our earnest minority hero and still find it in our hearts to pull for the materialistic, obnoxious, adulterous Wall Street lawyer as well. I've heard arguments that it's a "nuanced character study," but this movie is so far overblown that I have trouble taking any of it very seriously: the obvious symbolism of all this occurring on Good Friday, Ben chewing out a priest at confessional, even though he's not Catholic. Sam getting the beat down in the school. The whole "get the file in by the end of the day" deal. Sam and Ben both thrusting their arms out in crucifixtion poses in the rain. Sam tossing the computer into the window. Sam's rant about the Tiger Woods commercial. And the list could go on. And on. I won't give a movie the benefit of the doubt on character subtlety when it doesn't earn my trust by not insisting on ridiculously overblown action sequences and exceedingly earnest speeches. Yet, the quality of the casts of Changing Lanes and John Q attest to the weight of their message, especially for Hollywood movie stars reviewing scripts in the comfort of their mansions. But if Changing Lanes and John Q are what pass for social commentary in Hollywood, then Hollywood should not complain when its voice is not taken seriously in the political arena.

The Pitch:
1 Jesse Jackson
1 Norman Jewison
2 Changing Lanes and John Q
See John Q For:

After a tearful plea from G-Baby's mother, Denzel "shows up" to support the Kekambas in the 'ship.