Obama As the New Nixon: On Night Moves and the Films of Kelly Reichardt

05/30/2014 12:02 PM |

Jesse Eisenberg in Kelly Reichardt and Jon Raymonds movie Night Moves

The director Kelly Reichardt, with her writing partner Jon Raymond, makes movies that capture the cultural moment. Since 2006’s Old Joy, the filmmakers have fashioned 21st-century specific political parables, tracing the historical arc of the Bush years and their transition into the Obama era, with which they grapple in their latest, Night Moves (opening today).


Old Joy depicted the deeply divided country into Bush’s second term: not that its characters were some sort of Dennis and Mr. Wilson matchup of Republicans and Democrats—it was simpler, more subtle. As I wrote in 2007:

The American populace is polarized, and the macrocosm of that opposition is boiled-down into two avatars, one, Will Oldham, representing the free and peripatetic spirit of the West, and the other, Daniel London, a settled family man with a baby on the way; in the process, the two come to vaguely encompass not only the red-state/blue-state divide but something that runs much deeper. While shooting an airgun in the middle of the film, London sums it up elegantly: “aiming with two hands is responsible shooting; one hand is renegade shooting.” It’s the modern American family man vs. the mythical American spirit, once interconnected and now deeply alienated.

Reichardt and Raymond’s followup, Wendy and Lucy, boasted a “bleak but hopeful outlook… serendipitously tailor-fitted to its pre-Obama days of both promise and despair,” I wrote in 2008. “It’s a simplistic and symbolic story, a portrait of this mean old country and its economic disparity.” That is, it was so, so 2008. So was their next film, Meek’s Cutoff, though it wouldn’t come out until two years later. In it, a group of westward-bound 19th-century settlers are lost and low on supplies, ultimately faced with a choice: follow their leader, an archetype of American cowboyism, or go with a dark-skinned Indian they’ve captured, a clever metaphor for the McCain-Obama election. “You follow a man like Meek, a man who embodies the reactionary, only at your peril,” I wrote at the time. “Better to take your chances with The Stranger and see where it gets you.”

That was back before we found out Obama was collecting all of our phone data and subpoenaing journalists’ phone records. You could define his two terms however you’d like (and the last one’s not even over yet!): by partisan gridlock, by reform of the healthcare system, by foreign policy imbroglios, by the expansion of gay rights—or by the amplification of the post-9/11 surveillance state put in place by the president’s predecessor. It’s this that Reichardt and Raymond focus on in Night Moves.

A thriller about ecoterrorists in Oregon who plan to blow up a dam and then act on that plan, the movie has some other Obama-era undercurrents: about being progressive but fed up with the pernicious status quo (I mean, has anyone done anything about carbon emissions?!), turning to some form of radicalism even if it turns out to be misguided just because you’re starting to get a little desperate here!! (See the haphazard redress that was Occupy.) It also touches on how much easier it is to kill once you’ve already killed, perhaps explaining the drone program.

But most of all, it’s a movie about paranoia, its colorful end-credits backgrounds redolent of the 70s, evoking cynical post-Watergate political thrillers. Its final shot (I’m not really spoiling anything here), of Jesse Eisenberg peering into a store’s shoplifting mirror, is only the last of the film’s many such shots: its most recurring image is a dead-on shot of Eisenberg looking off into the distance, because he heard the sound of approaching tires, or noticed some other tiny detail that could indicate the arrival of police. In almost every shot, he’s looking in a different direction than all the other characters in the frame. It’s a movie full of panic—that someone’s watching, that someone’s coming, that someone knows. This is how Reichardt and Raymond define our present moment: Obama as the new Nixon.

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