The Nostalgia Trap: The memory lane politics of Steven Spielberg
 

Steven Spielberg had recently wrapped photography on one of his largest films to date when Donald Trump was elected to the presidency. That film, Ready Player One, a $175 million phantasmagoria of video games and pop culture that was meticulously crafted to maximize the flow of dopamine through the audience, had a long and arduous pre-production prior to its three-month shoot, and would require nearly an additional year-and-a-half before its visual effects were complete. With the finish line in sight for this massive undertaking, and full of inspiration from the current political climate, the great director almost immediately got to work on his next project as soon as Ready Player One was in the capable hands of Industrial Light and Magic.

The Post came together about as fast as a film can. With production for a different, third film on hiatus, he optioned the screenplay, assembled an all-star cast, and rushed into a seven month production schedule that would ensure the film’s completion in time for a holiday release and, more importantly, the Academy Awards. An impressive feat no matter the subject matter, but Spielberg wanted to get the film made as quickly as possible. The story, about the Washington Post staff who, in 1971, defied the Nixon administration to publish the infamous Pentagon Papers, appeared of vital public interest.

“The level of urgency to make the movie was because of the current climate of this administration, bombarding the press and labeling the truth as fake if it suited them,” Spielberg told The Guardian last year. “I deeply resented the hashtag ‘alternative facts,’ because I’m a believer in only one truth, which is the objective truth.”

And so, in the middle of making a blockbuster epic about the recent past and mass media, Spielberg made a small political film about the recent past and mass media.

Although their plots couldn’t be further apart, Ready Player One and The Post represent two sides of the same nostalgic coin. They are films reaching into our memories and utilizing old stories to triumph over the tumultuous politics of the modern day. Ready Player One, set 30 years in the future, uses the entertainment media of a Gen X childhood to combat the corporate American goal of monetizing its consumers and filling every waking moment of their lives with advertisements. Meanwhile, The Post, set more than 40 years in the past, takes a triumphant chapter from the history of American journalism to showcase a victory not just over the U.S. government, but also against tepid shareholders of The Washington Post who would seek to censor the paper’s coverage to preserve the stock price.

Both films are meant to invoke rose-tinted nostalgia that inspires via Hollywood storytelling standards of good versus evil, but both films’ happy endings ultimately affirm a reliance on justice to triumph by its own right. It allows the audience to live in nostalgia, without pulling the weight required to actually change the desolate state of the world the films highlight.

Surveying the American left today, Donald Trump has caused many Democrats to reveal a string of conservative yearning for the Way Things Were. Memes now make their way throughout social media channels highlighting Democratic presidents of the past who exemplified the decorum expected of the presidency. Their faith has now been placed in once distrusted institutions, such as the CIA and the FBI, to solve the problem of Trump for them. Any person or entity that stands against Trump in the media, be it Jeff Flake or Bill Kristol, is transformed into a valorous hero, while the Trump administration and Russia act as ghoulish villains. The old reliance on binaries has resulted in many liberals refusing to reconcile the institutional decay and destructive economic policies across Republican and Democratic administrations that have led us into this current moment. Instead they are turning to figureheads such as Bush-appointee Robert Mueller to save them from a man who, for them at least, the greatest crime is that he doesn’t smile for the camera while committing war crimes and stripping away civil liberties.

It is through this brand of liberalism that we interpret The Post. It’s a film that is less concerned with the actual content of the Pentagon Papers, and more with the act of releasing them. It is not the massacres committed under the watch of four presidents that are troublesome, but the fact that the current president, Nixon, now wants to inhibit the freedom of the press. And it is through the heroics of The Washington Post staff that Spielberg turns paperwork-heavy history into a Hollywood hero’s journey.

Make no mistake, I’ve worked in the newspaper business, and I believe strongly that a free press is vital to a healthy democracy and Nixon’s overstep of the First Amendment was a grave authoritarian threat. It is a story worth telling and The Post does do a good job of depicting this struggle. But Trump has yet to take a similar judicial action as Nixon did in seeking to silence the press. The true threat to the news today comes less from what Trump or Kellyanne Conway say via those same media channels and more from the moneyed interests that are buying and controlling the content of news networks in order to push a radical far-right agenda.

One of the better pieces of modern critique The Post has to offer is in its depiction of the initial public offering as The Washington Post prepared to trade on the stock market. Shareholders are shown trying to stop publisher Katharine Graham from releasing the papers for fear a retaliation from Nixon would hurt the stock price. Graham, in defiance of the financial future of the company, gives the green light to publish the Pentagon Papers. It’s a triumphant moment of truth persevering not only over the government but over the moneyed elite attempting to inhibit the Post’s editorial integrity. But this is a peripheral b-plot in the movie, when today these special interests are the key villain.

Take for instance the horror movie esque montage of local news stations, many recently purchased by the conservative media monster Sinclair Broadcasting Group, reading the same script lambasting “fake news” and urging viewers not to trust competitors who don’t report with the same pro-Trump ideological spin. In that two-minute video by Deadspin is a more terrifying, brutal assault on the freedom of the press than any random tweet the president spits out during his morning “Executive Time.”

As well, today’s Washington Post bears no resemblance to this nostalgic memory of its former glory. In the 40 years since Daniel Ellsberg’s personal sacrifice allowed the Pentagon Papers to run on A1, the paper has called for prosecution of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. Today the paper is owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, who on stage at an invite-only summit last year said his interest in journalism largely stemmed from his own nostalgia for watching the Watergate hearings with his grandfather.

The Post’s faith that the free press will save us from tyranny is a noble but misguided fantasy. Bill Kovach and Tim Rosenstiel wrote in The Elements of Journalism: “By the end of the twentieth century, in deed if not in name, America’s journalistic leaders had been transformed into businesspeople. And half now report that they spend at least a third of their time on business matters rather than journalism. As citizens, we should be alarmed. Journalists, in turn, should understand that they have been undermined.”

Perhaps it is in this light that many can watch The Post and find inspiration in a higher ideal of journalism to aspire to, but too easily is the call for action lost in the allure of memories from a time when things were better, when journalism meant something.

The movie ends with a celebration in the Washington Post newsroom, the Supreme Court (another venerable institution on the verge of being co-opted by the far-right) rules in the paper’s favor and we cut to a cliffhanger of the break-in at the Watergate hotel. Spielberg films the final shot of his movie as if he is setting up for a sequel in an American History Expanded Universe.

The pursuit of power and control of economies likewise forms the backbone of Ready Player One, a true expanded universe where culture ended in 1999 and the key to saving the world relies on having an in-depth knowledge of media beloved by socially awkward teenage boys.

The villain of this film is Nolan Sorrento, a greedy CEO of a corporation dedicated to taking control over the OASIS — a virtual reality internet where the majority of the global population spends their time — and turning it into a pay-to-play money-making tool clogged with malware-spewing advertisements. Sorrento is your typical caricature of a big soulless businessman, akin to many of the Trump-based villains in classic ’80s movies like Back to the Future Part II, and his plan is not far from reality.

The character has notes of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who has rightfully been painted as a villain of the free internet over the past year, after he spearheaded the repeal of net neutrality rules. Pai’s callous actions, effectively paved the path for ISPs to control content and slow connections over their servers, much to the delight of his former employer Verizon.

But Ready Player One’s vision of the internet is merely as a pleasuredome. The political machinations of its world are filtered purely through ’80s and ’90s entertainment, to the point that there is a reference to Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton being vice president. Meanwhile, the infrastructure of the outside world has decayed and poverty is widespread. But even the victims of this political system, who live in ramshackle trailer park/apartment hybrids that are certainly not up to any municipal building code no matter how dystopian this future, are not at all interested in solving their situation because they are too busy being wired into the internet. Film critic Inkoo Kang noted in her review that the going-ons in the OASIS are of higher concern than an actual real world massacre committed by the evil corporation.

This would be astute commentary on the effect mass media has had on society and the plague of political apathy, were this orgy of pop culture not depicted as a wholly positive thing.

The novel by Ernest Cline put it best during a three page diatribe where the protagonist, Parzival, lists all the movies and video games he’s consumed over the span of his short life: “What about The Simpsons, you ask? I knew more about Springfield than I knew about my own city.”

Therein lies the problem.

Ready Player One and The Post are both films where the threat is not that the machinations of capital are interfering in politics, but that they’re attacking the free flow of media. Ajit Pai told millions of Americans that they can still “Harlem Shake after Net Neutrality,” but it was never silly YouTube videos at risk — it is the political organizers and activists who rely on the internet as a communications tool who stand to be silenced. In Ready Player One’s apolitical vision of the internet, it is gaming that is at stake of being corrupted by advertisements, the real world is only an afterthought.

The nostalgia on display in The Post could be arguably justified as an important moment out of American history, but the vapidness of Ready Player One’s nostalgia is in celebrating our modern day role as consumers. Knowing the name of the high school in The Breakfast Club is more important than knowing the name of your mayor and the death of your avatar is more important than the death of your aunt. Compared to the astute social commentary and technological dystopias of Spielberg’s turn of the century sci fi output like A.I. and Minority Report, or the political complexities of his Obama-era, moral battle for the soul of the nation Lincoln, the weak social commentary of these movies is disappointing.

Obsession with media has led a piece of bad 1980s nostalgia to wind up in the Oval Office. But it was the money people that built him up. Spielberg has identified the problem, but he’s missed the cause.

Featured Ready Player One image via Warner Bros.

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