After I left Capitol Hill, I had the great fortune of working as an arts-and-entertainment writer at the Washington Times. The gig included the unfairly fun duty of writing weekly movie reviews and, occasionally, interviewing the “talent,” as directors, actors, and writers are referred to in Hollywood-publicist lingo.
No doubt a highlight of those six years was the 45 minutes I got to spend in the company of Tom Hanks and the writer-director brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, who were in Washington, D.C., to promote The Ladykillers, a not-terrible, but uncharacteristically flat remake of the 1955 Ealing Studios classic. (It paled in comparison to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens’ audacious reinvention of The Odyssey.)
Hanks’ pious center-left politics are well-known, and he promptly ribbed me mercilessly about the Times’ connection to the cult led by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. “Have you seen the reverend?” Hanks joshed. “Does he levitate in the lobby?” Hanks recalled the time he saw an ad for the Unification Church on the side of a bus in his hometown of Oakland, Calif. “If you’re really the new incarnation of Christ, would you need to take out advertisements?!”
After informing me that I would not be leaving the hotel suite--“We’re here to de-program you”--Hanks finally let up. The Coens laughed uproariously throughout (as, truthfully, did I). But it wasn’t clear that they were really in on the politically aware Hanks’s joke. I thought this was to their credit. Out of all the top-tier Hollywood directors I got to meet, they seemed to me the most genuinely nonideological--like 19th-century aesthetes, in a way. Concerned exclusively with art for art’s sake.
And so it was no surprise to find not a scintilla of the revisionist Western in the Coens’ brilliant True Grit. Imagine, in lesser hands, the story of Rooster Cogburn and a young girl, lighting into unsettled Indian territory to track down a murderer and deliver him to the gallows. Imagine the sly commentaries on the brutality of frontier justice or the futility of revenge (Clint Eastwood, anyone?).
To be sure, there are images of the maltreatment of blacks and native Americans. But they are not lingered on; they’re scenery, aspects of realism, hardly essential to the story. There is no apology--in fact there is no little comedy--in Cogburn’s penchant for shooting first, interrogating later.
Putting politics, or its blessed absence, aside, the Coens’ True Grit succeeds on its own merits. It somehow manages to be true to spirit of the original--amazingly, there’s not a single instance of profanity or sexuality--while delivering all the physical oddities and colorful ancillary characters and beautifully stylized dialogue that Coen brothers fans rightfully expect. Jeff Bridges’ performance as the gruff but lovable Cogburn all but assures him at least a best-actor Oscar nomination, if not his second consecutive trophy (a feat last accomplished, incidentally, by Hanks).
Accepting the best-picture Oscar for No Country for Old Men, Joel Coen told the Academy, “We’re very thankful to all of you out there for continuing to let us play in our corner of the sandbox.”
Would that other filmmakers realized the beauty of not contaminating the sandbox with politics.