Three years after creating one of the most iconic and beloved films of the ‘60s, Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman and director Stuart Rosenberg reunited…and this time, it was personal. With a knowingly of-the-moment screenplay by Robert Stone (based on his own debut novel, A Hall of Mirrors), music by a post-Bullitt/pre-Dirty Harry Lalo Schifrin, a marquee pop song by Neil Diamond, and a cast of accomplished actors all obviously in thrall to the movie’s heady millenarian political allegory, WUSA is a perfect example of what I’ll call Liberal Nightmare Cinema, from a time when such movies were considered potential commercial hits. And naturally, WUSA was a giant flop—lost to history, barely remembered as a footnote to Newman’s career, and only this week available on DVD.
The movie opens as Rheinhardt (Newman), a fatalistic and penniless drunk, arrives in New Orleans to claim a debt from a scam-artist preacher named Farley (Laurence Harvey). Unable to pay in full, Farley steers ex-DJ Rheinhardt to the local, titular radio station, which imbues its music and news programming with a shadowy “point of view,” revealed to be your now-standard pro-business, anti-immigrant, subliminally racist rightwing lunacy. Meanwhile, Rheinhardt falls into a relationship with Geraldine (Joanne Woodward), a similarly drifting soul who disapproves of his uncompassionate worldview, and comes into contact with an ineffectual, idealistic leftist named Rainey (Anthony Perkins) who’s working for the local welfare office. To the surprise of no one except the characters themselves, it turns out that WUSA’s management has bigger ambitions than mere jingoistic vitriol, and soon the stage is literally set for a political rally, where an act of progressive rebellion is both ensured and doomed.
Newman, fresh off Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, infamously claimed at the time that WUSA was the most important movie he’d yet made, and that sense of heavy-handed statement-making wafts off the screen and surely accounts for why the film is such an ugly duckling of the New Hollywood era. Every actor gives a humorless performance and most oversell their N’awlins drawl, even though none of them are actually meant to be from Louisiana. Rosenberg and cinematographer Richard Moore also seem intent to make every shot a dramatically angled, distractingly thoughtful composition. But WUSA is still worth seeing, and I say that not only because I’m a helpless sucker for Vietnam-era widescreen. For all the dire seriousness of this movie, it’s hard to fault a star of Newman’s stature for wanting to make serious, politically attuned movies for grownups (he produces here as well). If anything, WUSA drags because a large part of its run time is given over to the bland interpersonal story between Rheinhardt and Geraldine, at the expense of the politics.
When I say that WUSA is a prime, if somewhat staid, example of Liberal Nightmare Cinema, I’m talking about that curiously indestructible subgenre of films that essentially tell left-leaning viewers that their worst, most cynical fears about America are, in fact, well founded. They can be relatively light and satirical, like Wag the Dog or Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, though more often they’re paranoid and admonishing, like A Face in the Crowd, Network, Bob Roberts, and JFK. Either way, these movies all envision a political environment beholden to special interests and corporate evil, a media run by capitalist sharks who manipulate the public through demagogues, and an electoral process where candidates are stripped of their ideals and forced to compromise themselves in order to gain power.
The risk of Liberal Nightmare Cinema, and one reason why such movies fail to find a popular audience as often as they gross millions, is a certain built-in datedness and thematic obviousness. To wit: It’s pretty damn hard for a liberal in 2011 to be concerned, let alone terrified, by the thought of a burgeoning regional radio signal that traffics in hateful populism; nowadays, you can get that kind of rhetoric at Barnes & Noble and on the nation’s leading cable news network. So there’s the datedness. As for the obviousness, it’s quite funny to watch Nixon-era Hollywood Democrats’ perception of the future enemy. Newman, Rosenberg, and company foresaw a room of moneyed good ol’ boys with Bond-villain plots for American political domination. They’re savvy, diabolical, and broadly speaking, handsome. Four decades later, the éminence grise of conservative mudslinging is former Nixon handler Roger Ailes, a half-disabled, bullfrog-joweled septuagenarian whose most revered media innovation was to reduce “news” to a series of ideological dog whistles spoken by sorority-styled blondes.
If anything, the “prophetic” qualities of WUSA and its fellow Liberal Nightmares just underscore how uncreative and uninspired the current Fox and Limbaugh style of conservatism really is. Both A Face in the Crowd and WUSA posit that an alcoholic washed-up DJ might be the best man for the rabble-rousing job, and now we have Glenn Beck; is that because of some tremendous cultural insight in the films themselves, or because Beck’s mix of zoo-crew insult humor and A.A.-brand humility before God make him the obvious spokesman for a movement based on Christian cultural resentment? Similarly, the climactic WUSA-sponsored rally is advertised as a paean to “Faith, Flag and Family,” and since that phrase anticipates, in all but word order, the subtitle of Sarah Palin’s latest book, we can either assume that Robert Stone had some kind of oracular insight into the future of conservative thought, or accept that Palin’s brand of gut-over-brain cheerleading is so hackneyed that it defies parody.
In the film, WUSA’s station manager observes, “When people hear the news treated right, they respond to it like music,” which is a poignant line of dialogue but a needlessly thoughtful sentiment; turns out, Americans with a taste for red meat will take it from a proudly bumbling beauty queen, a self-described rodeo clown, or a demonstrably racist overweight radio barker, to say nothing of the many charmless politicians who have exploited populist unease since the Silent Majority took hold. Needless to say, all these people seem at least as interested in their audience’s checkbooks as their electoral presence. The villains in Liberal Nightmare Cinema are always depicted as dastardly, but their real-life counterparts tend to be merely shameless.
The basic tenets of Liberal Nightmare Cinema are at least as old as Sinclair Lewis’s immortal observation that “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Though there’s much to admire about WUSA and its kin, I still wish they made more of the fact that Lewis’s true prescience was in recognizing that the flag and Bible would be a costume. The real nightmare, the one that seems more permanent with each passing day, is that many Americans don’t mind an underqualified performer acting as their lodestar, spokesperson, or congressman, so long as the props are there.
Olive Films's presentation of WUSA looks great but sounds like a mess. I'm not sure whether it's fair to blame the distributor or the film's original mixer, but nearly all the dialogue is whisper-quiet, while the score and incidental music are painfully loud. This is a treat in a scene midway through when Rheinhardt and Geraldine attend an intimate concert by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but I had my hand on the remote throughout the whole film and my thumb got sore turning the volume up and down from one minute to the next. Still, it's a wonderful-looking transfer, and despite the filmmakers' overuse of harsh angles and a red-white-and-blue color scheme, it all glows while still preserving the film grain.
Nada. Too bad, since it seems like a slam dunk to capitalize on the film's anticipation of right-wing radio.
Absolutely worth seeking out for diehard fans of the 1970s Hollywood renaissance, WUSA predicts the right's coming media dominance while greatly overestimating the conservative movement's slyness, subtlety, and respect for their own audience.