Why Do the 1970s Resonate So Much Right Now?


Though Ben Affleck's terrific Argo is set more than 30 years in the past, you'll be hard-pressed to take it in and not think of the here and now. Part of that is because of the political climate in which we live. Yes, the Near East still dictates much of our foreign policy, Iran in particular, with its pursuit of nuclear energy, a popular talking point even in a election cycle dominated by a focus on the economy. But I have this theory -- spawned in large part by Argo -- that these looks back toward the 1970s stem from a general cultural mentality that shares much in common with that of the America of 30 years ago. Perhaps this is all hackish armchair social psychology on my part, but it was hard, for me at least, to not think of 2005's Munich and 2008's Frost/Nixon as pseudo-companion pieces of Argo.

All three films are set in the aftermath of cataclysmic events of the 1970s -- the assassination of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics by Black September terrorists in Munich, the Watergate scandal in Frost/Nixon and the Iranian hostage crisis in Argo. All three films are among the best of the last decade, at least as far as I'm concerned. And all three films have a great deal to say about the fragile American psyche then and now and the way which that fragility informs our politics.

The '70s were a decade when American foreign policy was exposed as tragically ineffective and one of our leaders abused his power on a criminal level. Sound familiar? It should. Just as Vietnam and Richard Nixon's involvement in the Watergate scandal left deep scars that the U.S. is still coming to grips with, so are the deep-reaching effects of September 11th and the George W. Bush years still rippling painfully.

Munich, Frost/Nixon and Argo are set in the 1970s and they may reflect a shaken American confidence that was present then -- I don't really know as I wasn't, you know, alive. They certainly all reflect facets of a shaken confidence that is a part of the culture now.

Munich tells the tale of Avner (Eric Bana), a Mossad agent tasked with hunting down and killing the members of the Black September terrorist group that killed 11 Israeli Olympians. It's a meditation on vengeance in the wake of a deep trauma, and, to me at least, a powerful statement about the suspect ability of vengeance to heal and the corrupting influence it can have on the avengers. Released four years after 9/11, it's easy to take plenty from this film and apply it to our war in Afghanistan and the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda operatives.

Frost/Nixon pulls no punches in putting the former Commander in Chief on trial in de facto fashion. There's a certain angst and frustration to the film, best expressed through Sam Rockwell's character James Reston Jr., an incredulity that this is the only real way in which a man who so brazenly abused his office will be held accountable. I think that ought to resonate strongly with anyone and everyone (and let's be honest there are few that remember him fondly) frustrated by George W. Bush's eight years as President.

Argo, meanwhile, with its relatively even-handed portrayal of Iran's revolutionaries and its fixation on the fears of ordinary Americans trapped in a conflict between two governments that are far from morally unimpeachable, seems to reflect an American psyche that is no longer reeling from the effects of 9/11, but remains awfully intimidated by a world that seems to grow more complex and frightening by the day. The more we know and are aware of the impact of our foreign policy, the less we can be certain of its guiding principles.

It doesn't hurt that all three of these films are tremendous stories or that the cultural arbiters in position to make movies like them can probably remember the 1970s vividly. But I think there's more going on here than just that. Disillusionment and fear are unfortunately a big part of American-ness right now just as they were more than three decades ago. It's no wonder, then, that the events of the '70s can hold such power in pop culture today.