Step aside, LBJ, your time in the spotlight is done. We’re done with the Obama-era reincarnation of the great negotiator and arm-twister for a progressive agenda as both an aspirational figure and a prime instigator of our paralyzing partisanship. There’s a new 20th century American president reclaiming a central spot in the cultural imagination, at least if several films I saw at TIFF were any indicator.
It seemed that everywhere I turned, I was reminded of John F. Kennedy’s legacy and the era of American optimism he ushered in — and that’s not only because I saw John Curran’s Chappaquiddick, a chronicle of the slice of history that likely prevented a second President Kennedy. (And a special shout-out to On Chesil Beach, which uses a flickering radio newsreel mentioning Kennedy as an easy marker of time.)
The early 1960s serve as an important setting for Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. As I wrote in my review, this era was “a time that produced both the glimmering beacon of the Space Race and the combustible cocktail of civil rights.” It’s important not to isolate either of these perspectives, as each goes hand in hand with the other in a vicious cycle. Americans project authority and superiority; those on the margins of society cry out when they feel left out of such an image of strength. Disenfranchised groups yearn for equality; those with a privileged position grow embittered and work to ensconce their advantages.
“I set it [The Shape of Water] in 1962 specifically, because when people say, ‘let’s Make America Great Again,’ they’re dreaming of that era,” said del Toro at the Q&A following the TIFF premiere. “Everything was super-great if you were white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, but it you were anything else, you were fucked. It hasn’t changed that much.” With his monster and the characters’ reactions to it in The Shape of Water, del Toro captures the spirit of the 60s — the promise it holds for many and the threat it induces for a select few.
Kennedy-era America casts a long shadow over Chappaquiddick, particularly through the unfortunate irony that Ted’s career-altering nightmare unfolds against the backdrop of John’s man on the moon dream becoming posthumously realized. The juxtaposition is everything. As one ambition bears fruit, another vine dries up. The Kennedys’ Camelot myth butts heads with reality, inspiring fierce pushback from all those who stand to be dislodged in their stability. The hope of JFK will forever be tinged with the painful reminder that progress carries a punishing price tag, a dream fated to veer into the territory of nightmare.
Though set well into Richard Nixon’s regressive 70s, Billie Jean King’s triumphant tennis match in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Battle of the Sexes takes place firmly on the court of Kennedy’s 60s. As one group simply asks for equality, another reacts with fear and insecurity. That the duel against Steve Carell’s unrepentant misogynist Bobby Riggs resonates as strongly as it does illustrates just how much we’re still on that same ground.
“In November 2007, Newsweek proclaimed that America was still in the grip of the sixties, unable to wish the decade away or fulfill its promise,” wrote Bill Krohn in his Criterion Collection liner essay for Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. Perhaps the prevalence of the Kennedys suggests that filmmakers like del Toro, Dayton and Faris picked up on the tremors of the 2016 election and felt a reckoning was approaching. Donald Trump billed his campaign openly and apologetically as the consummation of Nixon’s strategy of dividing and conquering, a pushback against all groups who have gained rights since the 1960s, supposedly at the expense of his voters. None of these directors could have known the results of the election, though the assured referendum on Kennedy’s vision of America ensured their work would ring relevant all the same.
Of course, this time next year, we’re probably due for a crop of Nixon appearances. What that will mean for our culture and society god only knows.
Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).