What is most stirring about “True Grit” today — besides the primal father-daughter relationship that blossoms between Rooster and Mattie — is its unalloyed faith in values antithetical to those of the 21st century America so deftly skewered, as it happens, in “The Social Network.”
At its core, the new “True Grit” is often surprisingly similar to the first, despite the clashing sensibilities of their directors (Henry Hathaway, a studio utility man, did the original) and the casting of an age-appropriate Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) in lieu of the 21-year-old Kim Darby of 1969. But what leaps out this time, to the point of seeming fresh, is the fierce loyalty of the principal characters to each other (the third being a vain Texas Ranger, played by Matt Damon) and their clear-cut sense of morality and justice, even when the justice is rough. More than the first “True Grit,” the new one emphasizes Mattie’s precocious, almost obsessive preoccupation with the law. She is forever citing law-book principles, invoking lawyers and affidavits, and threatening to go to court. “You must pay for everything in this world one way or another,” says Mattie. “There is nothing free except the grace of God.”
That kind of legal and moral cost-accounting seems as distant as a tintype now. The new “True Grit” lands in an America that’s still not recovered from a crash where many of the reckless perpetrators of economic mayhem deflected any accountability and merely moved on to the next bubble, gamble or ethically dubious backroom deal. When Americans think of the law these days, they often think of a system that can easily be gamed by the rich and the powerful, starting with those who pillaged Lehman Brothers, A.I.G. and Citigroup and left taxpayers, shareholders and pensioners in the dust. A virtuous soul like Mattie would be crushed in a contemporary gold rush even if (or especially if) she fought back with the kind of civil action so prized by the 19th-century Mattie.
Talk about Two Americas. Look at “The Social Network” again after seeing “True Grit,” and you’ll see two different civilizations, as far removed from each other in ethos as Silicon Valley and Monument Valley. While “Social Network” fictionalizes Mark Zuckerberg, it mines the truth of an era — from the ability of the powerful and privileged to manipulate the system to the collapse of loyalty as a prized American virtue at the top of that economic pyramid.
In contrast to Mattie’s dictum, no one has to pay for any transgression in the world it depicts. Zuckerberg’s antagonists, Harvard classmates who accuse him of intellectual theft, and his allies, exemplified by a predatory venture capitalist, sometimes seem more entitled and ruthless than he is. The blackest joke in Aaron Sorkin’s priceless script is that Lawrence Summers, a Harvard president who would later moonlight as a hedge fund consultant, might intervene to arbitrate any ethical conflicts. You almost wish Rooster were around to get the job done.
“The Social Network” is nothing if not the true sequel to “Wall Street.” The director, David Fincher (no less brilliant than the Coens), makes the atmosphere almost as murky and poisonous as that of his serial killer movies, “Seven” and “Zodiac.” In “Social Network,” the landscape is Cambridge, Mass., but we might as well be in the pre-civilized Wild West. Instead of thieves bearing guns, we have thieves bearing depositions. Instead of actual assassinations, we have character assassinations by blog post. In place of an honorable social code, we have a social network presided over by a post-adolescent billionaire whose business card reads “I’m CEO ... Bitch!”
This hits too close to home. No one should have been surprised that those looking for another America once again have been finding it in “True Grit.”
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Fading American Values
Frank Rich compares the two recent films 'True Grit' and 'The Social Network', and the Americas they represent: