Freedom on Film

It’s Oscar time again, and once again there are some Best Picture nominees of special interest to libertarians. Dallas Buyers Club is a terrific movie with a strong libertarian message about self-help, entrepreneurship, overbearing and even lethal regulation, and social tolerance. 12 Years a Slave is a profound and painful movie about the horrors of slavery in a country conceived in liberty. Philomena is a tender personal story that sharply attacks the Catholic church and its censorious attitude toward sex, themes that would resonate with some libertarian viewers. This wasn’t the best year for libertarian movies – 2000 was pretty good – but libertarians will have some rooting interest Sunday night.

As I told Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday in 2005, “America is basically a libertarian country, so Americans are going to put libertarian themes into the art they create, and sometimes it’s more explicit and sometimes it’s less so. But it’s not a big surprise to see individualism, anti-totalitarianism and fighting for freedom and social tolerance showing up in American art.” Here are some of my favorite examples (and of course they’re not all American):

Shenandoah, a 1965 film starring Jimmy Stewart, is often regarded as the best libertarian film Hollywood ever made. Stewart is a Virginia farmer who wants to stay out of the Civil War. Not our fight, he tells his sons. He refuses to let the state take his sons, or his horses, for war. Inevitably, though, his family is drawn into the war raging around them, and the movie becomes very sad. This is a powerful movie about independence, self-reliance, individualism, and the horrors of war. (There’s also a stage musical based on the movie that’s worth seeing, or you could listen to the antiwar ballad “I’ve Heard It All Before” here.)

War may be the most awful thing men do, but slavery is a close contender. Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) tells a fascinating story about a ship full of Africans that turned up in New England in 1839. The question: Under American law, are they slaves? A long legal battle ensues, going up to the Supreme Court. Libertarians like to joke about lawyers. Sometimes we even quote the Shakespeare line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” — not realizing that that line was said by a killer who understood that the law stands in the way of would-be tyrants. Amistad gives us a picture of a society governed by law; even the vile institution of slavery was subject to the rule of law. And when the former president, John Quincy Adams, makes his argument before the Supreme Court, it should inspire us all to appreciate the law that protects our freedom.

Lawyers play an important role in two other fine libertarian films. The Castle was produced in Australia in 1997 but reached the United States in 1999. It’s a very funny film about a character who thinks that living near the airport is just great. He even likes looking up at the massive power lines near his house because they remind him of what man can accomplish. Shades of Ayn Rand! Anyway, a man’s home is his castle, and the protagonist is shocked when the airport decides to seize his property to extend its runway. He fights the system to no avail until a smooth, well-dressed lawyer — way out of the lead character’s league — shows up and offers to take his case. Again we see powerful interests forced to defend themselves in a law-governed society. A nice defense of private property, and very funny to boot.

That same season in 1999 I also enjoyed The Winslow Boy, a David Mamet remake of a Terrence Rattigan play/movie from 1948. Despite a very different atmosphere — a stuffy, bourgeois family in Victorian England vs. a comic contemporary Australian family — it has two things in common with The Castle: a proud father who will do anything to defend his home and family, and a distinguished British lawyer who comes to the family’s aid. Mr. Winslow’s teenage son is expelled from the Naval Academy. Convinced his son is innocent, Winslow challenges the expulsion. When the Academy refuses any sort of due process, Winslow exhausts his life savings in a fight through the courts. The theme is the right of every person in a decent society to justice.

So Big (1953) stars Jane Wyman as a wealthy young woman suddenly delivered into poverty. She becomes a teacher, marries a farmer, has a son, loses her husband, and must run the farm on her own, at a time when women didn’t do that. It’s an inspiring story of self-reliance, and the disappointment she feels when her son chooses money and society over the architecture he loves. Based on a novel by Edna Ferber, the screenplay sounds almost Randian at times. Don’t see the 1932 version starring Barbara Stanwyck; it’s flat and boring. The difference is unbelievable.

The Palermo Connection (1990) is an odd Italian-made movie (but in English) cowritten by Gore Vidal. New York city councilman Jim Belushi runs for mayor on a platform to legalize drugs and take the profits out of the drug trade. The Mafia isn’t happy. His life is threatened. So he decides to go on a honeymoon, in the middle of his campaign — to Sicily. I said it was odd. But interesting, and very pointed.

Pacific Heights (1990) is a thriller that is almost a documentary on the horrors of landlord-tenant law. A young couple buys a big house in San Francisco and rents an apartment to a young man. He never pays them, and they can’t get him out, and then things get really scary. The lawyer lectures the couple — and the audience — on how “of course you’re right, but you’ll never win.” I just knew this happened to someone — maybe the screenwriter or someone he knew. Sure enough, when Cato published William Tucker’s book Rent Control, Zoning, and Affordable Housing, and I asked Pacific Heights director John Schlesinger for a jacket blurb, he readily offered “If you thought Pacific Heights was fiction, you need to read this book”; and he told me that the screenwriter had a relative who had gone through a tenant nightmare.

Finally, I’ll mention My Beautiful Laundrette, made for British television in 1985. What’s interesting about this film is that novelist/screenwriter Hanif Kureishi thought he was making a savage indictment of Thatcherite capitalism. But to me, the good characters in the movie — white and Pakistani, gay and straight — are the ones who work for a living, and the bad characters are clearly the whining socialist immigrant intellectual, who doesn’t like his son opening a small business, and the British thugs who try to intimidate the young Pakistani businessman. My favorite line: The enterprising brother of the layabout intellectual takes a young working-class Briton (Daniel Day-Lewis) with him to evict some deadbeat tenants. The young Brit suggests that it’s surprising the Pakistani businessman would be evicting people of color. And the businessman says, “I’m a professional businessman, not a professional Pakistani. There is no question of race in the new enterprise culture.” I think Kureishi thinks that’s a bad attitude. The joke’s on him.

If you’d like more film recommendations, I’m delighted to report that Miss Liberty’s Guide to Film is available again—on Kindle. It offers more than 250 short reviews of movies with libertarian themes.