Through all my travels, crisscrossing the country several times, I’ve somehow never been to the state of Nebraska. What I know of its people, I mostly know by the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers football team, which has been very good at times in the distant and recent past, but not so much so lately, and really, since all big-time football teams look pretty much the same, all the way down to their brightly-hued uniforms, knowing only the football team of Nebraska’s flagship university means I know not much of anything about the state at all. In all my travels, I can’t recall ever having met someone from Nebraska, which seems odd.
I remember well Bruce Springsteen’s album bearing the state’s name. It followed closely behind his 1984 multiplatinum, Born in the USA, and was as bleak and foreboding in both its music and its lyrics as its predecessor was in lyrics alone. The music of Born in the USA bore quite a contrast to the lyrics. It was vibrant and up-tempo, while the songs were about regret and injustice and emotional pain (born down in a dead man’s town, the first kick I took was when I hit the ground; end up like a dog that’s been beat too much, ‘til you spend half your life just a covering up, yeah…born in the USA, I was born in the USA…). I always thought it hilariously ironic that Reagan’s reelection campaign tried to ride the coattails of Born in the USA’s popularity, and particularly its title song, to re-electoral success. The upbeat rhythms and melody belied the gritty lyrics about the downtrodden and time forsaken; Springsteen was hardly celebrating what it mean to be “born in the USA” through the song or the album, a fact lost on the stage managers in Reagan’s political campaign. (And, incidentally, lost also on the whole state of New Jersey, which adopted Born to Run as the official state song, which is a song filled with angst at being born with nothing to lose…baby this town rips the bones from your back, it’s a death trap a suicide rap, we’ve got to get out while we’re young, ‘cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run).
Springsteen’s Nebraska, with its soulful acoustic guitar accompanying lyrics that might have made the final cut for the Old Testament Book of Lamentations in a much earlier age quickly became my favorite of Springsteen’s discography. The music was finally as bleak and foreboding as the lyrics. The album had a black and white feel to it, where not color, but only light and dark, should provide the contrast in the mind’s eye to the visual images it created. So it seemed quite natural to me that a film sharing the Springsteen album’s title should be shot in black and white, as Nebraska’s director, Alexander Payne, did with this film, over the objections of the film’s distributor, Paramount Vintage.
Nebraska (the state), though I don’t much know her, will forever more exist in my mind’s eye as a bleak and colorless place, never mind the gaily decorated uniforms of its football team. The album, and now the film, have more or less permanently implanted in my mind an image of a place without color, with only contrasts in shading, contrasts that force clarity in the viewing, whether seeking it or not. Nebraska, for me, is a place that dispenses with the crutch of color in order that stark realities might better be revealed. And think about it for a moment. Color is more often than not a distraction, and one that can occlude seeing things the way they really are. I like seeing things in shades of light and dark.
The landscape cinematography alone is worthy of an Oscar. As Woody and his son, David, leave their home in Billings, Montana to pick up Woody’s million dollar prize in Lincoln, Nebraska (from an outfit modeled in the movie to recall The Publisher’s Clearinghouse and its sweepstakes—Woody is obviously suffering the first stages of dementia in his belief at having won but David agrees to the trip to placate him), the camera sweeps panoramic shots of a landscape where color is superfluous at best, unwelcome for its pretentiousness at worst. On grey, windswept days, the sky over the great Rocky Mountain plateau in Montana and Wyoming is colorless. The grey seeps right into your bones. The cinematographers did a beautiful job of capturing the desolate feeling, and bringing it home for Woody and David.
This is a movie of the road trip genre. But the road trip isn’t really what the movie is about, in the sense that some great discovery awaits Woody and David as they embark on their journey. The road trip is surely Woody’s final such excursion. He knows it, and so does David and Kate. He’s getting old. He wants to win the sweepstakes, and seems to think he has, because he wants a new truck, and to leave something for his sons, David and Ross. It’s all an old man, grizzled by time and years of hard work and hard drinking, can hope for in the way of eternity, of extending his life past the grave. Woody can’t build a McMansion-esque ode to his legacy—the modern day version of the Egyptian Pyramids or the Chinese terra cotta soldiers. All he has is the vain hope, yielding to belief, that he has won a million dollars in a publisher’s clearinghouse sweepstakes.
Woody’s trip takes a detour through his hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska after an unfortunate experience with a railroad track leaves him toothless (actually denture-less) and with a nasty gash on his forehead that requires a few stitches. David arranges for a family reunion at Woody’s brother’s place. It is a dismal interlude; as one reviewer eloquently put it—an elegy for the American family. The most poignant shot is of all the men gathered around the television watching a football game, stone-faced and reticent, each of them barely acknowledging the others. It reminded me of my wife’s extended family up on Sand Mountain, in Northeast Alabama, who would get together at Christmas all crammed into Granny’s little house where they all grew up. Woody’s extended family looked a lot like my sepia-tinged memories of those reunions before Granny died.
The movie is about a lot because it provides a fair rendering of life as it is actually lived. There are no caricatures. No car chases. No quiver of arrows that magically refill whenever the heroine (Jennifer Lawrence) fires them all at marauding apes (Hunger Games, Part II, Catching Fire). No fist fights, except a minor altercation between Ross (the other of Woody’s sons) and his cousin over whether or not Woody would share his winnings with the family. The fight was forcefully broken up by Kate (June Squibb), who stole every scene she was in. Woody’s family and friends believe him when he says that he’s won a million dollars. And they all want in on the action. Nothing extraordinary there. Like a buddy of my truck-driving father-in-law once told a fella who asked him how come he didn’t have any friends, “Because I can’t afford ‘em.” Family can get pretty expensive, too, and particularly so when there is no tie, except a slender tendril of genetic similarity and a shared past, binding a relationship.
The reviewer could have said the movie was an elegy for the white American family. Families of the type portrayed in Nebraska are rapidly growing old and dying out, and there is not much coming up to replace them. The cobbled together European culture who came, saw and conquered America is being displaced by Hispanics (Woody finds the garage he once owned in Hawthorne now owned by Hispanics who had never heard of him or his old partner) and Asians and Africans, but very few Europeans, and practically none of the natives. The transience of things for which some permanence might be expected, or at least desired, is driven home hard with Woody’s visit to Hawthorne, and especially to the old homestead where he grew up. The only things that abide are the petty flirtations and indiscretions of Woody and Kate’s long past days courting; the selfish and venal attributes of friends and family alike, and the bleak and barren hardscrabble landscape waiting to break a new generation of invaders.
This is a very good movie. Bruce Dern will surely be nominated for, and should win, an Oscar for his performance; June Squibb, too. Will Forte was more than adequate; the perfectly reasonable looking and sounding foil to Woody’s insanity borne of dementia. Forte’s character was in the world but not so much of it; capable of immersing himself in the craziness without being consumed by it. The movie is something of a stark sequel, or at least segue, to the baby-boomer’s good and bountiful life, which was lived to an upbeat tempo amidst historically unparalleled post-War success, much like Nebraska the album was a sobering sequel to the upbeat vibrancy of Born in the USA, even as its tempo, like that of the baby boom era, masked a lot of pain.
The end of the baby boom era is nigh. The party is mostly over. The generation that vowed never to trust anyone over thirty is now twice that age and more. And like Woody, for all its successes and excesses, it has nothing much to look forward to, and nothing much to leave behind. It turns out the baby boomers, as exceptional as they always thought they were, are pretty ordinary when it comes to dying. Nebraska is in sense futuristic, offering a glimpse of what awaits them.