Matt Damon stars as "Bill" in director Tom McCarthy's STILLWATER, a Focus Features release. Credit Jessica Forde / Focus Features
A while back Matt Damon did something no one else in Hollywood, or those that cover Hollywood, films or the Oscar race would ever do. He showed compassion for Trump supporters. This didn’t turn out to be a big deal as one might assume. That’s maybe because the movie he was in Cannes to represent, Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater, has yet to hit theaters. Perhaps the hive mind has not awakened to this aspect of the movie, in which he portrays a rural oil worker from Oklahoma. Or maybe they just couldn’t bring themselves to summon hatred with such a kind gesture as Damon was showing.
Either way, Stillwater is apparently trying to portray a world Hollywood not only doesn’t know but has all but given up on. That, I think, has been catastrophic for the industry. It has resulted in a small, insular, pampered, and protected utopian diorama that really only gives people back exactly what they demand. You can’t really tell good stories that way. And yet, again and again, Hollywood dips into the well of the people it can’t stand and hopes for the best.
Sometimes, they simply hide the narrative, like Chloe Zhao did with Nomadland. No Trump flags flying off those vans, even if we could see the invisible outline of them. Politics was mostly left out of Hillbilly Elegy. Didn’t matter. Critics savaged it anyway because it was written about people they can’t stand, written by a guy they can’t stand, and safely directed by a white guy, which made it easy pickings for rotten tomatoes.
Mare of Easttown was widely celebrated, even though it’s pretty clear what rural Pennsylvania thinks politically. But the problem for storytellers in Hollywood is that they do not come in contact with “real life” that doesn’t reflect the everyday of the American Left, social justice activism which influences most movies now, either in front of or behind the camera. Sometimes that is enough. But the well runs dry all too often and they need to tell stories about regular people. It’s just that the polarization is so extreme, and the hatred so pronounced, they can’t really even put politics in a movie unless it is to condemn the very people they are trying to get their audience to sympathize with.
Hollywood seems to be very intent on reaching the people who don’t agree with them so that they can try and change their minds about issues that matter to the Left, like climate change or LGBTQ rights or racial equity. but the problem is that they have long since lost that audience. So all they really do is make movies for people who already agree with them. That’s sort of like being on social media and broadcasting a tweet or a Facebook post that 100% agrees with your followers. You get a lot of engagement for sure, but what else does it do beyond preaching to the choir?
Someone once said that art explains the lower classes to the upper classes. It’s a quote that always stuck with me. But what is strange about Hollywood’s fascination with rural America or “white working class” or the forgotten majority is how much they dump on them on a daily basis, whether it’s on social media or on late night comedy. “The sneer” is back and more ferocious and unapologetic as it’s ever been, the main reason being, to the Left, they believe that half the country,” or certainly every person who voted for Trump are “white supremacists.” Thus, to even humanize them is to humanize actual Nazis.
That makes the idea of Stillwater being released in theaters-only an intriguing proposition. In an ideal world, this would be a film that everyone could go see. Guys like the character Matt Damon plays could sit down and watch the movie without feeling like they’re being lectured to or insulted or being persuaded to convert to the ideology of the Left. And people on the left could watch it without feeling like they were being forced to care about someone they can’t possibly care about in 2021.
If you ask any conservative about watching a Hollywood movie (and honestly, a lot of people who aren’t conservative now feel this way) they will always say that they dread that moment when they realize it isn’t a movie at all but rather a persuasive essay to convince the viewer of an issue. These kinds of films have a long history of being criticized and ridiculed by Hollywood. Most people have a love/hate relationship with “message movies.” But now, that message is not just about the message but it also must demonize the “wrong” people and level up the “right” people. That makes them utterly predictable, and thus, not very entertaining.
I myself have done something no one in my industry would ever admit to doing and many have shunned me as a result – screamed at me – blocked me – insulted me. You name it, they did it. My big crime? Reaching across the aisle, and humanized people I am being told to hate. But I feel like I have a better understanding of the bigger picture now. I have seen the country from their perspective and I have a clearer understanding of who they are and what they believe.
It’s important to always ask the question, Who is this movie for? What is it designed to do? What is it supposed to make people think about when they watch it? Too often, the only feedback Hollywood listens to is Twitter. They chase the viral tweets and engagement, which is why, I think, so many of their movies flop and will continue to flop. They are aiming them at a very small, very vocal community instead of thinking more broadly. And that vocal group, by the way, is very likely not to march down to the theater and buy a ticket. How often have we seen “woke” movies do well on Twitter then on life support, with Film Twitter literally beginning people to go support a movie they championed so hard.
It’s one thing to compose a tweet. It’s a whole other thing to leave the house and shell out hard cold cash, especially during COVID times.
Can Stillwater be the movie that braves the treacherous waters of bipartisanship? The Wall Street Journal’s story about Stillwater’s commitment to being a “theater-only” movie would require that those who are less afraid of going to the movies would buy tickets to it:
Mr. Robbins says tracking points to a $2 million to $5 million opening weekend, a respectable start for this type of film in the current climate, aided by its wide opening in around 2,000 theaters. Analysts believe how “Stillwater” plays at the box office will help indicate how back-to-normal the moviegoing world is.
Thoughtful films with awards buzz normally premiere late in the year, but Mr. King (a producer of “Spotlight” as well) says he believes the July release works in this rule-breaking era.
“I think there are audiences for entertainment that is not a superhero movie or an amusement park ride,” he says.
But I was curious about what the commenters thought. Here are some of those:
–“Matt Damon playing a person he would hate in real life isn’t anything I would want to watch.”
–“I think there are audiences for entertainment that is not a superhero movie or an amusement park ride,” he says. That sentiment I completely agree with. But buying into Matt Damon as regular working-man guy traveling to Marseilles is more difficult for me. Looks to me like an older and chunkier Jason Bourne visiting some old haunts.
–“It has been a long. [long] time since there has even been anything at the movies that I wanted to see. This sounds pretty good to me. If it is half as good as Spotlight, it will be awesome.”
–“Exactly. Sounds like a movie for grown folks able to think as opposed to all the stuff they make for kids.”
–“First we would have to believe that Matt Damon could convincingly play an Oklahoma oil-rig worker. That skepticism would keep me out of a theatre no matter how many standing ovations the film gets at festivals.”
–“I actually think Matt Damon plays everyman fairly well.”
What I like about this conversation is that it exists far outside the bubble of Film Twitter and gives you an idea of what the “regular folk” the movie is supposed to be about actually think. Once you are more familiar with what the other side is actually like, and then you watch how they are portrayed in movies, or depicted in the media it is easy to see why they are resentful and distrustful, just as people on the left feel the same way about how they are portrayed on the right. The difference is that Hollywood theoretically makes movies for all Americans, not just those who live in specific neighborhoods.
Most people out there, whether they are left or right, generally dread the “message” of movies that come out now. What message is this movie trying to push? What ideology? And while the people on the right are loud about it, those who object on the left remain silent out of fear. No one in Hollywood will address it publicly, and those who cover film and the Oscars are likewise hamstrung by fear. And many of them will only go so far anyway. They will never cross the “Trump line.” So they will say “I hate cancel culture.” But the truth is, they are fine with it as long as it impacts only Trump supporters. They aren’t really opposed to it, they just don’t like it when it goes after people on the left. The Trump line will end friendships and break up families. That is how serious it is.
And that is why there is nothing more dangerous in this current climate than humanizing the Trump supporters our government and our media treat like human garbage at best and monsters at worst. Yet somehow Matt Damon and Tom McCarthy have done it. They aren’t being asked to crap all over them publicly yet. To me, that’s progress. And somewhat groundbreaking in its own way.
As readers of this site know, I have been chased around by angry people on Twitter over a wide variety of issues for all of the time I’ve been online. I tend to push back against the status quo and rebel against people telling me what and how to think. It has never been as bad as my being sympathetic to Trump supporters and the half of America that is hated by the Left (and Hollywood).
While I don’t expect the Democrats to actually try to unite this country – especially since they see half of it as barely human – I do expect Hollywood to at least consider that there might be other points of view out there and others ways of living. It’s like making movies for the passengers in First Class about the people in Coach without ever going back there to actually get to know them, and then forcing them to watch the movie you just made about them. Doesn’t sound quite right.
Stillwater opens in theaters on Friday. Here’s hoping it does very well.