Conservative Tastes

We’re All Leninists Now

Everyone's an intellectual, changing the world and transforming our lives.

By From the November 2011 issue

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ONCE IT COULD HAVE have been said that, like Willie Nelson's, Hollywood's heroes have always been cowboys, though they obviously aren't anymore. Now they are always, or nearly always, brainiacs. Even little Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible franchise triumphs not because of bravery or strength or fortitude or any other of the traditionally heroic or cowboy-like virtues, but because he is smarter than everybody else. It's called acting. Not that there is any great brainpower involved in pulling out of his magic M:I bag whatever hi-tech gizmo may be necessary to counter the hitech gizmo the bad guys have put in his way. But the wonderful thing about technology in the computer age is that it confers a kind of vicarious intelligence on those who know how to use it, even if they only bought it off the shelf at Radio Shack. The guy who designs the programs is more likely to be the sidekick, like Ving Rhames's Luther Stickell in M:I. The hero is the boyishly handsome sex symbol who performs in public the music from his score.

Even the bad guys these days make themselves worthy adversaries by virtue of their technical nous and their cool moral nihilism, like Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight. Often, they are expected to be well up on philosophy or art history as well, like the ones in The Guard or In Bruges by the brothers McDonagh. This reminds us, or at least reminds me, of the ultimate bad-guy brainiacs--those who call themselves intellectuals. They are hucksters for some utopian scheme that's supposed to take the place of reality. In an age like ours that has been fed a steady diet of fantasy for a generation or more, the alternative realities on offer don't even have to look like realities anymore, just as the Mission: Impossible heroics don't have to look like real heroics. They just have to be the product of romantic loners, riding the intellectual range and lassoing with their agile brains those big ideas that promise to transform the lives of all of us for the better--whether or not they actually do so.

Aaron Sorkin has long been a primo romancer of this sort of hero, and there is no doubt in my mind that the election three years ago of the alleged brainiac president Barack Obama in spite of an almost total lack of relevant political or administrative experience owed something to his fictional brainiac predecessor, Mr. Sorkin's Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) of The West Wing. Since The West Wing went west in 2006, the same gentleman has written the screenplays for three more intellectual romances, Charlie Wilson's War of 2007, last year's megahit The Social Network, and, now, Moneyball. Having turned away from brainy presidents -- and in this category we must also include Michael Douglas's President Andrew Shepherd in The American President of 1995 -- to brainy outsiders, Mr. Sorkin shows that he is intent on exploring the more romantic side of these romances, and in each case with real people who can claim, along with Tom Hanks's Charlie Wilson, that "these things happened. They were glorious, and we changed the world."

Changing the world, by the way, has been the romantic intellectual's main desideratum since his prototype, Karl Marx, penned his Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, to the effect that "Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it." That might sound like a practical task, but at least since Lenin's day, it has been taken for granted among the world-changers that the revolution must be led by intellectuals. This idea has by now become so far internalized (at least in France) that you get Marxist fantasies like Mona Achache's The Hedgehog in which the workers and peasants themselves are secret intellectuals, only awaiting the right moment to reveal their extensive libraries and range of cultural reference to their astonished social and economic betters.

In America, of course, changing the world is a task more likely to be left to people like Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) of The Social Network or Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) of Moneyball, as both were and are successful capitalists whose transformations, such as they may prove to have been, were wrought for the sake of enriching themselves and their backers and not to create the workers' paradise. But that only goes to show that "change" has a mystique all its own and independent of what is being changed into what--as the election of 2008 also showed. As with President Obama, too, there does not even have to be any real change, or any change for the better, just a new idea of change to put a gloss upon the intellectual hero's romantic image as the agent and thinker-up of change.

The supposed revolution in baseball wrought by the real life Mr. Beane, for example, and recorded by Michael Lewis in his best-selling book (also called Moneyball) of 2003, has since been widely debunked. Mr. Beane's teams at Oakland haven't even made the playoffs since 2006. Obviously, this doesn't matter to Mr. Sorkin, his co-writer Steven Zaillian, or the movie's director, Bennett Miller. Near the end, they include an anonymous traditionalist in voiceover who says, mockingly, that "nobody reinvents this game," but this is clearly meant to be just some naysayer's negative thinking and not a spokesman for the reality of baseball's non-reinvention. Mr. Beane could not be the film's hero, as he is undoubtedly meant to be, without our willingness to ignore that reality--and also the conditional mood in Billy's excited prediction: "If we win with this team, with this budget, we will have changed the game; that's what I want." As with other sorts of cinematic fantasy, his wanting it is easy for us to take as earnest of the change itself, whether or not such a thing has happened or ever could happen in real life.

THE REAL CHANGE, of course, lies in the cultural currency of such fantasy, both in general and in this particular form as the fantasy genius who changes everything merely by being, like another fantastical Straw Man, an honorary doctor of thinkology. The point is underlined for us in Moneyball by the presence there of the very guy who, if the movie had been made from the 1930s to the 1950s, would have been its natural hero--the grizzled old scout (Ken Medlock) whose knowledge of the game and how to put together a winning team, painfully acquired over years of hardship and loss, ultimately puts to shame that of some upstart Ivy League knowit-all who threatens to supersede him. Here, however, the upstart Ivy League know-it-all (Jonah Hill) really does know it all, really does supersede him and is made almost a co-equal hero with Billy Beane--the Luther to his Ethan, the Robin to his Batman, the Biden to his Obama. Character counts, they used to think, both in Hollywood and in the culture at large. No more. Now it's only brains that count.

Even when the change is real, even when it has been brought about by character and courage rather than brainpower, we look for ways to cast its heroes into the current romantic mold. Just look at The Help by Tate Taylor, based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, which manages to make the fictional "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), a slip of a girl fresh out of Ole Miss and working in her first journalistic job as Miss Myrna, the cleaning advice columnist for the women's pages of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger in 1963, the real hero of the civil rights revolution in Mississippi. She is called to such an exalted moral position in this wish-fulfillment fantasy not because she's white or a woman--or not just because she is white and a woman. Rather, it's because she's the writer and intellectual without whose leadership we can hardly imagine any genuinely transformative revolution taking place anymore.

Here's how it happens. The black maids of Jackson all turn to her to write up their grievances against their white employers in an article for a New York magazine and, later, a book. "We gon' help you with your stories," they say--and do. Later, one says to Skeeter: "No one had ever axed me what it was like to be me." Once she got that off her chest, she knew what it was to be free. That so few of the multitude who have flocked to see this feel-good film have apparently been able to see how appallingly patronizing is its version of history suggests that we are all Leninists now, prepared to believe implicitly not only in the revolution that will change the world but also in the necessity for intellectuals and theorists to lead it. And how else, when you think about it, are we to explain not only President Obama, allegedly the brainiest president ever, but the desperation in the media at the multiple failures of his administration which we antiintellectuals were the first to predict? Which is not to say that the inveterate fantasists of Hollywood won't continue to regard him as their hero.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.