This year, rather than making best-of lists, which I always regret as soon as I write them, I decided to do something different. From today through Dec. 30, I’ll be writing about the art that helped me understand 2016. It has been a confounding year, and as Americans grappled with what it might have meant for a woman to capture the highest political office in the land, the role of artists in politics and the stories we tell about blackness at the end of the Obama era, pop culture often seemed to cut through deadlocked debates — at least it did if you could tear yourself away from political conversations long enough to hear something else.
It’s a perennial conservative complaint that Hollywood is too liberal, that it ignores — or worse, denigrates — the values of many Americans and doesn’t treat their experiences as worthy subject material. But in a year where members of the white working-class, especially men, were the subject of intense political debate and a series of much-discussed books, including J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” “Strangers in Their Own Land” (Arlie Russell Hochschild’s sociological study of conservative Louisianans facing environmental catastrophe) and historian Nancy Isenberg’s “White Trash,” credit ought to be granted where it’s due.
In 2016, Hollywood turned out three excellent movies about working-class white men that neither classed their characters as deplorables nor responded to them with slavish deference. “Hell or High Water,” “Deepwater Horizon” and “Loving” do what great movies always do. They treat their characters as fully realized human beings and take their concerns seriously. In this one area, at least, pop culture did what great art is capable of: staged conversations that break out of rigid political conventions.
The men in these movies face serious but human-scale challenges, and ones that might even be recognizable to liberals.
In “Hell or High Water,” Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively) begin robbing banks to pay back a $40,000 reverse mortgage on their mother’s land so they can sign a long-term oil lease on the property that will give Toby a measure of financial stability and allow him to pay his back child support. In “Loving,” Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) wants to settle with his wife, Mildred (Ruth Negga), on the land he bought for her without fear that they’ll be arrested for violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws; the film follows the couple during the court case that eventually granted them their safety. And in “Deepwater Horizon,” Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) wants to make it through his stint on the aging offshore drilling rig he helps to maintain and get home safely to his wife and daughter.
These men aren’t partisans, though their lives are tied up in important issues of policy: for the Howards, financial instruments, for Richard Loving, racist laws, and for Williams, lax enforcement of safety regulations.
And the movies bring them all up against different sorts of elites. The Howards steal from branches of Texas Midlands Bank, which gave their mother the reverse mortgage, and they are pursued by Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), the Texas marshals assigned to their case. Richard Loving is humiliated by racist local lawmen who denigrate him as a race traitor and also finds himself misunderstood by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, who see his family’s case as a chance to make history when he only wants to go home. And Williams and his fellow Deepwater Horizon workers find themselves pitted against Vidrine (John Malkovich), an oil company executive who shares their technical knowledge but not their sense of caution.
In striking contrast to the political discussion of working-class white men this year, though, none of these characters is defined by grievance or frustration over the sort of perceived line-cutting that Hochschild describes in “Strangers in Their Own Land.” The Howard brothers rob banks out of desperation rather than revenge. Richard Loving puzzles both white and black people because, in marrying the woman that he does, he chooses an ambiguous status that places him between separate racial worlds and makes his life more difficult than it might have been otherwise. Mike and his colleagues, including Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), are frustrated by Vidrine, but they save him after the rig explodes.
That they’re not bigots or sexists or lashing out in resentment doesn’t make these men saints; these movies are in the business of sketching humanity, not handing out cookies. Instead, these films are all willing to linger in their characters’ flaws and brokennesses. Part of granting these characters their full humanity is giving them space to grieve, to fear and to fail.
Tanner Howard is irascibly charming, but he’s also temperamentally incapable of staying within the confines of the law. Toby Howard may not be an educated man, but he’s smart enough to know that setting right his wrongs won’t bring his wife back. And when he and Marcus finally meet at the end of the movie, Toby is clearly aware that he’ll carry a new set of sins with him.
Marcus has a bad habit of making racist jokes that he knows annoy Alberto. When Alberto is killed in the film’s climax, it becomes clear that Marcus regrets not merely his past needling of his partner but also his inability to tell Alberto how much he cared for him.
In a poignant moment in “Loving,” Richard comes home drunk and weeps in Mildred’s arms, protesting “I can take care of you,” a sign of how powerless he feels. And once Mike is safely on dry land, “Deepwater Horizon” gives him permission to sob with terror and relief in a scene that’s one of the finest performances in Wahlberg’s career.
If I were analyzing these movies through the lens of the autopsy currently being performed on the Democratic Party, I suppose I might be obligated to dig into what policy priorities might be politically strategic to adopt going forward, or to decry “Hell or High Water” and “Deepwater Horizon” as movies that minimize vital questions of race and gender.
But I’d rather read all three of these movies together as an opportunity to explode the worn grooves of the current conversation. In “Loving,” we see that the question of who cares about racist policy and who’s affected by it is not neatly demarcated, especially with the number of interracial marriages rising steadily in the years since the Lovings’ Supreme Court victory. In “Hell or High Water” and “Deepwater Horizon,” we see the failures of regulation that Hochschild chronicled in “Strangers in Their Own Land,” and that she suggested helped undermine faith in government, as well as the honor of expertise and determination.
And in the warmth all three movies grant their characters, we can recognize that dignity and respect aren’t finite quantities. We don’t have to reallocate our affection and concern away from a young gay black man in “Moonlight,” or the black female engineers and mathematicians in “Hidden Figures,” to want to fight for the Lovings and the Howards and Mike Williams, too.