The Abiding Fakery of Film Criticism
Critics are incapable of honesty
Much is made over the disparity between critics’ and fans’ Rotten Tomatoes scores—as if highbrow critics can no longer relate to the unslakable thirst of a middlebrow audience for Hollywood’s superhero IP machine. But it’s not that critics ignore flyover hits (Yellowstone; Sound of Freedom) or elevate poorly made agitprop, which they often do. It’s that they’ve become as safe and predictable as the movies they purport to criticize.
It’s unsettling when you know how a film will be received before it’s even released. For a movie like She Said or Bros or Nyad or Origin (“movies about important events or formerly under-represented groups”) critics will praise a standout performance, talk about how important the subject or the “moment” is, and spend paragraph after paragraph flattering their readership’s political sensibilities. For films like May December or The Irishman or The Fabelmans (“new releases from old white guys who aren’t problematic—yet”) critics will praise the craft, talk about the past, and gloss over the fact that the old guys have nothing left to say.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe The Irishman is actually a brilliant meditation on guilt and identity, and The Fabelmans was a charming nostalgia piece—but the uniformity of opinion is alarming. There wasn’t a single mainstream critic in the entire English-speaking world who found The Irishman an interminable slog? After nearly 50 years, Spielberg finally had a genuine flop—and there was no one left to shiv him? Killers of the Flower Moon was an interesting movie—but you’d never know because critics gave it the same rave reviews they give every Scorsese film.
I enjoyed Barbie. Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling were fantastic, and the millennial jokes (mostly) landed. That Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach somehow managed to communicate a “yas queen” feminist message from the mouth of a regressive toy doll is itself a remarkable achievement. But the self-conscious politics of the movie often overwhelmed the premise. This was duly noted by most critics—and applauded. “Those worried that the film would uncritically pedestal Handler’s invention have little to fear,” reassured the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s tough to voice a critique of capitalism from the point of view of a piece of merchandise, a fact that, to its credit, the Barbie screenplay … wryly and repeatedly acknowledges,” Dana Stevens wrote in Slate. Apparently making an anti-capitalist movie about a doll is in fact a great capitalist achievement of anti-capitalism, which is why you should run to the theaters and buy a ticket.
At all costs, Barbie critics—like the filmmakers themselves—labor to make one thing clear: They have no love for the doll itself. “Can you really call out and perpetuate a stereotype at the same time?” asked Justin Chang in the LA Times. “Would it have been better—more daring, and also more interesting—to tell the story from a less classically molded Barbie’s perspective?”
This is nonsense. Given where the culture actually is, the most daring version of Barbie—the version that would have caused a furor—would have been an unapologetic defense of the doll and its history. To pretend otherwise is insulting to anyone with a pulse. But the point isn’t that Justin Chang enjoyed Barbie, or that he didn’t—or even that he believes anything he writes. It’s to demonstrate that he and his readership are morally superior to anyone who might have actually enjoyed the film.
We are told to see movies not because they’re interesting, or beautiful, or because they challenge our preconceptions, but precisely because they don’t. Origin, Ava DuVernay’s latest loss leader (somehow adapted from Isabel Wilkerson’s nonfiction bestseller Caste, and even more astonishingly, underwritten by the Ford Foundation), challenged not a single assumption of its liberal target audience. “What makes DuVernay’s movie so essential is the way it approaches America’s most difficult issue,” wrote Variety. “It can be a little corny, but it’s also inspiring.” The BBC likewise damned DuVernay with faint praise. “Origin is fascinating: not a mere information dump or distanced thesis, but a celebration of academia,” wrote Steph Green. Not a mere information dump? Sign me up!
On and on these supposed raves go, a word salad of political posturing and mealy mouthed apologias (“slightly flat”; “the film wobbles”; “better served as a documentary”). You sense here a tiptoeing around, a fatal desire not to cause offense. The critics are trying to tell us this isn’t a good movie even as they tell us it’s a great movie.
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the only critic who felt politically safe enough to take Origin to task after its premiere at Venice (“a twisted sibling of Eat Pray Love, in which the book’s author … leads us on a world tour of historical atrocities”) just happened to be a woman of color, Leila Latif. Similarly, the only mainstream critics who felt politically safe enough to excoriate Disney’s bloated live-action remake of The Little Mermaid—premised on the patronizing conceit that in the year 2023, it was still revolutionary to have a Black heroine—are all Black.
Middle East Failure May Be Biden’s Legacy
Five decades of often painful experience should teach Americans that we can neither “fix” the Middle East nor ignore it. We are not going to turn Middle Eastern countries into a collection of peaceful democracies. We aren’t going to eliminate the ethnic, social and religious conflicts that keep the region on edge. And we aren’t going to be able simply to walk away.
Given the limits on American resources and the range of our global interests, America’s Middle East policies must focus on essentials. We need to prevent aspiring hegemons like Iran, Russia and China from acquiring the power to dominate the region or interrupt the flow of energy to key economies. We also need to limit the effect of the Middle East’s regional conflicts, terrorist movements and radical ideologies on the wider world.
The Middle East is on fire today because the Biden administration’s core regional strategy—to reach some kind of détente with Iran—has catastrophically failed. Iran, closer every day to nuclear weapons, is at the point of upending the regional balance of power even as its Houthi proxies have largely blocked trade through the Red Sea. Meanwhile, the Taliban’s humiliation of the U.S. in Afghanistan, the shock of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and the success of jihadist movements across much of Africa have combined to breathe new energy into global terror networks.
The past 50 years teach that strategic failure in the Middle East destroys presidencies. As the White House scrambles to respond to Iran’s latest attack on American forces, let’s hope it recognizes how high the stakes have become.
Has Europe Stepped Up on Defense?
Europe has long neglected defense while its societies grew accustomed to reaping post-Cold War peace dividends. The Ukraine war exposed the unsustainability of this approach. Over the past two years, European allies have done a lot to enhance their own security.
In 2022, Europe spent an aggregate of $260 billion on defense, which marked a six percent increase over the previous year. This represents the largest increase for Europe in the post-Cold War period.
Frontline allies led the way. In 2022, Finland’s defense spending increased by 36 percent, Lithuania’s by 27 percent, Sweden’s by 12 percent, and Poland’s by 11 percent. In 2023, 28 out of 31 NATO members increased their defense spending.
California Moves to Red America
The Census Bureau publishes annual data on each state’s net domestic migration—that is, how many U.S. residents have moved to a given state, minus the number who moved from that state to elsewhere in the U.S. The second quarter of 2020 (from April 1 to June 30 of that year) was the first quarter to take place entirely after Covid-19 was known to have hit our shores; the most recent statistics available are from July 1, 2023. Looking at net domestic migration over that 13-quarter span yields some interesting results—and some clear winners and losers.
Among large states (those with a population above the 50-state average), the net-domestic-migration winner over the 13-quarter period after Covid-19’s arrival was Florida. The Sunshine State added a net tally of 819,000 Americans over that span. To put that into perspective, in just three years and change, Florida added more people from net domestic migration than the combined populations of Miami and Orlando. The large-state runner-up: Texas. It added 80 percent as many people as Florida (656,000).
The state that lost the most was California, which shed 1.2 million people through net domestic outmigration—the rough equivalent of San Francisco and Oakland’s combined populations. The runner-up loser was New York, which lost about three-quarters as many people as California.
These trends have kept up over the most recent 12 months of this three-year-plus stretch (from mid-2022 to mid-2023, the most recent statistics available). In that period, Florida remains first, Texas second, New York 49th, and California 50th. Apparently, the once-popular song “California, Here I Come” has given way to “Movin’ Out.”
Taylor Swift and Right Wing Weirdness
To give this theory its maximal due, it is apparently the case — at least per my colleagues’ reporting — that the Biden campaign is indeed hoping for a Swift endorsement and imagining that it will give the president some kind of electoral boost. So there is some partisan interest, some hope of an advantage for the Democrats, at play in both the celebrity romance itself and perhaps the outcome of the Super Bowl.
But there are two levels at which the online right’s reaction to this doesn’t make any sense. The first is that celebrities’ endorsing liberal politicians is just not an especially decisive part of politics. Swift endorsed Phil Bredesen in the Tennessee Senate race, and he lost to Marsha Blackburn by 11 points. She endorsed Biden in 2020 and he won, but nobody looking back imagines that the Swift factor mattered all that much.
If you wanted to stretch a bit to envision a real Swift effect in 2024, you could say that Biden’s distinctive problem with youth turnout and Gen Z disillusionment has created a rare situation in which a superstar endorsement could make a meaningful difference. But the idea that it would matter enough to inspire and justify a media-regime influence operation, complete with some remarkable acting performances by the faking-it romantic partners and some kind of game-fixing shenanigans by the N.F.L., is the silliest possible conspiracy theory.
The deeper issue, though, is that regardless of the electoral impact of a Swift endorsement, the cultural valence of the Swift-Kelce romance isn’t just normal and wholesome and mainstream in a way that conservatism shouldn’t want to be defined against. It’s normal and wholesome and mainstream in an explicitly conservative-coded way, offering up the kind of romantic iconography that much of the online right supposedly wants to encourage and support.
Normally you can’t scroll for more than a few minutes through right-wing social media without encountering some kind of meme valorizing the old ways of jocks and beauties, big bearded men and the women who love them, heteronormative American romance in some kind of throwback form.
The quest to make sense of the right’s anti-Swiftism has encouraged weak attempts to suggest that the Swift-Kelce romance is somehow subverting these traditionalist archetypes and modeling a more progressive idea of romance — that because she’s richer and more famous than he is and he respects her career, they’re basically one step removed from a Bay Area polycule or Brooklyn open marriage.
But come on. A story where the famous pop star abandons her country roots and spends years dating unsuccessfully in a pool of Hollywood creeps and angsty musicians, only to find true love in the arms of a bearded heartland football star who runs a goofy podcast with his equally bearded, happily married, easily inebriated older brother … I mean, this is a Hallmark Christmas movie! This is an allegory of conservative Americana! This is itself a right-wing meme!
But the meme-makers don’t want it. They are rejecting for secondary and superficial reasons — Swift’s banal liberal politics, Kelce’s vaccine P.S.A.s — what they should be affirming for primary and fundamental ones. They are turning down the deep story, the primal archetypes, because the celebrities involved aren’t fully on their political side.
But the celebrities aren’t on their side precisely because the right keeps making itself so weird that even temperamentally conservative people (which both Swift and Kelce seem to be) find themselves alienated from its demands.
There are two key reasons for this self-defeating weirdness, both of them downstream from Trump’s 2016 victory. The first is the realignment that I’ve discussed a few times before, where the ideological shifts of the Trump era made the right more welcoming to all manner of outsider narratives and fringe beliefs (including previously left-coded ones like vaccine skepticism) while the left became much more dutifully establishmentarian. This realignment made the right more interesting in certain ways, more inclined to see through certain bogus narratives and official pieties — but also more inclined to try to see through absolutely everything, which as C.S. Lewis observed is the same thing as not really seeing anything at all.
Items of Interest
“One purpose of youthful rebellion is to put one’s self at odds with adult authority not so much to defeat it as to be defeated by it. One opposes it to discover its logic and validity for one’s self. And by failing to defeat it, one comes to it, and to greater maturity, through experience rather than mere received wisdom. Of course, every new generation alters the adult authority it ultimately joins. But if the young win their rebellion against the old, their rite of passage to maturity is cut short and they are falsely inflated rather than humbled. Uninitiated, they devalue history rather than find direction in it, and feel entitled to break sharply and even recklessly from the past.”
— Shelby Steele