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Making it personal

Today's way of telling stories leads us away from drawing large, valid conclusions

Issue: "2011 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 17, 2011

'Tis the season for Oscar-contending movies, and by the look and feel of it, J. Edgar is supposed to be one. The reviews average a B+, with raves for Leonardo DiCaprio's aging 50 years in two hours of screen time. A biopic of J. Edgar Hoover ca. 2011 is almost sure to center on one aspect: his supposed homosexuality. Director Clint Eastwood receives universal praise for avoiding salacious details, and that's only sporting. Neither Hoover nor his close companion Clyde Tolson ever confessed to being gay, and though rumors flew, then and now, the allegation has never been proven.

That's good enough for screenwriter Dustin Black to make homosexuality a key, if not the key, to Hoover's mystery. "[T]he lack of concrete evidence about their relationship means the film effectively outs them," writes Manohla Dargiss for The New York Times (rather non-sequiturally), but that's not all: Hoover's story "shows the tragic personal and political fallout of the closet."

Any tragic fallout from organized crime or communism? Not having seen J. Edgar, I can't say. My point is not this movie but a general trend in pop culture: the personalization of everything.

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The phrase "the personal is political" dates from the late '60s and the Women's Liberation Movement. Nobody knows exactly who coined it; it blossomed in the hothouse of civil-rights agitation that enveloped race, gender, and finally sexual preference. An intense personal focus has become the approved way of looking at history and politics, influenced by perceived social ills.

Is it racism? Tell the story of Reconstruction-era blacks through the experience of one woman (Beloved). Is it capitalism? Sketch the sweep of the Russian revolution through the tempestuous relationship of a single couple (Reds). Multiculturalism? Show one of the most brutal battles of World War II from the perspective of two soldiers-on the other side (Letters from Iwo Jima). This is a valid approach: the inductive method of starting from a single example and drawing larger conclusions from it. But the problem with a lot of contemporary inductive storytelling is that there may be no larger conclusion to draw.

This struck me forcefully with Saving Private Ryan. Critics and veterans alike hailed it as the most realistic depiction of war ever filmed, and that may well be true. What troubled me was the relentlessly tight perspective. Captain John Miller and his company are on a mission to demobilize a single soldier, a boy who is the last of his siblings not to appear on a casualty list. Using a poignant story to dramatize the sacrifice of thousands of American GIs is perfectly legitimate. But a teenager seeing the movie for the first time would not necessarily learn that there were larger issues at stake.

Beginning with the Normandy landing and ending with the horrific Battle of the Bulge, what the Allies accomplished was to liberate Europe, open the death camps, and strangle the murderous Third Reich. But Captain Miller's dying plea to the rescued soldier-"Earn this"-seems to imply that the war was not about great goals but individual ones-a thousand Private Ryans, who will ever after feel a sense of guilt and obligation. Like white people should feel about slavery or men should feel about rape.

Of course the war had a personal meaning for everyone who experienced it, and when soldiers stand their ground under withering fire they do it for the guy next to them, not for the big picture. But the underlying, and probably unintended, message of movies like Saving Private Ryan is that there are no greater goals or eternal truths-just me and my hang-ups. The political is personal: Heroism and ideals are illusory; self-preservation and self-expression are real.

But ironically, a person reaches his greatest potential when he sees himself as part of a larger whole. "What is man, that you are mindful of him?...a little lower than the heavenly beings" (Psalm 8). To exist in the mind of God is real existence; to live in your own mind is mostly imaginary.

Email: jcheaney@worldmag.com

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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