By Michael Sandlin.
‘The election of President Reagan in 1980 initiated a mass transfer of wealth and power away from ordinary Americans’ intones Kristof in his voiceover; of course, what Kristof doesn’t tell you is that many of these ‘ordinary’ Americans voted for Reagan, thus essentially voting away their own livelihoods for generations to come.”
Based on a book by NYT mainstay Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl Wudunn, Tightrope begins on a disturbing and immediately compelling note: Kristof takes us back to his childhood in rural Yamhill, Oregon, where he reveals that around a quarter of the kids he used to ride the bus with are now dead. Kristof, whose voiceover narration weaves throughout the film, is known for being annoyingly self-congratulating at times, which is in some evidence here (“My wife Sheryl and I have worked together for decades covering some of the greatest injustices of our time”). He also makes it clear from the start that, just in case you didn’t know, he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning media bigshot. But this initial celebration of his corporate media credentials is refreshingly brief, as Tightrope then gets on to the more important business at hand: namely, debunking the long-perpetuated Reaganite myth that American prosperity is tied to Emersonian self-reliance.
Kristof explores this myth primarily through a close examination of the fate of not only his aforementioned schoolmates but also the town of Yamhill, which was, in Kristof’s youth, a thriving mill town with a plethora of well-paying union jobs in the timber industry, all of which began to change with the election of Reagan in 1980. Kristof quite rightly lays the current miseries of dying towns like Yamhill squarely at the feet of the Gipper and the ludicrous “government is the problem” philosophy he filched from one of the most laughably crackpot economic thinkers in history: anti-welfare monetarist Milton Friedman, the spiritual godfather of both Thatcherism and Reaganomics. “The election of President Reagan in 1980 initiated a mass transfer of wealth and power away from ordinary Americans” intones Kristof in his voiceover; of course, what Kristof doesn’t tell you is that many of these “ordinary” Americans voted for Reagan, thus essentially voting away their own livelihoods for generations to come.
A good deal of the film’s two or so hours is devoted to exploring just how these long-standing right-wingnut beliefs about self-sufficiency in America have led us to become a more callous and cruel nation in the decades since the 1950s. Contrary to popular belief, says Kristof, the 1950s was a historically prosperous time for the American middle and working classes mainly because it was a time of robust government investment in public service programs – hardly the medieval every-man-for-himself melee that is the American economy today. And what’s worse, Kristof suggests that failed Reaganomics policies have held sway in American life ever since the 1980s (regardless of whether a democrat or republican held the highest office), along with the ever-growing popular myth that poverty comes from bad personal choices, not from bad choices made by the evil disaster-capitalist robots currently ruling Washington, DC.
Tightrope chooses to focus intermittently on the wayward lives of a pair of brothers Kristof grew up with, Clayton and Kevin Green, as cautionary examples of what can happen when potentially productive, well-meaning citizens are demoralized by an unforgiving American social system: they die “deaths of despair.” And these days “deaths of despair” in America mostly happen to those without college educations, as we’re told. In the case of Kevin, he could never break out of the stagnation of his economically depressed hometown and eventually died of alcohol and drug abuse. His brother Clayton, who’s in his fifties, looks like a much older man and suffers from obesity and congestive heart failure. Like his doomed brother, he’s survived by either selling drugs or ingesting them to kill the pain of living without hope of a real vocation or any other means of supporting himself.
Along the way, the film features a number of other stories about people teetering on the margins of society: a soldier-turned-dope addict by a profiteering pharmaceutical industry that lies about the ill effects of its drugs; a 59-year old single mom working 40 hours a week who’s forced to live in a motel with her kids because she can’t afford a deposit on a rental home; and an ex-con who is turning his life around through a full-time job as a janitor at a tattoo parlor, among others. To Kristof and Wudunn’s credit, the film does end on a note of hope for the future of the country’s neediest. But although Kristof and Wudunn talk a good game about “community” being more important than the individual, the future of social services they inevitably see developing in America seems, somewhat disappointingly, to be one of individualist charity and goodwill increasingly bearing social care burdens that were at one time taken care of by taxpayer-funded government programs – a much more reliable and proven form of communal help despite decades of idiotic right-wing propaganda to the contrary.
Michael Sandlin‘s work has appeared in Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Film Quarterly, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the cinema trade publication Video Librarian.