Tuesday, August 16, 2016

An Enemy of the People

An Enemy of the People (George Shaefer, 1978) An oddity in the career of Terence Steven "Steve" McQueen. For years the "King of Cool" and a favorite action star, at some point he felt that he wasn't being taken seriously as an actor. McQueen, in his slow-burning way, dominated the screen, even when appearing with an attention-magnet like Dustin Hoffman (Papillon). But, there are times when scripts coming across the desk begin to take on a familiarity and staleness that can make any actor dissatisfied. 

At the time, McQueen had finished a lucrative starring role in Irwin Allen's The Towering Inferno, and he began to set his sights a little higher. Perhaps it was his marriage to Ali MacGraw, or perhaps his age that might have made action parts a bit more risky and feel less authentic, but whatever it was, McQueen used his star clout to have produced this adaptation (by Arthur Miller, no less, based on his 1950's version written during the McCarthy era) of Henrik Ibsen's play, short on action but featuring McQueen in very much the "rebel" role. But unlike any he had played before.

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (McQueen) and his wife Katherine (Bibi Andersson) host a dinner party for the Mayor of the town, who happens to be his brother Peter (Charles Durning) and Hovstad (Michael Cristofer), editor of the town paper, The People's Messenger. Although it's a social occasion, everyone has an agenda. Mayor Peter wants Thomas to not support the rumor going around town about the town baths being contaminated even though he is the Kirsten Springs Municipal Baths chief medical officer. Thomas is having the water tested as he feels the health of the town is his responsibility, whatever impact it may have on the town's economy, which is dependent on the popular attraction remaining in operation. During dinner, Stockmann receives a post showing that the suspicions are correct—the baths are a health risk and should be shut down, pending an investigation. The editor is excited to print the news in his latest edition. The Mayor, Stockmann's brother, is not pleased.
The next day, it is all excitement. Stockmann is visited by the editor and publisher of the Messenger, who pledge their paper's support with extensive coverage and even more investigation as to how the location for the Baths allowed it to be taking in polluted water from a local tannery. They want to expose the corruption of the government system. And, as if on cue, the Mayor pays a visit on his brother. He tells Stockmann that if he pursues his investigations, he will bring about the ruin of the town for the sake of his own self-righteousness, and that he will do everything in his power to stop him, even if it involves his family. He is, after all, the one who got him the position on the board in the first place.
Stockmann is adamant, however, and will do the right thing for the sake of the community. How much good will it do the people to be poisoned by the health baths—what will that do to the economy? But, he is surprised that, when he pays a visit to the offices of the Messenger, that the editor and publisher (Richard Dysart) are now suddenly reluctant to report the doctor's findings, and in fact, will be running an article by the Mayor trumpeting the safety of the Baths and emphasizing their importance to the economy of the town. Undeterred, Stockmann decides to hold a public meeting at which he'll personally give his report and inform the citizenry that for their own good, the Baths must be shut down.

Public meetings always go so well.

But then this was fifty years before the phrase was coined "no good deed goes unpunished." 
Ibsen's play is extraordinarily contemporary, with its theme of the whistle-blower going up against "the system," that "system" being implacable and turning on them before you can say "As you know, Amity means friendship," and the steadfastness of allies when they're only tangentially involved without self-interest. The fidelity of the press to the truth is far too often based on its profit margins and who's in charge of that newspaper. The people's right to know is outweighed by their right to stay in business. Or be allowed "access." We can argue all day about the efficacy of that term "rights," but the individual interpretation of them extends to how far one's own rights are interfered with. No matter who thinks that doesn't apply to them.
Ibsen was ahead of his time in his cynicism. Not only in his doubts about institutions like government, business, and the press, as here, but also in people, singularly and collectively. All of the individuals in "An Enemy of the People" act in their own self-interest, even Stockmann, whose idealism masks an arrogant and naive hubris. He thinks he can turn things around by merely being right about his suspicions and is equally guilty of "stonewalling" as his brother and the publisher.
But Ibsen's harshest criticism is for "the wisdom of the tribe," or (to put it less kindly) "mob rule." As Winston Churchill put it "democracy is the worst form of government...except for all the others." As Lincoln put it "you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time" and that foolishness comes in waves of rumor and gossip and superstition and greedy self-interest (and "fad" diets, don't forget "fad" diets). If, every election cycle, democracy shows America at its best, it also shows it at its most cretinous—even "loon" candidates get support...for whatever unfathomable reason. "The mob" just can't be trusted to make the right decision at the right time, especially when the information it's being fed is biased and self-interested, the very definition of any candidate.
Ibsen had been stung by the reaction of his previous play, "Ghosts" and his answer to that criticism (and his reflection on his position in the controversy), "An Enemy of the People" was a stepping-stone to his condemnation of idealism in his next play "The Wild Duck." As he wrote to his publisher, he didn't know if "An Enemy of the People" was a comedy or a drama. In its time, it was at least better received than "Ghosts."
The same cannot be said in the time of McQueen. Even though two competing films were made of Ibsen's "The Doll House" in 1973 (one starring Jane Fonda and the other Claire Bloom), "mob rule" played its own hand in the distribution of this film. It was filmed in August of 1976, but was not released until late 1978 and even then in only two key cities for awards-consideration. Despite an ad campaign from Warner Brothers emphasizing McQueen and his role in it, the movie went virtually unreleased throughout the rest of the country. It was not released to home video until 2009, twenty-nine years after the actor's death.

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