Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’ As Lesson For The Obama White House

Art always has a political context, a broader social and economic setting for the work, even if it is not explicitly political. This applies to Velázquez’s “Las Meninas,” a symbol of the emergence of the artist as a significant member of society, as much as it does to Beethoven’s Third Symphony, originally to be dedicated to Napoelon, whom the musician loved and admired as a symbol of revolution — until he made himself Emperor of most of Europe.

Cultural objects aren’t just aesthetic or emotional, then, but informative — they can tell us about the zeitgeist and psychology of an era or a movement, without wading into the nuances of contemporary public debates.

And the politics of the Obama presidency are oozing all over this fall’s most existential action film, “Drive.”

Glistening with pulp, style, and anxious tension, the movie is a classic heist flick. But it’s also a statement about the type of heroes we long for — and the hole in our lives such saviors might fill.

Ryan Gosling, the lead, is unnamed — he’s known only as “The Driver,” and for a protagonist, speaks awful few lines of dialogue.

This tells us quite a bit by itself.

Whereas in 2008 Americans — and the world — longed for a dynamic savior from financial catastrophe, a fresh identity on which to project hopes and dreams (and, by many accounts, got one in the brilliant Barack Obama), by 2011 we have become restless. Identities, oratory, and life stories matter less than competence, ability, and perhaps most important, the willingness to get tough when it’s called for. We’ll settle for stoic, terse, and gritty.

Barack Obama has been fun to watch — but he’s also buckled more often than many of us might like. There are times when many on the left have wished he’d put on his driving gloves and hit the gas — or pull the trigger.

Whether it’s breaking up the big banks and denying them the ability to hold taxpayers hostage, providing a public option for health insurance, or moving a climate change bill through the Congress, this president has negotiated many of us to death. Sometimes, you just need to kick some ass.

This isn’t to say violence or anger are the solution to our problems. Surely, Obama should not start physically assaulting his political adversaries.

But Gosling’s character doesn’t carry a gun in the film — and he avoids violence whenever possible. It is only when the world proves itself so dark and malicious an environment that he takes that route.

We’ve long passed that point in the Obama presidency.

The movie speaks to our despondence and frustration. Whereas the signature film of Obama’s election year, “The Dark Knight,” was about heroes having to compromise their reputations for the public good, “Drive” suggests something more urgent: get tough, or get lost.


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