Brian De Palma's "Blow Out" Thirty Years On
This July 21 is the 30th anniversary release date of Brian De Palma’s political/conspiracy thriller “Blow Out,” starring John Travolta, Nancy Allen and John Lithgow. Critics praised De Palma’s artful weaving of references to other directors and movies and real life events into “Blow Out” but audiences were turned off by the film’s ravagingly sad ending. As a movie heathen, I’m not so interested in De Palma’s cinematic virtuosity, and I feel that the critics never got to the heart of why this is such a powerful film — which is the fact that it’s a deep and devastating attack on America. The film’s numerous similarities and small divergences from today’s political landscape are instructive.
SPOILER ALERT! I reveal the ending of “Blow Out,” so if you haven’t seen it and intend to, you might want to stop reading now.
Travolta plays Jack, a sound technician who serendipitously records an auto accident which turns out to be the murder of the governor of Pennsylvania and potential presidential candidate. Jack rescues Sally (Nancy Allen) from the crash scene and the story follows their efforts to interest the authorities in the evidence they have, the conspiracy/cover-up they are met with and their own fated investigation as they battle against the political operative/murderer Burke, played by John Lithgow. The film is set in Philadelphia against the backdrop of a splashy patriotic ain’t-we-great “Liberty Days” celebration.
Jack and Sally represent marginal members of the American working class, motivated chiefly by guilt and trying to redeem themselves. The fact that they feel guilt is in stark contrast to the powers that be in the movie or to America’s real political, financial and military elite who would find it unfathomable to redeem themselves because they would never imagine that they’ve done anything wrong – except, perhaps, not made enough money or not bombed enough countries.
Jack and Sally are pitted against Burke who is no mere private eye gone bad. No, Burke has superior knowledge of surveillance, wiretapping, the staging of “accidents” and various ways to kill people. It’s never made explicit in the movie but I take Burke as some kind of ex (?) government agent, probably a CIA assassin. He is a one man death squad who ties up the “loose ends” and engages in false flag murders of complete strangers to cover up the murder he really wants to commit. The powerful and privileged are protected at all costs.
The greatness of “Blow Out” is due to the contrast between what America thinks itself to be versus what it actually is. In the movie, as in real life, while the people are having an Old Glory-gasmic celebration of the America they think they live in — freedom, democracy, the light unto the world — in reality, in the underbelly of the nation, the real work is being done by people like Burke, who murder innocent people right and left and get away with it, violating every law and premise the nation was supposedly founded on — except murder and theft are exactly what it was founded on. The “Liberty Days” revelers whoop it up in mirage America, the America that never was or is always just out of reach, just one more election away, celebrating fake freedom (the one that doesn’t know it’s chained up because it never moves) and fake democracy (the one where we’re supposed to be eternally grateful to vote for one of the twin heads, Republican or Democrat, of the capitalist freak.)
“Blow Out’s” roof top climax, played out beneath the exploding fireworks of “Liberty Days,” is one of the most memorable scenes in all of film. Travolta’s character Jack does everything in his power to do the right thing but he and Sally are ultimately destroyed, Sally physically and Jack, more pertinent to everyday life in America, mentally, socially, emotionally and spiritually. When Jack tries to be an honest, altruistic full participant in society, when he becomes the most vital and self-actualized, and the least little bit effective (a hero for the working class, as opposed to Navy SEAL death squad heroes for the ruling class), America promptly destroys him. Jack lives in trickle-down America where evil, not wealth, trickles down and ruins many a small life. “Blow Out” is a great and terrible Greek-like tragedy because Jack gets the person killed that he risked his own life to initially save.
It was actually the audiences, not the critics, who best understood “Blow Out.” The critics were too cowardly and unclassconscious to acknowledge the truth of a film that took on the Great Satan, they could only speak of De Palma’s technical brilliance. But the audiences — they understood in a visceral way, the ending smacked them in the mouth, the ending said all is not well here, their hopes and dreams and notions of justice crushed, innocence laid waste (as represented by Sally), the mockery of the “promise” of America and all the lies told to children every day in every school. Audiences recoiled at seeing themselves as the mindless “Liberty Days” revelers instead of the heroic resisters like Jack and Sally — they understood that they betray the founding icons every day — by never taking a risk to overthrow the illegitimate ruling class — even as they celebrate those icons.
On the roof top in “Blow Out,” on a raw revelatory monumentally sad Independence Day night, the flags wave, the fireworks explode and the cheers rise while, out of sight and under the din, another innocent person is anonymously killed for the American ruling class. That’s the American creation story, by God: the good don’t triumph and there is no justice. America wrecks the world, America moves on — and it all so easily escapes the notice of the revelers. America doesn’t pay, America doesn’t make amends, so get used to it, red man, black man, yellow man, sand man. And if every once in a blue moon the serfs get hit and bellyache, “Why do they hate us!” — and the masters go on a ten-year murder tantrum across the earth — well, for Wall Street, the Pentagon and the corrupt politicians who successfully run on racism and warmongering, well, it’s all good. In fact, it’s a bonanza. Let a thousand Blackwaters bloom. That’s your American revolution, that’s your gift to the world.
De Palma took much more heat for his 2007 film “Redacted” than he did from the 30-year-old “Blow Out” even though the latter will probably go down many years from now as the most consummate film critique of America. (“Redacted” was based on the true story of Abeer Hamza, a 14-year-old Iraqi girl who was gang-raped and murdered in her home by American soldiers. The troops also murdered her mother, father and 6-year-old sister. Just a little slice of life in America’s nonstop unconstitutional wars which weak-ass liberals insist that their hero Obama continue. Yes, liberals support the gang-rape of children and mass murder — see how easy it is to be Fox News when your Dumbocratic targets don’t, in fact, have any principles except getting their unprincipled man elected?)
The one faulty thing about “Blow Out” is that John Lithgow’s character is presented as a rogue operative whereas the lawlessness and murderousness that he symbolizes have always been US government policy, though, unlike today’s world, they used to be officially denied and decried. Also of note: Lithgow’s character is cut loose in the end by his superiors as opposed to, say, the way Obama moved heaven and earth to get CIA agent Raymond Davis, accused of murdering two Pakistanis, out of a jail in Pakistan and back to America.
Another divergence between “Blow Out” and the present concerns the idea of conspiracy. In “Blow Out” there is an all-encompassing successful conspiracy. But that was so then (Reagan) and this is now (Obama). And what’s different now is that the constitutional scholar/shredder Obama has normalized his predecessors’ crimes: undeclared wars, torture, indefinite detention and extra-judicial assassination (including of American citizens) are now openly defended and celebrated. When you can openly get away with these crimes and more, when there is no effective opposition to anything you do, what need is there for a conspiracy?
Now that I’ve given you my bleak interpretation of Brian De Palma’s bleak vision of (bleeping) America, let me cheer you up. I’m no comedian but I do know a few jokes.
Did you hear the one about the country that got its pride back after ten years by summarily executing a 54-year-old dialysis patient? Booyah! You don’t think that’s funny? Well there’s lots of college students, who were only ten years old at the time when the pride was lost, who think it’s a riot… Tomorrow belongs to them and they are well prepared — look at all the American flags apparently stashed in their dorms, ready for any Old Glory-gasmic celebration that comes along…
What about the one where a government walks into a bar and says give me billions of dollars each year to fight a terrorist boogeyman and then, when the same government has the opportunity to easily capture the terrorist and question him about his worldwide links to other terrorists, and put him in handcuffs and frog-march him into court for months on end and demystify him — but, instead, chooses to immediately gun him down and silence him, thus insuring his martyrdom…? You heard that one too? You’re so hip, you must watch a lot of TV!
OK, what about the killing of the terrorist in Abbottabad, Pakistan and the 24-hour aftermath where, in Washington (District of Costellobad), the White House took back the tale of the bloodthirsty fiend shot dead in a fire fight while cowardly using one of his wives as a human shield in his luxurious mansion while his impoverished followers freeze their jihadis off in caves? You don’t think that’s funny? You know, you’re a tough crowd, so let’s just call it a night before I start heckling you back.
Just go out and get the Criterion Collection’s recently released “Blow Out” on Blu-ray or a double disc DVD containing lengthy interviews with Brian De Palma and Nancy Allen, De Palma’s 1967 feature “Murder a la Mod,” a booklet and many other extras.
published 5/13/2011 at counterpunch.org