God Bless America

In 1976, Sidney Lumet’s Network gave us the famous refrain “I’m mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Serving as the battle cry of broken news anchor Howard Beale, the statement was a fiery condemnation of mass consumer culture and media driven apathy – you could have your toaster, TV set and steel-belted radials, but Howard wasn’t going to leave you alone. If the television news industry of the 1970s provoked that, we can but wonder what Mr. Beale would have made of MTV’s My Super Sweet 16, just one of many targets lampooned in Bobcat Goldthwait’s enjoyably angry God Bless America.

Our protagonist, Frank (Murray), is a typical middle-aged, middle-management kind of guy.  A divorced father, he lives alone in small suburban home where he’s forced to endure the overheard drones of his young neighbours as they discuss topics as vital as Lindsay Lohan’s wasted potential. With this depressing dirge surpassed only by the air raid siren that is the couple’s distressed infant, Frank is forced to turn either to television – an unrelenting stream of right wing bile and low brow exploitation – or violent fantasy. Either way, it isn’t pretty.

With Goldthwait’s script excelling early in showcasing all that is disturbing about the American media, the main complaint drawn against modern living is a simple one; why can’t people be nicer? However, when Frank is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour and fired for workplace harassment in quick succession, it doesn’t take him long to decide that the gentle approach isn’t going to cut it anymore.  Tipped further over the edge by a Sweet 16 über-brat, he sets out on a gun-toting rampage, joined in his travels by a schoolgirl named Roxy (Barr), who is thrilled by his mission to destroy both the intolerant and intolerable.

Playing out somewhere between Falling Down (1993) and Super (2010) as our distraught anti-hero and his excitable Ellen Page-like sidekick take up arms against society, there’s a lot of fun to be had here.  If you’ve ever wished you could silence Fox News pundits and people who talk in the cinema alike, then there should be some smiles, not to mention the satisfaction brought by the film’s recurring attacks on TV talent shows that ridicule the defenceless.  But with Goldthwait boldly deciding not to give Frank and Roxy any pursuers of their own, the satire sometimes feels somewhat dulled by the fantasy of it all.  We know the director wouldn’t condone his lead duo’s actions any more than he’d support the world they’re rebelling against – it’s purely wish fulfilment. You almost begin to expect Frank will open his eyes and be sitting back at home, still trying to drown out the neighbours.

Yet the main factor that stops God Bless America from being great instead of just good is that the views of its central characters are far more common than it seems prepared to admit.  Sure, it’s amusing and doesn’t pull any punches, but there’s nothing shown here that you wouldn’t find described in one of Charlie Brooker’s old Screenburn columns. In the end, the Network comparison proves apt. Just as support for Howard Beale’s anti-television tirade sees him thrust into the ironic role of television’s next big thing, if God Bless America had something truly new to tell us, it wouldn’t have an audience.

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