By Jack Hawkins.
Of the five incendiary years since Donald Trump announced his run for president, 2020 may well be the most bilious and divisive of them all. Indeed, it could be the nadir of 21st century American political discourse. Attempts to see the big picture, to understand the fractures among class, creed and race, will often drag one through what historian Niall Ferguson dubs the ‘political hate machine’, better known as social networks and the mainstream media.
Happily, Stars and Strife transcends the noise of your Twitter feed, examining America’s hate and division, what’s caused it and how the nation can move forward. Written and directed by economist David Smick, it is a film that favours even-handed optimism rather than cynical doomsaying; it manages to showcase America’s issues while suggesting that its best years might just be ahead of it.
The documentary opens with rapid-fire imagery and talking heads, including former secretary of state James Baker, businessman Ken Langone, economist Alice Rivkin, and former secretary of defence Leon Panetta, who observes a concerning shift in congress, “It has never been so divided. Everybody felt part of a process. That’s missing now. No one wants to go into no man’s land and get shot in the back.”
However, Smick notes how the creases of bipartisanship are ironed when congress works on bills that benefit large multinationals. This is symptomatic of corporate capitalism – or corporatism – which is briefly explained in an animation that compares how different ideologies – communism, socialism, fascism, corporatism and ‘main street capitalism’ – approach milking two cows. It’s layman stuff, no doubt, but the takeaway is that corporate capitalism is turgid with esoteric bureaucracy, or perhaps even ‘rigged’.
This contention, which has spurred populist movements such as Occupy Wall Street, segues into discussions of the media and communication, especially the algorithms of social media. On Twitter, for example, using emotive words – fight, destroy, attack, violence, murder – will increase the probability of it being retweeted by 20%, creating rabbit holes of knee-jerk hot takes. Media executive Shelby Coffey notes how, “The village crank can now connect with 30,000 around the country or around the world.”
This is division by design. There is no room for nuance, no room for the centre. And this is what Stars and Strife is about – the centre. It is a plea for compromise and collaboration, to find the common ground and effect change as opposed to a constant state of polarization. Few quotes articulate this ambition clearer than a speech from Senator John F. Kennedy in 1958, “Let us not seek the Republican answer, or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.”
Smick cites the First Step Act of 2018 as a rare example of congress finding that right answer, but his films has a mixed outlook on the future. Some echo Warren Buffet’s belief that America’s best days are ahead, while others note the old fallen empires as an ominous precedent. Either way, Stars and Strife is a compelling 97 minutes with a message that’s as cautionary as it is optimistic.
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