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I caught the last 40 minutes or so of Arlington Road—enough of the movie to appreciate the cynicism of its ending. The terrorist network—which had struck before, blowing up a federal building in Saint Louis—not only brought down the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., but hoodwinked America into believing that in Washington, as in Saint Louis, a psychopath had acted alone. The latest "psychopath" was in truth the heroic professor who'd recognized the conspiracy, desperately tried to warn the authorities, and died in the blast trying to stop it.
The movie's great ironic flourish was this: the conspiracy succeeded because Americans don't want to believe in conspiracies; we prefer our madmen unattached. Arlington Road invited audiences to consider themselves superior by embracing this premise.
I wondered what the critics had to say about the film's canny manipulation, so I checked some reviews. In Roger Ebert's view, it started well and made some good points, but "it flies off the rails in the last 30 minutes. The climax is so implausible we stop caring and start scratching our heads." The Reader's Lisa Alspector called it a "pathetic thriller." But the New York Times's Janet Maslin hailed Arlington Road as a "crackerjack thriller" that pondered Oklahoma City and tapped into "contemporary fears."
Contemporary and ephemeral. The movie wouldn't have been made before 1995, when Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, a hideous act of destruction that everyone originally assumed was the work of radical Muslims. And it wouldn't have been made after September 11, 2001, when Muslim terrorists shoved the domestic variety completely out of the picture.
So it slipped through a pretty narrow window.
Frank Rich made an interesting observation in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books contemplating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. A "pressing" conservative goal, he wrote, "has been to try to shield the current American right from any ties to the radical right of the 1950s and 1960s—the Kennedy-loathing cadres who sped the ascent of the John Birch Society and the Barry Goldwater revolution within the GOP and who helped imbue Dallas with its reputation as a 'city of hate' well before Kennedy was killed there. (Some of these ties are genealogical as well as ideological: the Wichita oil man Fred Koch, a founder of the Birch Society, was the father of David and Charles Koch.) Such a connecting of dots between then and now is infuriating to the contemporary conservative establishment, which wants to maintain that radicalism is and will always be mainly a left-wing phenomenon in America."
Rich went on, "The right's current polemicists prefer a selective reading of history: we should remember that Oswald was a Marxist who had defected to the Soviet Union but we should forget that Adlai Stevenson, the pre-Kennedy Democratic standard bearer, was spat upon and slapped with a picket sign during his own visit to Dallas, as United Nations ambassador, in 1963." Dallas of that time was a "city of hate" under the sway of "foaming-at-the-mouth fanatics, secular and religious," Rich wrote, and he observed that the city described in a couple of recent books, the history Dallas 1963 and the Stephen King novel 11/22/63, "has all too many correspondences to the rabid, Obama-hating extremists of the current American right, whether Tea Party adherents, Texans, or not."
But do such rabid extremists actually exist, and if they do should they concern us? The right-wing crazies who get their names in the papers are less rabid than comical. During the 2012 campaigns they included then Senate candidate Todd Akin sharing his theories on "legitimate rape" and county judge Tom Hood in Lubbock, Texas, wishing to raise an army of local men to face the UN troops he expected Obama to send his way. These men are buffoons. Voices rage against Obama on local talk shows far into the American radio night, but they are the voices of harmless rabble. The Second Amendment is alive and well—so healthy, in fact, that no one would presume to ask if its rejuvenation is in any way insurrectionary. And surely thoughtful columnists such as John Kass, Steve Huntley, Charles Krauthammer, and Dennis Byrne—who view Obama as a menace to our freedoms—have their finger on the conservative pulse and would let the rest of us know if any truly malign forces were stirring on the right.
They are silent. The media have other fish to fry. Hollywood too—movies like Arlington Road seem incredibly dated. America has moved on.