Saturday, February 14, 2015
A Most Violent Year
I read THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN when I was in college and it annoyed me, after a while, with all that Protestant Work Ethic stuff. The assertion Franklin makes, and the same one others make now, is that you can make it to the top of our capitalist system if you work hard and are smart. He should have added a capacity for self-promotion and the ability to sell people a bill of goods also help. Franklin does both.
Capitalism itself, with all that self-interest (invisible hand, my foot) stuff that people attribute to Adam Smith (I’m not sure he would have approved of all the uses to which his book has been put), is seen as a game of Monopoly—you all start out with the same amount of human capital, and your ability to adjust your economic vision to chance (the toss of the dice) is what determines whether you will make a boatload of money or not.
What a crock. Everyone knows that real life is not a game. Even a lot of those people who claim to be true believers in the system really don’t believe in it. They are the ones who tell us that a rising tide will lift all boats while most of us are stranded on land. They are the ones who have “won” (or cheated) the game and so want us to keep playing it.
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is about an immigrant’s (Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac) dream of making it big in America, and doing it by playing fair. Or at least as fair as is possible in a system that doesn’t allow you to win if you are truly fair. Morales tells himself that his wife, who is much more Machiavellian in her approach, is not cooking the books, and that all his success in the heating oil business came because he always moved forward, always found the best path through the economic wilderness, and had the guts to keep going even when the going truly got tough.
Abel is married to Anna (Jessica Chastain). He bought the business from her father when the old man got out. OK, so maybe that is cheating the system a little bit, marrying into money, but still, Morales is not breaking legs or whacking anybody. And he does his work ethic penance every day, running to work with a real ferocity, and then putting on a killer set of clothes and getting down to some wheeling and dealing. He is a very, very handsome guy (once again, real life not as fair as the game) and he has a real eloquence and a belief in himself that is genuine and at least somewhat honestly come by. He is a caring husband and father, and he probably gives to all the right charities (the ones you can write off).
Abel is about to make a deal to buy an old oil storage facility that will really make him a player in the NYC heating oil business. His problem is that someone is beating up his drivers, hijacking his trucks, and even smacking around his sales people, and this is threatening the deal.
Without going into too much detail (the plot gives us just enough information as we move along to feel like we are on the verge of figuring everything out, but we continually find ourselves surprised by the next development), I will say that Abel wants to be a good man. He doesn’t want to arm his drivers with guns, knowing that someone is liable to get killed. Of course, he also knows if one of his guys gets arrested for killing someone the bank will pull the loan he needs to close the deal for the facility. He doesn’t want to kill anybody, bribe anybody, or rig the game in any way (at least beyond training his salespeople in the art of the deal), but how can he make it to the top without doing so?
Then again, Abel is not completely an idealist. He says at one point that the means he uses to an end do matter to him, that he can’t enjoy the end if he hasn’t been scrupulous about using the fairest means possible to get there, but he talks not about using absolutely fair means, but rather the fairest possible ones. He wants to believe that goodness will be rewarded, and there are a lot of people in the movie who believe in him, who want him to make it, even as they shake their heads and tell themselves that this poor schnook is going to get cut off at the knees.
In contrast to Abel is one of his drivers, Julian. Julian’s English is not very good, but he works hard, a fact that Abel acknowledges. Abel encourages his young charge to give it his all and so take part in the American Dream. Of course, Abel doesn’t pay him well enough for him to be living any kind of dream. When Julian’s truck is hijacked and he is beaten, Abel exhorts him to go out there and win one for the gipper, to drive again, and the kid goes. Julian doesn’t realize that it is not his own dream he is working for, but that of his boss. Because that is really how you make money in a capitalist system—you have someone else earn it for you, and then you put on a nice suit and talk about how you earned it yourself, as if you were the guy who went down into the coal mine and dragged the ore out yourself.
Still, both Julian and Abel believe in the dream, and you can’t help but root for Abel to win out against the goons and thugs who run the other fuel oil businesses around the city. In the universe Abel lives in, you grab hold of any edge you can, and fair or foul is a question for losers. Abel never stops believing in the dream, even after a lot of really bad stuff happens. Even if we feel he has compromised himself, he doesn’t think he has.
So there you have it. See this movie. Find out if Abel wins or loses, and decide if the corners he cuts are “fair” corners to cut. He starts out like one of those good kids who listened to his mother when she said doing something just because the other kids are doing it is stupid. I can almost hear her now—“sweetheart, just because the other business owners are using bribery and extortion and price rigging to succeed doesn’t mean you have to do it too.” How does Abel end up? Would Mom approve? Is Abel an American hero or not? Is Capitalism fair? Can any system be fair if the people who function within it are not? These are all questions the movie asks, at least implicitly, and they are questions for which the answers are not clear or easy, even after the credits have started to roll.