Apolitical Grit

A review of the film "True Grit"

By Michael Talent

"True Grit" is a remake of a John Wayne Western, and a throwback to that style of filmmaking. The story is about a fourteen-year-old girl, Mattie Ross, who hires Marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn to hunt down her father's killer, Tom Chaney. "True Grit" provides a great story and deep characters. Hailee Steinfield, who plays Mattie, provides a perfect mix of innocence inherent in a fourteen year old with the maturity that comes from having to grow up quickly to meet the demands of living in the 19th century west at such an early age. For example, she attempts to intimidate Marshal Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges, to help her by threatening to sue him. In addition, the dialogue is fantastic. The phrasing and word choice completely sets the film in the West, while also providing humor in what is otherwise a very heavy film. And critics have praised "True Grit" for precisely these qualities. Yet, there has been much talk about the philosophical and political message of the film from commentators like Stanley Fish, Peter Lawler, and Ken Masugi talking about the nihilistic message of the film or the appropriate use of violence.

The reason for most of the discussion regarding "True Grit's" message is it is hard to find. There are, of course, common themes that appear in almost all Western films: rugged individualism, the need for law and order, and an unapologetic, if somewhat romantic, view of the creation of America. Mattie's self-reliance borders on arrogance at times, and Rooster Cogburn is as tough as they come. The necessity of shooting the bad guys is unquestioned, but so, also, is the need for a better police force to take back the lawless area in which these men roam. Finally, the movie does not attempt to make Indian removal, racism, or any other politically correct statement concerning the Wild West.

But "True Grit" makes no attempt to hit its viewers over the head with these themes. The film avoids parading its message, rather, it hints at it. For example, the characters display their toughness by traveling through the great, snowy expanse of wilderness. Similarly, when Marshal Cogburn's charges against outlaw Ned Pepper and three of his gang by himself on horse, one is reminded of the necessity of having "rough men" ready to protect society. In addition, the character development of Mattie Ross into a worldly, cynical, but independent woman reflects the importance and power of self-reliance. However, during the film, these messages are not advertised in any way. Any messages within the film feel natural, necessitated by the plot and not the writer's, director's, or producer's worldview. This returns to the idea of "True Grit" as a good story. There is a message, but it is sublimated into the actual narrative thread.

That is, for me, the appeal of "True Grit." It is a good movie, not a vehicle for a message. Initially, I did not leave the theater with my family talking about the conservative meaning of the film. Instead, we talked about the characters and the plot. Such subtlety is something that is conspicuously lacking in American cinema today, which is full of left-leaning films that beat the viewer over the head with their message of American greed ("The Other Guys"), the evil of the Iraq war ("Redacted"), or the danger of the national security role of the government (the Bourne trilogy).

"True Grit" also provides a lesson for conservative filmmakers. While it is a film that tells a story for the story's sake, not to advance some message, the themes of the story are fundamentally conservative. The presentation of this message is subtle and very effective. The effect that "True Grit" has on its audiences argues that making films with an explicit message, even conservative ones like "Team America" or the awful, yet oddly funny, "American Carol," may not be the best way of establishing a right-wing segment of film. "True Grit" shows that a film can be conservative just by virtue of its story and faithfulness to its premises. That is, because the Western genre of filmmaking, which "True Grit" faithfully adheres to, is already inherently right wing, there is no need to supplement a conservative political message onto it. This is true for genres like war movies, spy thrillers, cop films, and others. They are inherently conservative because making a good film in that genre necessitates accepting conservative premises. To add a conservative message onto them would be redundant.

There is much to enjoy in "True Grit," and one of those things is trying to understand its embedded message. And, to an extent, what I have done can be considered an argument that "True Grit" is a conservative film with a conservative message. I will not take time here to consider what that message may or may not be, though I have touched on it. There is much discussion about this, from people much more qualified than I to consider such questions. But, no matter what ideology you hold, "True Grit" is a film worth seeing. Part of the reason it is worth seeing is because it will not beat you over the head with messages. But, the main reason anyone should see "True Grit" is because it is a great film. The acting is sound, the dialogue is a pleasure to hear, the scenery is impressive, and the action is exciting.