They usually were identifiably left-wing. For instance "Serpico," played by Al Pacino, was a cop, but he was also a hippie—fat beard, floppy hat, cuddly dog. Frequently, they were journalists—think "All the President's Men." If they weren't, they acted like journalists, for they were always, at bottom, investigators—even if they were only, like all those Biblical prophets in the Old Testament, accidentally drafted into the role, like Gene Hackman in "The Conversation," in which he played a surveillance expert who accidentally gathers evidence of a potential murder. In "Three Days of the Condor" Redford returns from lunch to find all his colleagues at the CIA front where he works have been murdered—because, naturally, they had learned too much about a CIA-sponsored effort to manipulate world oil markets.
That was the 1970s: never before had so defiantly anti-authoritarian popular culture been so popular. So popular, in fact, that by the end of the decade even middle-of-the-road pablum took on aspects of the general outline, just because that's the way movies were by then were supposed to be. For instance, in Beatty's "Heaven Can Wait" (1978), when Warren Beatty bargains with his guardian angel to return to Earth, the vessel his soul inhabitants is a stinking corporate tycoon whose schemes which Beatty, of course, cannot but overturn.
Things are different now. Investigating is out. "We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards," as Barack Obama said concerning the shadowy crimes of the Bush administration.
I thought about that recently when I saw "Contagion," the new thriller about a global epidemic starring Matt Damon. It's a 1970s conspiracy movie turned inside out. It's quite the cultural testament for the Age of Obama.
[SPOILER ALERT--PLOT DETAILS FOLLOW]
The good guy turns out to be Lawrence Fishburne, a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control. He's a quiet, cool, efficient bureaucrat, infinitely compassionate for his colleague out in the field whom he keeps on begging to take time off for herself. (Who needs unions when America is filled with benevolent bosses like that? And, of course, she doesn't take his advice: she works, and works, and works, to the point of contracting the dread disease herself—isn't that what we're all supposed to be doing to guarantee continued employment in our blessed age of austerity?) The media keeps on trying to press him into sensationalism. He's cool about that, too. He's human, to be sure: at one point he tells his beloved fiancée about secret plans to evacuate Chicago, giving her a jump on the chaos that ensues. That gets out in the media, and we see him scapegoated for a peccadillo, probably to lose his career, despite his manifest heroism throughout. But he's even noble in that: willingly, maturely, he graciously prepares to fall on his sword, accepting the consequences of his actions. (For a contrasting view of the CDC as a seventies-conspiracy-style victim, see Steven King's 1978 novel "The Stand.")
And here's the point about that: the film is constructed to make us feel ashamed for ever suspecting him in the first place—even though he's the guy that every other paranoia movie we've ever seen, all those ones rooted in the seventies paradigm, has trained us to suspect. We're made to feel ashamed for identifying with the hectoring media types who victimize him. Of all the panoply of powerful institutions presented in the movie, the media is the only one for whom the viewer is to feel no sympathy. "Nothing spreads like fear" is the advertising tagline. And spreading fear, according to the picture's logic, is what the media is all about.
Indeed, we're made to loathe one investigator in particular—the guy who ends up as the film's preeminent villain, worse, far worse, in fact than the multinational corporation responsible for the superbug in the first place, who it turns out is really only kinda sorta responsible, because it was all a fluke accident.
The bad guy, you see, is a blogger.
A really, really evil blogger. A moral monster, in fact.