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Nashville is a great film both despite and because it was made by Robert Altman. Only someone as simultaneously gifted and smug could have made it. Nashville has plenty of Altman’s usual snipes, but in attempting to provide a synoptic overview of American society, he largely checks his sophomoric irony and succeeds almost in spite of himself.

The film centers on the smudged line between show business and politics. The latter are not profoundly examined. Naming presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker’s party the “Replacement Party” is about the measure of the film’s political analysis. Walker’s visit is, in any event, incidental to most of the two dozen characters. The action builds to an explosive ending that seems like an overreach for a Big Statement, but the milieu is so densely observed and detailed that the violence seems believable, if not convincingly inevitable. 

An early scene demonstrates how Altman tempers his usual irony. Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) and Pfc. Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn) stand in a crowd at the Nashville airport awaiting the arrival of country star Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely). Frank is in Nashville to make a record; Kelly is there to see Barbara Jean, whom he knew as a child. Seeing Kelly’s uniform, Frank quips “How you doin’ Sarge? Kill anybody this week?”

Frank’s sarcasm captures the easy, anti-Establishment attitudes of many of his generation (and no doubt Altman’s fans) towards the military. It is the kind of glib irony that mars so much of the director’s work, but this time, instead of using the comment for cheap points, Altman allows it to stand out in all its gratuitous, mean-spirited ugliness.

The film walks this fine line throughout, making fun of the Tennessee locals, while also exposing the smugness of the supposed sophisticates sneering at them. The most blatant of these is political organizer John Triplette (Michael Murphy), who is in Nashville to set up a rally for Walker. Condescendingly familiar with locals whose help he needs, he refers to them as rubes when talking with those he sees as his equal in hip. On the other hand, while the film’s Country and Western “scene” is no doubt more Hollywood than Nashville, the locals are just as hypocritical, attitudinizing and manipulative in their own ways. In particular, country star Haven Hamilton’s (Henry Gibson) self-conscious glad-handing and gaudy sequined white suit hide the ruthlessness of a very shrewd operator. 

Nashville is ultimately less a story than a mosaic of razor-sharp pieces that coalesce into a powerful whole. It falls short of the resounding political statement Altman may have intended, but thanks to its rounded, thoroughly believable, frequently unlikable characters, it achieves a clear-eyed vision of daily life in Bicentennial America. That is an achievement in itself and while it may have been made nearly fifty years ago, it still rings incredibly true.