10 Great Movies Every Conservative Should See
People use the word “conservative” to mean many things. There are the George W. Bush-style “neocons,” in favor of foreign interventions and not opposed to big government. There are Rand Paul-supporting libertarian types, more isolationist, and vehemently anti-welfare state.
There are free market conservatives, religious conservatives, traditionalists, and even protectionist semi-environmentalists in the style of Pat Buchanan. There are many other flavors of conservatism too numerous and complex to fully delineate here.
Some political philosophers have tried to define what all of these different styles of conservatism have in common. Roger Scruton and Michael Oakeshott, for example, have emphasized that conservatives are primarily in favor of continuity.
Among other things, the continuity that conservatives seek includes the preservation of traditions and civil institutions like the nuclear family, the world’s great religious communities, charitable organizations, and even social clubs and sports associations. The conservative regards these civil institutions as guardians of our shared identities and as facilitators of positive social relations that have been gradually honed over the centuries and have stood the test of time.
Scruton went a step further in his definition of conservatism, and said that “the fundamental axiom” of conservatism is “that the State is not an end but a means.” According to a conservative, government is important not for acting as a savior or a meddlesome intrusion into daily life, but rather to gently protect the institutions of civil society that are created and run by and for private citizens.
I had this abstract definition of conservatism in mind when I compiled the list below. It is not a list of paeans to the Iraq War or propaganda films targeting Democrats. These movies are not primarily about politics, but rather are about people. These people struggle with their families, friends, communities, and nations, and (like all of us) face tragically conflicting loyalties and difficult choices between desire and duty.
In these movies, the heroes choose to conserve – to conserve family, friendships, communities, religions, traditions, and worthwhile institutions, sometimes in opposition to an intrusive State. Their choice to conserve is, as the name implies, a conservative one, and in the movies below, these conservative choices tend to bring personal fulfillment and affirmation and foster positive human relationships.
10. The Descendants
This film opens with Matt King, George Clooney’s character, narrating about an upcoming sale he’s brokering. The item for sale is a huge tract of prime untouched Hawaii real estate that has been in his family for many generations. He plans to sell it, on behalf of his extended family, to developers.
The developers plan to build hotels, resorts, malls, or who knows what else on it in order to make a profit. King and his relatives are eager to sell, presumably just to have the cash to maintain their lives as part of Hawaii’s social elite. So far, it sounds like many of the worst stereotypes of political conservatism all together: businesses destroying nature for profit, capitalist robber barons wheeling and dealing to stay at the top, and rent-seeking by people who didn’t even earn what they own.
But that isn’t the whole story. As the finalization of the sale draws closer, King’s wife is in an accident and falls into a coma, and it soon becomes clear that she will never recover. To make it worse, King finds out after her accident that she had been having an affair with a local businessman for some time. The film is mostly about King’s efforts to simultaneously come to terms with these two horrifying developments, with the land sale mostly in the background.
When the time for signing the final contracts comes, King surprises everyone by announcing that he has made the unilateral decision to refuse to sell. The connection between the story of King’s wife and the story of his family land is not immediately obvious. The critic James Bowman pointed out that the stories are both parallel accounts of fidelity.
By dealing with the fallout of his wife’s unfaithful actions, King got a powerful lesson in the importance of (marital) fidelity. But in the process, he took stock of his remaining extended family, and reflected on his ancestors who had left the land to him and his descendants who might be able to receive it from him. His surprising choice to keep the land was a choice of inter-generational fidelity.
King’s faithfulness to generations of the dead and the unborn is a quintessentially conservative act. Consider the ur-conservative Edmund Burke’s conception of the social contract: “Society is…a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are to be born…connecting the visible and the invisible world.”
King, like Burke, came to see the present generation, not as the master of the universe, but as a trustee, preserving whatever good our ancestors gave us partially for our own sake but mostly for the sake of the uncountable generations that will come after us. This, not thoughtless profiteering or perpetuation of oppressive systems, is the essence of conservatism.
9. The Last Days of Disco
The heroes of The Descendants are fighting to conserve a breathtakingly beautiful huge piece of Hawaiian coastline, while the heroes of this movie are fighting to conserve something arguably less worthwhile: 70’s music and fashions. Nevertheless, the conservative characters here, like Matt King in The Descendants, find the good in what they’ve inherited and seek to enjoy it and pass it on.
In this case, they find that disco facilitates their social lives, and gives them both an excuse and a healthy and easily navigable way to get close to the opposite sex.
The movie’s ensemble cast consists of twentysomethings, pretty fresh out of college and struggling to find themselves and their way in our chaotic world. In a lighthearted and not at all tendentious way, the movie shows how our social institutions, even including something as silly as disco dancing, can give us a comprehensible framework for relating to each other and contribute to the richness of our lives and relationships.
Brazil is the ultimate film for anti-statist conservatives. These conservatives believe political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s statement that “there is no question that… all states are predatory to some degree,” and think that a conservative’s chief role is to fight the predatory encroachment of the leviathan State.
Sam Lowry, Brazil’s protagonist, is a low-level functionary in the government’s “Ministry of Information Adjustment.” The government controls every part of his life, and manages to be both incompetent and harmful at every juncture. The scene-stealing hero is Harry Tuttle (played by Robert De Niro), an independent repairman who carries a gun in case a government bureaucrat catches him fixing an air conditioner without the right paperwork, and who leaves his house calls via a cross-skyscraper zip line.
In an early scene, the police get a name mixed up and end up detaining, torturing, and accidentally killing a completely innocent man. Lowry gets involved in the case, and breaks protocol by meeting the man’s widow and children. He is haunted by the widow’s plaintive cry: “What have you done with his body?!” Eventually, Lowry himself gets on the wrong side of the law and is tortured to insanity by one of his old friends (a professional government torturer).
Nearly every scene reveals another of the dehumanizing effects of an omnipotent central government. Most obviously, no one cares about chaos around him unless it affects his government-assigned job. When a bomb goes off in a crowded restaurant, the unaffected diners simply go on casually eating, confident that a government crew will take care of the wounded in a jiffy – indeed they would probably get in trouble if they tried to help without filing the right forms first.
By appropriating all tasks related to the care of the needy, the State sapped the charitable instincts of the population and weakened human-human relationships in favor of unfulfilling human-State relationships. Lowry’s torture at the hand of his old friend is the logical conclusion of this awful trend.
7. Whale Rider
Whale Rider, like the first two movies on this list, is about trying to conserve something. In this case, a young Maori girl, Pai, is trying to take action against the disintegration of her Maori tribe. Her grandfather Koro is the old chief, but since his only son (Pai’s father) moved away and had no sons of his own, and because being a chief is traditionally for males only, Koro has no successor. In addition to this crisis, there is a puzzling problem with the local whales intentionally beaching themselves and dying.
Pai thinks that she could be the tribe’s chief. She surreptitiously learns the tribal combat methods and studies Maori chants at school. By the end of the movie, a few auspicious signs indicate that she is meant to be the next chief. One of these signs is that she can ride on the whales, like the tribe’s legendary first chief and her ancestor.
Pai is motivated by attachment: to her home, the land and water around her, her family, her tribe, her traditions, and even the whales that are so important to her and the other Maori. Attachment to a way of life is a profoundly conservative motivation. Roger Scruton said that for conservatives, “the duty of the politician is to maintain [the] first-person plural.” Pai succeeds in this, as she keeps her tribe together and closes the movie by saying “our people will keep going forward, all together, with all of our strength.”
Conservatives are sometimes accused of advocating the subjugation of women. To see whether this is the case, one might ask the conservative G.K. Chesterton, who loved and admired Joan of Arc and thought of her as a deserving and remarkable leader.
Or one might ask the conservative Edmund Burke, who preferred for Marie Antoinette to rule France rather than Robespierre. Or one might ask either of the United Kingdom’s only two female Prime Ministers ever – both from the conservative party. Or one might ask successful conservatives like Mia Love and Nikki Haley who have been propelled to political prominence by conservative US voters and donors in red states. Conservatives like Pai fit right in with Joan of Arc and the best conservative leaders today, male or female.
6. To Kill a Mockingbird
Atticus Finch probably could have succeeded as a big city lawyer, commanding a high salary and hobnobbing with the elites. But the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird chose to apply his talent and intellect to practicing law in his small Southern hometown. This is the first sign that Atticus and Mockingbird are conservative in outlook: conservatives value voluntary community and they cherish permanence and stability across the generations, including geographic stability.
The approach that Atticus takes (and Scout assists with) in defending Tom Robinson shows a conservative approach to civil rights. In one powerful scene, a lynch mob has come to attack Tom. They are dispersed not by the State, the police, or by physical force at all.
It is the young Scout who defeats the lynch mob, by reminding them that they are neighbors, friends, brothers and sisters. The mob realizes that it is these roles that define them and ennoble them and that would be polluted if they were to viciously attack another member of their community. The mob disperses and each person walks home in shame.
The wise conservative is not blind to the existence of injustice in the world, nor is he an unthinking defender of unjust laws. However, the conservative tends to believe in prudence and restraint in efforts towards radical transformation. He wishes to disperse lynch mobs by persuasion and reason rather than by forceful intervention, guns, and bloodshed.
The Atticus/Scout approach to civil rights is inevitably slower and less dramatic than a complete and sudden upending of society like the American Civil War. However, when all is said and done, battling injustice really does require winning hearts, not just making laws. Good conservatives will always be interested in and dedicated to creating a better world, but sometimes it will be with a different style than their liberal or progressive friends across the aisle.
Pages: 1 2