Is it possible for a film that was nominated for six Oscars, was directed by one of Hollywood’s most highly regarded filmmakers, and features a career-best performance by one of the best actors of his generation to be overlooked? In the case of Nebraska (2013), the answer is yes.
Directed by Alexander Payne and featuring stalwart character actor Bruce Dern in a performance that garnered him his first-ever Academy Award nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actor, Nebraska was one of the surprise standouts of last year’s crop of Oscar-season films. The movie is shot in crisp black-and-white, simultaneously conveying the grimness of the forlorn Midwest landscape and also lending the film, in the words of its director, an “iconic, archetypal look.” A quiet and subdued film, Nebraska imparts an important reminder of every person’s intrinsic human dignity, honestly portraying one man’s struggle to care for his aging parents in a way that reflects that dignity.
An American Road Trip
In Nebraska, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a retired Montana mechanic and a cantankerous Korean War veteran. As if his congenital crabbiness were not enough, Woody is also an alcoholic, and he’s evidently verging on dementia. When he receives a promotional sweepstakes letter in the mail stating that he has won a million-dollar prize, he believes it. Everyone understands that this sweepstakes letter is clearly a hoax—everyone, that is, but Woody. He prevails upon his son David, played by a surprisingly effective and restrained Will Forte (formerly of Saturday Night Live), to drive him to Lincoln, Nebraska—where the sweepstake’s headquarters are located—in order to collect the chimerical prize. They are accompanied by Woody’s wife, Kate, played by a wonderful, laceratingly witty, acidly funny, scene-stealing June Squibb who, at the age of eighty-four, received an eminently deserved first-ever Oscar nomination for her supporting actress performance.
As the story unfolds, Nebraska seems to follow the structure of the venerable American “road-trip movie.” Characters embark on a physical journey across the broad, expansive landscape of our beautiful country, experience interesting adventures, encounter strange and exciting people, and narrowly escape from a few hairy situations, only to experience a more profound inner journey of the soul. Of course, such narrative structures have an impressive pedigree that precedes American culture: think of Homer’s Odyssey, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, or even Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Yet Nebraska is much more substantial than the average American road-trip movie. While our expectations of witnessing the typical tropes of the road-trip genre are fulfilled, the Grants’ journey through the lonely land at the center of our country serves as an unconventional exploration of the challenges of honoring our parents. Throughout the film, the message is clear: the elderly—even when they reach the stage of senility—must be cared for with sensitivity and respect.
In choosing to drive him from Billings to Lincoln, David succeeds in pulling off the tricky task of managing a mentally ailing parent. David addresses the dilemma of how he should honor his father by deciding to play along with his father’s delusions, in order to avoid causing him needless emotional anguish. David intuitively realizes that more harm would be done by refusing to take his father to Nebraska than by actually making the trip from Montana. Often, when a loved one suffers from early onset dementia, all that their caregivers can do for them is play along. Refusing to do so only makes things worse. Although David’s choice compromises on truth, it brings his father emotional peace and preserves his dignity.
Woody, a retired mechanic, intimates that he’s merely a beat-up car. But David doesn’t buy into his father’s mechanic-mentality—he doesn’t treat his father as an old machine that is breaking down. Rather, he treats his father as a human being: a unique creature that, regardless of his physical or mental condition, always possesses infinite value and therefore always deserves to be treated with utmost dignity.
Man Is Not a Machine
The insidious “man as machine” metaphor—as Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in Who is Man?—may have its source in La Mettrie’s L’Homme machine, and goes back at least as far as Descartes’s Treatise of Man. It continues to be promulgated by behavioral scientists and evolutionary biologists as well as ethical humanists and philosophers. Yale Professor of Philosophy Shelley Kagan, for instance, argues that we are machines—incredible, beautiful, thinking machines, but nevertheless machines.
We should be very wary of this definition. As Heschel warned,
We must not take lightly man’s pronouncements about himself. They surely reveal as well as affect his basic attitudes. Is it not right to say that we often treat man as if he were made in the likeness of a machine rather than in the likeness of God?
In an industrialized, utilitarian, youth-obsessed, mechanistic, capitalistic society in which human beings are often viewed as important only insofar as they are capable contributors and producers in the market economy, we run a great risk of unconsciously (and at times consciously) devaluing others once they reach old age and infirmity. If a person can no longer contribute to society in a manner that can be quantitatively recognized—in other words, can no longer buy or sell things—what value does this person possess?
It is precisely in its unequivocal answer to this question—its statement that human beings continue to possess infinite value even when they become elderly and infirm—that Nebraska’s power lies. The movie gives a subtle yet clear-eyed depiction of what it means to honor the elderly (Leviticus 19:32) and to honor one’s parents (Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16). It unapologetically depicts the difficulty of this task, but demonstrates that it is indeed possible.
Nebraska’s director, Alexander Payne, is remarkable for, among other things, the consistent cinematic concern he has shown for the elderly and incapacitated. About Schmidt (2003), another road-trip movie, also centered on a newly retired and recently widowed man (played by a wonderfully subdued Jack Nicholson) from Nebraska who sets out on a journey to find a sense of purpose and meaning in his life. The Savages (2007), for which Payne was executive producer, featured Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as emotionally distant, artistically inclined siblings who must come together to care for their father in his final days.
In presenting his cinematic answers to the question of who man is, Payne affirms who man is not. In marked contrast to those like James Barrat who raise the specter of artificial intelligence as the beginning of the “end of the human era,” Payne affirms that we are not machines. And although we are biological creatures, neither are we only biological animals, as those like Michael Gazzaniga would claim. Unlike animals, we not only behave, but we reflect upon how we behave. As Harold Bloom has observed, we are beings who not only think, but who “overhear ourselves thinking” and can change after overhearing ourselves. We are human beings, which means that we are significant, that we have inner identities, that our lives our meaningful, and that our existence is needed.
At times, cinema succeeds where our philosophy fails us. Films like Nebraska show us, not through casuistic arguments but through facial expressions, camera work, and dialogue, that we are not sub-personal animals, and we are not glorified machines: we are sui generis creatures known as human beings—dependent rational animals, as Alasdair MacIntyre put it.
Woody Grant is not an interchangeable part in the assembly line of the global market economy—and neither are we. We are not Brave New World’s hatchery humans who are bred and programmed as identical, non-unique beings who are prepped to be plugged in to the assembly line of a mechanized world. No, we are b’tselem Elokim: creatures made not in the likeness of machines, but in the likeness of God. We are unique and irreplaceable, even when we are elderly and are losing our faculties . . . and even when we are bumbling, broken-down auto mechanics who want nothing more than a trip to Nebraska.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer and a rabbinical student in New York. His writings on art, religion, law, literature, and film have appeared in The Weekly Standard, Journal of Religion & Film, Religious Studies Review, Bright Lights Film Journal, Moment Magazine, South Texas Law Review, Haaretz, and Harvard Divinity School Bulletin.