The Ice Storm

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

8 August

President Nixon resigns, 1974

On this day in 1974, facing impeachment for his involvement in the Watergate affair, Richard Nixon went on air to declare that he would resign the next day.

His speech admitted no wrong-doing and spent at least half of its duration cataloguing the achievements of his administration, especially in foreign policy.

Watergate brought Nixon down not because he admitted what he knew – he possibly didn’t know that Republican hirelings had broken into a Democrat HQ to steal vital documents – but because he didn’t admit that he had learned about it some days later and had ordered a cover-up. This only came to light after Nixon was ordered by the Supreme Court to release unedited tapes of his conversations in the Oval Office.

Nixon had spent the previous year claiming executive privilege and had first issued only transcripts, then edited versions. The final series of tapes were unabridged and clearly showed when Nixon knew what he knew.

He accepted responsibility but claimed he had acted in good faith, blaming a memory lapse for his erroneous version of events.

The Ice Storm (1997, dir: Ang Lee)

Wife-swapping, drink, drugs and under-age sex. Director Ang Lee uses them all in this claustrophobic film to make a simple point: that the American way of life, based only on the “I want, I want” principle, has taken a wrong turn. And he sets it against the background of Watergate (news reports about which are constantly burbling away in the background on the TV) to suggest when the wrong road was taken.

The action takes place during an ice storm in Connecticut, a moment of stasis which forces two families, the Hoods and the Carvers, to crisis point.

Ben (Kevin Kline) is having an affair with neighbour Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver). His wife Elena (Joan Allen) is regularly stealing things from shops. Their Carver and Hood children – we’re not always sure who lives in which house – drink and are taking exploration of budding sexuality slightly further than most kids go.

It’s all a bit of a mess, the hedonism of people liberated by the 1960s not quite meshing with the responsibilities of the same people who have become 1970s adults. And rather than confronting the dysjunction, everyone is carrying on as if everything is OK. It isn’t, behind the curtains of booze and drifts of marijuana smoke.

At a swinging key party that the Hoods attend, the local minister (Michael Clumpsty) is also there, wanting to join in, at one point mumbling something about shepherds needing the comfort of their sheep as some sort of grubby justification.

James Schamus, Lee’s regular screenwriter, catches it all with deft strokes, making the interchanges droll rather than finger-waggy. Lee complements him by serving up images of the 1970s that bring it back to pullulating life – the colour schemes, the clothes and the strange fixation on soft furnishings.

The Ice Storm is one of the first examples – possibly the first – of a shift in tone in Hollywood films about the heroic 1960s. Was it all good? Wasn’t everyone just a touch selfish? Were some of the political gains actually steps backwards in some sense, away from personal responsibility? Even so, it’s is not a right wing screed – that’s hardly Lee’s style – more a taking stock and a plea for us all to take a look around, perhaps trim the political sails.

When it first came out, in 1997, the film had a retro fascination. Now, time has moved on again and there’s the added nostalgic appeal of seeing the likes of Christina Ricci and Elijah Wood when still young – she was maybe 16, he about 15. And manners have moved on too. The culture has shifted to the right, partly because progressives like Ang Lee wanted it to, because we all wanted it to. The Ice Storm reminds us why we wanted it to.

Why Watch?

  • Ang Lee doesn’t make bad films
  • A great cast
  • James Schamus’s acerbic screenplay
  • Mark Friedberg’s production design

The Ice Storm – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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