This film doesn't end. It just stops. As if in mid-sentence. It's like
the abrupt end to The Sopranos, rejecting the reactionary and inane
wrap-up to Breaking Bad.
The open end is necessary because the moral, social and psychological
issues the film sets in motion are too complex and too shifting to
settle into any easy resolution.
Richard Gere gets top billing as Stan Lohman, the congressman about to
be elected governor. But his psychologically damaged younger brother
Paul (Steve Coogan) has arguably the more central role and conveys the
key line: "We make war for love."
As a high school history teacher Paul teaches Gettysburg, the beginning
of the end (i) of the civil war, and (ii) of a society securely
rooted in values and moral certainty. Of course the Civil War was
fought for economics as much as anything else. But the soldiers thought
they were fighting for conflicting loves: the mythologized glory of the
Old South vs the valiant ideal of egalitarian freedom.
Paul is a savage, it turns out, as we see in his two classrooms rants
where his rage and cynicism overrun any academic decorum. As he early
tells us, he prefers the heroic days of ancient Greece and Rome, the
pagan energies, over the Dark Ages and ensuing silly niceties of modern
That's why the two brothers and their families take this slugfest to
the ultra-expensive chichi restaurant. The setting makes this another
exploration of Civilization and its Discontents. As the two couples
debate how to treat their sons' savagery the maitre d' recites the
pedigree of each ingredient. This is an extensio ad absurdum of the
refinements of civilization and the rewards of its privileged.
Paul is uncomfortable there, in part because he can't afford it, he
doesn't understand it, and he feels as excluded from this ritual as he
felt from his mother's preference for Stan. If he seems sensible in
disdaining the manners and the preciousness, he's ultimately just
destructive and rude.
Stan is easy in that precious milieu, gliding through the crowd of
Washington Insiders. His slickness tempts us to dismiss him. But when
he decides to abandon his career and bring his son to justice Stan
represents civilization at its moral best.
The brothers' different responses to the dinner cohere with their
different responses to their sons' brutal and mindless murder of a
homeless black woman, burning her alive in an ATM booth. To our
surprise, the slick politico wants his son to face judgment. The total
strategist suddenly places morality and principle above expediency. In
contrast, his more cynical and less capable of action brother
decides to preserve the sons' secret by setting out to kill Stan's
adopted black son, Beau, who has decided to turn in the two boys.
Both mothers fiercely try to protect the boys against Stan's eruption
of morality. Claire (Laura Linley) tries to settle the matter without
involving hubby Paul, arranging to pay off Beau for his silence. When
he changes his mind, she orders Paul to "look after Beau" a demand
about as motherly as Lady Macbeth.
Stan's wife Katelyn shares Claire's commitment to save the boys, even
though they're only her step-sons. Hungry to save their sons the
mothers demonize and wholly misrepresent their innocent victim. Despite
this difference, both woman are the supportive roots of their husband's
lives. The fierceness of maternal love bonds the women in contrast to
their husbands' antagonism.
Here the film seems most reflective of Trump's America. In the mothers
insistence upon protecting their own family interests above all law and
morality, they are Republicans at their most acceptable. Paul slips
into their position, off his meds, too weak and confused to resist. But
the moral hero is the politician Stan, who places conscience and
justice ahead of his own and his family's interests. That's the liberal
politician, an endangered species in Trump's America.
Hence Stan's campaign for a bill to grant the mentally afflicted the
same health coverage as the physically ill get. This echo of Obamacare
and slap at Trumpcare also reflects on how Stan grew out of his own
mother's madness, which persists in Paul. The figure we initially
reject the slick Stan, Washington Insider turns out to hold the
moral center. This film posits a liberal humanity against the Trump
But it's not an easy choice. Which is the villain: the mother who will
do anything to protect her son or the father who places justice and
morality over this personal interests? The film ends before the
three-day delay Stan grants his wife to try to change his mind. We
don't know how that family's drama will end. Nor should we, given the
complexities of the drama at the family, national and archetypal
But if we're responsible citizens we'll try to figure out what we would
do in that position. It's not easy.