Little Film, Big Heart

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I have great admiration for the people who work closely with the elderly, either as professionals, volunteers, or simply family members or friends. It takes great patience, humor, patience, affection . . . did I mention patience?

My sister has cheerfully cared for five elderly family members: both our parents, both their spouses, and her own mother-in-law. Of the five, only our mother is still alive. We joke that while I raised children, my sister raised parents. She swears she got the easier task. I know she did not. It takes tremendous fortitude and patience to listen to the same stories and respond to the same concerns day after day.

The film Nebraska takes a close look not only at elderly people but at an elderly town and an elderly way of life. It is filmed in gray in the autumn of the year, emphasizing the graying generation in the autumn of its life. The film is slow, just as its characters are slow. But it is also funny and enlightening and oh-so-true.

Woody Grant (the wonderful Bruce Dern) has received one of those Publishers Clearing House-like sweepstakes certificates telling him that he has “won” a million dollars, and he is determined to get to Lincoln, Nebraska before the deadline to claim his prize, even if it means walking. From Billings, Montana. He sets out several times, only to be turned back by his sons or the sheriff, who simply cannot convince him that the certificate is a marketing ploy. When one person asks if Woody has Alzheimer’s, his son David (Will Forte) replies, “No. He just believes what people tell him.” Missing the irony, the person replies with a patronizing shrug, “That’s too bad.”

Finally David agrees to drive his father to Lincoln, partly to appease him, partly to spend some time with him, but mostly just to shut him up about the sweepstakes money. What he discovers is the father he never knew.

Along the way they stop in Hawthorne, a one-light town where Woody grew up and where most of his friends and family still live. Woody hasn’t been there in 20 years, so all of his brothers get together for Sunday dinner. The scenes with his brothers are a hoot, reminding one of the patience it requires to spend extended time with the elderly. A typical conversation among Woody and his brothers goes something like this:

Woody: You still got that Impala, Verne?
Verne (Dennis McCoig): What?
Woody: You still got that Impala?
Verne: Didn’t have an Impala. Had a Buick.
Woody: You still got that Buick?
Ray (Rance Howard) joins in: It was a ’78, wasn’t it?
Verne: ’79.
Woody: They don’t make cars like that any more. Those cars’ll run forever.
Ray: You still got that car?
Verne: Nope.
Ray: What happened to it?
Verne: Stopped runnin’.

All this time the brothers and cousins are staring slack-jawed at a rerun of The Golden Girls. It’s enough to drive someone nuts. And oh, so true. This was a generation that was taught not to talk about feelings, or politics, or anything that might be considered controversial. So they talk about the weather. And cars.

David warns his father not to tell anyone about the award money; he’s trying to protect him from ridicule. But when Woody lets it slip out, everyone is convinced that he is indeed about to become a millionaire. The more David denies it, the more the townspeople believe it. And they all feel entitled to their share. “We helped him when he was down and out,” they claim. “He owes us!” The ugliness of greed and envy is forcefully demonstrated as Woody becomes both the town hero and the town villain because of his supposed windfall. But David becomes increasingly protective of his father, and his understanding and affection grow.

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the film is its treatment of the simple fact of aging. We see people who were once vital, quick, and strong now shuffling and slumped but still as dynamic on the inside as they ever were. One of my dearest friends, a gracious, talented 40-year-old living inside an 80-year-old body, once told me that it shocks her every time she looks into a mirror. “Honey, I just don’t know that woman,” she said. “I still feel 40.”

That seems to be the way the people in this film feel. Their bodies are stooped and wrinkled and their waists have expanded, but they are still active and involved in their community. (Well — except for Woody’s couch-potato brothers and nephews.) Particularly touching is Angela McEwan as Peg Nagy, a woman who had a crush on Woody before he met and married David’s mother. Peg is beautiful and charming, with a smile that starts deep in her eyes and lights up her face, even when she is holding back the sadness of losing the love of her life. Life wasn’t easy for the Depression generation, and they learned to take everything in stride.

Many of the actors inNebraska are new to the job; they were cast right in Plainview, Nebraska, where much of the movie was filmed. Director Alexander Payne said of his extras, “I pay myself few compliments, but I think [casting director] John Jackson and I cast well.”

They did indeed. This is a small film with an enormous heart and an outstanding cast. It will make you want to call your father and hug your mother. And even listen to them as they tell you yet again about that ’79 Impala that was really a Buick.


Editor's Note: Review of "Nebraska," directed by Alexander Payne. Paramount, 2013, 110 minutes.



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A Miracle in Lansing

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On December 11, in a stunning surprise, Michigan became the 24th state to adopt right-to-work (RTW) legislation, that is, a law that prohibits any union from forcing workers to join or support it. In other words, Michigan has finally allowed people to exercise their right to free association.

This victory for workers’ freedom was amazing in that it was unlike most RTW states — which are mainly Southern states with no deep history of unionization. Like Indiana, the most recent state to adopt RTW legislation, Michigan is a large, upper Midwestern state; and it has long been dominated by union power.  

In fact, Michigan ranks fifth highest on the list of the states in terms of the percentage of its workforce who belong to unions (19.2%, compared to a national average of 11.8%). It has watched as businesses fled the state in droves — especially to Indiana, which after it passed its RTW law picked up 90 companies from Michigan.

The victory was notable for how quickly it occurred. It was only on December 6 that both chambers of Michigan’s legislature passed the Workforce Fairness and Equity Act. Under legislative rules, the state’s Governor Rick Snyder had to wait at least five days before signing the bill, during which time the unions mounted loud, furious, and occasionally violent protests. But the governor signed the law on the first day he could, despite the fact that Snyder had earlier in his term stated that he was not inclined to support RTW legislation.

But the really surprising thing is that Michigan has often been a bastion of the Democratic Party. The state’s citizens voted overwhelmingly for Obama in the recent election (54% to 44%). As surprising as the victory for the RTW law was, however, there were several reasons why the state legislature and governor felt the time was right to free the workers from their union oppression.

First, Michigan has been on an economic road to hell for years, with the crisis of its leading city, Detroit, as just the most striking example. Detroit is now teetering on bankruptcy, in great measure because of the excessive compensation and pension packages that public employee unions enjoy. Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the Midwest — despite the tens of billions of taxpayers’ dollars that the Obama administration has given to GM, Chrysler, and the United Auto Workers Union.

The unions not only didn’t help to solve the problems, they made it nearly impossible for the governor and legislature to act. In particular, the public employee unions opposed all efforts to institute reasonable fiscal reforms to rescue distressed cities and school districts, virtually shutting down dysfunctional Detroit.

Second, the unions overreached. Seeing nearby Wisconsin cut back on collective bargaining rights for some public employee unions and nearby Indiana adopt an RTW law, Michigan’s unions put a proposition (Prop 2) on the ballot to amend the state constitution to make public employee collective bargaining beyond all legislative control. They also pushed an amendment (Prop 4) that would have forced unionization on all home health workers. Their arrogance in pushing these propositions and their impotence in failing even to come close to passing either one of them made the unions look asinine.

Third, the unions displayed their vicious side too prominently during the legislative debate. As legislators examined the RTW proposal, union supporters screamed “Heil Hitler! That’s what you people are!” at the Republicans speaking in favor of it. The Democratic legislators tried every parliamentary trick to stop a vote, including a Wisconsin-style walkout. A Fox reporter was beaten up by union thugs, and union supporters collapsed a tent owned by Americans for Prosperity (supporters of the legislation) on the people inside it, while screaming insults at them.

The question is now: which states will follow Michigan’s lead?




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No, Really — Why Does He Do That?

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Have you ever noticed that President Obama runs whenever he sees a set of stairs?

He always (check this out, and you’ll find I am right) runs up and down the steps to his plane. If there are steps to the platform where he’s going to speak, he runs up and down those steps. I mean, even when he’s speaking in the White House, where he lives, he thinks he needs to run the two steps to his podium.

Now he’s touring the Midwest on a gargantuan bus that is supposed to make him look like a normal Midwesterner. Good luck. But the vehicle has the usual three steps between the ground and the body of the thing. So after every speaking engagement, Obama hauls off and runs up the steps of the bus. He runs up three steps.

I don’t mean that he walks fast. I mean that he runs like a junior high school kid doing his first competitive sprints. And he doesn’t just run the steps, he takes off from ten feet away, as if he needed to win third place at the Kalamazoo County JV meet and knew that you’ve gotta show your hustle if you wanta win. His arms are pumping, his legs are striving to please the coach, and his demeanor is like, “I can do it! I can run up these steps.”

For God’s sake, what kind of person is this?




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