Period pieces in movies are tough to pull off - particularly when it comes to politics.
Boyhood - Richard Linklater's film arc about "Mason Jr." from cuddly 6-year-old boy to bearded college freshman - is one of the few movies in recent memory to feature political dialogue as it happens in real life.
Too often in film on-screen dialogue winks at future events the audience will happen. Think of the ending to Charlie Wilson's War, where the Democratic Texas congressman warns about unintended consequences that could come from his secret efforts to aid anti-Soviet rebels (which is what happened, tragically, on Sept. 11, 2001.)
Or consider the 2012 epic Lincoln. Steven Spielberg's opening scene depicts a pair of Union soldiers - one black, one white - reciting "the words of the Gettysburg Address to the appreciative Lincoln, who is visiting the front toward the end of the war," Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer wrote in The Daily Beast. Here's Holzer's problem with this depiction:
It is almost inconceivable that any uniformed soldier of the day (or civilians, for that matter) would have memorized a speech that, however ingrained in modern memory, did not achieve any semblance of a national reputation until the 20th century.
Boyhood's political references, in contrast, are truly in-the-moment. It's one of the many benefits of the movie being shot over a nearly twelve-year period. We watch the characters grow older on-screen, absent special effects or age-altering make-up.
The film "is a groundbreaking story of growing up as seen through the eyes of a child named Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who literally grows up on screen before our eyes," notes the site Metacritic. "Starring Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as Mason's parents and newcomer Lorelei Linklater as his sister Samantha, Boyhood charts the rocky terrain of childhood like no other film has before and is both a nostalgic time capsule of the recent past and an ode to growing up and parenting."
The Ethan Hawke character is the most overtly political. This side of his role - Mason Sr. - is first visible in a 2004 scene showing him in a stilted bid to spending time with his kids in Texas, after a year-and-a-half long absence. Trying to reacquaint himself with his eight-year-old daughter and six-year-old son, Hawke lashes out verbally against President George W. Bush.
"Anybody But Bush" Hawke says indignantly, while eating with the family at a Houston-area bowling alley. That's how Bush critics really talked during that heated contest against Democratic nominee John Kerry. In fact, Anybody But Bush was a popular bumper sticker at the time, and early-ish internet meme.
And the daughter's response, about her school teacher saying the Iraq War reflected a "better safe than sorry" approach to foreign threats, is another realistic element. History didn't show that to be true, but a lot of people sure thought it at the time.
Four years later, there's a get-out-the-vote push during the 2008 election between Barack Obama and John McCain. A suburban housewife is depicted as almost worshipful of Obama, in an overtly sexual way. And this in deep-red Texas. The scene and dialogue reflect the near-demigod status Obama enjoyed during those heady days before the reality of governing set in.
Linklater's subtle incorporation of political themes into Boyhood is among many reasons the film is drawing critical praise.
"While Linklater clearly leans to the left, he grew up with a dad who voted for President Jimmy Carter and a step-dad who voted for President Richard Nixon," writes WTOP radio (Washington, D.C.) reviewer Jason Fraley. "Linklater goes out of his way to criticize extremes on both sides, showing a stars-and-bars redneck with bubbling racism, followed by an airhead voter blinded by 'hope and change' excitement."
And New Yorker writer Anthony Lane notes how the maternal Patricia Arquette character "takes up with an Iraq veteran, who becomes a corrections officer, and whom we see sitting on the front porch, clutching his can of beer, seething at an uncorrectable world."
These realistic political themes are among the cinematic triumphs of Boyhood. The two-hour-forty-minute film is similarly worth seeing for the technical feat of using current devices in real time.
"Boyhood journeys from Apple computers to iPods, from iPhones to Skype, and culminates with a Facebook debate where Mason says mankind has willingly turned itself into social robots," Fraley writes. "At one point, his stepfather complains about 'computer games at the table,' as Mason's stepbrother plays a '20 Questions' game on a handheld device instead of interacting with the family."
"What perceptive foreshadowing of the 'distracted' smartphone era, before it even took off!"
But unlike other movies, this tech foreshadowing is believable. Just like the political scenes.
Politix Editor-in-Chief David Mark is author, with Chuck McCutcheon, of Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Slang, Jargon and Bluster of American Political Speech, to be released on Sept. 2, 2014. He is also author of Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning.