Early in the road trip at the heart of Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s new movie, David Grant (Will Forte) insists that he and his cranky, doddering father, Woody (Bruce Dern), stop to see Mount Rushmore, which is just a half-hour out of the way. “A bunch of rocks,” Woody says when they get there. And it’s not even finished, he adds: Lincoln doesn’t have an ear, Washington’s the only one with any clothes. He and David get back in the car.
It’s a comic moment, and not especially subtle—if there’s a more obvious symbol for old-fashioned ideas about America than Mount bleeping Rushmore, I can’t think of it. But with that flagrantly grand image Payne taps on the shoulder of any viewer who’s yet to notice that Nebraska is more than a character study or a gentle meditation on fathers and sons. His movie persistently, carefully investigates an outdated vision of white American manhood—one that’s fading, and was always a bit cracked, but that casts a long shadow regardless.
Consider another funny scene, which arrives not long after the Mount Rushmore pit-stop. Woody’s many brothers gather around a TV to watch football. They stare out at us, the audience, and what we see is a Rushmore-like set of craggy faces—which, because Nebraska is shot in black and white, are pretty much the same color as those dead presidents carved in stone. (These descendants of farmers also resemble, as Dana Stevens points out, “the male half of the American Gothic couple reproduced in quintuplicate.”) One Grant asks another about the old car he used to drive—a Chevy Impala, was it? That thing ran forever, he says. Turns out it was a Buick, though, not a Chevy. And it stopped running.
The car broke down, Mt. Rushmore isn’t finished: Nebraska punctures rosy notions of an old America full of great men and indestructible cars. And the car talk in this road movie never stops: David’s two dumbass cousins speak of little else, and mock the “Jap cars” driven by their out-of-town kin. Woody himself was a mechanic (his son, by the way, sells stereo equipment). When he stops by the shop he once co-owned, he finds two Spanish-speaking men have taken his place.
As those two details suggest, a more nostalgic movie on similar themes might flirt with racism. But Nebraska is clear-eyed about the failures of the past. Woody’s a veteran—of Korea, that semi-forgotten, questionably motivated Cold War conflict, not World War II. (As Stevens notes in her review, Nebraska repeatedly echoes Hail the Conquering Hero, Preston Sturges’ satire of ersatz military heroism.) Woody’s parents were farmers, but he can’t even remember whether he ever wanted to be one himself. And we can tell their lives were plenty hard, too—though the old farm, like a ruined castle, is the one sight that seems to get to him.
The movie’s most sustained satire of American life is also the engine of its plot: a scam letter that tells Woody he won a million dollars. It’s really just someone’s ploy for getting by, but Woody chases the bogus dream, looking, it seems, for a reason to get out of town (and hoping, we later learn, for a new pickup truck). As David Denby points out in The New Yorker, the story of Nebraska “moves East rather than West, as mythic American narratives once did.” It puts the American story in reverse, in other words, and looks at a past that’s not just Woody’s.