By Jack Schwab
Pete Buttigieg is an old person’s image of what a successful young person looks like. The ex-Mckinsey Rhode Scholar veteran, who speaks eight languages and became the first openly gay elected official in Indiana, seems perfect to a certain demographic of older Democrat waxing nostalgic for Barack Obama or Jack Kennedy. But compared to these men, the psuedo-perfection of Buttigieg comes off as shallow. Barack Obama had Harvard Law, but his unorthodox childhood and community organizing background gave him an authentic aura. The audio book of Dreams of My Father alone presents a coarseness and honesty not seen in another president outside of the Nixon tapes. Likewise, after Harvard, Jack Kennedy for all his privilege, moved with grace from New England debutante parties to purple hearts and combat heroics in the Second World War. These are the myths of complicated and nuanced men, but for two men striving for the presidency, their backgrounds show, on some measure, authenticity and a desire to serve.
On the other side, in an age of expanding social media scrutiny, the myth-making of Buttigieg strikes young people as lost in translation. Eight languages would be impressive, but in reality, Buttigieg really at most speaks English and then has varying abilities, each well below fluency, in seven others. His military experience comes off well, but his time as a direct commission naval intelligence officer was ultimately unremarkable. Ultimately, to many veterans I’ve spoken with, the image of Buttigieg holding a gun seems silly unless he was embedded with the SEALs, and we know Buttigieg wasn’t because this would surely be plastered on a few New York Times and Washington Post op-eds. His time as mayor was ultimately unremarkable, interrupted by two years of deployment, and for all the bloviating about coalition building in a red state, outside of Buttigieg’s failed run for treasurer, he’s never acquired more then 10,000 votes in his city of 100,000, the Democratic stronghold of South Bend. Similarly, his time at McKinsey saw him (in an intentionally ungenerous view) fixing the price of bread in Canada, downsizing Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and rent-seeking off of US Development funds in the failed attempt at nation-building in Afghanistan. Ultimately, Pete Buttigieg is accomplished, but in his failure to truly distinguish himself in his various professions, his biography reads more like bingo than a life lived for its own sake.
Another great American myth is that of cowboys and the actors who immortalized them in countless Westerns across the big and small screen. Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and the rest carry a certain tough guy image that goes beyond their time actually acting. In Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the legendary director explores Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo Dicaprio, a fictionalized version of the 1950s man’s man. The movie opens on Rick with his career stalled, his hit show Bounty Law ended so he could seek a film career, and now, too, that film career is on the rocks. A series of war epics built his brand, but he sees a vision of what could have been in the skyrocketing Steve McQueen, who narrowly beat Rick out for his iconic role in The Great Escape. Against the New Hollywood of Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate, and unconventional character actors like Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson taking lead roles, Rick seems resigned to playing the heel in TV guest spots, having the tough guy image he built used to create his replacement. But he’s given an out by Al Pacino’s Marvin Schwarz, a casting director who sees potential for Rick to spend a few years in Italy as the protagonist of a set of Spaghetti Westerns. However, the move to Italy would destroy his self-conception as a suave Hollywood leading man. Rick essentially gets left with a question: does he want to be a star or does he want to be an actor?
The question and the offer remain up in the air as Rick spends the next day on the set of a fictionalized version of the pilot for CBS’s Lancer. The experience ends up renewing Rick as he begins to realize what he’s lost and what he can be again. Upon arriving on set, the show’s lead, James Stacey, treats him with an unsubtle disregard, a direct reminder to Rick of how Hollywood is leaving him behind. Then, the pilot’s director Sam Wannamaker instructs the stylists to change Rick’s hair from his iconic look, giving him long hair and a mustache, like the hippies Rick often derides. Suddenly, a routine role becomes nerve-wracking as Rick loses the visage of his Bounty Law character Jake Cahil, a character he’d essentially played some variation of in every role of his career. Rick must for the first time in a long time truly inhabit another character, as he receives a reminder of what that means from his eight year-old co-star, Trudi Fraser, who during a snack break on set shows Rick her absolute commitment to developing acting techniques and training. She gives Rick the inspiration to perform, but the wind falls out of him when he forgets his line performing a scene. Rick returns to his trailer and breaks down, realizing exactly how he appears to others, knowing that despite the work he put into his lines, the people on set simply see him as an alcoholic phoning it in. This begins to remind Rick of why he first became an actor. The film shows Rick working on his lines the previous day, showing the effort Rick tries to put into being a professional, but the Hollywood tough guy cries in his trailer at the realization that his old image of himself is gone. Renewed in his vigor, Rick plays out the next scene with a brilliance that wows the entire set, truly inhabiting the character of a ruthless bandit as he throws Trudi to the ground. After the cut, the girl bounces back up and whispers in his ear, “that was the best acting I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” Rick stops being a myth and reclaims his status as an actor. With the experience on the set of Lancer behind him, Rick accepts Schwarz’ offer to go to Italy, where he stars in even more pictures beyond the original contract and gets married.
The two hour and forty minute film tells a larger story than that, but the isolation of Rick’s arc in the first two hours tells an essential story. Big Law, Investment Banking, Consulting, and Medicine all attract a certain person, who often claims they’re in the soul crushing hours and work for the money. But it’s not simply the money, it’s also the prestige of working at a Skadden, or Goldman, or McKinsey. You can make money as a plumber or a electrician or as an underwater welder, but you won’t consult with C-suite executives and go to work in an expensive suit. Which isn’t to criticize these careers, but the problem arises when the career itself isn’t the end. Rick is content but on the same level miserable. Each of these firms also open up massive amounts of exit opportunities, which in turn open up more exit opportunities, but at some point, you need to want the job you have, rather than simply search for the next exit. This returns to the example of Buttigieg, whose career seems defined by a forward momentum that prevented him from ever truly making the most of any individual stop.
Now, truly loving your work also presents certain dangers. Adam Driver’s character Charlie in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story fully lives through and for his New York theater and the craft of directing, leading to the divorce with his wife Nicole, played by Scarlett Johanson, that the movie explores. We see how Charlie steam-rolled the somewhat people-pleasing Nicole with his force of will, not directly abusive, but inconsiderate in a way where she eventually felt consumed and suffocated. He refuses all possibility of spending more time with her family in LA, and when she gets the offer for a pilot, Charlie immediately suggests that the money from it be placed back into the theater company. For Charlie, whether it’s in Broadway or Brooklyn, his company is his life, which unfortunately leaves little room for Nicole.
At the end of the film, Charlies truly hurt by their ghastly divorce battle, but somewhat better for it, and now willing to take a fellowship at UCLA to be closer to his son. He remains committed to his craft, but no longer completely preoccupied by it. While Nicole sings the comedic You Could Drive a Person Crazy from Stephen Sondheim’s Company with her mother and sister, liberated by her return to Hollywood and success in the divorce battle, Charlie sings a harrowing rendition of Being Alive from the same musical for the other members of his theater company at a bar in New York. In the song, Robert, a constant bachelor and constant third wheel to his many couple friends, who for so long been afraid of commitment to his many long-term female partners, sings of both the joys and pain of marriage, as the words of his friends on the subject echo in his head. He calls out. . .
“Somebody need me too much. / Somebody know me too well. / Somebody pull me up short, / And put me through hell, / And give me support, / For Being alive. / Make me alive. / Make me alive.”
In the musical, the song reflects on a man uncommitted to marriage, but in the new economy of constant job switching and hedging for the next thing. Suddenly, it becomes about everything. A line from one of Robert’s friends in the song that continues to haunt me is when his ex Susan, who left Robert after he wouldn’t commit, simply implores, “Want something. Want something.” You can continue to move through life aimlessly from one place to the next, but purpose requires the increasingly radical action of unironically wanting something. There will be times when the work is painful, but the tough times should come with a legitimate belief in the work you perform. The work needs to justify itself, because myths are constantly changing. We can construct the perfect resume all we want, but in our fast-paced society, experience that can be gold one minute can turn sour the next. Rick Dalton was a Hollywood Star, until he wasn’t. Pete Buttigieg’s Mckinsey experience was a political asset, until it wasn’t. At the end of the day, where we work is much less important than the work we accomplish, and playing to the shifting tide of public opinion will inevitably disappoint, unless we thread the needle perfectly. ◆