The commercial was designed to be shown only once, in the middle of Super Bowl XLVI. And it cost a bundle: aside from the production budget, NBC was charging $3.5 million for a 30-second spot, and this one lasts two minutes, suggesting a $14 million tab. But Chrysler, the sponsor of the “Halftime in America” ad, must consider its money well spent. The auto company reaped millions of dollars in the best kind of free publicity: the acclaim of critics and viewers, with more than four million YouTube views in its first 36 hours. It also stirred the denunciation of right-wing mastermind Karl Rove, who essentially charged Clint Eastwood, the commercial’s narrator and star, with being the dupe of “the President of the United States and his minions” and their “Chicago-style politics.” Priceless. Aside from the New York Giants, “Halftime in America” was this Super Bowl’s biggest winner.
So who directed this memorable, controversial prose-poem to American determination? David Gordon Green, the guy behind the dopester comedy Pineapple Express and the critically execrated medieval comedy Your Highness.
For the six of you who haven’t seen — and heard — the commercial (which you can view here), here’s the text, intoned in Eastwood’s raspy, Gran Torino tenor:
It’s halftime. Both teams are in their locker room discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half. It’s halftime in America too. People are out of work and they’re hurting, and they’re all wondering what they’re gonna do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared because this isn’t a game. People in Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, and now Motor City is fighting again.
I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life, times when we didn’t understand each other. Seems that we’ve lost our heart at times, when the fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead. But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right, and acted as one. Because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way then we’ll make one.
All that matters now is what’s ahead: how do we come from behind? How do we come together? And how do we win? Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And what’s true about them is true about all of us. This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again, and when we do the world’s gonna hear the roar of our engines.
Yeah. It’s halftime, America. And our second half’s about to begin.
Over this narration we see vignettes of ordinary Americans first in despair (a man sitting on the bed, his face in his hands, as his wife sleeps), then in solidarity (family portraits in a rainbow-coalition album), with Eastwood emerging from a tunnel’s sepulchral shadows to growl the final urgent invocation. Few automobiles are seen and shilled in the montage; it’s mostly grim or hopeful faces, Dorothea Lange tending toward Norman Rockwell. The final logo: “Imported from Detroit.”
First off, Rove is right. And it doesn’t matter that Eastwood, no pansy liberal, denounced the government’s Detroit bailout as recently as November. The ad’s political message is hard to miss: that partisan division has soiled the first half of Barack Obama’s potential two terms as President, and that a united America would make his second term more productive. It’s a tough version of the Al Green song, “Let’s Stay Together,” which Obama warbled at the Apollo Theater a few weeks ago. The commercial’s echoes of “Morning in America,” the theme of Ronald Reagan’s campaign for reelection in 1984, certify the tone of optimism any President wants to infuse in the electorate.
We’re guessing that the Portland, Ore., ad agency Weiden + Kennedy hired David Gordon Green less for his recent work in the sub-Judd Apatow comedy genre — he also directed Jonah Hill in The Sitter — than for his early films made when he was a recent graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts (where he met his future Your Highness star, Danny McBride). Green’s first two micro-budget features, George Washington and All the Real Girls, showed a pained lyricism in their treatment of pre-teens and young adults searching for love and maturity in lower-middle-class towns — just the environment that “Halftime in America” paints on a grander scale.
Green’s 2007 Snow Angels, on its face a standard story of small-town adultery, was really about people less like those in the movies than like those watching them: folks for whom grand gestures fall flat, and escape is impossible. Theirs are the faces we see in the first half of “Halftime in America,” before the music swells and heroic resolve sets in to show us the truly United States that once was and could be again.
For the text, Weiden + Kennedy turned to another unlikely artist: the 36-year-old Portland-based poet Matthew Dickman. (His twin brother Michael is also a poet.) Among our day’s most seductive vernacular versifiers, Dickman usually mixes cocktails of pain and humor, as when he imagines grief as a purple gorilla coming to cuddle the speaker in intimations of mortality, or a friend as ripe as a Roma tomato who teaches him how to love the dead, even Hitler. Like Billy Collins’s poems, Dickman’s may begin jauntily, then U-turn into quirky or eerie profundity.
No less than Green, Dickman often focuses on America’s downtrodden, those who are left out and forgotten about. One critic, Major Jackson in the Boston Review, wrote that Dickman’s poetry cues “the always painful, yet easily forgettable, awareness that many people suffer psychically under the knife of American prosperity. Outside the frame of these poems lurk the children of female-headed homes; parents who work two or more jobs; teenage moms who live in ‘Drug-Free Zones’ and ‘Urban Renewal Zones,’ unkempt neighborhoods whose parks are normally full of drugs; teen addicts slumping toward oblivion; and fathers for whom the closest thing to therapy is domestic abuse.”
As with any ad-agency copy, Dickman’s contribution doubtless got reworked by other hands, including Eastwood’s. But the terse poetry shines through the rewrites, and twins handsomely with Green’s images of a team — the Giants or the little Americans — down at the halftime but determined to win. Green, Dickman and of course Clint created a minor miracle: a car commercial that is the new year’s most highly praised film.