God, the 70’s were so WEIRD! This is an incredibly strange movie. Dustin Hoffman’s father was a victim of history (blacklisted during the McCarthy purges). One of his sons (Roy Scheider) has grown up to be a — God, I don’t even know what he’s supposed to be, I think a CIA agent slash bagman for fugitive Nazis living in South America slash mobster. His other son (Hoffman) is a graduate student in history, writing a dissertation about “the role of tyranny in American political history.” Yeah, um, better buy some extra typewriter ribbons, pal.
The plot here is hard to figure exactly, but I do know that it is extremely paranoid. Everyone–students, professors, businessmen, cops, government officials, bankers, and especially dapper elderly Germans–is lying, cheating, stealing, and, sometimes, performing dentistry without anasthetic. Furthermore, Schlesinger’s apocalyptic Manhattan would make Travis Bickle’s look good to Carrie Bradshaw.
It’s all very washed out and depressing, yet I will say this: Movies were perhaps a bit more willing, at that moment in history, to go ahead and be washed out and depressing. Nothing’s any less effed-up now than it was then, yet it’s almost impossible to imagine something this effed up making it into production today. We still have plenty of critique and paranoia at the multiplex, but it’s a lot slicker, more digestible, and easier to look at than it used to be, don’t you think?