The Sting (review)

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Talkin’ ’Bout My Generation

William Strauss and Neil Howe have written two incredible books about the cyclical nature of history, Generations and The Fourth Turning. (Bear with me — this does have something to do with The Sting.) They posit four types of American generations and four historical “turnings” or eras occurring over the course of an American lifetime. The generational type they call Nomad has thrown off British rule, rebuilt the South during Reconstruction, and weathered the Depression and defeated Hitler during the Fourth Turnings, or Crises, that occurred during their midlife years. Before their triumphs — in the Third Turnings, or Unravelings, of their young adulthood — they were the no-nonsense grunts of the French and Indian, Civil, and Great Wars; they were furtrappers, frontiersmen, and rumrunners.

Strauss and Howe suggest that we’re midway through a Third Turning today; today’s Nomads, Generation Xers, are Gulf War veterans, gangsta rappers, and Web pioneers. We’re as entrepreneurial, as adventurous, and even sometimes as criminal as our generational brethren — the gangsters, jazz musicians, and flappers of the Lost Generation — were in the 1920s. And when the next Fourth Turning begins sometime around 2010, with a crisis on the scale of the Depression and WWII, some GenXers will be the generals leading the fight to save the world, like FDR and Eisenhower before us, and some will just be hung over from the Roaring 00s.

And now to The Sting. The year is 1936; the setting is Chicago. Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) is hung over from the Roaring 20s. He obviously has quite a criminal run behind him — “Every bunko man in the country knows Gondorff,” says Chicago police detective Snyder (Charles Durning) — but now he’s just holed up, semiretired from crime and slowly drinking himself to death. Enter young Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford; the character, I think, is a bit younger than the actor), a small-time scam artist who wants revenge on big-shot New York racketeer Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), who ordered the murder of Hooker’s partner. Hooker “don’t know enough about killin’ to kill” Lonnegan, so he wants Gondorff to teach him the “big con” so he can take Lonnegan without letting him even know he’s been conned.

The Sting is pretty universally acknowledged as one of the best films ever made. From the flawless performances all round to the clever script, this is movie magic that approaches a kind of wizardry. Not a note is out of place — every line, every scene builds on what’s come before until it ends so breathlessly and abruptly that it leaves you astounded at its audacity. Lonnegan’s not the only one who gets conned; writer David S. Ward and director George Roy Hill sting the viewer, too. This is just about as perfect as movies come.

Except… Except, some fans say, for the score: However wonderful it is, and it is wonderful, the ragtime music underscoring The Sting is completely anachronistic. I used to think so, too. But I saw things a little differently when I started thinking generationally.

Young Johnny Hooker may instigate the big con against Lonnegan, but Gondorff and his pals — including scam artists played by Ray Walston and Harold Gould and his hooker girlfriend played by Eileen Brennan — do it for Hooker’s partner, Luther. Hooker is maybe 30; Gondorff’s crew, and Luther, are all in their 40s and 50s. Even Charles Durning’s dirty, blackmailing cop is more their peer than Hooker is. Like the typical Nomad, they’re all cocky, practical, and interested in cold, hard cash. (Hooker places himself in the succeeding generational type particularly with his lack of real interest in money. He can lose $3000 on a single roulette spin and not blink an eye; he refuses his share of the take on the big con.)

On top of getting vengeance for Luther, all the older con artists are nostalgic for times past — a big con hasn’t been done in years. They’re all thrilled to be back in the action. And this is where the ragtime soundtrack comes in: Ragtime was the music of the childhood and young adulthood of all these 40- and 50-somethings. The Sting isn’t so much Johnny Hooker’s story as it is one last reminder of the good old days for all the other characters.

Imagine this: Sometime in the 2050s, someone makes a movie about all the scary, funny, thrilling things midlife HTML geeks and Web entrepreneurs got up to in the crisis years of the 2010s to recapture their days of glory ten and twenty years earlier. And the soundtrack for this movie is filled with Duran Duran and A Flock of Seagulls. Anachronistic? Only if you fail to see our heroes are harkening back to an even better time in their lives: their childhood and teen years of the 1980s.

I rest my case.

Oscars Best Picture 1973
unforgettable movie moment:
Lonnegan burns with fury when he loses a rigged poker game to Gondorff, who cheats better.

previous Best Picture:
1972: The Godfather
next Best Picture:
1974: The Godfather: Part II

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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