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Everything’s political nowadays. The beer you drink, the food you eat, the mask you wear (or not), along with realistically the movies you see. Some would say that due to Hollywood’s near monolithic Lefty-ness, just seeing a film is a political statement. Such a view is an overstatement.

While some filmmakers beat us over the head with political imagery, not all of them do. Some entertainers recognize (paraphrasing Michael Jordan) that Republicans buy movie tickets too. One perhaps surprising example here would be George Clooney with his latest. Though the actor, director and producer has never kept his politics quiet, he happily kept them out of the new film he directed, The Tender Bar.

The Tender Bar is the film adaptation of the 2006 J.R. Moehringer memoir. Born to a radio DJ father who had very little interest in him, and a mother whose work struggles forced a move home to her father’s run-down house in Manhasset, J.R. found father figures in the Dickens, the bar run by his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck). Clooney’s film covers J.R. (played as a youth by Daniel Ranieri) from the time of the move to Long Island right up to the late ‘80s, after J.R. (played as an adult by Tye Sheridan) has graduated from college.  

J.R.’s mother (played by Lily Rabe) has expansive hopes for her son, and the hopes are plainly rooted in her own failures that brought them back to dad’s house. The time of their return is important mainly because her vision includes J.R. attending Yale.

J.R. is ultimately accepted, matriculates, and proceeds to have a great time. The expectation about how the Yale years would be filmed were political in nature. Since J.R. comes from the theoretical wrong side of the track to New Haven in 1982, I expected t-shirts bashing Ronald Reagan, campus protests, along with an effort by Clooney to expose the bad (Yale’s allegedly entitled rich kids) versus the good; as in scholarship students like J.R. Thankfully Clooney didn’t go that route.

Though J.R.’s roommates are ethnic (Jimmy is Asian, Wesley is black), Clooney doesn’t ethnicize them. Thank goodness. He just presents them as young college kids. Upon meeting in their shared dorm room, Wesley tells his roommates that as Yalies, we three need to go get “f-ed up.” And so they do.

Better yet, Clooney conveys so much optimism through Wesley. No doubt this could be how he was written by Moehringer in the memoir, or by William Monahan in the script, but directors have a lot of leeway to shape the story they’re telling. Clooney in particular. But instead of politicizing J.R.’s black roommate, Clooney instead chooses to communicate how lucky they all are through Wesley. Wesley explains that he’s a “lucky sperm” kid. His ancestors, in addition to being “fast” had super-genes that made it possible for them to survive the myriad life-ending viruses that killed off so many, so early. By extension, so is J.R. a member of the “lucky sperm” club. He’s at Yale after all.

Wesley’s optimism is clearly an antidote to the pessimism born of the bad deal J.R. has in his ne’er-do-well father. Wesley seems to be telling his friend to not play the victim. While it would be easy to explain away life’s failings on an absentee father (in the film J.R.’s father makes exactly that point), Wesley’s cheerful countenance throughout is a sign of how lucky they all are. No excuses.

While at Yale, Wesley also introduces J.R. to Sidney, a beautiful, well-bred, “lower upper middle class” girl who comes from a grand house in Wesport, CT, and who takes a short-term shine to J.R. Sidney’s black mother is particularly snooty, but thankfully here Clooney doesn’t go the class warfare, class struggle route. It would have been easy to, obviously. Instead, J.R.’s years-long love of Sidney that’s not returned is rooted in problems not with his background, but because he expresses no ambition to move up from his background. This is an important distinction.

Which brings us to Uncle Charlie. He’s in many ways the surrogate father to J.R., and an honest one. He sees what Sidney is looking for. Rather than telling J.R. what he wants to hear, he tells him that Sidney keeps in touch with him to see if he’s going to do something with his life. J.R. doesn’t shape up fast enough, it seems, because Sidney marries someone else. Rather than feed his nephew feel-good lies, he tells the wannabe writer to rein in his drinking.

Uncle Charlie never went to college, but his father (J.R.’s grandfather) went to Dartmouth. As explained in the film, Charlie didn’t have the money for college. You see, in that era it wasn’t just about getting in. It all speaks to the damage government money has done to a college degree. It used to be that attainment of one signaled achievement over long odds, including tough financial odds for those of limited means. Government money has robbed of meaning what was once very meaningful.

What about the education? Charlie is a reminder that people educate themselves without regard to whether they attend school. He’s got a closet groaning with books that he’s devoured. Charlie is highly learned, without being educated. Which is the point. People who choose to be knowledgeable will be. The value of college isn’t now, nor was it then about the learning. It was overcoming obstacles. Government idiotically took away the obstacles, shrinking college in the process.

The Tender Bar doesn’t end sad or wildly happy, which is encouraging. J.R. doesn’t win the hand of Sidney, his stint with the New York Times doesn’t result in a job offer as a reporter, either. Still, J.R. decides to move to New York where Wesley has an apartment for them. He’ll be a writer. Charlie tells him he’ll need a job to be a writer. So true.

Optimism, hard and soft truth in The Tender Bar, but no politics. For that we should be thankful in an age when everything is political.

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Vice President at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors (www.appliedfinance.com). His new book is titled When Politicians Panicked: The New Coronavirus, Expert Opinion, and a Tragic Lapse of Reason. Other books by Tamny include They're Both Wrong: A Policy Guide for America's Frustrated Independent Thinkers, The End of Work, about the exciting growth of jobs more and more of us love, Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at jtamny@realclearmarkets.com.  

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