When I was a kid and started to get interested in reading more heavy material, I looked over my parents’ bookshelves and found a copy of the 1959 edition of 1984 by George Orwell. I note the edition because the cover had a dashing Winston Smith and a beautiful Julia running from the visage of Big Brother, and frankly, it looked like a pretty cool novel. So I dove right in and before long, I realized, this was no adventure story. But I was absorbed by the bleakness of Orwell’s vision, and loved the book. I was around 14, right about the actual year 1984, and when the second film adaptation of the novel was being made. I never got to see the movie until a few years later, and after I had the opportunity to visit the Soviet Union on one of the most extraordinary trips of my young life. I thought about the novel the entire time. And when I eventually did see the movie, I was struck by how much I agreed with Orwell’s assessment of totalitarianism in general, and of any political system that favors compliance over freedom. To this day, 1984 remains my favorite political film, even if it is also one of the most difficult to watch. It is a parade of sadness and fear, purposefully drained of color and expertly aimed toward its final scenes, when we see that, yes, everybody will break when pushed hard enough. Everybody.
Winston Smith is a regular guy who lives in Oceania, a bleak, totalitarian state that shares the world with two other geopolitical superstates, Eurasia and East Asia. Winston’s job is to rewrite history on a daily basis according to the Party’s latest revision, such as switching the story of who is a traitor and who is not, or which nation Oceania is currently at war with. Wherever Winston lives and works, he, like everyone else, is under near-constant video surveillance under the auspices of Big Brother, whose face is always seen, but who never makes a public appearance. Within this soul-crushing system, Winston keeps a secret journal where he writes of haunting childhood memories from the tumultuous times that led to the rise of Oceania. And he writes about his rejection of Big Brother and everything it stands for. He does this knowing it is illegal—thoughtcrime—and yet, he persists in the only act of rebellion he can imagine. That is, until he meets a young woman named Julia, who is just as sick of the system as he is. Winston and Julia start a forbidden romance where they sneak off to share subversive ideas and to engage in a passionate sexual relationship. But like all things in Oceania, freedom and happiness is forbidden, and eventually, Winston and Julia are caught by the Thought Police. They are subjected to the same thing every other person who doesn’t toe the line receives: interrogation, torture, mental breakdown, and eventual re-indoctrination. Ultimately, both Winston and Julia crack under pressure and betray each other; the only love allowed is for Big Brother. There is no happy ending in 1984. There is no doubt of the outcome. That’s what makes it so bleak. You know about five minutes after Winston meets Julia how this is going to turn out. And that is the point.
What makes this movie so effective for me is how well it captures a sense of post-industrial decay and unsustainability. A totalitarian regime requires immense resources to police everything it polices, and everywhere in Oceania, we see decrepitude of some kind or another, like the state could never properly rebuild after the big war that led to its rise. We see at one point a bomb land near Winston’s home, but we can’t really tell if it’s an enemy action, or if it’s the state creating havoc to justify its existence, or if it’s just a mistake made somewhere along the line. That’s the kind of place Oceania is. Bad things happening is the state’s chief domestic product.
The moment of truth comes in the middle of the movie when Winston is eating dinner among his fellow Party members in a huge cafeteria that resembles a prison chow line. As they discuss Newspeak—the official political language of the state—we see that everyone’s conversation is nothing more than some kind of virtue-signaling of subservience. The smarter folks in the room praise each other’s takes on whatever ideological spin Big Brother is feeding them that day. The less clever wait for some bit of random propaganda to blare over the hailer so they can jump up and shout their support of it. But the best of all is a desperate moment when Winston, a man of failing health, can’t stomach the weird, pink pseudo-ham being served. His neighbor, a puffy, irritating shmuck named Parsons asks for Winston’s portion, and poor, cadaverous Winston gives it to him without hesitation. As Parsons greedily gobbles his meal, he says with a weird sense of desperate enthusiasm, “You know, I don’t think there is any meat in this at all!” He is so terrified just to be alive that he will take any opportunity to show how grateful he is not to have been shot yet. And in so doing, you know there is a 100% chance that eventually, he will be. His own daughter sells him out, to which he remarks, he is very proud. Of course he is. He doesn’t even have the ability to put his real feelings to words: that humans, like any other animal, are likely to die in captivity. But not before a period of extensive suffering.
Watching 1984 is like enduring some kind of mental, emotional and spiritual violence. It captures an ideal of such anathema to anybody who values their freedom that it should be required viewing, really. But then again…forcing somebody to watch a movie about tyranny kind of proves the movie’s point, doesn’t it?