Boyhood Triumphs as a Political Film Without Trying To

Richard Linklater didn't set out to create a political film, which may be the reason he wound up with such an astute one.
Photographer: Valerie Macon

The director of Boyhood, which was nominated for Best Picture, among other awards, at the Oscars Sunday night, says it’s not a political movie. But in its revolutionary narrative and structure, filming a few scenes every year over 12 years to chronicle childhood and adolescence, the film incorporates the culture of the 2000s as its background noise, and part of that culture was political.

The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, losing out on most of them, including Best Picture, to Birdman. Patricia Arquette netted Boyhood an award for her supporting role.

Director Richard Linklater, who was nominated for Best Director, said one of the trickiest parts in creating the movie was deciding which items in the news would become linchpins in the historical narratives of specific years. “That was part of the fun of this, He told the film website Collider. "Having your antenna out there, not only were you collaborating with incrementally aging and growing up actors, but the culture of what is going on in the world. When we started this movie, the Iraq war had not started.  Every year, you had some choices to make about what you wanted to represent in the movie and what that might be remembered. We were making a period film, but in the present, which is an odd thing to do.”

In that same interview, actor Ethan Hawke, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the main character's father, posed an example of one of those choices from 2008. “Will people remember that Sarah Palin’s daughter was pregnant?" Hawke asked. "Is that registering in the national consciousness in such a way that it will be something that you will remember, or is it the kind of thing that you won’t remember?” 

Linklater framed that challenge in a different way, telling the Village Voice, “You kind of make a bet with the future and say, ‘Whatever it is, it'll be an interesting footnote, if nothing else.'"

Another movie blogger, Devin Faraci, pointed out in an interview that the film starts up right after the September 11 attacks, “making it a document of the post-9/11 era.” Linklater told Faraci that he “didn’t want to comment on 9/11 too much,” but his own experiences growing up during a war informed his choices in portraying the Iraq invasion. 

“I wanted the movie to feel like a remembrance," Linklater said, "so I wondered, ‘Is this something a kid would remember?’ I thought the beginning of a war and horrific footage on TV—I remember that from my childhood, with the Vietnam War. That’s a backdrop, and a parent’s politics can play into it, but I didn’t want the movie to be political.”

Though the movie is not mean to be strictly political, it showcases the role politics plays in an everyday childhood. In one scene, for example, during the 2008 portion of the movie, Hawke’s character tasks his children with handing out Obama/Biden yard signs. At one point a man tells the kids that if they don’t get off his property, he'd be within his rights to shoot them. Later, at the behest of their father, the kids make off with someone's McCain/Palin sign. 

The movie withholds a lot of the traditional payoffs audiences expect. When Mason and his friends fool around with the blade of a circular saw, disaster does not ensue. Similarly, the political events that show up in the day-to-day of the film don't hold any sort of cosmic impact over the plot, creating a spot-on portrayal of how the typical American kid actually experiences politics. In avoiding a political movie, Linklater has created a most accurate one. 

Boyhood  works so effectively because it strings together bits and pieces of a childhood to show what it is to grow up. The Iraq war and the 2008 election sit alongside Harry Potter release parties and mulling the fate of the Star Wars franchise. Linklater pulled out details at the time that turned out to be accurate touchstones in a collective memory.