As a film of the late 1960s WUSA (1970; dir. Stuart Rosenberg) addresses the anxieties of a Southern white backlash against the civil rights movement (reflective of the George Wallace movement), and a general late 60s cultural malaise. An ever-present sense of entropy, of total moral and cultural decay, pervades. The message verges on nihilistic surrender.
With its emphasis on the power of media in politics (in this case, a right-wing radio station (WUSA) fomenting a political movement), WUSA looks back to All the King’s Men (1949) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) and anticipates Nashville (1975) and even O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000).
The setting is New Orleans, which the film presents as a place of amoral chaos where the down and out, the disgraced, and the criminal gather. The principal characters fall into those categories and come to the French Quarter to live in a Pontalba-style apartment together, one of those old tall buildings with a central courtyard. The various characters can look out their doors into the courtyard and watch one another come and go. To an extent their lives intertwine against the backdrop of a developing right-wing political movement.
Anthony Perkins plays Rainey, a survey taker hired by a black political boss who is helping the white owner of WUSA prove that welfare fraud is rampant. Rainey is hired to conduct a “survey” proving there is fraud to advance the radio station’s cause. He is not at first aware of how the information he’s gathering is being used, or of the radio station’s involvement. His character is sexually ambiguous, and there is a hint that he might once have been arrested on a morals charge, or that he was engaged in some sort of event for which he feels guilt. The film ambiguously implies his Christian faith, which basically means his strong moral sense. He previously worked in Venezuela for 6 months as part of a vaguely defined “mission”—building a fence to keep children from falling into a river, coaching a boy’s baseball team. Was he trying to expiate some previous wrongdoing? When he returned to the United States he suffered an “illness,” probably a breakdown, whose nature is left vague. He’s increasingly upset by the human suffering he uncovers in his work, and especially by the apathy of the main character, Rheinhardt, played by Paul Newman.
Rheinhardt calls himself a “communicator,” a euphemism in this film for conman. His past is a mystery too. In earlier days, we learn, he wanted to play clarinet, but he ended up a disk jockey. He refers to himself as a survivor who doesn’t care about anything. In the film he takes a job as a disk jockey for WUSA, doing what he’s told, reading editorials he’s given to read, showing no apparent concern for the message he’s delivering. We sense in Reinhardt a man scarred and embittered by disappointment, an individual who’s given up. Deep underneath, he’s apparently outraged by what he does at WUSA, and in latter portions of the film perhaps we expect his outrage to break out in some action against the corrupt politico he works for. But that never happens. Instead he drinks excessively and verbally abuses those closest to him, including Rainey as well as a young woman named Geraldine, his roommate and love-interest. Rheinhardt has a past connection with an evangelical preacher played by Laurence Harvey. Harvey’s character is also a con man. They know each other and Newman says the preacher owes him money. At film’s end they head out of town together, looking for more situations and individuals to exploit.
Woodward’s character Geraldine has come to New Orleans looking for work as a “cocktail waitress.” Her background isn’t clear either. It’s suggested she might have been a hooker in the past, or fallen victim to some compromising situation. She doesn’t do much other than loll around and look distressed at Newman’s increasing drunkenness and erratic behavior. She’s not particularly intelligent or capable of analyzing her situation. She’s a victim, though we aren’t prepared for what happens to her—the only truly tragic moment in the film.
Tension gradually builds around Rainey. He is increasingly unhappy with the man he works for and what he’s discovering in his work--the exploitation of poor African Americans. Newman’s amorality particularly bothers him. One night Newman and a group of hippies living in the same apartment building set out to shock and insult Rainey, and that seems to be a turning point. In the climactic scene, the radio station holds a rally in the Super Dome. A very drunk Rheinhardt is the master of ceremonies. It’s clear the rally is for white people—an anti-civil rights rally. One audience member wears a “white power” hat. (The rally scenes seem to foreshadow more recent reactionary movements in American politics). Perkins, hidden in the top of the stadium with a high power rifle, assassinates the owner of WUSA when he rises to speak.
The film is confused. We see many images of the gay population of New Orleans, and it’s never clear whether they are intended as evidence of welcome sexual freedom or moral depravity—I think the latter. A prominent secondary character is a young black man who poses as his sister in order to receive her welfare check (she is a prostitute). Are we supposed to feel anything more than contempt for Newman? He may be embittered and scarred, he may hate what he does, but does that compensate for what he is? Everyone is corrupt, or indifferent, with the exception of Rainey and Geraldine—both are dead at the end of the film.
African Americans have a prominent presence—their oppression gradually incites Rainey, and they are the target of the radio station’s political movement. Only two black characters have significant roles: Rainey’s corrupt boss and the previously mentioned cross-dresser.
The hippies who live near Woodward and Newman also have little interest in politics or taking a stand. They play their music for money and smoke and sell dope. They seem like hippies from a Love Boat episode—created by someone who’d never really seen or understood what hippies in the 60s really were.
Novelist Robert Stone wrote the screenplay, and his considerable narrative skills do make for a satisfactory story. We don’t ever come to understand fully Rheinhardt’s motivations, or Rainey’s. Newman plays the kind of damaged macho character he played throughout the 50s and 60s, but in those films (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, Cool Hand Luke, The Long Hot Summer) the characters he played were more comprehensible, better explained. His character in this film is a weak echo of those earlier roles. Everyone comes into the world of WUSA pre-damaged, as if damage is the nature of the human condition. Director Rosenberg handles the climactic scenes in the Super Dome and the city jail in such an understated, almost apathetic manner that whatever tension or force they might have had drains away.