Brian De Palma’s Blow Out turns 40 years young eight months after the Democrats’ clear-cut victory in the 2020 general election, and throughout that interminable stretch of time, a disinformation campaign about the election’s results that’s best represented by the Jeremy Bearimy timeline has been pushed by too many members of the GOP for comfort. People don’t assassinate American presidents in the 2020s. Instead, they spew whatever easily disproved batshit nonsense they can conjure on social media, where the lies metastasize into truth for the same crowds of gullible chumps Barnum rightly called “suckers.” It’s enough to make you miss seedy, clandestine murder conspiracies.
Scurrilous balderdash is the bread and butter that’s fed the American right wing since the days of Richard Nixon, William F. Buckley and Roy Cohn, and even before then. Part and parcel of the liars’ strategy is the cover-up—a concerted, smug attempt at obfuscating facts and covering the keister of everyone involved in the lie. Andrew Clyde characterized the January assault on the U.S. Capitol as a “normal tourist visit.” Kevin McCarthy, formerly opposed to a January 6th investigative commission, has handpicked a pack of lying slack-jawed yokels, including Jim Jordan, for his own commission.
Will these scumbag elected officials get away with muddling the roots of political violence? Maybe. Blow Out doesn’t really care, not in any overt way. The film doesn’t wear politics on its sleeve, though it is undeniably a political work of grimy art. It does, however, tell De Palma’s narrative through a politically aware lens, even if the argument he ultimately makes about politics and politicians is that they’re infinitely scuzzier than the boobs ‘n’ blood exploitation movie-within-a-movie Blow Out opens on. (For that matter they’re scuzzier than most of De Palma’s pictures, too.)
George McRyan, the Pennsylvania governor and presidential hopeful the audience learns about on a TV news broadcast, isn’t identified explicitly as either Democratic or Republican. Liberal viewers may interpret McRyan who, based on polling appears poised to win the general election in a landslide, as liberal due not only to his broad popularity compared to the movie’s sitting president, but where his popularity gets him: Lifeless on a hospital gurney. Republican viewers might assume the opposite.
Standing between them and on the opposite side of Blow Out’s lens, De Palma doesn’t give one solid damn. He’s not interested in his conspiracy thriller’s politics, not directly anyway. He’s interested in making Blow Out’s life into an imitation of art, and telling a story about the vast individual components of filmmaking that, when brought together, find the film’s sum. Movies are made of more than scripts and actors and fancy camera angles. They’re made of noise, too.
Jack Terry (John Travolta), De Palma’s laid back sound tech protagonist, engages noise in his work and in the world surrounding him. It’s a passion. He stands at tranquil ease on the Wissahickon Bridge, scanning the area for new aural wonders to capture with his Nagra recorder, waving his mic around like a magic wand as if he’s a wizard and his gadget is the source of his arcane power. A contingent of cinephiles today think of De Palma only as a smut purveyor, and while they’re not wrong, exactly, that read is narrow verging on oversimplified. De Palma likes his sleaze. He also likes cinema as art. He’s in many ways the ultimate cinephile, someone born to make movies and who understands how movies speak to an audience. In Blow Out, he demonstrates that understanding within and without the frame: Calling this his best film is an easy layup, but it’s quite possibly true, and if not then it’s certainly his best display of bravura.
Do you like split diopters? Do you enjoy seeing an entire image in deep focus, such that the foreground and background become a single balanced entity? If that’s your thing, you’ll lose your mind when Jack records an owl’s hoot and De Palma fills half the frame with Travolta and the Nagra, and the other with the noble nocturnal bird of prey staring down the viewer up close, contempt blazing in its eyes. When Burke (John Lithgow), the remorseless iceman responsible for McRyan’s demise—another candidate hires him to catch McRyan in a compromising position with Sally (Nancy Allen), an escort, but Burke zigs instead of zagging and chooses to kill McRyan instead—stalks a woman he confuses with Sally through a market at night, the camera lands on the dead, lolling stare of a fish on ice. Burke’s hand reaches into the display to seize an ice pick as “Sally” walks through the back door, illuminated in red light.
The pleasure in Blow Out is the naughty thrill De Palma whips up in an artful, skillfully composed shot executed with advanced filmmaking techniques. This is a really dry way of saying that his work looks great, so great in fact that his craftsmanship belies the material’s indecency. These contradictions coexist harmoniously in the same space. It’s a matter of tone. Sleaze can be exquisite. In fact, the higher De Palma aims, the more we appreciate the sleaze as an element with purpose, because the grandeur of Blow Out’s filmmaking imparts on the plot a sense of scale: De Palma swings big, and by swinging big he emphasizes just how small Jack is in the scheme of things. He’s naïve at best, doomed at worst, and at all times a cog in a society run by powerful, unscrupulous men. There’s nothing he can do to stop the machine’s gears from turning, doggedly as he tries.
Deep focus and basic split screens, another of De Palma’s favorite flourishes, function as other ways of seeing in Blow Out. The film shows us Jack’s efforts to save the day and stacks them against the inevitability of his failure. A surface take on De Palma’s aesthetic is that it looks cool, a detail De Palma prizes as highly as sleaze. But the “cool” is an admission of his pessimism. The act of “seeing” he performs throughout Blow Out is the bluntest tool in his belt, intended to hammer home that McRyan’s death is set in motion by the unstoppable wheels of American political intrigue.
In the end, Burke dies. It’s a small victory. Sally dies, too, and that traditional American celebratory lubricant, the fireworks display, bursts overhead as Jack cradles her body in his arms; the explosive exuberance mocks his grief, rubs in his defeat and reminds us in the audience that the deaths of people like Sally—small people, the socially undesirable types on America’s fringes—are inconsequential to the United States’ political designs. George McRyan is dead. A salvo of brocades, mines, Roman candles and tourbillons for George McRyan. Sally Bedina is dead. Who the hell cares? The fireworks tell the myth of how Americans see themselves and how they see their country. Sally’s limp form and Jack’s defeated gaze tell the sordid truth.
It’s a truth only De Palma and the audience recognize. When Blow Out ends, the lie holds. The cover-up stands. Justice is left undone. The only truth left is Sally’s scream, a nerve-shredding wail immortalized by Jack’s recorder. What will immortalize the dead bodies in the aftermath of January 6th, and bodies yet to come, as Democrats struggle in vain to stem Jordan, McCarthy and Clyde’s corrosive falsehoods flooding the account of what really happened at the Capitol that day? Again, Blow Out answers with truth: Nothing that will mean a damn or make a difference to America’s trigger-happy jingoistic spirit. If De Palma’s a cynic, then he’s a cynic behind a masterpiece we can all still relate to.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.