Ageism in Film #5 – Nebraska

Welcome to the fifth edition of our monthly series on ageing in film. This month, Danny Elliott studies Nebraska and discusses the danger of scams targeted at older people. You can also read last month’s article about Raymond Brigg’s Ethel and Ernest here.

I hadn’t managed to see Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s black and white dark comedy, when it was released several years ago, so was delighted to find it on Netflix last year.

I didn’t really know what to expect.

It had been nominated for six Academy Awards, and those nominations were the big ones: best actor, best cinematography, best director, best original screenplay, best supporting actress and, finally, best picture; what a list.

However yet again, as with so many films in this series, it failed to win any at all. Although a small consolation is the fact that the AARP (America’s largest older people’s organisation) named Nebraska the Best Intergenerational Film of 2013.

The plot itself is simple. Woodrow T. Grant (Bruce Dern) gets a letter that says he’s won $1,000,000 and decides to go and claim his prize. There are only a couple of problems. Firstly, he lives in Montana, and needs to get to Nebraska. The trip is about 800 miles, but he has had his drivers’ license revoked.

The second problem is that the letter is a scam.

It’s a typical letter that most people would throw out with junk mail. Woody’s wife (Kate, played by June Squibb) tells him to forget about it. “You should have thought about this years ago and worked for it,” she says. His sons think the same but, amazingly, one of them (David, played by Will Forte) agrees to take him to “collect the prize”.

Nebraska Final Scene
Woodrow T. Grant (Bruce Dern) gets a letter that says he’s won $1,000,000 and decides to go and claim his prize.

The film explores Woody and Kate’s marriage and gets comedy mileage from it. When David asks his dad why they got married, he suggests they must have been in love. “It never came up”, Woody replies. When David accuses him of being an alcoholic, he says, “You’d drink too if you were married to your mother.” When Woody insists the money he has won is real and waiting for him in Nebraska, Kate threatens to “put him in a home.”

Each moment is funny, but all convey a genuine sense that they are frustrated in their marriage. Love never came up – they just got married and stayed together. It’s clear that Woody’s drinking affected his ability to earn money, and the strain that this has put on the family remains.

However, David comes across an old flame of Woody’s on their travels, who fills in some backstory that he has never heard. Woody used to be the life and soul of party – Kate stole him from her because every girl in the town wanted him. But after serving in the Korean War, and being shot down, he returned a broken man and never recovered.

This doesn’t excuse everything he’s done, but it does help you understand him more – and it certainly helps David, who only wishes he’d known sooner.

We have only recently begun to comprehend the trauma of war (Patrick Stewart’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ episode shows a similar realisation) and it always surprises me how little people talk about the past when it can so often frame and contextualise the present.

The whole premise of the film revolves around the “scam” letter. In one sense, it may not be a scam – there may actually be a winning ticket out there, but it certainly feels like one.

I can remember a few years ago an older family member receiving a similar letter in the post relating to a free holiday home. He wasn’t hoodwinked, and remained vigilant, but did attend a couple of meetings and seminars before realising that he would have to hand over big sums of money before he’d get his property – and he ultimately decided it was probably a scam.

The single-mindedness with which Woody pursues his winnings is what companies like this prey on – someone who believes something is too good to be true.

Too often, the target is an older person.

Nebraska Prize Winner
The single-mindedness with which Woody pursues his winnings is what scam companies prey on.

When the father and son finally reach the office of the company, Woody tells them his number, a lady puts it into the computer and tells him he is not the winner. Woody is devastated – both at the fact that he doesn’t have a million dollars, as well as the derision he will receive from all those who told him he hadn’t won in the first place.

When he returns to the car, David has a conversation with the lady:

“Does his happen a lot?”

“Every once in a while. It’s usually older people like your father. Does he have Alzheimer’s?”

“No, he just believes stuff people tell him.”

“That’s too bad.”

Targeting older people, especially those who are vulnerable, is disgraceful. This Morning did a series of segments on it a couple of years ago, some focusing specifically on companies telling people they had ‘won’ something, and Age UK have valuable advice on this issue.

As the two travel across the United States, there is a certain sense of nostalgia. They stop off in Hawthorne, the town Woody grew up in, where the local press photographer is a 12 year old boy and everybody still knows each other. It has memories of a simpler age.

Woody wants to go back, wants to see if he still knows people, wants to know if things are still the same – but when he finds old friends (or enemies) he wants to show them how much he has changed, how well he has done, and who he is.

The films final scene is glorious, and redemptive, and I urge you to watch Nebraska just to smile at the end… but I promise you’ll laugh throughout too.

Peter Bradshaw’s Bechdel Test Score: 4/6

Danny Elliott

Danny is the Communications and Fundraising Officer at Age UK London

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