Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions

Oxford Univ. 2013. 264p. photogs. index. ISBN 9780199927661. pap. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9780199323883. FILM
As Cullen (Born in the U.S.A.: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition) argues in this study, collective ideas and myths about history can be powerful enough to mold on an almost subconscious level a nation's daily lives. To demonstrate, he discusses the career arcs of six Hollywood stars—Clint Eastwood, Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Jodie Foster—and identifies what he calls "master narratives" of U.S. history that gradually emerged from their bodies of work. Cullen's film analysis is down to earth yet sharp as he teases out common themes among seemingly divergent films. Still, he is not always mindful in adequately explaining the historical narratives themselves, with certain chapters relying too much upon biographical details. When Cullen properly balances analysis and context, the results are quite striking, including an outstanding chapter on the bonds between Day-Lewis's films and historian Frederick Jackson Turner's classic frontier thesis. Moreover, while this book is an academic work, Cullen's approach is accessible as he outlines how historical thinking can work on an everyday level.
VERDICT Students of American history and popular culture will benefit from Cullen's creative scholarship.
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