Arrival and Perseverance
Election Day — November 8, 2016. As a government employee in New York City, I was fortunate enough to have the day off (a privilege that should be extended to all, but I digress), enabling me to go to the polls at my leisure and spend the rest of the day luxuriating in the performance of my civic duty and my certainty that Hillary Clinton would be the next President of the United States. I cast my vote in the morning, went to an early movie (Jeff Nichols’ Loving — warm and heartfelt), and settled in that afternoon to wait for results to come in. I don’t need to remind anyone how that went. As hope crept further out of reach with every state, my roommates resigned themselves to bed but I stayed up, unable to accept that it wouldn’t turn around. I could feel the beginnings of a horrible cold coming on as the night grew ever later, but I couldn’t bring myself to turn off the television and go to sleep. Eventually I admitted defeat. The outcome we’d been told to expect hadn’t materialized; it turned out we didn’t know nearly as much about our world as we thought we did.
We’ve been living with the Trump presidency for so long (it feels even longer) that it’s easy to forget how surreal those first few weeks were. It felt unbelievable, a collective dream we were all waiting to awake from. The sense of total deflation was palpable, both in my immediate circles and in the general New York City atmosphere. This was the environment in which I first saw Denis Villenueve’s Arrival: in Manhattan, on November 13, 2016, still recovering from that cold and still reeling from the reality of the election. I distinctly recall liking the film, but in an oddly detached way — I appreciated the technical achievement, and the craftsmanship, and the emotional core, but couldn’t quite connect. I chalked it up to just not really being in the right headspace, and figured I’d go back and rewatch the film at some point. But I never did. Obviously there are too many movies, new and old, to be able to reasonably watch and rewatch everything you’d like to, but I often felt the urge to revisit Arrival, both in the runup to awards season and in subsequent years — it’s the type of smart, moody sci-fi that I tend to pop in on a semi-regular basis. I’ve seen Blade Runner at least three times despite actively disliking it, but something held me back from another round with Arrival.
I can’t say why with absolute certainty, but I eventually concluded that the most likely explanation was that Arrival was the film that stuck in my mind as the most heavily associated with those ugly few weeks in November of 2016. It wasn’t the only movie I saw during that time frame, but for whatever reason it’s the one that I remember — and when I do, I also remember that feeling of a persistent pit in my stomach, one that for better or worse you eventually become numb to. It may not be fair to a movie, or to the artists behind it, but our minds are wired to make connections, and sometimes a film’s craft just can’t overcome the context in which you see it.
Late August, 2020. It’s been nearly four years and the Trump presidency has been just as bad as expected, and often markedly worse. In just over two months from this writing, Americans will head to the polls (or will have mailed in their ballots, despite the President’s efforts to undermine the Postal Service) and determine whether the next four years will be a repeat of the last four, of if there’s a possibility of positive change on the horizon. It all feels particularly dire; I oscillate between optimism and pessimism on a weekly basis. I still use movies to relax, but lately I find myself choosing to revisit films that I have a strong emotional connection to — the comfort food movies, if you will. Arrival has never been on that list, for all the reasons described above, and I figured the last thing I would want to rewatch this close to a presidential election was the film I associated so much with the last one. But of course, it’s Amy Adams month here at Rough Cut, so I figured: if not now, when?
As it turns out, Arrival’s temporal connection to the 2016 election actually makes it a fitting movie to return to in the months before the 2020 contest. I was struck by how hopeful the film is, an adjective that’s far from the first to come to mind when I think about Villenueve (Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario unfortunately all feel more evocative of the past few years), but one that sums up Arrival’s thematic message from beginning to end. Adapted by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” the film isn’t naive — it recognizes that life can be ugly and painful, that relationships fall (or are torn) apart, that global and national politics are often driven by violence, distrust, and fear. But what it also understands is that striving for goodness and joy is part of what makes us human. Fundamentally, we want to believe that we can come together for the common good; that faith, science, and persistence can overcome hatred and oppression. We’re willing to suffer tremendous pain for the chance at happiness, even if that happiness is ultimately fleeting. Arrival goes beyond the notion that the journey matters more than the destination — it posits that the path forward is meaningful despite the pain that lies at the end of the road.
Now, our synapses haven’t been rewired by exposure to an alien language; each of us only exists here, in this one moment in time, and the future is impossible to know. There will be bad, perhaps more than we can bear. But there will be good too, and that’s why we keep moving, keep striving. There is always pain along the way, and that may be how a journey ends. But there’s magic in the little things, the moments we sometimes take for granted; it’s those moments that make it all worth it, regardless of the surrounding context. Fate, destiny, choice, they’re all intertwined; what matters is how you approach the world, and approach your life. We can’t know what will happen in the next few months, though even the best of outcomes won’t mean the work is over — not even close. But as we speed towards the next inflection point in our country’s history, it’s worth remembering that our capacity to grieve is both correlated with and surpassed by our ability to love and to hope. This is the story of your life — fight for what you believe in, cherish what you love, and the rest will fall into place.