Religion & Liberty Online

Planes, Trains, and Thanksgiving

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

What does a 1988 comedy starring Steve Martin and John Candy have to teach us about an America divided? Maybe everything.

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Thanksgiving is a distinctively American holiday, unlike Christmas, and yet we have very few popular movies about it. Maybe this is a good thing—it’s a family affair, not necessarily a public spectacle. But it might be a bad thing—there’s something about giving thanks that we don’t quite grasp and it might be that nobody feels up to the task of letting us know. Certainly, back when presidents called for a day of thanksgiving through public proclamations, it was supposed to bring the nation together, and when’s the last time America came together?

These are unhappy times in America and there’s little movies can do to fix whatever’s wrong with us, but they can at least dramatize the American puzzle—America is a nation of unusually charitable, unusually religious people for a modern country, and yet Americans are remarkably uncomfortable around one another because we’re too aware that we remain mostly strangers. Being middle class makes us more or less the same, but that doesn’t necessarily bring us together. That takes something else—perhaps it takes charity.

There is a movie all about this moral drama, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, made by John Hughes in 1988, starring Steve Martin and John Candy as two middle-aged men who come together by accident while traveling, going home for the holidays. Martin plays a successful middle-class man with a lovely family, the kind of man who would never watch John Hughes movies, which were mostly about kids. He fails to close a sale in New York and hurries to make a plane bound for Chicago—that as much as seals his fate.

Over the course of the movie, Martin is harassed, appalled, shamed, and occasionally endeared by his traveling companion. Candy gradually turns out to be a mythical embodiment of the working class—he’s vulgar, but very helpful, he has no manners to prevent him from minding someone else’s business, and endlessly talks about his own affairs to people too embarrassed to tell him to stop, but he also has made friends around the country and knows how to make do. He, too, is a salesman, but he’s a nobody, because he sells shower curtain rings; everyone needs them, they’re part of privacy and comfort, but nobody respects the guy who sells them.

From the middle-class point of view, there are two Americas. In one America, things work out, everyone’s as good as his word, and people mind their own business. People are decent, and even the thought of getting into some kind of trouble embarrasses them; they aspire to live in quiet communities, preferably suburban, safe in their persons and home equity. In the other, people seem to make spectacles of themselves all the time, and unnecessarily. The respectable part of America watches the other one on TV, often appalled, often unable to look away.

Hughes took this a step further by forcing two people from these different worlds to live together for a few days in his story, to see if there’s anything they have in common as Americans. The story is told from the point of view of the respectable man who has a notion of his dignity and is reminded too often how easily it is tarnished, until he becomes indignant, hysterical, and in a way helpless. This moral drama allows him finally to look at the other guy as his fellow man, whatever his faults. It doesn’t hurt that Candy is a remarkably funny fat man, ideal for comedy.

As Tocqueville puts it, some Americans want to be independent, others to be equal. They seem to be the same, but they’re not. Hughes understood that all too well, so he made a plot that looks like a divine, or at least a cosmic, judgment on this respectable, middle-aged, middle-class, sensible guy, Steve Martin, who just wants to be left alone, to not have to deal with the vast country teeming with people around him. But that country is America, built on equality. So everything seems to work against him, everything he relied on to get him safely home—his money and credit cards, his plane ticket, his car rental, his very mortality.

As I said, he begins by failing to close a sale but then also realizes he’s forgotten his gloves; then he fails to get a cab for the airport and barely makes it, on a bus; he has a miserable time on the plane, starting with being bumped from first class to where the majority of Americans are, but worse, the flight is rerouted a thousand miles west of Chicago, to Wichita, Kansas, because of bad weather. Getting back East proves to be one nightmare after another, until he stares death in the face on an icy freeway in the middle of the night, then sits on his luggage as his car is on fire. The whole world is conspiring against him.

This is all done as comedy, but Hughes assumed we’d all laugh because he knew the majority of Americans are not as well off as Steve Martin’s character and, accordingly, they’re just more aware than he is that they are vulnerable to circumstances, that all sorts of things could go wrong and ruin their plans, and therefore some humility is in order, because we all need hope. People laugh at him because they realize he thinks he’s better than them and the story continuously rubs his nose in it.

Still, Steve Martin is the protagonist of the story. For all his failures, he does get home for Thanksgiving. He eventually learns that throwing his money around is not enough, that he should share in some way what he most loves in his life­—his family. At that point, the movie becomes quite Christian and reveals that the whole ordeal only made Martin miserable and terrified so as to teach him a moral lesson, to remind him how precious that love is and how much human beings always need one another. Yes, successful men of business give America its character, people can’t be free unless they work for a living. But without charity, there’s no America in the first place, and charity is not about rich people paying poor people, it’s about admitting we are all human beings. That’s what Candy shows, a love of other people based on equality.

Of course, in movies it all works out, but in reality it’s harder to bring the two worlds together. One part of justice has to do with work, with self-interest rightly understood, with helping each other in order to help ourselves. It’s one thing to like your work; entirely another to do it gratis. To earn a living is in one sense to be free, to earn one’s freedom, but in another sense it is to be needy, to have to earn it. Success may hide that, it may be loved precisely because it offers this illusion, but reality occasionally reminds us that we are not self-sufficient, that we need each other. That is the other part of justice, which is closer to sacrifice, to doing something for someone else at your own expense. That is only reasonable if we’re all needy, not just the poor among us.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a comedy. It’s not work and it’s not religion either, but it reminds us that we need to put the two together. By ruining the well-laid plans of a cautious man, the story reveals that caution is not enough, that the only safety we have, ultimately, is in being together. The worst thing, the movie suggests, is loneliness, not knowing that there is anyone who would love you or help you in your time of need. Tocqueville called this individualism, a sickness of the heart, a fearful retreat from America as people come to feel too small to be able to achieve anything. A shared faith that reminds us of humanity’s greatness may be needed to adventure together.

Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.