Pleasantville, directed and written by Gary Ross, asks how we got from the bland 1950s to the frantic 1990s and whether we should really be so nostalgic about a time with little awareness of poverty, sex scandals, and the like. The story begins with quiet David (played by Tobey Maguire) and wild Jennifer (played by Reese Witherspoon), twins of squabbling parents who are told at school about AIDS, depletion of the ozone layer, and reduced job prospects. David is fascinated with a 1950s black-and-white situation comedy on television, and after a mysterious TV repair person (played by Don Knotts) arrives unannounced to adjust the family’s TV, the twins are transported back to play parts in the show, much to Jennifer’s and ultimately David’s dismay. The problem then is how to get back to the 1990s, and they decide that they must liberate the black-and-white Potemkin village where everybody is naïve and nice so long as you conform. For Jennifer, this means active sexuality. For David, the town has to learn about modern art and to read books. When bits of coloring appear, the townspeople react by banning books, Lover’s Lanes, music other than Perry Como and Johnny Mathis, and colors other than black, white, and gray. David violates the ordinance by painting a color mural, is put on trial, and pleads for the recognition of an inner life and an implicit repudiation of mindless “family values,” which include racism and sexism. A thunderstorm restores color to the town. David then returns to the 1990s, but Jennifer stays on to read books and prepare herself for college. Ross, the son of a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter, conceived the idea for the film one day after Newt Gingrich was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives. The eloquence of the film, not unlike the 1995 remake of The Scarlet Letter, is that it tells reactionaries in the United States that turning back the clock is not only impossible but totalitarian. The ironic tagline of the film is “It’s just around the corner.” Sadly, those who want to bring back the “Christian nation” of the Salem witch trial era are likely to interpret Pleasantville as a manifesto for their cause. MH

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