Watching Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" again I came to realize how political the film is. I've always approached the film as a glimpse into the mind of a madman. While that is definitely true of the film, it takes on other dimensions.
Released in 1976 the U.S. was still coming off the heels of the Vietam War. Two years later films such as "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter" would be released. We know Travis Bickle is a Vietnam vet and we know of the psychological trauma the war had on those who served. The film also deals with a political assassination or the attempt of one. The film comes after a time when this was all too common. Memories still lingered from the assassinations of President Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.
"Taxi Driver" is a true product of its time. A film which confronts issues and concerns of the day.
To simply describe "Taxi Driver" we could say it is the story of a New York cab driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) and his attempts to change the world around him. He feels he can bring salvation to a young prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) or find a romantic connection with a political activist, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) or maybe even save the world from the very politician Betsy campaigns for by killing him, Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris).
In the end though "Taxi Driver" hits upon a feeling of isolation which plagued the times. It deals directly with a disenfranchised youth and corrupt politicians (a la Nixon).
Take for example the speech Bickle gives about the filth in New York. Everything needs to be cleaned. The city, which could also be a substitute for society, is damned. Everything and everybody are scum.
And scum is all Travis Bickle sees on his cab routes. Of course, he goes where the scum is. Constantly watching porn, picking up hookers and pimps in his cab. If Travis hates filth and scum he doesn't seem to be trying to avoid it.
The film was written by Paul Schrader. Themes of obsession and loneliness are pretty common in his work. In fact, Schrader's next script would be for Brian De Palma's "Obsession", his "Vertigo" clone. De Palma was even offered the chance to direct "Taxi Driver" before Scorsese. But Schrader liked to write and direct film which show duality in man. Films which try to explore man's inner feelings. "Raging Bull" and "Auto Focus" come to mind. These men lead private lives which did not seem to match their public lives.
Lots of Scorsese fans cannot believe "Taxi Driver" would lose the "best picture" Oscar to "Rocky". But if we think about "Rocky" was clearly the safer choice and reflected a more positive image which the Academy and the country wanted to embrace. Both films are about underdogs. In one film the underdog prevails. In the other he becomes mad. America wanted to feel good about itself after such turbulent times. A film about a madman despising the world around him was too dark of a film. And to think Scorsese didn't even get a "best director" nomination! "Taxi Driver" did earn four Oscar nominations including "best actor (De Niro)" and "best picture". While it lost in all categories it did win the palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival where a film such as "Rocky" wasn't even nominated.
"Taxi Driver" is one of the masterpieces of cinema.