“You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here.”- Travis Bickle
He may walk on crowded New York City streets or drive people in his taxi, but “God’s lonely man,” Travis Bickle, will still be alienated, aimless, and alone. Life for Travis is to observe women he cannot have, long for wealth that is unattainable, and desire to become “a person like other people.”
Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver has been noted for its iconic score, great lead performance, affecting story, and fantastic direction, but little attention has been given to how this poetic and heartbreaking ballad about an alienated man on the brink of psychological collapse is more profoundly a critique of the political landscape in the 1970s and the myths of American society. Much of Travis’ psychological hurt is rooted in political corruption, but he seeks to combat the oppression by becoming caricatures of Western genre conventions.
Travis Bickle is a racist Vietnam War veteran that is employed as a graveyard shift cabbie in New York. Travis despises the decadence he witnesses; he desires to rise above it and do something of significance–correct the injustices he sees. After failing to spur a romantic relationship with a bourgeois woman named Betsy, who works at a campaign office for an insincere and power-hungry politician, Travis befriends a thirteen-year-old prostitute that works the littered streets for a manipulative pimp. Because of his macabre environment and the profound alienation he experiences, Travis seeks to correct the evil by going on a violent rampage to kill the presidential candidate and the young prostitute’s pimp.
The political climate around the time of the film’s release in 1976 was characterized by the corruption of the Watergate scandal, the legacy of the Vietnam War, and the poor economic conditions in New York City. While Watergate led to distrust in government and the Vietnam War left many young veterans wounded physically and psychologically, New York City was physically falling apart. During 1975–the film’s setting–New York was in deep debt and had nearly filed for bankruptcy the year before. When the garbage collectors went on strike, the streets became literally littered with filth and the city was unable to fix the problem. The summer of 1975 was the first presidential election after Watergate, and a major issue was the legacy of the Vietnam War, which had ended two years before. In short, the political landscape of the mid 70s was insidious; Taxi Driver is a movie about the internal and external effects of this slow collapse.
Watergate’s legacy and the political corruption is critiqued in Taxi Driver through the presidential candidate Charles Palantine and the female campaign worker that Travis befriends. The campaign’s slogan is “We are the people,” yet Travis’ situation shows us that the people are essentially powerless. The ideal of a government run by the people and for the people is clearly muddled by a crucial scene where the elected and the elector, the governed and the governor, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie all come together: Palantine rides in the back of Travis’ taxi with his colleagues.
The scene opens with the presidential nominee mumbling about how he shouldn’t be in New York because he feels the votes were more important in California. He shows little concern for the people, only the potential of having more power. Travis interrupts the discussion by exclaiming that he is Palentine’s biggest supporter. He proceeds to rant, “I think the president should clean up this whole mess here and just flush it down the fucking toilet.” Palantine, who is a democrat and does not agree with Travis’ racism and intolerance, manipulates Travis for his vote by using meaningless phrases like “It’s not going to be easy; we’re going to have to make some radical changes” and “I’ve learned more about America riding in taxi cabs than all the limos in the country.”
This brief sequence depicts the cynicism towards politics during the presidential campaign that was running while the film was being made. Palantine and his colleagues are dressed in expensive suits and seem completely out of touch with the issues of the people. They claim to be for the people yet are only concerned with preserving their power and trying to get the most votes. Nixon’s Watergate scandal included similar features of corruption, as he too manipulated language to cover up the conspiracy and preserve power despite not serving the people.
The effects of the Vietnam War play an equally crucial role in the narrative, as the only exposited portion of Travis’ past is that he fought as a marine. Travis was clearly shaken by what he witnessed in Vietnam and has returned to America bitter and depressed. His waking hours are haunted and he is unable to fall asleep at night due to the leftover trauma from the experience. Although the war is only mentioned a few times through dialogue, it hangs over the narrative like a dark and cloudy day. Visual motifs of the war like Travis’ jacket, which includes a marine’s badge on the shoulder, and a Vietcong flag hanging in Travis’ apartment illustrate that the Vietnam War has had an intense impact on his psyche.
Taxi Driver is grounded in its socio-political context, yet it also touches on something more universal: namely, the question of how one finds purpose and identity in a collapsing capitalistic society. Travis experiences oppression from those with wealth and power; he was forced to fight in an ideologically-fuelled war, he is governed by power-hungry bureaucrats, and he lives in a nearly bankrupt and dirty city.
Moreover, a distinct class structure emerges between the characters from which none can escape. Travis’ co-worker tells him that “You get a job. You become the job.” Travis is a slave to a corrupt system where those on top are always pushing him down. During the film’s opening scene when Travis is applying for the low-level job as cab driver, we discover he fought in the marines and that he was never properly educated. He’s lonely and socially inept, so he is unable to rise above the lower class. This is demonstrated by Travis’ attempt at being romantically involved with the worker at the campaign office, Betsy.
Betsy is educated with a middle-class sensibility. “She was wearing a white dress. She appeared like an angel. Out of this filthy mess, she is alone,” Travis says. Betsy lives in a different world from Travis, but one that is equally cold and lonely. Despite the similarities, Betsy’s middle-class lifestyle cannot intersect with Travis’ low-life one. After an awkward date to a porno theatre–a recognizable part of Travis’ world–she refuses to see him again. Travis cannot have Betsy; she is a part of a class which he cannot reach.
It’s incredibly ironic that Travis seeks to fight against oppression by using the reigning ideologies that have left him broken and lonely. Travis cuts and pastes together what he believes is a heroic identity from different personages in pop-culture: the gunslinger and the violent American hero. In fact, many aspects of Scorsese’s film have the codes and conventions of a Western: a tentative and isolated individual has to deal with evil and rid society of corruption. Even his name, Travis, alludes to the defender of the Alamo.
More evident of the Western influence is a scene where Sport, the young girl’s pimp, refers to Travis as a “cowboy” while he is sporting an Indian hairband. In Travis’ mind, he is the hero of the Western who has come to violently kill the Indian and save the day. However, by portraying Travis as a psychopathic killer with dubious intentions, the film calls into question the myth of the individualistic Western hero.
Travis is on the fringe of society because of the corrupt political climate. He combats his emptiness by assuming the role of the hero in his own story as he seeks to violently avenge those that oppress him. Perhaps Travis, a direct product of his environment–a post Vietnam and post-Watergate world–is not any single person but the embodiment of the average working-class man at the time. He becomes a fragmented persona of caricatures of American myths, or, in other words, the corrupt influences around him. Travis becomes the very thing he wants to stop. He is a murderer who hates junkies and a low-life racist that wants to clean up a city full of low-lives. “He’s a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walkin’ contradiction.” But perhaps no contradiction is greater or more hypocritical than the 1970s politics that claimed to be for the people yet oppressively run by a corrupt few. That’s why people like Travis will always be the only ones there.