New 'horror' movie shows why Americans still so scared

In the new film, "99 Homes", a family unable to make the mortgage is put out on the street.

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: A new film, 99 Homes, provides a primer on why Americans feel so vulnerable even as economy recovers
  • Candidates must do more than just rail against political establishment, he says, they must address the real fears Americans face

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society" and co-editor of a new book, "Medicare and Medicaid at 50: America's Entitlement Programs in the Age of Affordable Care." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Next week, when Democrats gather for their first televised debate, they are almost certain to discuss the state of America's economy. Because while it may be steadily improving and we are far away from the recessionary times that gripped the country when President Barack Obama took office in 2009, millions of middle-class Americans still feel vulnerable and insecure.

Julian Zelizer
Pundits have tried to explain the unrest candidates have encountered out on the campaign trail as an "anti-establishment" sentiment running through the electorate, a sense that he political process is broken. But that is only a small part of the story.
The larger part? Many working Americans' experience constant anxiety about their long-term security. They live in an economy where it feels like the bottom can fall out at any moment and their families can be thrown into peril. According to a 2015 poll by the Pew Research Center, only 7% of those surveyed believe that the jobs picture has fully recovered from the recession, and 63% of Americans feel that the U.S. economic system remains as vulnerable today to a major financial crisis as it was in 2008.
    The share of Americans who identify with the middle class has fallen: 69% polled by Gallup feel that the distribution of wealth is inequitable. In 2014, according to New York Times poll, only 64% polled believed that a person could start off poor and climb the income ladder, lower than at any other time in 20 years. For many hardworking Americans the American Dream is slipping away.
    For a primer on what this looks like on the ground, politicians should see the powerful new film, "99 Homes", directed by Ramin Bahrani. The film, which stars Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern and Noah Lomax, follows the traumatic experience of a family when the bank forecloses on their modest house. Dennis Nash (played by Garfield) is a construction worker and single father who is having trouble finding a job and unable to make mortgage payments.
    No sooner does the bank foreclose than a ruthless real estate broker named Rick appears at the door to inform Dennis' family that they need to get out. Dennis, his widowed mother (Dern) and son leave their home, and all their possessions are thrown on the curb like trash. It happens that quickly. In this film, the monster in this horror is the economy itself. "I didn't kick you out, the bank did," Rick explains.
    The movie winds through the maelstrom that results from the foreclosure. The father ends up going to work for Rick, making a deal with the devil. "America does not bail out the losers," Rick explains. The story gets darker as Dennis, desperate for money, finds himself in league with the businessman who ruthlessly uprooted his family.
    It's a thrilling movie and tells a great story, but it also captures the devastation and turmoil so many working Americans have lived through as a result of job loss, home foreclosures and more, as the country struggled through the recession and its aftermath. The movie is set in 2010 but could easily be a tale told today.
    Citi to pay $7B mortgage settlement
    Citi to pay $7B mortgage settlement


      Citi to pay $7B mortgage settlement


    Citi to pay $7B mortgage settlement 01:24
    While the foreclosure crisis has abated from its high in 2010, as David Dayden in The New Republic points out once some of the government's temporary relief measures comes to an end in the coming years, the crisis could well flare again. Americans with home equity lines of credit, for instance, will now be facing much higher payments. The Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) will stop providing assistance to borrowers, and interest rates will start to rise.
    Even worse, middle class Americans have been feeling insecure from a large number of other factors that have made life difficult: higher prices for essential services such as health care insurance and higher education; median income being relatively flat since 2000, adjusted for inflation; and dramatic income volatility since 1969, with many Americans between 25 and 60 years of age being likely to experience one year near the poverty line. Between 2000 and 2013, the PEW Charitable Trust found that the percentage of Americans in the middle class declined in every state.
    If political candidates want to calm some of the electoral storms they have seen and win the support of Americans, they will have to do more than just rail against the political establishment and promise to change the way Washington works.
    They will need to come forth with concrete proposals as to how to stem the kind of turbulent markets that so many Americans, like those depicted in "99 Homes," have been living through in recent years.