Nebraska examines an old alcoholic’s delusion that he has won a million dollars in a junk mail sweepstakes. His son indulges him so far as to take him on a road trip to collect the “winnings”; and when the two stop at the old man’s hometown, his claims about the money provoke both excited good will and hostile demands over old debts from the residents. This reaction points to the peculiar place of the miracle in American culture. Whether in the townspeople congratulating the old man for his success as if it were the fruit of some personal achievement (“the whole town’s proud of you”), or treating his winning the money as giving them some claim over him, the miraculous event of the win can only be responded to in the language of some sort of right. It somehow suits a country built on a “Bill of Rights” that the discourse of “knowing one’s rights” should extend even into the sphere of impossible fantasies. This is the source of the unpleasantness of the scene in which the old man’s obviously fake winning letter is discovered and publicly read out to humiliate him. From the start, the townsfolk themselves had made a moral point out of going along with the old man’s delusion, even in the face of the son’s protests that the money was never going to materialize.
Later, the son capitulates to the father’s illusion, buying him the pick-up truck he had hoped to spend part of the winnings on, and pretending the sweepstakes company had offered it in compensation. As touching as this initially seems, it is worth pointing out how the son now shares the ethos of the townsfolk: that even the old man’s delusions are something he somehow has a right to. It is as if America is a country in which you have a right to your miracle, a phenomenon we might refer to as the privatisation of fantasy. This might take the form of believing that everyone born in the country might just miraculously become President, or of organising a foreign policy around non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction.
The troubling violence the American privatisation of fantasy lends itself to is subtly registered at Nebraska’s close. As the pair drive the truck through town, the film shows the amazed faces of those who had humiliated the old man, who now think they have been impossibly proven wrong. The scene is akin to the archetypal moment in Christmas movies, where the cynical businessman is forced to concede something to magic when he hears the hooves on the roof. But for the first response to the miracle to be to use it to get a sort of moral revenge on those who doubted it is troubling indeed. It shows that as soon as one starts to think in terms of having a right to something, one must also begin to prioritise violently protecting it.