Is Marine Corps Service a Path Out of Poverty? 'Hillbilly Elegy' Says Yes

Hillbilly Elegy Netflix
"Hillbilly Elegy": (L to R) Amy Adams ("Bev"), Gabriel Basso ("J.D. Vance"). (Photo Credit: Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020)

Anyone who's read veteran J.D. Vance's 2016 memoir "Hillbilly Elegy" knows that he identifies his service in the Marine Corps as the time when he learned the discipline and skills to overcome a chaotic childhood.

Director Ron Howard's new movie (streaming on Netflix) decides to focus on a crisis from Vance's time as a law student at Yale. His mom has a massive predicament back home, and he flashes back to memories of his childhood as he leaves New Haven and travels back to Ohio to help sort things out.

Vance's book is a memoir and never aims to be more than that. He draws some conclusions about his people based on his own experiences but never offers any sweeping policy prescriptions beyond relating what worked for him.

That didn't stop more than a few pundits in New York and D.C. from proclaiming that "Hillbilly Elegy" was the key to understanding the mind of the mysterious Trump voter in that fall's election. Cue the huge sales and the massive backlash.

Of course, that controversy fueled the sales that led to this movie. Still, Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (Oscar-nominated for "The Shape of Water") ignore everything that came after and focus on the story as told in the book.

They make sure to show Vance in uniform in several of the flashback scenes to establish the role of service in his life, but they don't focus on those experiences, so know that going in if you've read the book.

The movie has been received both through the prism of that backlash and Vance's own active political commentary on Twitter. There seem to be a lot more folks than just J.D. who have managed to escape poverty in rural America and get an education, and many of those people are upset that he doesn't hold the government more responsible for failing to alleviate their struggles.

As someone whose parents both followed a similar path to the one Vance found for himself, I also think he fails to recognize that not everyone has his character and grit. Still, it's the book's indelible portraits of his mom and grandmother that really made it resonate for me and, I suspect, most of the people who read it.

Since "Hillbilly Elegy" is now streaming on Netflix after a brief theatrical run, millions of people can watch the movie and decide for themselves.

Howard talked to us about telling the story in a charged political climate and how important it was to represent Vance's Marine Corps service in the film.

Adult J.D. Vance is played by Gabriel Basso, a Navy veteran who's returned to acting after his military service. We talked to him about that service career; he was joined by young J.D. Vance actor Owen Asztalos to talk about how they prepared to play the same guy at different ages.

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