movie review

Class Action Park Forces Us to Wrestle With Toxic Nostalgia

The HBO Max documentary starts out a fun flashback to a recklessly operated theme park, but it says something deeper about America’s nature. Photo: HBO Max

Class Action Park tells the simultaneously comic and tragic story of a defunct New Jersey amusement park that famously operated with little concern for safety. But subtextually, the HBO Max documentary tells another, much more relevant story about toxic nostalgia, one whose lessons apply to what’s happening in our country right now.

As directed by Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott, Class Action Park starts out as a hilarious flashback to the days when kids could get their kicks at Action Park, a water park/playground/go-kart track in Vernon, New Jersey, where teenage employees ran an asylum filled with unsupervised cliff diving and swimming in wave pools where drownings were a regular occurrence. “It was a place where death was tolerated,” says one voice during the opening montage, which features grainy footage of inner tube pileups and kids careening down impossibly tall slides.

For much of its run time, the movie fondly and darkly hearkens back to the 1980s, the park’s primary golden age and a time when kids grew up in what now looks like the Wild West by comparison. The rides at Action Park, from the Cannonball Loop that dismembered crash test dummies during its development phase to the Alpine Slide that would frequently toss riders off its tracks, were poorly engineered and not well-monitored. The owner of the park, a true American character named Gene Mulvihill, didn’t believe in government oversight, so he flouted rules and regulations at every turn and let his young staffers and visitors police themselves. As the documentary tells it, he fought every lawsuit, leveraged his relationships with local officials to his benefit, and threatened journalists. Just as you may be thinking, “Huh, this guy reminds me a little of Donald Trump,” Class Action Park actually notes that Mulvihill was friends with Trump, who almost invested in the park at one point. But even Donald J. Trump got “this is too out of control” vibes from the place and opted not to get involved.

Action Park may be a theme park that actually existed from 1978 to 1996. But the film also portrays it as a more extreme reflection of the no-holds-barred era in which Gen-Xers and older millennials were raised. The 1980s was “probably the last decade of unsupervised fun for kids,” the documentary notes. It’s a statement that may elicit strong pangs of nostalgia from a lot of people who came of age during that period and still speak affectionately about the days when no one made you wear seat belts, children could ride their bikes to unspecified destinations then stay there for hours, and a teen could watch TV all afternoon without being warned about too much screen time. There was no such thing as free range parenting, because free range parenting was just called parenting. “We didn’t come home until after eight o’clock,” says Faith Anderson, a former Action Park lifeguard, with amused incredulity in the documentary. “Our parents weren’t even looking for us.”

As Porges puts it during an on-camera interview, “When you’re nostalgic for Action Park, you’re nostalgic for childhood. You’re nostalgic for freedom. You’re not nostalgic for being hurt. You’re nostalgic for everything else.”

In other words, you’re nostalgic for an idealized version of a reality that wasn’t quite the reality. With that nostalgia comes a sense of pride and identity associated with surviving that unencumbered environment. Comedian and actor Alison Becker, who frequented the park, admits in Class Action Park that she was scared to go on many of the blatantly dangerous rides but went on them anyway. Then she adds: “There’s also a part of me that was like, if you can’t do [the rides], fucking get out of Jersey.”

While Becker surely did not intend this, there’s something in that sentiment that reminds me of the Trump supporters who call liberals “snowflakes,” wave Confederate flags, and refuse to wear masks during a pandemic. In those sentiments, there is a definite, “If you can’t handle it, fucking get out of Jersey” attitude that is very American and rooted in the notion that people today have gone soft and forgotten what it was like when we lived in a country where toughness was expected and we were free to do what we wanted without having to watch what we said or keep our social distances. In an essay for the Boston NPR station WBUR headlined “Toxic Nostalgia Helps Explain Why Some People Still Won’t Wear Masks,” Jason Clemence makes a similar connection between reverence for the good old days and a dismissal of current clear and present dangers. “The mindset that our reckless-but-basically-innocent halcyon days were inherently better than the present is a potent force,” Clemence writes, adding that anti-maskers, “long for a time when their recklessness was affirmed as not just acceptable, but as an embodiment of American authenticity.”

The 1980s at Action Park is the ultimate example of a moment when recklessness was affirmed. While Mulvihill’s carelessness and criminal behavior is definitely acknowledged in Class Action Park — among other things, he created a fake insurance company in the Cayman Islands through which he “purchased” the park’s policy — he is also celebrated as exactly what Clemence describes: a reckless but resourceful entrepreneur who stopped at nothing to get what he wanted done, even if what he wanted was a ride called “Man in the Ball in the Ball” that would send a ride tester flying into oncoming highway traffic.

About an hour into the movie, though, there is an abrupt heel turn when the mother and brother of George Larsson, Jr. recall the day in 1980 when he flew off the Alpine Slide, hit his head on rocks that had no business being so close to the track, and died of his injuries. Forty years later, his mother, Esther, stills gets infuriated when she talks about the degree to which Mulvihill refused to take responsibility for her son’s death. George was the first person to die at Action Park, but he was not the last, the movie tells us, showing newspaper clips about others who perished after drowning in the wave pool or getting electrocuted due to faulty wiring on a kayak ride. This is the part where Class Action Park stops being funny, because it reminds us that “people” didn’t just die when that park was open. Real human beings, whose losses are still being felt, did.

Class Action Park  tries with only partial success to capture the dissonance between the funny war stories told about that hazardous site and how awful and tragic it was that young people lost their lives there. Chris Gethard, another actor and comedian who went to Action Park as a kid, talks about how after a couple of drinks, people laugh and talk about “how fucked-up” it was that it existed. But “when they’re with their shrink, it’s just about how fucked-up it was.”

That’s the part that gets lost when nostalgia becomes so thick that it renders people blind: A lot of the good old days were quite bad and not healthy for any of us at all. It hurts for some people to admit that because, as I noted earlier, those days were so formative to our identities. But it is truly and literally dangerous to ignore that fact. I wish the filmmakers had spent more time delving into that idea because it’s something that, especially in this “Make America Great Again, Again” election season, everyone in this country would be wise to more deeply consider the ramifications of the American tendency to glorify the past at the expense of progress and safety.

As I mentioned earlier, in the opening moments of Class Action Park, when we see those first images of kids engaging in idiotic fun at the place Gene Mulvihill built, we hear someone say: “It was a place where death was tolerated.” We don’t realize who the speaker is until later in the film when Esther Larsson says those words. That’s how she, a mother who lost her firstborn son, remembers Action Park: as a place where death was tolerated.

That phrase jumped out at me. I wrote it down in my notes. Then, in parentheses, I added a question afterward: Isn’t that also America?

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Class Action Park Forces Us to Wrestle With Toxic Nostalgia