A review of films released in the past five or six years suggests a laudable trend in movies depicting true-to-life conflicts dramatizing intellectually significant themes. A mini-trend within this broader trend involves films presenting geniuses as main characters, glorifying brilliant achievements of great minds, depicting principled men of integrity struggling valorously to promote some life-sustaining value, or all of these together. Such films involve a distinct hero orientation. For anyone who admires human beings at their highest and best, and who yearns for an artistically projected vision of such, this is a welcome development.
For decades prior to this development, the arena of critically acclaimed dramatic films has been dominated by modernist premises involving a constellation of aesthetic and philosophic principles, chief among them the aimlessness and/or unscrupulousness of human beings, the ubiquity and power of randomness in life, man’s helplessness in the face of implacable circumstance, banal and gratuitous violence, pervasive cruelty, and an utter absence of moral rectitude. Such films dramatize a pronounced anti-hero orientation.
Before turning to the apparent mini-renaissance at hand, consider a representative film from the relatively dark age that preceded it: the Coen brothers’ 1996 movie, Fargo. Its story is essentially this: A hapless small-town businessman hires two bumbling thugs to kidnap his wife in order to gain a huge amount of ransom money from his wealthy father-in-law. Things go wrong immediately. The criminals litter the landscape with a messy procession of murdered bodies—a police officer, witnesses, the father-in-law, the wife, and eventually one of the criminals himself. The businessman has his father-in-law’s dead body stuffed in the trunk of his car; a cop—a woman seven months pregnant—is hot on his trail; and the auto dealership for which he works is also pursuing him to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars he scammed from it in phony car deals. The ransom money is buried in an unknown location in the snow by the criminal who, shortly thereafter, is killed, and no one living knows where it is. The cop tracks the surviving murderer, finds him stuffing his accomplice’s dead body into a wood chipper, wounds him when he flees, asks him why he did it, and then blandly tells him that money is not the only thing in life. She goes home and cuddles contentedly with her husband, who is a painter of ducks, congratulating him on winning a prize for a duck-faced postage stamp. Here the movie ends. (For those who have not seen the film, I am not making this up.)
The movie ably dramatizes its theme of the dark malevolence underlying the good-natured folksiness of small-town life, as well as its deeper principle of the trite viciousness and absurdity of the world we inhabit. In 1996, Fargo was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. In 1998, the American Film Institute named it one of the one hundred greatest American movies of all time. Respected film critic Roger Ebert called Fargo one of the best movies he’d ever seen.
Other critically acclaimed films from recent decades dramatizing similar themes include Traffic (Best Picture nominee for 2000), No Country For Old Men (Best Picture winner for 2007), and The Wolf of Wall Street (Best Picture nominee for 2013), to name a few. Even Forrest Gump (Best Picture winner for 1994) dramatizes a theme of the utter randomness of events in human society, albeit in a whimsically good-natured rather than a chillingly malevolent fashion. Forrest Gump shows our powerlessness in the grip of sweeping social forces, presenting its theme with generous servings of treacly goodwill and winsome charm.
But the modernist dominance in the arena of dramatic film has been waning in recent years. Scores of recent films present outstanding stories crackling with conflict of serious values and depicting men and women of moral stature struggling to achieve important life-enhancing goals: The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, Zero Dark Thirty, Fury, The Imitation Game, A Theory of Everything, Whiplash, Selma, Birdman, A Most Violent Year, Pawn Sacrifice, The Martian, Bridge of Spies, Steve Jobs, Spotlight. The list goes on.
Take the 2015 Steve Jobs (my favorite film in many years) as a representative example. Although this film is tragically flawed in important respects, it is exceptionally good in others. Its major flaw is that it expends a great deal of time depicting Jobs’s messy personal life, his denial of paternity, his ambivalent relationship with his daughter, and his verbally abusive manner of interacting with friends, colleagues, and subordinates. Indeed, its theme is that although Jobs was a genius, he was not a good man.
But perhaps slightly more than 50 percent of its story line is devoted to dramatizing just how great a man this genius was. The entire story encompasses but three scenes—the public unveiling of the Mac in 1984, of the NeXT computer in 1988, and of the iMac in 1998. Mixing real-time action with flashbacks, and intermingling personal struggles with professional ones, the story bristles with conflict over serious values.
The film vividly portrays the essence of Jobs’s professional life: Like a great artist, he conceived a creative vision of what a computer should be and held remorselessly true to that vision throughout his career. Great painters, writers, composers, he repeatedly points out, do not ask customers or audience members about specific paint strokes, words, or notes to be included in their work—and neither should computer designers. He, Steve Jobs, is the expert; potential customers are not. Customers do not know they want something that has never existed; rather, the expert designs it, brings it to the marketplace, promotes it, and, in time, the customers see how great it is and salivate to own one.
In Jobs’s case, this process took a long time. The Lisa was a commercial failure; the Mac was a commercial failure; the NeXT computer was a commercial failure; he was fired from the very company he founded. But by the late 20th century, the marketplace had caught on and caught up with Job’s vision—the iMac was a brilliant success. “Steve, you’re going to win,” says longtime aide Joanna Hoffman (brilliantly portrayed by Kate Winslett). “It would be criminal not to enjoy this moment.”
I watched this film six times and came away from it each time with the realization that, whatever its or Jobs’s flaws, I had witnessed a vivid artistic projection of what, professionally, a real-life Howard Roark looks like in action.
Many of the recent hero-oriented films are quest stories, in which the main characters are on a mission to attain a shining goal—no opposition, no matter how daunting; and no duration, no matter how extended, is permitted to thwart the quest. Zero Dark Thirty, for example, depicts the years-long, virtually fanatical pursuit of Osama bin Laden by a relentless CIA analyst (vividly portrayed by Jessica Chastain). The Imitation Game presents the arduously difficult, life-and-death struggle during World War II of British mathematician Alan Turing (masterfully played by Benedict Cumberbatch) to crack the Nazi Enigma code, thereby aiding the Allied war effort, and, incidentally, laying the groundwork for the computer age. Spotlight tells the story of a team of principled and indefatigable Boston Globe reporters (the leader of which is superbly played by Michael Keaton) who—struggling against intense social pressure—unearth and tell the horrifying truth about the massive amount of pedophilia perpetrated by Catholic priests; about the Catholic hierarchy’s refusal to turn over the predators to the criminal justice system; and about the Church’s shuffling of these child molesters from one parish to another, thereby endangering many more innocent children.
In Selma, too, we see a morally upright hero. David Oyelowo gives an outstanding performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in a story depicting one critical incident of Dr. King’s career—the epic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in support of full suffrage for black Americans. King and his supporters stand courageously against the murderous racist violence unleashed against blacks seeking only protection of their civil right to vote.
Bridge of Spies leads me to wonder whether any contemporary actor, other than Denzel Washington, can portray a principled hero as effectively as can Tom Hanks. In this film, Hanks portrays an American lawyer, Jim Donovan, who during the height of the Cold War is tasked with the thankless job of defending a Soviet spy. Donovan—believing that what makes the United States morally superior to the Communists is that each individual matters and, when criminally charged, deserves a fair trial and a competent defense—proceeds accordingly. He stands against strong public sentiment on this issue; indeed, his home is assaulted and his family endangered because of it. The spy, Rudolf Abel (superbly played by Mark Rylance), is convicted; but Donovan, on the grounds that the United States might need Abel to trade for captured American spies, convinces the judge to spare his life. Donovan and Abel, two men committed to values on opposing sides of a vast ideological divide, bond. (A flaw in the film is its portrayal of a Soviet agent in the 1950s and 1960s as a scrupulously upright man of character. Would Steven Spielberg, the film’s otherwise brilliant director, also have us believe that Nazi agents or Islamic jihadists are likewise men of integrity?) Donovan’s vision proves correct; Abel is indeed needed as trading partner for captured U.S. spy Francis Gary Powers. The U.S. government convinces Donovan to journey to Berlin to facilitate the prisoner exchange.
Spielberg provides hauntingly grim images of existence in Communist East Berlin: innocents fleeing desperately to the West as the massively unyielding Berlin Wall is constructed; hungry dogs scavenging for garbage, and hungry youth gangs idling without work amid the rubble from World War II; an innocent American graduate student, Fredric Pryor, caught on the wrong side of the Wall, seized, roughed up, imprisoned under freezing conditions, and held hostage for the return of Abel; several individuals machine-gunned to death in an attempt to gain freedom by scrambling over the Wall.
The CIA wants Powers back before he reveals secrets to the Soviets; it is not overly concerned with Pryor. “We’ll get him out another time,” one of its agents glibly informs Donovan. But Donovan’s attitude, subtly portrayed by Hanks, is that we are not Communists; we do not hold that the “greater good” is achieved by the sacrifice of an innocent individual; we believe that every individual matters. In the nightmare of negotiating with the agents of two repressive totalitarian regimes—the Soviet Union and East Germany—Donovan stands tall: The exchange is not Abel for Powers alone, he insists; nor is it Abel for Pryor alone; the exchange is Abel for Powers and Pryor. “Two, two, two, two,” he keeps telling the Communist agents. The United States will get back two men for Abel—Powers the spy and Pryor the innocent student. Abel, who greatly admires Donovan, calls him “standing man.” Standing man, indeed. That could be the title of the film.
Such an honorific applies equally to Abel Morales, the main character of A Most Violent Year. The story is set in New York City in 1981, a year of exceptionally high rates of homicide and other violent crimes in the big city. Morales (perfectly portrayed by Oscar Isaac), the owner of a small fuel oil company, is unswervingly committed to achieving success as an honest businessman in an industry controlled by gangsters. His own wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a mobster from whom Morales purchased the business, is perhaps not entirely on intimate terms with moral principles, but Morales strives unrelentingly to be so. Amid the crime, the violence, and a DA’s corrupt “investigation” into his business—all of it pounding him simultaneously—Morales remains committed to commercial success via honest dealings and an unwavering commitment to delivering a quality product. A more fitting title for this film is: A Most Upright Man.
Among all of these hero movies, why have I included the whimsically offbeat Birdman? The answer is that the film’s superlative merit is its biting, wickedly funny satire of numerous contemporary cultural icons, several of them eminently deserving of savage lampoon. The story involves an attempted comeback by over-the-hill actor Riggan Thomson (brilliantly portrayed by Michael Keaton), who had been fabulously successful in his former role in film as the immensely popular superhero Birdman. Thomson has written a dramatic adaptation of a Raymond Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and its Broadway opening is imminent. He will also direct and star in his show, which is in previews as the film opens.
Thomson, deprecating his former commercial success in kitschy superhero flicks, seeks to validate himself as a serious artist. But “serious” in modernist culture entails all of the anti-hero premises cited above; hence the story by Carver, real-life chronicler of aimless alcoholics, sad-sack deadbeats, suicides, and sundry other lost souls. Indeed, the character Thomson plays is desperately brokenhearted and commits suicide.
But in a delicious plot twist, Thomson continually hears in his head the voice of Birdman. The virile superhero is, in effect, an alter ego, relentlessly expressing disdain for both the pathetic losers and the pretentious fops creeping through the dark world of contemporary drama. Urging Thompson to return to Hollywood, to movie stardom, to superhero films, Birdman utters a litany of popular culture-glorifying gems: “We were gods, you and I” . . . “Who cares if you’re not an actor, you’re something greater. You’re a movie star,” and so forth. The film’s shining moment occurs before opening night, in a barroom encounter between Thomson and the exquisitely pretentious New York Times theater critic, Tabitha Dickinson, who sneeringly tells him that, whatever the play’s merit, she will flat-out destroy it, because talentless Hollywood hacks such as Thomson have no place in the world of serious art, of which she is the self-appointed guardian. (Birdman, right on point, exhorts Thomson: “Forget The New York Times. Everyone else has.”) The high art versus popular culture conflict runs through Birdman like a shining motif, with both sides on the receiving end of wicked satire—and with popular culture delightfully ahead on points when this most serious film concludes. Birdman eminently deserved its Best Picture award for 2014.
What is the cause of such an upsurge in films celebrating genius, achievement, and moral stature—and, in some cases, mocking the dark premises of modernist culture? I have no definitive answer to the question, but here is a plausible theory.
In reality, human well-being depends upon achievement and moral courage. Every good person faces vicissitudes in life—illness, heartbreak, death of loved ones, realization of one’s own mortality, and the like—that require him to stand tall if he is to persevere. Further, all people benefit from the creative work of geniuses such as Steve Jobs, heroes such as Jim Donovan, and others who remain committed to values such as quality, freedom, and integrity.
I submit, perhaps overly optimistically, that modernist culture is in the process of bottoming out. Writers, film directors, and movie audiences are yearning for the sight of upright probity and are beginning to reject the bleak, amoral emptiness of the decades-long dark age of modern art. If my hypothesis is correct, it also stands to reason that most of these new hero-oriented movies are based on real-life people and events. Further, it makes sense that such ready-at-hand moral exemplars would be the subjects of the first wave of stories in such a film renaissance. Hopefully, these are the precursors of original art works about fully-fictitious projections of such “standing men.”
Finally, I think it makes sense that if such an artistic renaissance is under way, it is starting in film, the art form most susceptible to popular taste. For, as Birdman points out, popular culture, whatever its vagaries and vulgarities—in contrast to the grimly forbidding nightscape of the modernist art world—still welcomes the sight of heroes.