Cinemas’ Angels: 4 Great Movie Heroes
Villains are overrated. Sure, it’s fun to explore the twisted minds of The Joker, Anton Chigurh, and Frank Underwood in the hopes of uncovering a cautionary tale that dissuades us from following in their footsteps, but the trouble is that all too often, great swaths of the viewing audience end up being seduced by such characters to the point where they admire them and defend their actions. The aforementioned Underwood has since become one of TV’s most “beloved” characters, alongside such wicked fiends as Tony Soprano, Lorne Malvo, and Walter White. It should also be noted that this trend is by no means exclusive to TV shows; people talked more about The Joker than Batman when The Dark Knight was released, Hannibal Lecter has always been more popular than the FBI agents sent to work with him, and even the HAL 9000 is referred to more often in conversations about 2001: A Space Odyssey than any of the other (human) characters.
Bad guys, it seems, aren’t just more interesting than heroes; they’re downright cool from time to time. As Jonah Goldberg succinctly puts it, characters who act by their own code of conduct are “sexy” because they are lone wolves who play by their own rules, while characters who prefer to take the path towards integrity and appeal to ideals greater than themselves are pansies, goody-goodies, or just plain “blah”. Perhaps the reason for the rising interest in villains is that they are often portrayed as damaged or flawed individuals, which makes it easier for the audience to relate to them. That’s a solid enough point, but it’s one that doesn’t allow any room for growth. A person may have a sense of belonging if they hang out with people of similar character, but that doesn’t help them become a better person. In order to do that, one has to aspire to something grander and put forth the effort to change the way they are, and sometimes people learn to become more compassionate and selfless through storytelling. Countless heroes have been depicted in all sorts of mediums, and while they can often come off as perfect or too good to be true, the ideals that they represent are ones that should at the very least be commended and passed around.
Again, villains have a respectable place in popular culture and they are just as vital an element of any story. But it’s worth remembering that there are characters in fiction that are meaningful not because they are the most powerful or the most cunning, but simply because they are patient, wise, and kind. This list is more or less a friendly reminder that such characters are worth taking note of because the ideals they represent are what help teach people to be better than they are.
Just a few caveats about the list: these are just characters that have mattered to me, and I invite people to comment about cinematic heroes that have mattered to them. Also, none of these characters matter more to me than the others so the order is simply alphabetical, not descending/ascending in terms of value. Lastly, I issue a general warning for spoilers so, if you haven’t seen any of the movies I’ve listed, read at your own discretion.
James from Calvary
“I do know what felching is.”
A good priest, in fact an excellent priest, is hard to come by in movies. At best they are portrayed as unfeeling hardasses who expect people to be perfect and do everything in their power to ignore the fact that people are naturally flawed, and at worst they are seen as hypocritical liars who indulge in every vice possible, from swindling, to drinking, to all manners of sexual deviancy. Father James (played by Brendan Gleeson) is a compelling counterpoint to these two simplistic, and weathered, stereotypes.
As Father Robert Barron describes in his video essay on the film, James is a man who’s stuck in a, “…spiritual wasteland in the wake of all the terrible sex scandals in Ireland, as well as in the wake of post-modern relativism.” In a world where people have an inherent distrust of religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular, James musters the courage to not only stand by his faith but to use it in an honest attempt to help others. He cares about his parishioners (whom he knows all by name), visits with them regularly, and gives them advice that could help them live better lives, but he doesn’t for a second pretend that they will change overnight or that they’ll listen to every word he says. Moreover, he is a priest who is willing to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers, and that all he’s trying to do is the right thing. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Milo (played by Killian Scott), a slightly unhinged parishioner, tells him that he’s thinking of joining the army in the hopes of relieving his increasingly vitriolic angst, and James advises him to consider the fact that the Sixth Commandment, “Doesn’t have an asterisk beside it, referring you to the bottom of the page where you find a list of instances where it’s okay to kill people.”
“What about in self-defense?” Milo replies.
After a brief pause, James simply says, “That’s a tricky one, all right. But we’re hardly being invaded though, aren’t we?”
This acknowledgment that people will always have a tough time doing the right thing, coupled with his magnificently roguish sense of humor, is what makes James both compassionate and brave. He knows that his job requires him to listen to people talk about how badly they’ve screwed up their lives, and though he does judge them from time to time, he never does so in a manner that makes it impossible for them to change. In fact, there are a few moments in the film where he butts heads with another priest, Father Leary (played by David Wilmot), for being too harsh on people and not realizing that their personal feelings aren’t supposed to get in the way of offering solace. Whether he’s listening to the confessions of a salacious woman, the ramblings of an atheist doctor, or the sad history of a male prostitute, James always puts aside his own emotions for the sake of those who are speaking to him.
But as great as these qualities are, the best one is the awareness that he himself is flawed. He’s a neglectful father, a hard drinker, and a man who is, at times, prone to violent outbursts. But he never tries to cover these things up, and instead owns up to them and tries his best to make up for his past misdeeds. In this sense, he is a character who leads through example and not simply through words of wisdom, and demonstrates that forgiveness is what heals both oneself and others. During the last fifteen minutes or so of the film, there is a scene where he talks to his daughter (played by Kelly Reilly) about how awful it is to him that people tend to concentrate on sins rather than on virtues. His daughter asks him which virtue he thinks is the most important, and without any measure of doubt he says, “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.”
It is touching, then, that the only two people at the end of the movie that show a measure of growth are those who’ve forgiven the wrongdoings of others.
Margie Gunderson from Fargo
“And here you are. And it’s a beautiful day.”
It’s always Margie. Never “Marge” or, if you’re feeling really silly, “Margaret”. It’s always Margie. That’s how iconic this character is; people always refer to her by a nickname, as if she was a real person. Frances McDormand’s star turn as Fargo‘s pregnant police chief is a dazzling performance that fuses patience, honesty, and even motherly love in order to create one of cinema’s most original, and beloved, heroines.
There are many things to say about Margie, and they’re all worth mentioning. The journalist Cathleen Falsani, in her book The Dude Abides, has talked about how Margie’s pregnancy makes her much more of a guardian figure than if she weren’t pregnant or if the character had been male. Tony Zhou, at the end of his video essay on Bayhem, praises the Coen Brother’s choice to make Margie a humble character that, in a very subtle manner, espouses the virtues of living a simple life. These are wonderful qualities to be sure, but the one that often goes unnoticed is her graceful attitude towards the people she meets and the investigation that she’s involved in.
Besides being pregnant and self-effacing, Margie is different from about every other cop in cinematic history in that she isn’t some kind of emotional wreck who is desperately trying to crack the case. Think about your average movie cop and immediately you’ll get images of no-nonsense, gung-ho loudmouths who are busting down doors to get their guy or awkward know-it-alls that are more pariahs than team players. Margie is a perfect balance between the two; she doesn’t take guff from anyone and she knows how to work the investigation, and all with a genuinely content smile. Those scenes where she’s questioning witnesses and suspects almost feel out of place in this movie because she’s so nice. Actually, they don’t even feel like interrogations, they feel like ordinary conversations. Though it’s obvious that the people she’s speaking to aren’t her friends, she still approaches them in a polite and calm manner.
And in a way, it’s her politeness that gets her to the end of the investigation. Roger Ebert highlights this perfectly in his Great Movie Essay about the film in which he talks about the scene between Margie and Mike Yanagita (played by Steve Park), an old acquaintance from high school. She agrees to have dinner with the guy out of a sense of pity, and in a marvelously uncomfortable scene, she rejects his advances while assuring him that he hasn’t scared her off. The poor guy talks about his wife’s passing, and Margie listens intently with a truly sympathetic look on her face. The next day, Margie learns from a friend that Mike’s story was a complete sham, and that not only is the “wife” alive, she never even married Mike. As Ebert says, many have dismissed that scene as being “inexplicable”, but if anything it’s what makes Margie realize that there are people out there who are compulsive liars, and it’s what drives her to have another interview with Jerry Lundergaard (played by William H. Macy) after having doubts about the first time she spoke to him. In essence, her good nature helped her solve the case.
And then there’s the scene, easily one of the best scenes in the movie, where Margie has Gaear Grimsrud (played by Peter Stormare), the man responsible for five of the film’s seven murders, in the back of her cruiser. The brevity of her monologue is precisely what makes it so powerful; it doesn’t seem like she’s arriving at any great truth, and yet she is. Moreover, McDormand’s delivery is what sells not only the words spoken, but the character’s underlying grace. She doesn’t shout at Grimsrud, she doesn’t deride him, but rather, in a tone that mirrors that of a mother speaking to her child, she tells him that, “There’s more to life than a little money, ya know.”
Coming from a lesser character, that would sound like a cheap proverb from a fortune cookie. Coming from Margie, it feels like warm, nourishing wisdom.
Viktor Navorski from The Terminal
“I have chance go New York, fifty-fifty.”
The situation that Viktor Navorski (played by Tom Hanks) gets caught in would cripple most people. After flying from his home country, Krakhozia, to New York City, he is told that a coup took place while he was in the air, and his passport has been invalidated because he technically doesn’t have a country to return to. Worse still, since he is a stateless individual with no acceptable form of identification, he isn’t allowed into New York either. Thus Viktor is condemned to remain inside JFK International Airport until either country grants him entry. What could’ve been played up to be a Twilight Zone-ish mind-bender ended up being a charming examination of patience and fortitude in the face of a horribly unfair circumstance, at the center of which is the aforementioned Krakhoziani.
There is the temptation to call Viktor the charming idiot, since most of the film’s laughs come from him not understanding how things work in America, but that is a rather harsh, and dismissive, way to describe the character. While it is certainly true that he doesn’t understand American customs or laws, he doesn’t simply blunder his way through his problems nor does he give up and resign himself to his situation. Instead, we see that Viktor’s lack of knowledge is his greatest asset since it forces him to look at the problems he faces in a different way, thus leading him to solutions that most people would’ve never seen.
When he’s told that he must sleep in the terminal, he fashions himself a bed made out of discarded seats and sleeps in the terminal. When his food vouchers are thrown in a garbage can, he discovers that by returning carts to their rental areas, he can earn quarters to buy food. When he’s given an opportunity to work as a construction worker, he accepts the job on the spot. When he reads news reports about the crisis in his country and discovers that he doesn’t fully understand what’s being said, he goes to the indoor Barnes and Noble and teaches himself English. As symbolized by his love for jazz, Viktor is a master improviser, and it’s his ingenuity and adaptability that ensure his survival inside JFK.
Still, that’s not what makes the character great. Most people would probably find a way to survive if stuck inside a terminal, but Viktor finds a way to live in a fulfilling manner. He doesn’t seclude himself and become a peculiar, Boo Radley type, but rather becomes as integral a part of the terminal as anyone else there. He helps Enrique (played by Diego Luna), the young fella who drives the food cart around, get married to his sweetheart Dolores (played by Zoe Saldana). He helps a hopeless Russian emigre escape the clutches of the tyrannical Frank Dixon (played by Stanley Tucci), the senior US customs official, so that he may deliver medicine to his dying father. He plays cards with his pals from around the terminal, and he even manages to fall in love and, if only temporarily, court a beautiful stewardess named Amelia (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones).
He is such a decent person, in fact, that the aforementioned Dixon finds his presence a nuisance, and in response, tries to get rid of him. First he lies to Viktor and tells him that he can leave the terminal, but Viktor sees through the plot and realizes that he’ll be arrested if he tries. Then Dixon attempts diplomacy by offering Viktor political asylum, but that too fails because Viktor has no honest fear of his home country. Optimism, then, is what drives Viktor to bend, not break, the rules to his advantage since they are the only things that will get him to the end of his journey.
While the story is maudlin at times, it’s message is powerful. As Dr. Viktor Frankl (quite the coincidence) said, “The last of human freedoms [is] the ability to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” Bad things can, and often do, happen to us, but we always have the power to choose how we’ll meet those challenges. Some may cower, some may surrender themselves to despair, but in Viktor’s case, we see a lot of value in the person who hopes and does his best to live in an uncomfortable situation, and all with the added virtue of not having to sacrifice his integrity.
Will Kane from High Noon
“I’ve got to, that’s the whole thing.”
Abraham Lincoln once said that he intended to run his administration in such a way that if he had lost all his friends by the time his term concluded, he would, “…at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside of me.” Will Kane (played by Gary Cooper) is one of the finest cinematic exemplars of this maxim.
By all counts, Kane should be allowed to calmly bow out of the impending danger that is headed his way. In fact, one of the best things about High Noon is that the townspeople, as cowardly as they are, have very decent and rational motives for trying to get Will out of town. They tell him that his tenure as marshal is over, so there is no need to risk his life against the vicious criminal (played by Ian MacDonald) who threatened vengeance against him. He has a comfortable future as a store owner waiting for him. And above all, it’s his wedding day, and it’d be the grimmest of ironies to allow his sweetheart Amy (played by Grace Kelly) to become a wife and a widow in the same day. And yet he stays to defend his town against those who would tear it apart in search of pathetic revenge.
It’s worth noting that over the course of the film, he is isn’t just asked to leave; several people flat out demand that he abandon his post. The local judge and pastor, his friends, and even his beloved all issue dire predictions about the outcome of the gun battle, and Amy goes so far as to say that she’d rather leave him than have to watch him die. Yet in spite of these conjectures and ultimatums, his response each and every time is, “I can’t.” It must be stressed that he says, “I can’t,” not “I won’t.” That may seem like a silly semantic observation, but it provides a lot of meaning in terms of Kane’s character. He knows full well that a wiser person would heed the advice that his friends had given him, but in the end, he has a duty to ensure the security of the townspeople, even at the expense of his own happiness. At one point, he even declares to Amy that he doesn’t like the situation any more than she does, but he has to do it because it’s the responsibility that he accepted.
In this sense, Kane transcends the typical macho gunslinger character who’d say, “I’m not afraid! I’ll kick their asses into next Friday and ask for seconds!” If anything, he is afraid. He asks for help, and when he’s rejected at every turn, he sincerely doubts he’ll make it through the final battle. But he does come out on top with some help from the person we’d least expect, and at the end of the day he allows himself to head towards that cozy future that the townspeople had talked about.
Growing up, I always hated to hear parents (sometimes even my own parents) say something along these lines to their kids; “Son, you are going to sweep the house/clean the dishes/take out the garbage, and you are going to like it.” It’s always the last part that irritated me; and you are going to like it. Most of the time it’s meant as a joke, but sometimes people really demand that others do things they don’t want to with a measure of enjoyment. All too often, it seems, we associate the things that we have to do with the things we like to do, and sometimes they are the same thing. I like to write, so I feel the need to write. My little brother likes playing video games, so he plays video games. Soldiers defend. Teachers teach. Musicians play. But it would be foolish to think that responsibility and duty are always synonymous with passion and enjoyment. Parents probably don’t like changing their child’s diapers any more than the guy who has to empty port-o-potties likes his job, but they are ultimately things that have to get done.
It is easy, and at times understandable, for people to quit if the job at hand is too taxing, but there are some things in life that require us to step up to the plate and plant both feet firmly. Kane did so without a shred of false bravado, and while he was honest enough to say, “I don’t like what I have to do,” he was also valiant enough to say, “But I have to do it.”
It’d be needlessly disheartening to say that the cinematic world is running out of heroes. There are still many characters out there that are meant to personify humanity’s best traits, even if they are of the anti-hero variety. The fact of the matter is, though, that villainy has become a bit more fashionable nowadays, or at the very least, more intriguing. There was a time when audiences would boo and sneer at the villains on screen. Today, we sit and listen to them, sometimes more often than we listen to the heroes. Perhaps the reason we enjoy studying villains is because we recognize them as divergences from the norm, and we want to know how it is that someone could fall so far from the moral high-ground. That’s a well meaning intention, but isn’t the study of unusually saintly people just as interesting? Isn’t knowing what it takes to be a good person as valuable, if not more valuable, as knowing what it takes to be a bad one?
What do you think? Leave a comment.