Each quarter, Counterpoint asks Students, Faculty, and Alumni to answer a Symposium topic dealing with conservative politics and philosophy.
For Spring 2011, we present the Symposium on:
The Great American Film
We asked students, faculty, and alumni to tell us which movie is the Great American Film and what that movie says about this country.
Up in the Air by Kevin Jiang
When looking for the "great American movie", we require one that not only provides a compelling story and powerful message, but develops to both reflect and define American life as we know it. It may seem strange to crown a movie so recent and relatively unheralded among the pantheon of great American films, 2009's Up in the Air makes my list because of its unique portrayal of American life, and subtle commentary on middle America's shallow and sheltered life. Far from the idealized, dramatized portrayals of American life seen in typical dramatic life comedies, Up in the Air provides a sobering snapshot of the simple pleasures and challenges that define everyday life for upper middle class Americans. At its core, Up in the Air is a comedic, but telling look into how the American dream can be dramatically corrupted by the complicated, fast-paced, modern America.
For the protagonist, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a constantly traveling business consultant who specializes in mass layoffs, relationships are nothing more than a burden on life that can only keep us from rising to our full potential. As he puts it, "Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks." Ryan spends almost his entire life without permanent relationships. He has no long-term relationships and rarely even interacts with his sister. His house is almost devoid of possessions as his entire life is focused around his work and the travel that accompanies it. Ryan's life is an extreme parody of the lifestyle that has somehow evolved out of the American Dream in modern America.
In the past, the American dream represented the ideal that, with hard work, any person could achieve great things. For Ryan, his life's goal is to accrue ten million American Airlines frequent flyer miles, a highly ambitious, yet tragically shallow. With this as an underlying storyline, Up in the Air reveals that, rather than pursuing success for the betterment of themselves and their society, Americans, such as Ryan, are pursuing goals simply for their status. At some point in recent history, in the pursuit of greatness, Americans have lost touch with the idea that the value of performing impressive feats and reaching high status encompasses more than simply the difficulty of achieving that goal or the magnitude of such an achievement. Yet, even as Ryan represents some unforeseen pitfalls of the modern American dream, his foil, the young and idealistic Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) does little to redeem the modern American lifestyle. Introduced as a top graduate of a top-tier university, Natalie, through her plan to streamline layoffs via teleconferencing, epitomizes how out of touch most educated Americans, particularly the youth, can be with the realities of the working middle class world. In her pursuit of career perfection, she treats the workers she fires as nothing more than statistics, proposing that impersonally firing people over internet video would drastically increase the efficiency of the layoff consultants. Indeed, it is only after witnessing firsthand the anger and despair that "the newly unemployed" experience, that she begins to understand the impact her decisions make on real humans. While Natalie's enthusiasm for love and social relationships stands in stark contrast to the Bingham's cold pragmatism, she seems unable to grasp core American value of social dignity.
One might expect from a film of this genre, that, in the end, these troubled characters work out out their problems. Ryan would learn to love, and Natalie would learn to empathize with those she fires. However, and this is what sets Up in the Air among the great films, nothing works out. Ryan continues to live a solitary, frequent flyer lifestyle; Natalie quits her job at the firm, overwhelmed by the emotional burden, and both still pursue the corrupted husks of the American Dream. In both characters, we see the tragic degradation of the American Dream where, despite their education promising talent, two ambitious young Americans lose touch with their social and human responsibilities in the pursuit of success.
Yet, Up in the Air does not end in doom and gloom for the American dream. The final sequence, one where real, laid off Americans (not actors) discuss their lives post-firing, gives hope that the American dream is not lost. They note that, while their lives were devastated, the firings have rekindled their sense of purpose and desire to work hard to provide opportunities for their children and families. In both exposing the modern deterioration of the American dream, while simultaneously foreshadowing the resurrection of the true American way, Up in the Air is surely worthy of the title "Great American Movie."
On The Waterfront by Josh Lerner
Equal parts drama and gangster film, Elia Kazan's masterpiece On the Waterfront (1954) is as moving and powerful as it is brave and intense. At the same time, it is his moral reawakening that makes this film work. Based on the true story of the mafia infested New York shipyards, On the Waterfront tackles questions of hopelessness and corruption with a unique grace and dignity, personified by the wonderfully stoic Karl Malden as the beleaguered priest who is the only man left to see just how wrong things have become.
On the Waterfront begins, like many great films, with a murder. Terry Malloy, Marlon Brando in perhaps his greatest performance, witnesses the entirety of the heinous act but, as he is completely beholden to the morals of the mobsters who run the docks, is unable and unwilling to do anything. That is, until he meets Edie, played by the ethereal Eve Marie Saint, who calls to Malloy's human side. Malloy, we find out, hasn't always been the corrupt bum he is at the beginning of the film. He once was a great boxer, moving up the middleweight division and almost contending for a title shot. But, as he is rising through the boxing ranks, his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) has become the lawyer for notorious mobster Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Charlie, in the single great act of betrayal, tells Terry to throw the number one contender fight, essentially ending his boxing career before it begins. Now Terry, confronted with the failures of his past, finally has the chance to do right. The only issue is whether he is still good enough, human enough even, to do the right thing.
The central question of the film is the morality of testifying to the police at the expense of your friends and family. Kazan's villains, a collection of nefarious mobsters and union bosses, capture the shear normalcy of the corruption found at the docks. Implicit throughout the film is the indictment of inaction: Malden regularly chastises the non-corrupt members of the community as being just as guilty of the crimes as the mobsters themselves. Fear and oppression, however, are the modus operandi of the unions, and those who do speak up tend to end up in floating down the Hudson. Kazan brilliantly captures the environment of oppressive silence, a feeling that resounds in the unofficial motto of the docks: it is better to be "Deaf and Dumb" than dead.
But the single force that makes this movie great is Brando. On the Waterfront has Brando's greatest performance, in which we clearly see both a man who is loyal to his brother Charlie even though Charlie ruined Terry's fighting career by asking him to throw the fight, and a good Christian man ready for redemption. Were it not for his love for Edie he never would have found the courage to make a change.
The most famous scene from the movie—the oft quoted "I coulda been a contender" speech—shows Brando's character come full circle. He finally confronts his brother over the decisions he's made, over the lives they've ruined. He regains, through his love for Edie, a sense of self-worth and a conscience. No longer content to sit by as he sees the world drown in corruption, Malloy braves his own beating (not unintentionally designed to be something of a modern Passion play) to do what is right. Kazan, himself called to testify against his Hollywood colleagues accused of being Communists, defends testifying as the embodiment of justice. Solidarity is not about a class or what party you are loyal to, but rather to what is right and wrong. Brando's Malloy, for all of his faults, is the great hero here because he has the courage of his convictions. The moral center of this movie provides us with as clear a vision of justice as does any film, and what could be more American than that?
Apollo 13 by Tod Lindberg
When I got Counterpoint's invitation to participate in this symposium, the first thing I did was to drop a line to John Podhoretz to ask him if he was going to write about "The Godfather." The answer, as you can see, was yes. I crossed that off my list and moved on to "Casablanca." The editors informed me that Abram Shulsky was on Rick's case, though they had no objection to duplication. I moved on without regret. The answer to the question of the great American film depends, after all, on whether the emphasis is on "great" or "American," and on the sense in which one means "American": made in America by an American (in which case "The Godfather"), or limning the archetypal American hero (in which case "Casablanca"), or somehow capturing the essence of the American spirit — in which case, I propose Apollo 13 (1995).
There are many brilliant aspects to Ron Howard's 1995 movie about the effort to bring a crippled spacecraft and its three astronauts back to earth. The casting was flawless: Kathleen Quinlan as Marilyn Lovell above all. Quinlan was then 41 years old, actually two years older than Tom Hanks, the star. The temptation if not the pressure to select a younger actress for the part must have been immense. But the real Marilyn at the time of the Apollo 13 mission, 1970, was about 40, a mother of four. Quinlan was the right choice.
The performances were uniformly superb, from Hanks on down. Ed Harris plays the Houston flight director, Gene Kranz, to the absolute hilt. The screenplay crackles. It has in common with "The Day of the Jackal" the creation of extraordinary suspense despite an outcome known to viewers in advance.
And it is about persevering together and mustering all available resources in order to achieve a near-impossible objective. That's its Americanness. It's 140 minutes of can-do spirit. As Ed Harris says (though the real Gene Kranz actually didn't say), "Failure is not an option." When a NASA higher-up worries, "This could be the worst disaster NASA's ever faced." Harris/Kranz quickly and ingenuously replies, "With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour."
And so it was. The crew of the Odyssey makes it home. Here, however, it is not the wiliness of an Odysseus that brings about the homecoming, but the unwavering dedication of a group of people working against all odds. Harris/Kranz: "Let's work the problem people. Let's not make things worse by guessing."
It's a great story and an America story, brilliantly rendered on film. It's also a mostly-true story. The great American movie? In one sense, yes.
Blade Runner by Thomas Pavel
My favorite American movie is Blade Runner (1982) by Ridley Scott. I certainly appreciated the old Chaplin movies, in particular The Great Dictator, the great Westerns, especially Red River, Woody Allen early comedies—but not his later pseudo-Bergman flicks—as well as big dramas like Taxi Driver by Scorsese. Under the influence of my son, then a pre-teenager, I acquired a durable taste for Star Wars. But Blade Runner touched my heart more than any other American film.
Adapted from a story by Philip K. Dick, it imagines a future in which technology manages to create artificial humans called 'replicants' with a life span of four years, who are employed as soldiers and laborers on Earth's colonies in space. Earth is out of limits for them and if they return they are 'retired', i.e. executed by specially trained police agents called 'blade runners'. A group of renegade replicants return to Earth to ask Tyrell, their creator and the head of the bio-tech company that produced them, to extend their life span. Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), a disenchanted blade runner, is hired to retire them. He meets Rachael, Tyrell's assistant, a replicant who believes she is a human because her creator implanted the childhood memories of his niece into her brain. Deckard, who falls in love with her, lets her know that in fact she is a replicant and that her memories are not really hers. In the meantime, Roy, the leader of the renegades, corners Tyrell, who admits that the replicants' life cannot be prolonged. Roy kills him. Later, in a prolonged fight with Deckard, Roy senses that his preprogrammed end is near and in a spur of generosity helps Deckard climb onto a roof from which he was hanging. When Roy expires a dove flies from his hand: a moment of generosity seems to have given the replicant a soul.
When I first saw this movie almost thirty years ago the scene in which Roy, the creature, kills his creator shocked me. It looked like a tendentious portrayal of an evil god and a righteous rebellion against him. What I didn't understand then was that Tyrell portrayed the most dangerous kind of human beings – those who imagine that they have godly powers. Recent developments in bio-technology threaten to lead us in this direction.
I cannot forget the scene in which Rachael, played by Sean Young, realizes that her memories are not hers. This scene tells that we are not our past, we are not our memories and we should not remain their hostages. In America, perhaps more than anywhere else, we are what we are going to do, we are our own future. This is something particularly important to keep in mind at a time when the unstoppable speculations about identity may generate the illusion that we are glued to the past, to things that do not depend on us. The beautiful Rachael and her calm, transparent eyes told me that it is not so.
The Godfather by John Podhoretz
The great American film is The Godfather (1972)—and it is not only the great American film, but the greatest of films. It is a peerless combination of the epic and the intimate, the grand set-piece and the small and quiet moment, and it features the most compelling figure the screen has yet seen in Michael Corleone, whose journey from war hero to mob boss is the cinema's most perfectly realized character arc.
What The Godfather tells us about America is rather less clear; people have taken it over time to be an attack on capitalism, on America's treatment of immigrants, and the like. Its co-writer and director, Francis Ford Coppola, made all that more explicit in the sequel, The Godfather Part II, which is a wonderful movie but far too on-the-nose (and ideologically dated with its rapturous depiction of the Communist takeover of Cuba). None of that is really central to The Godfather, which is, at its core, about the choices family imposes. Michael Corleone wants to be free of his family's criminality, but the assassination attempt on his father awakens a more atavistic hunger in him. The moment when he lifts the gun to kill the man who sought to kill his own father—thereby consigning himself to a fate he had sought to escape—is an example of what the movies at their best can do better than any other medium. They can zero in on a moment in time and through the coordination of sound and picture and performance, make it as vivid as your most painful memory or most haunting dream.
The most interesting thing about The Godfather is that it is a very faithful rendering of a very enjoyable but disposable novel. That novel was somehow transmuted into a great work of popular art. That tells you something about novels and movies, which is that serious readers need more from books than moviegoers need from movies.
Patton by Jeremy Rozansky
That the signers would pledge their "lives," "Fortunes," and "sacred Honor" proved as important a line in the Declaration of Independence as their statement of creed—"Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Happiness." Those rights could only be secured by the collected brawn of the colonies. To the signers, it was not merely a risk, but a risk staked on "sacred Honor." There was, in America's first moment, a sense of the special dignity acquired in battle.
This sense resurfaces in the biopic of, perhaps, its greatest American proponent, General George S. Patton. Patton (1970) locates with precision the small ground between failing to recognize greatness and hagiography. General Patton, "Old Blood and Guts," is the most charming of fanatics, with an overconfidence and old-worldliness that is bound to bristle against the American grain.
For a movie that opens with a full projection of the American flag, its first words are, in many ways, un-American to the core. Patton, whose complexities are captured with an easy accuracy by George C. Scott, rises to the dais to address the Third Army. "Americans," he proclaims, "traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle." This is as untrue now as it was in the days of isolationism. Democracies do not love a fight; they love peace and prosperity, acquisition and the enjoyment of freedoms. Patton favors war over peace, teamwork over individuality, zeal over moderation.
The arc of Patton is a familiar one. He brilliantly commands American forces against the Nazis in Northern Africa. While his hubris gets the better of him in the next campaign, Sicily, it isn't what does him in. It is his stubborn sense of honor so at odds with the pity essential to democratic regimes. He repeatedly slaps a soldier suffering from what we would today call post-traumatic stress disorder. To Patton, there is no such thing. There is only bravery and cowardice, and cowardice is to be scolded. Patton finds himself in the wilderness because of the incident, too politically radioactive to be given a prestigious assignment. It is only because the Allied armies need his brilliance that he is again put at the head of an army. Patton never changes; only the circumstances do. As such, Patton heroically commands the Third Army, lifting the Allied forces from a moment of inertia, but, when the war ends, Patton again clashes with American sensibilities. He wants to press forward the war against Russia and claims the Nazis to be just a political party, "like the Democrats and Republicans." He is in the wilderness again, with no war to fight. The Nazi's psychological profiler says it best of Patton: "The absence of war will kill him."
Yet, it is unqualifiedly clear by the end of the film that Patton was as responsible as anyone for America's victory in Europe. As much as it may grate against our democratic consciences, we need a few "Old Blood and Guts" in every generation.
America cannot be a nation of only acquisitionists and materialists, with no sense of history or destiny. Remarkable times call for remarkable men and democracies, by empowering the everyman, run the risk of lauding the mundane. It is up to men who believe they are the reincarnation of history's great warriors, who marvel in regalia, who take honor too far, and who can spit "God, how I hate the 20th Century" to take us through the most trying of human endeavors, war.
As these are the most trying of endeavors, wars also exhibit the most profound possibilities of human greatness. Patton shows an American audience greatness, and, perhaps more importantly, our own uncertainties about greatness, about the "sacred Honor" of our founders. The movie's last words are "all glory is fleeting," but that there even is glory is the broader point.
Shane by Diana Schaub
"Is our West ultimately more a civilization or a kind of human being?" This question is raised by Eva Brann at the end of a wonderful essay, "The Empires of the Sun and the West," in her recent book Homage to Americans. Evidence that the West is indeed defined by a particular human type is provided by the whole genre of movies called "Westerns"—movies in which civilization is scarcely present though a certain kind of human being, the "Odyssean individualist," is central. When civilization is the merest veneer of clapboard, it is character that counts and that prevails. If America is "the West's very West" then the American West is West even of that and the genre of the Western is its poetic epitome. To my thinking, the greatest Western (and thus the greatest American movie) has always been Shane (1953).
While Shane is the hero, as the title plainly indicates, it is also true that the movie indicates very sensitively the nature of the emerging American civilization. The relationship between self-reliant individualism and the possibility of a decent, law-abiding community of equals is complex and not without serious strains and ambiguities. For those who haven't seen this classic Western, the conflict in Shane is not between the native peoples and the new arrivals but between two types of white settlers. The hard-drinking, unmarried, ruffian ranchers (who've been in the West longer) are pitted against the sober, married, security-minded farmers. Ranchers and farmers represent alternative foundations of political order. The victory goes to the farmers, but only because Shane, a gunslinger gone good, puts his expertise in the service of the new order based on families. The battle is seen through the eyes of a boy, a sort of American Telemachus, with a boy's fascination with guns and status. That boy, and all the American boys who listened, received an education in the true meaning of manliness. As it happens, a very large part of that education was a lesson about the subordinate status of manliness. War is for the sake of peace.
This message is by no means unique to Shane. In fact, one Western after another demonstrates that proper male honor is in the service of women and children. The genre of the Western assisted in the domestication of the American male by giving it an imaginative basis (just as Homer's Odyssey perhaps assisted in the taming of the Greeks). Although Shane himself disappears into the sunset (his Penelope being already the wife of another), the boy will return to hearth and home knowing now that true security requires a willingness to hazard one's life in defense of a worthy way of life.
Watching Shane today, we are reminded of the needfulness of the manly virtues (something a feminized age prefers to forget). Courage is far from being the sole or the highest virtue, but it is a virtue, and one that civilization can not survive without. We are often told today that men are biologically disposed to violence; however, that disposition is also usually regarded as lamentable. Perhaps the incorporation of young males into the body politic would be more successful if our attempts to harness them also honored their natural spiritedness.
Casablanca by Abram N. Shulsky
Rick: Sam, if it's December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?
Sam: Uh, my watch stopped.
Rick: I bet they're asleep in New York. I'll bet they're asleep all over America.
Rick is quite drunk when he utters these words, evidently during the first week of the month. On the surface, they don't quite make sense, but, as they say, in vino veritas: America is soon to be jolted awake and thrown into the war already raging in Europe and Asia. And, by the end of the movie, Rick himself has entered the fray, a development that the highly civilized and committed anti-Nazi fighter Victor Laszlo sees as decisive: "This time I know our side will win."
The Rick we meet in Casablanca (1942) is characterized by cynicism toward other people and their problems and toward moral sentiments generally: when warned by French police chief Renault not to help a dealer in black market visas, he assures him: "I stick my neck out for nobody." When the pitiable Annina asks him about dealing with the lecherous Renault, who is willing, for a non-monetary price, to facilitate her and her husband's escape from the war-torn Balkans, his advice is abrupt and cold: "Go back to Bulgaria."
Furthermore, his past is dubious. Speculating on the reason why Rick hasn't returned to America, Renault mentions three possibilities: embezzlement of church funds, an affair with a senator's wife, and murder. Rick's laconic answer is amusing but unlikely: "It was a combination of all three." In fact, the only thing we really know about Rick's American past is that, in 1930, he – along with many other Americans – was looking for a job.
Nevertheless, Rick had been something of an idealist. In a conversation with Renault, he implies that mercenary motives led him to fight against Franco and to help Ethiopia resist fascist aggression, but the Frenchman doesn't buy it: "The winning side would have paid you much better." He cynically, but unconvincingly, attributes this pattern of helping the underdog to his "never [having been] much of a businessman." As a result of these activities, he is wanted by the Germans, necessitating a hasty flight from Paris on the eve of its fall.
Rick is a disillusioned idealist whose policy is one of "isolationism." The cause is his having been jilted by the young and beautiful Ilsa Lund, just as the two lovers were about to leave Paris to escape the advancing Germans. It is only when, in the course of the film, Rick comes to understand the reason for her abandonment of him (that she was secretly married to Laszlo and that, having believed him dead, she suddenly found out that he was ill and hiding in the outskirts of Paris) that he is able to recover his previous idealism and join the Allied cause.
By the end of the film, the three main male leads (Rick, Renault and Laszlo) are united in the fight against Nazism. Renault seems annoyed by Vichy's subservience to Germany, which grates on him. While we appreciate his simple patriotism, he is fundamentally a comic character. Laszlo, however, is an ideologically committed intellectual, able by means of his rhetorical abilities to stir large numbers of people to action. Unlike Rick, his commitment to the anti-Nazi cause is consistent – and has been undertaken at great personal risk. How is it that Rick, and not he, is the hero?
This brings us to the film's dramatic core: the love triangle among Rick, Laszlo and Ilsa. Laszlo's love for his wife is clearly genuine, but seems bloodless. As he has to remind Rick, "Apparently you think of me only as the leader of a cause. Well, I am also a human being." (Emphasis supplied.) This characteristic is demonstrated when Laszlo claims that he had intended to leave Ilsa behind in Lille and Marseilles when, for various reasons, she hindered his ability to travel: "I meant to [leave you], but something always held me up." Immediately after this rather shocking statement, he apparently incongruously adds: "I love you very much, Ilsa."
We understand the connection: his love for his wife and concern for her safety leads him to say what sounds very much like the opposite, in a vain attempt to convince her to leave for America without him. (A visa might be obtainable for her, but not for him.) Confronted by her refusal even to contemplate this, Laszlo argues that one spouse ought to be willing to abandon the other when necessary.
This makes sense if one looks only at the political commitment. When Ilsa pulls a gun on Rick in an attempt to force him to help Lazlo and her escape, Rick dares her to shoot: "If Laszlo and the cause mean so much to you, you won't stop at anything."
But the cold rationality of Laszlo's argument also makes clear the disconnect between his political commitment and his personal feelings. Her enigmatic reply to his profession of love – "Your secret will be safe with me." – is hard to interpret, but it seems to recognize that the primacy of his ideological conviction prevents him from accepting his love for Ilsa as an integral part of his personality.
Rick, by contrast, is, to use Tom Wolfe's phrase, a man in full. His passion goes to his very core, and, when he sacrifices his love for the greater political good, he does so without having in any way to deny it or call it into doubt. He is not as "good" a man as Lazlo, but his goodness is instinctual. The examples of love that he encounters (Annina for her husband, and Laszlo for Ilsa) are sufficient to break the bonds of his bitterness and enable his basic goodness to become effective.
America, too, was able to regain its idealism after the disappointment surrounding the aftermath of the "war to end all wars" (the mauling of Wilsonian idealism in the course of negotiating the Versailles Treaty, to say nothing of the disastrous economic consequences of the war) and to enter wholeheartedly into the fight against tyranny.
A Few Good Men by Ben Silver
It is not quite clear what to look for when trying to find a distinctly American movie, but, undoubtedly, one that stresses the return of America to its original principles ought to fit nicely. In that regard, A Few Good Men (1992) proves to be an appropriate candidate for the title considering its emphasis on honor and accountability—two beliefs held dear in America's youth but abandoned in exchange for personal gain during the latter half of the twentieth century.
The movie tells of the trial of two enlisted Marines, Harold Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and Louden Downey (James Marshall), who are accused of murdering one of their fellow corpsmen, Santiago. Their JAG lawyers, Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) are charged with defending the Marines by showing that two of their superior officers, Jonathan Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland) and Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson), had ordered Dawson and Downey to assault Santiago, and that the death itself was an accident.
Aside from being a moral struggle and a tale of redemption, A Few Good Men is, at its very core, an exposition of what it means to be honorable. Before the trial begins, Kaffee negotiates a plea bargain deal with the prosecution amounting to six months in prison for both Dawson and Downey. Dawson, a man completely adherent to his principles, refuses the deal proclaiming, "I believe I did my job. I will not dishonor myself, my unit, or the Corps so I can go home in six months." The fact that Dawson and Downey decide to press their luck by going to trial, facing a high chance of conviction and then prison, is a testament to the film's statement that honor should be the central creed of each and every person, especially members of the military. In the wake of Vietnam and during the First Gulf War, when narratives of American combatants related stories of civilian abuse and general misconduct, A Few Good Men calls for the reinstatement of honor in the American military and, thereby, society at large.
As much as it is about honor, A Few Good Men is just as much about bringing justice to individuals who commit wrongs, even those who command authority. Though Jessep actually ordered the assault which resulted in Santiago's death, he covers up his involvement and more or less condemns Dawson and Downey to an unjust conviction. In the trial, Kaffee attempts to show that Jessep definitively did give the order, and is therefore responsible for the murder. Kaffee works Jessep into a fervor, prodding him with questions and asks for the truth of whether Jessep ordered the assault on Santiago. Jessep responds with one of the most famous and lasting lines in cinema: "You can't handle the truth!" Jessep attempts to maintain his innocence in this legendary line, but in doing so realizes the inevitability of being brought to justice. Jessep then quickly admits to his involvement in Santiago's death, and he is finally held accountable for his crime. The movie shows that high-ranking individuals are not outside the rule of law, especially those in the military who can hide behind their subordinates.
Though accountability, especially in the governmental arena, and honor are not in and of themselves distinctly American ideas, they are still elements of American society that, at least superficially, we still hold dear in the present. The fact that A Few Good Men calls attention to them confirms the realization that Americans have lost those values, such as with military actions in Vietnam or even the lack of accountability for corporate executives who caused the decline in the American economy in the late 1980's. And in calling attention to the reality that America has, to a degree, abandoned the ideals of accountability and honor, A Few Good Men presses for the restoration of those values which helped found our nation and shape our government. In that sense, A Few Good Men is a distinctly American movie.
Dirty Harry by Michael Talent
There are few lines in American cinema as well known as that uttered by Inspector Harry "Dirty Harry" Callahan, "You've got to ask yourself one question, 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya punk?" Delivered by actor Clint Eastwood, staring down the barrel of a .44 Smith and Wesson, the line is as memorable as the movie itself. In brief, the story is about a loose-cannon cop who hunts down a vicious serial killer, called Scorpio—played by a creepy Andy Robinson—in San Francisco. One of the most stunning scenes of the film occurs when Callahan is tasked with delivering a ransom to Scorpio in order to save a kidnapped girl who is buried alive. Scorpio, wearing a ski mask, attacks Callahan and, standing over him, whispers that he has decided to let the girl die. The scene viscerally displays the acting skills of Robinson and Eastwood, and serves the underline the depraved nature of Scorpio.
In fact, the entire cast portrays their characters very well. However, it is Eastwood's portrayal of Detective Callahan that makes the film great. Eastwood's acting shows Callahan's black-and-white attitude towards crime is hidden behind a stoic demeanor. One of the most remarkable scenes in the film is when he finally catches Scorpio. After shooting the killer's gun out of Scorpio's hand, Callahan trains his revolver on Scorpio while saying his famous line. With a snarl on his face, Callahan spits out, "Well, do ya, punk?" This, more than anything, reveals Callahan's contempt for the criminal and his desire to kill him.
The brutality and tenacity with which Callahan goes after Scorpio is memorably stunning, even by the standards of today's cinema. For example, Callahan tortures Scorpio by pressing his foot against a bullet wound he had given the man in order to find the location of a girl Scorpio had buried alive, all after he had illegally entered the man's residence. Yet, the film does not portray this act as wrong. Scorpio is beyond deranged—randomly killing people and hijacking a school bus—so when Callahan does "violate his rights," there really is no sympathy for him.
This was, and is still, a controversial message. The film was made in 1971 when the Supreme Court was expanding the constitutional rights of criminals through rulings like Miranda, and is a reminder that the Bill of Rights, in addition to protecting the law-abiding citizen from government abuses, also protects killers like Scorpio. George Orwell's old adage that "we sleep safe in our bed because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would do us harm" is clearly on display in Dirty Harry (1971).
Roger Ebert, in his review of Dirty Harry, says that movies reflect ideas in society, and then uses this to claim that the "fascist" tendencies of Dirty Harry are present in America. I have to disagree with him. What Dirty Harry reflects is the idea that criminal elements need to be removed, and that it is possible to go too far in preserving rights. What Dirty Harry shows is that, while we would like to live in an ideal society where we can respect the rights of others, sometimes it is impossible; sometimes, there are individuals who are just so evil that it takes an individual willing to bend the rules, to do something that we would find distasteful, to stop that person. This is not a fascist idea; it is just reality.
Pride of the Yankees by Kenneth R. Weinstein
Pride of the Yankees (1942), the biography of the Iron Horse, New York Yankee slugger Lou Gehrig, and starring Gary Cooper and Teresa Wood, is the Great American Film.
Yes, the film explores distinctly American themes: immigrant life in New York City, assimilation through the great American pastime (a game Gehrig's German-born parents can barely comprehend), hard work, love and Gehrig's goodhearted naivete, so typically American, especially in the face of the locker room pranks by his crasser and more worldly teammates, including Babe Ruth.
But the film's real focus, as it were, is the American character as embodied in the Iron Horse. Through hard work, Lou Gehrig becomes the greatest hero of the game of baseball. Gehrig becomes the embodiment of a distinctively American work ethic, playing non-chalantly in 2130 straight games, despite pain and countless injuries, and, eventually, the illness that would claim his life. His athletic excellence, humility, and strong leadership through quiet example, are a model for us all. Through the film's vignettes culminating in the diagnosis with what would later be called "Lou Gehrig Disease," we come to see a man who faces adversity and challenge yet never complains. He prevents others from seeing his pain and sorrow, shielding his fans, his teammates, his parents and his beloved Eleanor from his rapidly declining condition.
Even the most cold-hearted of Red Sox fans can't help but be brought to tears at film's finale on "Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day" (fittingly July 4, 1939), when Gehrig, standing before a microphone in Yankee Stadium between the great Yankee teams of the 1920s and 1930s, declares himself, in his immortal words, before a standing room only crowd, to be "the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
Gehrig is one of the greatest of American heroes, never boastful in his astonishing feats and never embittered when dealt fortune's bad fate.
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