Temple Grandin, directed by Mick Jackson. Written by Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson. Starring Claire Danes, Julia Ormond, David Strathairn, Catherine O’Hara. Distributed by HBO Films (2010). Rated PG (for adult content).
Recently released on DVD, HBO Film’s Temple Grandin is the true story of animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, a brilliant scientist and engineer who single-handedly reformed the meatpacking industry by improving both the way cattle are treated and the means by which the animals are led to slaughter. What makes Grandin, currently a professor at Colorado State University, of particular interest as the subject of a docudrama is not only the way she helped the beef and cattle industry become more efficient and profitable, but also the fact that she is autistic.
The television film, written by Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson, is based on several books by Grandin and details her life from the time that she was diagnosed as autistic—when she was a toddler—to her postdoctoral years in the early 1980s. What makes Grandin even more remarkable is her rivetingly powerful self-awareness of her disability; how she compensates for it, by “thinking in pictures”; and how she uses her unique situation and skills to get “into” the minds of the animals she studies.
Claire Danes, who plays Grandin, deserves particular kudos for her performance (she justly won an Emmy for the role), which is rich and believable. Grandin is profoundly independent, driven, and self-interested; once she sets her mind to a goal, she never gives up and never backs down—and she always does what is right for herself and the animals she loves. With Danes’ portrayal, viewers love and root for Grandin from beginning to end. Though it may be a cliché to describe such a film as “feel-good” or “inspiring,” that is exactly what Temple Grandin is. One cannot help but be mesmerized and energized by the story.
But what makes this picture more than just an inspiring tale about the events of Grandin’s life is the way director Mick Jackson tells her story. Grandin is able, in effect, to get inside the minds of the animals she’s studying, and Jackson is able to get inside her mind: We see how she thinks—her literal-mindedness, her ability to think through problems by means of pictures, diagrams, metaphors, and similes. For instance, when someone suggests that she take up “animal husbandry,” we are shown how she thinks of this: She sees a cow, dressed in a tuxedo, about to get married. Likewise, when someone tells her something is a “miracle,” she sees Jesus walking on water.
Grandin understands that she thinks differently, and she embraces the fact. In a scene late in the picture, she gets on all fours among a herd of cows, and Jackson superimposes a cow over Grandin to show that she is transforming her mind-set into that of the animal.
Jackson uses the visual aspects of Grandin’s thought process thematically throughout the film. For instance, doors play an important part in the way Grandin achieves her goals and marks her progress, and we see her walk through doors both figurative and actual. (In fact, going through a particular real door is what puts Grandin on her path to success.) This metaphor is emblematic of the deft, cinematic way Jackson delivers Grandin’s story, integrating the telling with the subject.
Another layer of Grandin’s story involves her sympathy for the stock animals with which her work is concerned. While we all know where our hamburger comes from, few of us want to see or even think about the process involved. Grandin, however, spends most of the picture in and around stockyards, and viewers are faced with the uncomfortable facts about the ways in which animals are killed in modern slaughterhouse assembly lines. But director Jackson handles the scenes with admirable skill. Temple loves animals, and her humane approach to their slaughter is encapsulated by her brilliantly simple point that, although the animals in question were born for us to eat, that does not mean they should be treated poorly while they are alive. Illustrating Grandin’s sympathy for the animals and her early naïveté is a beautiful scene in which she puts her hand on a cow as it is being euthanized. Her reaction is simple and direct: “The cow was there and now it’s gone.” In other words, what made it a living being has ceased to exist. Not surprisingly, by treating the animals humanely, which is the purpose of the systems she develops, Grandin increases the productivity and profitability of the stockyards.
Grandin overcomes myriad conflicts and hurdles. For instance, many of the stockyard cowboys are against her, not because she is autistic, but because she is a woman and an outsider. The way she overcomes this—in part by adopting the dress, vehicle, and habits of these men—is very amusing and illustrative of her ambitious nature.
Although Grandin is self-aware and intelligent, she is nevertheless autistic and must contend with the problems autism imposes. She thrives on routine, is easily flustered, and has irrational fears—for instance, of automatic doors. Grandin knows that such traits both set her apart and hold her back, and she finds or creates ways to surmount many of the obstacles.
When she was in college, for instance, Grandin designed and built a “hug machine,” which she adapted from a device she saw on her uncle’s farm that was used to restrain cattle and calm them down when they had to be branded or undergo medical procedures. Grandin uses her hug machine to calm herself down when she becomes upset or anxious. Unfortunately, certain roommates and school officials brand the machine as having a sexually deviant use and seek to have it removed from her room. Grandin, with the support of her mother, fights to keep it, even doing research using fellow students to prove that its function is to calm down the user, not to stimulate him.
While Danes carries the film with her superb performance, the supporting cast, including Julia Ormond as Temple’s mother, David Strathairn as her high school science teacher, and Catherine O’Hara as her aunt are all spot-on. Ormond, in particular, is pitch-perfect—proud, defiant, and frustrated, all at the right moments and in the right measure.
Although Temple Grandin is a made-for-television film, it exceeds the bonds of the small screen, feeling cinematic, three-dimensional, and even epic at times. This is a not-to-be-missed inspiring, uplifting, and often-humorous film about one of the most amazing minds you may ever encounter.