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. . . .