Jewish World Review Feb. 5, 2002 / 23 Shevat, 5762

Michael Medved

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Consumer Reports

Heroes deserve
screen time, too -- During Hollywood's "Golden Age," some 60 years ago, the busy dream factory churned out an extraordinary array of inspiring biographies, celebrating titanic achievements in every field of human endeavor.

In the past decade, however, the entertainment industry has focused on more complex, controversial figures, with lavish biographical films about losers and lunatics, dissenters, deviants and downers.

Following the attacks of Sept. 11, many cultural commentators expected a fresh, fervent embrace of old-fashioned heroes, but so far Hollywood has offered few signs of a shift.

In the old days, Tinseltown provided reverent attention to stories of Abraham Lincoln and the Christian savior, but entertainment reporters now write of pending projects on two less-admirable (but similarly bearded) characters: Charles Manson and American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh.

The producer of From Hell reportedly tried to persuade Johnny Depp to play the part of America's most celebrated mass-murdering maniac, while various companies compete for the rights to the bizarre story of Lindh, the California youth who trained with al-Qaeda terrorists.

In fairness, entertainment executives looked beyond homicidal cult leaders and fanatically religious traitors in recent biographical efforts. During the holiday season, Hollywood also focused on a schizophrenic mathematician, a promiscuous writer stricken with Alzheimer's disease and the most celebrated draft resister in American history. These three big bio films of 2001 - A Beautiful Mind, Iris and Ali - all count as legitimate Oscar contenders, and all concentrate on rebellious figures at odds with mainstream society.

Mathematician John Nash, expertly played by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, won a Nobel Prize in 1994, but never escaped the devastating mental illness that provides the film's chief focus.

In Iris, Kate Winslet portrays novelist Iris Murdoch as a headstrong, free-spirited young woman; then Judi Dench takes over the role as the aging literary lioness stricken with dementia and helplessness.

In Ali, Will Smith's electrifying performance dwells on boxing triumphs rather than the protagonist's conversion to the Black Muslims or his struggles against the draft, but no one could confuse the unconventional, irrepressibly womanizing Muhammad Ali with the textbook heroes of history once favored by Hollywood.

In a seemingly endless series of self-consciously uplifting films, the movie business of that earlier era honored everyone from visionary political leaders (Disraeli, 1929; Juarez, 1939; Wilson, 1944) to athletic greats (Knute Rockne, All American, 1940; Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees, 1942) to world-changing scientists (The Story of Louis Pasteur, 1936; Madame Curie, 1943) to immortal composers (Johann Strauss in The Great Waltz, 1938; George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, 1942). There were also, of course, lyrical, moving accounts of America's 16th president - including Young Mr. Lincoln (with Henry Fonda, 1939) and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (with Raymond Massey, 1940).

For the most part, both audiences and critics loved these films, despite Hollywood's tendency to smooth away rough edges and avoid dark shadows in portraying its favored subjects.

More recent moviemakers seem determined to reverse this traditional formula, emphasizing self-destructive rather than heroic impulses, giving more attention to pain and humiliation than moments of triumph.

Last year, well-deserved Oscar nominations went to Ed Harris for portraying alcoholic, abusive painter Jackson Pollock (Pollock), and to Javier Bardem as Cuban poet and AIDS-infected sexual outlaw Reinaldo Arenas (Before Night Falls). Even Babe Ruth fell victim to this muckraking approach, with John Goodman portraying the Sultan of Swat (The Babe, 1992) as drunk, dumb and doomed. Significantly, the most celebrated recent film about a real moviemaker (Ed Wood, 1994) focused on the delightfully demented, transvestite director hailed for creating the worst films ever made.

The common explanation for Hollywood's current emphasis on darker, downbeat stories involves the general decline of hero worship in this cynical, post-modern age. This logic suggests that we look skeptically on all public figures, with tabloid culture making people so painfully aware of celebrity failings that we won't accept a traditional, airbrushed treatment of some peerless paragon.

This assumption may, however, have been undermined by recent developments. Since the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, the nation appears more prepared to turn its adoring gaze to selfless, capable, disciplined heroes.

Consider the intense adulation for New York firefighters and cops, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

In the book business, unabashedly admiring accounts of Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt ride the bestseller lists, and millions of Americans became fascinated with the doughty figure of John Adams, thanks to David McCullough's hugely popular biography. Hollywood, however, focused on alleged sexual peccadilloes of Adams' rival, Thomas Jefferson - with Sally Hemings: An American Scandal on television (2000) and Jefferson in Paris at the multiplex (1995).

The yearning for heroes - manly, patriotic, self-controlled - permeates every aspect of our culture at this vulnerable moment in national life, in part because we know we need such servants and protectors.

The top-grossing movie in the first weeks of 2002, Black Hawk Down, honored U.S. Army Rangers who performed with dauntless courage nine years ago - though they gave their lives in a disastrous and ill-conceived mission in Somalia.

Another real-life patriot, who made the ultimate sacrifice, was CIA agent and former Marine officer Johnny "Mike" Spann, who perished in Afghanistan during a prison uprising moments after interrogating his fellow American, John Walker Lindh. At his funeral, old friends from Alabama recalled that their local hero had been influenced by Hollywood imagery.

"That's going to be me," Spann reportedly declared when his high school football team watched the Tom Cruise blockbuster Top Gun, about the tough training of hotshot Navy pilots. "I'm going to be doing that someday."

If fictional characters in a slick action movie can help inspire a small-town teenager to a life of service to his country, film biographies of real heroes, in the old Hollywood style, might produce an even more intense impact. As leaders in the entertainment industry feel caught up in the patriotism of the moment, they might recognize that the noble Johnny Spanns of our country deserve movie immortality at least as much as traitors, terrorists or self-destructive losers.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three kids, hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.

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