Saving Private Ryan and the Moral Calculus of Human Life

Saving Private Ryan turns 20 this year. It still offers insight and wisdom for our cultural moment.

[Note: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan turns 20 this year.]

Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List are two sides of the same Spielbergian coin. Both films are about the moral calculus of human life, and how a few ordinary, flawed people responded to an extraordinary moment when this calculus turned deadly. List is the greater film, but Ryan is the more philosophical. Both movies put the same question to its characters: How much is one person worth? The answers in Schindler’s List are definitive; the answers in Saving Private Ryan are complex.

Ryan has been criticized as a pro-war film. Particularly in the aftermath of the Iraq war, there seemed to me a shift in critical opinion toward the film. It’s popular today to argue that the first 30 minutes of the movie—the astonishing and excruciatingly violent D-Day beach sequence—are truly great, but the rest is replaceable. I’m not so sure. What Spielberg accomplishes in Ryan is a spiritual biography of the American soldier. It’s not a pro-war film (no movie that sought to be pro-war would film anything close to that beach sequence), but it’s not an anti-war film either. As a documentary of war, Ryan dismantles the John Wayne/Golden Age of Hollywood delusion, and as a reflection on the value of human life in a world set to destroy it, it likewise challenges the cynicism and utilitarianism of the post-Vietnam mind. It is a great movie because it makes the audience small and the questions big.

The key moment in the movie is not the beach landing, but the scene in which Captain Miller’s (Tom Hanks) company nearly begins to kill itself, literally, out of fury and frustration at not having found Ryan. The company sergeant pulls a gun on a private who says he’s “done with this mission” and will not go further. Most of the men want to execute a German prisoner; the cowardly translator Upham wants to spare him. Miller angers the group by releasing the prisoner, forcing something to give. At the last moment Miller reveals something the soldiers say he’s never told them: where he’s from and what he does. The line “I’m a schoolteacher” breaks over the tension like water on a parched battlefield. It’s the film’s pivotal moment, wherein Miller permanently wins his men’s loyalty by revealing his inner conflict and family-ward sense of duty. That the stoic and courageous Captain is an English teacher from rural Pennsylvania is a beautifully poetic irony. It epitomizes Spielberg’s big idea. In this moment, Miller is not just a captain, he is America itself—killing and being killed, exercising his duty and yet feeling (as he puts it) further and further away from home with every successful shot.

Miller’s confession that he personally doesn’t care about Ryan is poignant. It de-romanticizes both him and his mission. He’s not Captain America; he’s just trying to return home to his wife. This is a brilliant portrayal of how ordinary people calculate the value of human life. Real human beings are not bottomless wells of altruism. We make moral evaluations based on what matters to us, what helps us, so to speak, get home.

This is a good lesson for the pro-life movement. Much pro-life rhetoric is far too stoic and hollow, as if the personhood of the unborn or the immigrant are mere intellectual exercises that people should “agree” with. Human lives, though, are not the point in and of themselves. Losing the religious edge to our pro-life worldview may briefly open doors for co-belligerency, but it risks veering into an inchoate “body-ism” that ignores the fundamentally spiritual character of human life. Often the American effort in WWII is mythologized as a group of utterly selfless men running heedless into battle merely for the sake of flag and country. This misrepresentation fails to take into account how wives, children, fathers, mothers, churches, and friends sturdy the soul in the face of catastrophe. This is also the formula for a dangerous mutation of “patriotism:” A nationalism made up of nothing but symbols and gestures, and utterly insensitive to the real people who make up one’s country (this is the “patriotism” of far too many conservatives right now).

In other words, one of the reasons Saving Private Ryan is so effective is that it strips muddy generalizations away from our moral calculus of human life, and reminds us that real people lay themselves down for others only when there is a love in the soul for something greater than life itself. Secular culture desires a directionless human love, an endlessly general affection for everything and everyone and nothing in particular. This isn’t the love of real people, or of real soldiers, or of real Christians. We are all trying to get back home. The question is how much we want to get back there, and what our path toward home goes through.

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Why Christians Should Rediscover Old Movies

On digging into the treasures of the past to answer the problems of the present.

I am an Anglican parish priest. In that role, I get to hear some of the concerns of my congregants and other Christians on a fairly regular basis. I know many, many faithful Christians who complain about “all the trash that’s on TV and in movies.” Parents and grandparents in particular worry about the corroding effect that current shows, films, music, and commercials may have on their children.

They have my sympathies. Gone are the days when you could go downtown in the evening with a couple bucks to watch a fun, kid-friendly western, and munch on some popcorn. There’s a fair bit of nostalgia mixed with this kind of moral concern as many of us reflect that what used to be a happy childhood diversion has become a perilous spiritual minefield of gore, f-bombs, sex scenes, and disrespect toward parents (as just a small sampling of Decalogue-breaking inducements springing forth from Hollywood). As the Statler Brothers once opined, “Whatever happened to Randolph Scott?”

I saw a recent article outlining how a growing amount of children’s television will feature characters with sexually immoral lifestyles, a trend that’s been on the rise for a couple years now. This normalization of spiritually sinful practices is of course not new to American pop culture. On the other hand, as Dean Abbott has so clearly argued, modern’s children entertainment seems to be getting notably worse (with even some non-Christians noticing)

Predictably, this creates a good deal of hand-wringing in the pews. I have had more than one parent, grandparent, aunt, and uncle voice frustration that there isn’t anything “wholesome” on television or the movies anymore. Some film companies feed off of this desperation, which is how we get atrocious, embarrassing flicks like God’s Not Dead and Facing the Giants. Too often it feels as if the choice for believers is between morally un-compromised cheese and aesethetically excellent garbage. Many Christian parents are unaware of or are (understandably) unwilling to force the former category on their homes. The net result, though, is that unthinking consumption of every new film or sitcom has become the norm for many.

But why? Perhaps it’s time to admit that this problem is self-created. What motivates our acquiescence and lack of discernment is often nothing more than hype and FOMO (fear of missing out). Even worse, the screen has become an alluring babysitter for many Christians. Faced with the fact that a large amount of American entertainment cannot be consumed in good conscience, what is a “plugged in” Christian to do?

In the first place, Christians need to be the foremost people rethinking the omnipresence of screens in home life. You don’t have to go far to find good reasons why people, especially children, are generally better off outside or buried in a book than glued to a soft blue glow. American culture has a whole especially needs to recover the idea of play, and not the overly regimented, helicopter parented type. I don’t presume to have expert suggestions here, but ought not Christians of all people be willing to take radical steps to counter the inert, pornified, disaffected spirit of the age?  This may mean no video game systems until the teen years, or no smart phones until legal adulthood. Such are matters of Christian liberty and prudence, though I’ve found Andy Crouch’s The Tech Wise Family to be an incredibly helpful guide on such matters.

But there’s another opportunity here. Consider the reality that older films, television, and music were often (at least at a surface level) morally and even artistically better than a majority of what is produced today. It is a tragedy that most American teenagers are completely unaware, for example, of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” movies. It’s a tragedy not only of Christian discernment but of cultural heritage (especially when we consider films and music of particular excellence). Christians should be paying closer attention to old things.

There is a vast ocean of classic movies and music, much of which, if not explicitly spiritual, at least does not actively undermine Christian moral formation. Many of these films and albums are inexpensive. For the cost of taking the kids to a cinema matinee, one can stock up on dozens of excellent movies. Put some time in to study the keystones of American cinema which reach back nearly a century. Request and borrow them from a local library if your budget is tight. Save up and acquire copies of era-defining television dramas that delighted your own parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. You can even buy re-runs of Looney Tunes and those pulpy Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning cartoons like Johnny Quest. The threat of “binge-watching” notwithstanding, these options can last a family a long time.

This is an invitation to Christians who love pop culture to become real students of it, by reaching back in the past to preserve and enjoy excellently made things. Perhaps we should think of the steward of film and music as not unlike a discriminating librarian: he highlights and saves that which is best. We all currently endure what John Lukacs called an “inflation of ideas:” more and more works that seem to say less and less. Children as well as adults need to have our tastes formed, matured, and perfected. And that weighty task need not be unpleasant.

Yet again, I think it is time for Christians to be different from other Americans and not be among the heaviest consumers of entertainment media–especially not the newest and latest. Unplug a bit. Build up a library of good films and shows that are examples of good art. It rarely hurt anyone to skip over the latest, shiniest, and untested. I’m not the first to suggest this, and I won’t be the last. But I can’t help noticing that this is what I start thinking about when folks complain about these issues. Pull the plug. Be weird. It’s not going to kill you to miss pop culture references. Take it from a happy homeschool alumnus. The western world is going mad; not need to drive yourself crazy keeping up with it.

Barton Gingerich is an assistant priest at St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Richmond, VA and a contributor to the Faith and Honor podcast. He earned his B.A. in History from Patrick Henry College and his M.Div. with a concentration in historical theology from Reformed Episcopal Seminary.

Rowling In the Deep

“Fantastic Beasts” may be good entertainment, but it comes at a cost.

I have plans to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them later today. Before I do, though, I want to reiterate a version of something I’ve said several times before in this space: Regardless of how good Fantastic Beasts is, and how much I enjoy it (which, based on reviews from people I trust, may be quite a lot), I think its existence is, for the most part, a mistake, and something that sincere fans of J.K. Rowling’s work will regret in years to come.

Right now, American pop culture is absolutely trapped in a hyper-nostalgia. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned that this isn’t just a fad or a phase. Rather, it looks more like a philosophical shift in how culture makers produce stories, and how we as an audience consume them. As A.O. Scott has written, so much of our film, TV, and literature appeals to childlikeness–not childlike wonder, mind you, but childlike sense of identity. Critical conversations about meaning and narrative are being thrown aside in what Scott has called the “ascendancy of the fan,” the transformation of mainstream pop culture into a mere collection of constantly rebooted brands: Marvel vs DC, Star Wars vs Star Trek, Bourne vs Bond, etc etc, ad infinitum.

I’ve said all this before, and I’m not going to restate my many comments here. But I want to very briefly apply these concerns to Rowling and to the Harry Potter universe. I have two reasons. First, I love the Potter series and have an especial affection and admiration for it. Second, I think what Rowling is doing with her legacy is the most glaring example we have of the danger of the reboot nostalgia culture.

The Harry Potter series (books 1-7) will, I’m convinced, be read widely with delight centuries from now. A few days ago I drew the wrath of Twitter when I declared that the Potter books were, taken as a whole, better than Lewis’s Narnia series. I stand by that. That’s not a dig at Narnia, either; I just believe that the Potter series is that good, and that its genius will only be greater appreciated in the years to come.

Part of that genius is in the story’s ending. I won’t spoil it (if you haven’t read the series, I envy the joy you will take in reading it for the first time), but the best way I can put it is that Rowling ended her tale with a beautiful and poetic symmetry that brought her characters a genuinely satisfying closure. At the last turn of the page in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there is an eschatological joy in seeing good triumph over evil in a final, authoritative way.

What Rowling has done in the years since Deathly Hallows is more than marketing. She has sought to open up her mythology in a way that keeps the story going eternally. This was the point of Pottermore, a website that put users into the wizarding world through interactive content–content written by Rowling (as the ads for Pottermore made a point of repeating over and over again). Rowling’s involvement in Pottermore was clearly a pitch to fans that the story hadn’t ended, that the world was still being written and that by signing up for the service, they could be part of the new stories.

Rowling’s intentions became even more clearer with the publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Officially, the hardback copy that was sold in Barnes and Noble was simply the published script of a stage play, based on the Potter series. *Unofficially* (and again, in marketing), it was quite obviously the 8th book of the series. I never read the book, but my wife excitedly did. She was extremely disappointed, telling me that the characters of Cursed Child spoke and acted like fan fiction creations, not the heroes of books 1-7. Several reviews I saw echoed this sentiment.

The reviews for Fantastic Beasts have been much more positive, and I fully expect to enjoy it. But the pattern that Rowling has established thus far seems clear. The world of Harry Potter has been reopened, and its mythology has broken out of its original fate and is being written, and rewritten, and written again. It is, for all practical purposes, now a piece of fan fiction.

Fan fiction exists to let fans live inside their favorite stories. But one of the defining marks of all great stories is the way they live inside of us. What I fear is happening to Harry Potter is that a wonderful, beautiful piece of literature is becoming a cultural artifact to our inability to let stories teach us about this world and this life. The lessons we can draw from Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in danger of becoming lost in the constant reinvention of their world. By not letting our favorite stories end, we turn them into tools rather than teachers–objects that authenticate our childlike desire to not let go, to not courageously follow Harry outside the safety and comfort of our magical world, and into a dangerous, wild place where we have a job to do.

I want very much for succeeding generations to know the Harry Potter series as a brilliantly told, biblically haunted epic, not as another resource for Dungeons and Dragons devotees. My fear is that even in well-made films and interesting books, Harry’s lessons are lost, and we will be entertained and distracted at the cost of something precious.

You Get What You Pay For

Our culture values the cheap and convenient over the costly and excellent. This is a problem.

I didn’t grow up wealthy. My dad was a minister and we were firmly in the “working class” category that economists overuse. When it came to using money, we weren’t free spenders. But I’m thankful that neither did we squelch when a little extra was called for.

This principle came from my dad, who instilled in me a sense that you get what you pay for. If you want something–if you really want it, not just if you want other people to know you have it or want to spend–then that something is worth paying for. So, for example, if you want an MP3 player, and you want one that will actually last for years and is good quality, then it’s worth paying a little extra for the iPod. If you need a new jacket, and you want it to keep you warm for many winters, then it’s worth paying a little extra for one with better and more durable materials. Once you decide that something is worth buying, my Dad thought, then it’s worth buying well, because you get what you pay for. Paying less money for something that isn’t quite as good and won’t last quite as long or won’t do exactly what you’re wanting it to do makes less sense–and is a poorer use of money–than simply waiting.

It seems to me that we live in an era of American culture that is awash in the cheap and unsatisfying. I’m thinking now of entertainment. Think of how streaming services like Netflix and iTunes now dominate the entertainment economy, when just a decade ago most people still frequented brick-and-mortar retailers like Blockbuster. The appeal of Netflix is its cheapness; for $10/month, you can stream hundreds of movies and TV shows at will, without ever leaving your home. You don’t have to be a math major to see how Netflix was successful at this.

But there’s a sense I think in which Netflix (and its musical counterpart, Spotify) is actually the cheaper, less satisfying product. After all, a subscriber to Netflix doesn’t actually own anything. The Netflix collection that he treasures can disappear at any point, for any reason (and often does). Netflix determines what’s watchable and what’s not, and there’s no other Netflix “location” you can visit to see if it has what you’re looking for. What Netflix offers is cheapness and convenience, and in exchange it squelches on availability, selection, and, if we’re being honest, often quality. This relationship isn’t incidental. The ease of Netflix exists because of its flaws, not in spite of it. You get what you pay for.

I’m not just thinking of entertainment here either. We’re only weeks away from a presidential election in the US, and can you imagine an election cycle that more exemplifies the tradeoff between easy and good than this one? Our national politics seems to have fallen squarely in the Netflix trap. We are often drawn to candidates, on either side, who embody identity politics and confirm our worst suspicions about the “other side.” As long as a politician can make us feel correct and victimized, we somehow find ways to ignore serious faults in character, honesty, and personal morality. We want the politics of the easy and the convenient, and are willing to get less quality leadership in return.

This is why it’s important to remember that wanting a better national politic entails a better electorate.  Last week I was sad to hear that a great publication, Books and Culture, was closing. I immediately thought how difficult it is right now to produce high quality writing by high quality writers, when the internet is page after page after page of third-tier, amusing, often trivial content. The concept of writing itself is being defined down by Buzzfeed and social media. What’s the appeal here? It’s all free! It’s all easy! But so little of it is good. You get what you pay for.

Ours is a culture of cheap, low-quality entertainment; cheap, low-quality politics; cheap, low-quality religion; cheap, low-quality education. We are so adapted to the tradeoff between inexpensive and mediocre that we hardly notice it anymore–until, of course, we have nothing else to choose from except the vulgar, the dishonest, and the middlebrow. And at that point, often a point of no obvious return, we lament, “How on earth did we get here?”

I’m not sure what the answer is. But I have a feeling it starts with taking Philippians 4:8 seriously. What if obedience to Christ and the renewal of our minds means that we submit even our money to the pursuit of that which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and praiseworthy? Faithfulness to this command may not be as convenient as we might think. It may look less like an instant streaming service or a listicle, and more like a trip to the video store and a well-edited magazine. Want the good, the true, and the honorable? You get what you pay for.

 

 

Review: “Sully” (2016)

“Sully” is a film about how two kinds of people respond to immense pressure and impending doom. The heroes—a copilot, stewardesses, the coast guard, and of course, an elderly captain—all respond with calm, clear headed thinking, decisiveness, and courage. The villains, by contrast, respond with paranoia and panic. We don’t normally think of these competing characteristic as what “heroes” do as opposed to “villains”; but perhaps Clint Eastwood’s accomplishment here is to show us just how much can depend on how average, everyday people choose to react. Sometimes, it’s even the difference between heroism and manslaughter.

You know the story. In the stinging frost of a January day in 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks) landed his U.S. Air commercial jet on the Hudson river. All 155 passengers survived, the day was called “the miracle on the Hudson,” and Sully was deemed a hero of impossible skill and supernatural intuition. In the doldrums of the economic meltdown, Sully’s story was more than a miracle; it was a cultural moment, a reminder (especially in New York) that airplanes don’t always explode when they fall, and that hope could still be rewarded.

In “Sully,” the only one to miss this memo is Sully himself. The film opens with Sully’s plane crashing into the Manhattan skyline and erupting in a fireball that evokes memories of 15 years ago. This is, of course, a dream; we learn quickly that Sully’s nightmare comes from his sense of self-doubt and anxiety over his action on that day. Though he saved lives, the National Transportation Safety Board believes he could have landed at a nearby airport instead of in the river (or as one character later clarifies, “on” the river). Thus, an insurance company and an airline now have a financial stake in whether Sully unnecessarily endangered the passengers he somehow rescued.

It defies logic that a pilot who saved lives on an airliner without either engine could be forced to retire as a result. Throughout “Sully” I kept thinking how easily Eastwood could have made this film into an infuriating jeremiad against bureaucrats and insurance corporations. Wisely, he did not, but still.

The film’s drama centers on the investigation that the NTSB carries out, and whether they will determine that Sully was indeed at fault. For his part, Sully resents his new celebrity, and hallucinates reporters who decry him and more exploding planes. It’s obvious that this is an honorable man of duty. His copilot (Aaron Eckhart) showers praise on him, his wife (Laura Linney) believes in him, but Sully cannot rest if he doesn’t know for sure that he did the right thing. The election cycle of 2016 is desperately short of people like this, and we need to be reminded often that they’re out there.

“Sully” has an undeniably authentic feel. The crash sequence isn’t as technically masterful as, say, the one Robert Zemeckis achieved in Flight, but it is staged and photographed well. One thing Eastwood captures is the crucial knowledge and decisiveness of the flight crew during the chaos of the un-boarding. There’s no doubt in my mind that a lesser prepared team would have lost some lives during the frigid wait for rescue. These weren’t
marines or professional disaster handlers. They were flight attendants and copilots and stewardesses, with the same fear for themselves that everyone onboard had. Yet they preserved life.

Hanks is a good choice as Sullenberger. The role demands little of him, but that’s OK, because we are not meant to marvel at how great a human being Sullenberger is but at how ordinary. Laura Linney gives the film’s best performance as Sullenberger’s wife; the two never appear in the same shot, but their affection is evident.

Sully is a flawed movie. The script seems unsure if it wants to delve into Sullenberger’s past and psychology. There are a couple flashback sequences that show his love of flying and his remarkable instincts, but these scenes feel like they would be better in a different cut of the movie. There’s also a tactical mistake in editing that gives us what is essentially the exact same sequence twice. Given the scene’s relative lack of mystery, this is a test of patience rather than a tension builder.

Quibbles aside, “Sully” is a worthy documentation of a day that will be long remembered, if not by American culture, then certainly by 155 living, thankful passengers. The film reminded me of the greatness people are capable of when they refuse to panic, and simply do their job. We need more of that, especially now.

The Politics of Never Growing Up

Consider for a moment the portrait that is currently emerging of the young American adult.

Let’s begin with college. Despite its many dysfunctions and uncertain economic future, higher education is still considered to be the crucial pivot into adulthood for most American youth. Crippling college debt exists not so much because teens and parents are willing to spend so much on an education, but because they are willing to spend on an education experience. Come for the tuition, stay for the dorm and student life fees.

And what is the college experience nowadays? For insight, we might turn to Nathan Heller’s essay in the latest issue of The New Yorker. He writes from Oberlin University, whose culture and institutional stability is systematically being ripped apart by a student body of 19 year old “activists” who demand instantaneous, sweeping, and authoritarian intervention on a daily basis. Heller is clearly sympathetic to Oberlin’s progressive ethos, and his observations do not incriminate the students as much as they contextualize them. Nevertheless, his essay’s depiction of life at Oberlin—in classrooms to the common areas alike—is terrifying. At one point Heller recounts an incident that epitomizes the school’s culture of ruthless value enforcement:

For years, a campus café and performance space called the Cat in the Cream had a music-themed mural, painted by an alumnus, that celebrated multiculturalism: it featured a turbanned snake charmer, a black man playing a saxophone, and so on. Students recently raised concerns that the mural was exoticizing. “We ended up putting drywall over it, and painting over that,” Robert Bonfiglio, who had been the chair of the Student Union Board, told me. “They were saying, ‘Students are being harmed. Just do something now.’ ” But if individuals’ feelings were grounds to efface art work, he reasoned, every piece of art at Oberlin would be in constant danger of being covered up, or worse—a practice with uncomfortable antecedents. “The fear in class isn’t getting something wrong but having your voice rejected,” he said. “People are so amazed that other people could have a different opinion from them that they don’t want to hear it.”

Heller’s essay is vivid, but the culture he describes at Oberlin is by no means exceptional. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have written, the “coddling of the American mind” is not isolated to a selective slew of elite universities. It is a phenomenon embedded into American higher education at large. There was a time not long ago when college was considered an intellectual sanctuary for coming of age. But for these universities that submit their entire existence to the experiences and felt needs of undergraduates, it is not the students who are expected to grow up, but the institutions themselves. The students are In The Know; it’s the educators that must protect what is already there, not grow it. College has become Never-Never Land.

What about life outside the ivory tower? For this, we might consult some new data from the Pew Center. The headline is self-analyzing: “For First Time in Modern Era, Living With Parents Edges Out Other Living Arrangements for 18-34 Year Olds.” Men in particular have become startlingly immobile: More than a third of men aged 18-34 live with parents rather than alone or with a romantic partner.

This kind of existential paralysis isn’t just a matter of changing economic contexts (though that certainly is part of the problem). For men especially, the prolonged delay of marriage and relational commitment often means a perpetual adolescence in other areas of life. Love and sex are arguably the best incentives for men to assert their adulthood and achieve in  life. But in the safety and comfort of mom and dad’s basement, young men get to live out their fantasies without the friction of real life, often turning to porn and video games to give their static lives the imitation of thrill. Growing up is optional.

The basement is Never Land. The university is Never Land. Even dating is Never Land, thanks to Tinder and a hook up culture that eschews commitment with the safety of online anonymity. Pop culture, with its endless fixation on comic books, child fantasy adventures, and nostalgia, is Never Land. Our American landscape is a monument to the heedless pleasures of knowing it all, playing it all, and sexing it all.

C.S. Lewis rebuked the cowardice of secularized modernity. “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise,” he wrote. “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” With apologies to J.M. Barrie, we could say it another way: We tell our Lost Boys to flee to Never Land, and are shocked when they vote for the pirate.

Movie Review: “Captain America: Civil War” (2016)

The best superhero film of the millennium (thus far) is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It’s a brooding masterpiece, drenched in noir and teeming with the questions of life that we face every day. That its hero is a comic book warrior is almost irrelevant; it is a film rooted firmly in the moral battles of real life.

Captain America: Civil War is not as good as The Dark Knight, but it is closer than anything we’ve seen since 2008. It’s Marvel’s masterpiece and one of the best films of the year.

Surprised? Me too.

As some of you will know, I am one of those who believe that the superhero genre’s (especially the superhero sequel genre) dominance right now is a weakness and not a strength of the film industry. I’ve said before that the way franchises have consumed the movie market tends toward lower quality from studios and less risk tasking from filmmakers. I still believe that. I still believe that on any given day a 6th installment of a film series—especially a comic book one—is probably designed to help its audience expect less from a film.

But the great thing about movies is that sometimes, it all just falls into place. Sometimes your expectations and carefully thought out analyses get broadsided by a great story, compelling characters and bold, smart filmmakers. What’s great about movies is that sometimes you get one like Captain America: Civil War.

Civil War builds extensively on the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier. A few years ago it was probably easy for someone who had never seen an Avengers movie to jump right into the latest installment. Not anymore. If you don’t know at least the basic universe and events of the previous movies there’s practically nothing to grab onto here. None of the characters are “introduced” (save for two new superheroes, a familiar web-slinger and a prowling prince) and most of the action is thematically anchored in the past. This makes for an unusually intelligent and perceptive script, but a pre-movie refresher is mandatory.

Do I need to describe the plot? A quick glance of the trailer would at least explain the film’s title to you. The most important thing to know is that at the heart of Civil War is a question that haunts not just the Avengers but every superhero story I’ve ever heard: What about the humans who are in those buildings that always blow up? What about the faceless, nameless average folks who are not hero, villain, or rescued? Most movies in this genre either seem to pretend that these people don’t exist (the amount of vacant real estate in New York City is astonishing) or pretend that they can somehow withstand being caught in the middle of supernatural apocalypse. Civil War drops both these illusions. Like Nolan’s Dark Knight, Civil War uses the mythology of the superhero to ask moral questions of its characters, and its audience.

Should those trying to save life care about “collateral damage”? Is the power to intervene for good always tempered by the potential to do harm? Who and what determines innocence? This is normally the stuff of Oliver Stone war pictures, not comic book adventures. Here is that rarity: a superhero film willing to question itself, to not drown out thought in a torrent of CGI destruction.

As Civil War opens, the powers that be believe that the Avengers, heretofore an independent, apolitical group of an “enhanced” warriors, need governmental oversight. The debate amongst the heroes centers on whether their power to defend life is helped or hindered by submission to political bureaucracy. Some of the Avengers agree with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) that the lost lives of innocents demands that the heroes surrender some of their autonomy; others side with Captain America (Chris Evans) that such submission will only handcuff their abilities.

This may sound like another edition of the “Hero or vigilante” trope so common in this genre. But where this theme is often treated with either glib humor (think Sam Rami’s Spider-Man trilogy) or a kind of meandering sanctimony (think Man of Steel), Civil War takes it seriously and asks the audience to as well. An early encounter between Tony Stark and the mother of a young man killed in one of the Avengers’ battles is a deeply affecting and uncomfortably realistic sequence. There’s a maturity and confidence in this writing that elevates Civil War far above the level of live action cartoon. Children will still delight in these heroes, but adults will leave thinking more seriously about a superhero’s world than perhaps they have in a while.

One thing I noticed about Civil War is that its action sequences seem more grounded and physical. I’ve seen a lot of Marvel films where the heroes defy the laws of physics in a way that doesn’t feel thrilling. Here the visual effects seem to have more humanity; the biff-bam-pow spirit of the comics is more evident than the flawlessly pixelated violence of video games. This too was true of Nolan’s Batman films (a very different sort of comic book film, of course). Except for some inexplicably jittery photography in the movie’s very first battle, Civil War features some of the best superhero battling I’ve seen in years.

Though the title says this should be Captain America’s film, it’s really another volume for the Avengers as a whole. That’s good news because Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans together are far and away the best asset this franchise has. Their rivalry is the soul of Civil War. Marvel deserves credit for not turning its cast into human placeholders for green screen, which would rob us of the serious talent on display here. The two new heroes are particularly well picked, and Martin Freeman has a great (though short) time as a government agent.

Not just another episode of digital playtime, Civil War offers the superhero genre humanity, thoughtfulness, and a higher plane of excitement than it has seen in a while. It all works, from the intelligent and even surprising screenplay by Stephen McFeely and Chris Markus, to Joe and Anthony Russo’s confident direction. If future comic book films will learn the lessons in craft found in this movie, our death-by-nostalgia Hollywood may yet have a fighting chance.

 

It’s Not the Years, Honey. It’s the Mileage

With apologies to Dylan Thomas and Michael Caine: Sometimes you really do just need to go gently into that good night.

Disney announced this week that it has officially started production on a fifth Indiana Jones film, directed yet again by Steven Spielberg and starring yet again (almost unbelievably) Harrison Ford, who by now could probably pass for an ancient relic himself. Indeed, the internet is already working overtime on irreverent titles for this ecstatically unnecessary movie (“Indiana Jones and the Lost AARP”).

The problem is not, of course, Harrison Ford’s age. Ford has more talent and charisma onscreen right now than many actors would accumulate if given an extra decade in their 30s. No, the problem is not in the gray hairs, but in the gray matter. The idea of another Indiana Jones film is not one that offers expectations of delight, merely of nostalgia. This was proved definitively by jaw-droppingly awful Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a movie so deeply flawed in basic concept that Disney felt obliged to mention in this week’s announcement that its writer, George Lucas, will have nothing to do with #5.

But removing Disney’s second largest shareholder from the project isn’t really a solution. Indeed, it was probably already inevitable that the new film will be better than Crystal Skull. Even so, it will still be a mistake.

For a little while now I’ve been critical of Hollywood’s creative stagnation. The sequel, the reboot, and the franchise dominate the box office every year, and the result is an industry that simply doesn’t seem able to produce new worlds, new stories, new characters. Audiences want to see what they’ve already seen 2 or 3 times, 20 or 30 years ago. If familiarity had been this profitable back when George Lucas was trying to get the original Star Wars financed, it’s almost certain the world would never have seen his movie.

That kind of critique makes lots of sense to me, but it doesn’t make much sense to a lot of my friends. When I posted some tomato-throwing thoughts about the Indy film on Facebook, I predicted, accurately, that certain folks would dismiss me as a snob and a crank. It seems that most people understand the idea that reboots and sequels really are an enormous proportion of the film industry right now; they’re just OK with that. I don’t know how to convince people to not be ok with that without sounding somewhat condescending, and risking what would ultimately be a lecture of “culturedness.” A lot of my friends simply have no category for a reasonable person who would think there was some sort of objective problem with more Star Wars, more Marvel, and more Indiana Jones.

The reality is that this kind of thinking requires a sort of inherent distance from entertainment. It requires seeing films as more than diversion but less than cultic ciphers of fandom. And I think, for a lot of my friends and a lot of Americans, the space between those two extremes just doesn’t exist. Movies are either meaningless or they are spiritual experiences. Star Wars is either a silly, inconsequential (if entertaining) celluloid or a deeply emotional piece of personal psyche that triggers a sense of identity and ownership. You either don’t care or wear the t-shirt.

This is what A.O. Scott meant when he talked about the “ascendency of the fan.” Fandom creates a “Critics Not Allowed” space. You can talk about a film’s flaws with audiences, and they will either agree or disagree. But try discussing those blemishes with a fan, and you’ll be labeled either ignorant or, worse, an enemy from a rival franchise.

There’s nothing wrong with some healthy doses of fan culture, but when it controls the market with the kind of ruthless monopoly that we’re seeing right now, you end up with things like Kingdom of Crystal Skull and Fuller House. You also end up, incidentally, with presidential candidates who can’t articulate coherent policy but win primaries by promising to, well, win. Once the fan experience is created, it is invulnerable, even to the most offensive sound bytes and the most poorly written screenplays. Fans aren’t objective; they wouldn’t be fans if they were.

So yes, I think 5 Indiana Jones films and 9 Star Wars movies and roughly 18492785 manifestations of Marvel characters are overall a disappointing thing for our culture. Ben-Hur doesn’t need to be remade, it just needs to be rewatched. A compulsive need to watch classic stories with contemporary upgrades is nothing more than what Lewis called “chronological snobbery.”

It’s not the years, honey. It’s the mileage.

Why We Need the ‘Elitism’ of the Oscars

Mathematically speaking, the odds are that if you A) purchased a ticket to a movie in 2015 and B) watch the upcoming Academy Awards telecast on Sunday night, you C) won’t see your favorite movies from last year win…well, anything. The New York Times observed last year that the Oscars still represent a startlingly large discontinuity between the films honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and those honored with the almighty dollar by the American public. Case in point from last year: Whereas nominee American Sniper earned over $300 million domestically and only earned a technical award at the 2015 show,  Best Picture-winner Birdman grossed less than a tenth of that. Put those facts together and you get a sparsely-watched telecast and Oscar elitism:

“It’s sad, but most people have to finally accept that the Oscars have become, well, elitist and not in step with anything that is actually popular,” said Philip Hallman, a film studies librarian at the University of Michigan. “No one really believes anymore that the films they chose are the ones that are going to last over time…”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way: In 2009, Academy officials increased their field of best picture nominees, from five to a maximum of 10, in a bid to embrace large, world-spanning films — “The Dark Knight,” “Inception” — that are the pinnacle of populist art. The plan was to shift the Oscars back toward relevancy, “a history where most of the winning films were also popular with the audience,” as Mr. Hallman put it on Monday.

That strategy failed, of course, because it was perfunctory. If you see your job, as Academy voters do, as rewarding the year’s very best-made and most artistically compelling films, increasing the number of nominees you *must* have is merely spreading the vegetables around on your plate before ignoring them again. There was never any reason to believe that five slots in the Best Picture category were excluding movies that ought to win; as this article says, the purpose of the change was to tell the American public, “Hey, we’re watching the same movies as you–we promise!”

But is this reassurance even a good thing?

The Oscars are indeed “elitist” and have been for a very long time, if by “elitist” you mean “Consciously choosing to not see the film industry the way most Americans see it.” But such “elitism” is actually the heart of why the Oscars still matter. For the awards to not be elitist in a meaningful way would be for them to become utterly meaningless.

Unlike the Grammys and Emmys, the Academy Awards frequently honors work that isn’t “successful” by popular industry standards. Oscar-winning films can lack both the power of distribution and rich marketing funds that major pictures–the kind you’re likely to see a huge cardboard display for at your local mall theater–thrive on.

In other words, the Oscars don’t just reward studios with market research teams and lavish PR campaigns. They honor filmmakers and films. Call it elitism if you want, but that is exactly what every industry needs–incentive for innovation that goes beyond corporatism.

That’s not the only good thing about the Academy’s”elitism” either. A healthy dose of film snobbery is welcome if it even slightly punctures the asphyxiating creative stagnation that characterizes Hollywood right now. For more than a decade now, the American box office has become a practical altar to the franchise, the sequel and the recycled comic book story. It’s worse than you think; since 2002, only two non-franchise, non-sequel movies have topped the yearly box office. The two films? James Cameron’s highly derivative Avatar and Disney’s Frozen, both of which have sequels currently in development. Also since 2002, the Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman franchises have each been rebooted twice, and Pirates of the Caribbean and the intolerable Transformers series have each had *four* installments, all of them major hits (Transformers: Age of Extinction topped the entire box office in 2014 despite scoring a Rob Schneider-like 18% at Rotten Tomatoes). And of course, the box office will now continue to be dominated by the Star Wars franchise, after The Force Awakens obliterated records and proved to the film industry once again the financial wisdom of repackaging twice-told tales.

The American public simply isn’t very good at going to movies right now. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, in one of 2014’s most important essays, contemplated the infantilizing of both our entertainment and our lifestyles. Scott characterized the current generation of pop culture as the “unassailable ascendency of the fan,” through which serious (=adult) consideration of meaning and symbolism are replaced with childlike loyalty to never-ending franchises that are essentially live-action cartoons. What’s lost in this phase is a realistic sense of what our world is like, and how to respond to it through art.

Even if you don’t pine for the years of “gritty,” existentially harsh films like Raging Bull and Midnight Cowboy, there’s something to be said for films that don’t need superhero paradigms in order to tell a rich story. This year’s list of Best Picture contenders is a particularly rich palate: Human perseverance against nature in The Martian and The Revenant, or the quest for truth and justice in Spotlight and Bridge of Spies. Most Americans would never think to dedicate a Saturday to a film like Brooklyn or Room if it weren’t for a healthy critical culture that highlights great storytelling in a dim commercial context.

The Oscars serve our culture by recognizing stories and storytellers. Film critics provide the public with a small yet often effective antidote to the monotony and meaninglessness of Memorial Day weekend openings. It is good for the everyday, working class moviegoer to know that there are alternatives to the blockbusters. Call it elitism if you want. It’s the good kind.

Some Thoughts on Christians, Movies, and Nudity

To be honest, I had no idea what (or who?) Deadpool was by the time everyone was watching the trailers for the new movie. I’d never heard of that character and had no special interest in learning more (I’m fatigued of superhero movies at this point anyway). But it turns out that Deadpool is a pretty interesting guy (thing?) and has a lot of fans. Box Office Mojo’s unofficial reports have the movie blowing away some meaningful records, several of which are in the “R-rated” category. R-rated superhero films are rare. Studios prefer PG-13 ratings for films they want to be blockbusters, for obvious reasons.

The MPAA states that Deadpool’s R-rating comes from “strong violence and language throughout, sexual content and graphic nudity.” Violence is, of course, very common in superhero films, though it’s almost always in a highly stylized, choreographed context (as opposed to the visceral realism of Saving Private Ryan). Strong language isn’t as common in the superhero genre, but it’s rare to see a film for grownups that doesn’t drop a few four letter epithets.

When it comes to the evangelicals that I know and talk to about movies, violence and language live on the low end of the Problematic Scale. Of course, cinematic violence can be nihilistic and inhumane, and coarse language can be over the top and abusive. But in general, violence and language are the least-weighted categories of movie vice. While an evangelical film critic may warn you about jarring violence or strong language, it’s unlikely, all other variables being equal, that those two things by themselves can actually warrant a spiritually-motivated abstention.

When it comes to sexuality and nudity, the opposite tends to be true. If language and violence are the least weighted content flags, sex and skin are the heaviest. It takes little sexual content–and virtually any nudity–to get most of my evangelical movie-buffs to refuse to see it, or refuse to give a recommendation. (I probably should clarify that nudity in the sense I am talking about is erotic and/or flippant, not the stomach-turning nudity of the Auschwitz prisoners in Schindler’s List)

This dynamic within much of evangelical cultural commentary is not uncontroversial. For example, some Christian film critics have accused this ethos of hypocrisy (and perhaps a little bit of sexism) for having a high tolerance for violence and such a low tolerance for sexuality. After all, isn’t violence, especially gun and war violence, more desensitizing to the soul–and more dangerous for younger, impressionable viewers– than a 2 minute love scene?

A case study here may be helpful. Alissa Wilkinson, a brilliant film critic and chief of Christianity Today’s movie review section, gave a 3.5 star (out of 4) review to the Martin Scorcese/ Leonardo DiCaprio flick The Wolf of Wall Street. The recommendation came accompanied with an entire section of the review that warned potential audiences of the graphic and non-stop nature of the movie’s sexual content. Wilkinson wrote that she admired the way the film demanded an emotional response from the audience, and that, as indulgent as the movie was, it would be “worth the risk” for some.

In response, Trevin Wax, an editor at The Gospel Coalition, linked to Wilkinson’s review and asked whether evangelical cultural engagement had left the door too open to the “unwatchable.” “At what point do we say,” Wax asked, “It is wrong to participate in certain forms of entertainment?” Wilkinson concluded that the movie’s depictions served its story’s harsh judgment of the characters, while Wax was skeptical that a parade of sexual images could be justified at all.

This is an important question for me personally. I love movies and I love writing about them. I’m a critic by instinct. I want to think deeply about movies, and my love of great film has motivated me to see many obscure pictures that my friends often have no idea exist. I love living and thinking and writing in that world.

At the same time, my aspirations to movie criticism have been tempered with an increasing unwillingness to watch sexual nudity. Even as I try to raise intellectual objections to John Piper’s 7 reasons for Christians to not watch movies like Deadpool, I find myself more and more in alignment with his plea. On the whole, I think Christians would be better served in their lives, marriages, and imaginations if they made a point of avoiding films that simulate sexual acts or show nude characters.

Here are a few, very brief reasons I’ve arrived at this position:

  • In virtually every imaginable case, cinematic sex and nudity are placed intentionally into a film in order to give the audience an erotic or titillating experience. In other words, nude love scenes do NOT further a film’s basic storyline more than would having the characters close the door behind them, and fade out. The purpose of simulating intimacy on-screen is to invite the audience to participate in the erotic storytelling, and, as such, I don’t believe that a Christian, male or female, can simultaneously watch it and fulfill Christ’s command to not look at another person lustfully.
  • Piper’s distinction between violence, which is always fake, and nudity, which is never fake, seems to me very compelling. A gunfight between characters is entirely staged. The blood is phony, the bullets are rubber, and the explosions are highly controlled. But a nude actor is really nude, and thus, the audience does not have the epistemological distance from the sexual that it does have from the violent. If a superhero film were produced with real guns that really shot real extras, nobody would find it praiseworthy.
  • The Scriptures teach that the naked human body is not a morally neutral thing. The nakedness of Adam and Eve is precisely the characteristic that the author of Genesis uses to sum up their perfect sexual union (Gen. 2:25). The biblical prophets used public nakedness as a metaphor for a life lived apart from God (Ez. 16). This is not, I believe, a failure of the biblical writers to be “sex positive,” but an affirmation of what we all know by instinct to be true: That our naked bodies are precious, that they have a purpose, and that outside of God’s dominion the naked self is only a sign of shame and despair, not joy.
  • Films have a special kind of potency to shape our moral imaginations. The combination of imagery, dialogue, lighting, and music are what James K. A. Smith refers to as a “pedagogy of desire.” I believe that art not only tells a story but shapes our desires in the images of the stories it tells. To that end, I don’t want my desires to be shaped by the ridiculously unreal, freewheeling depiction of sexuality that movies present. Movie sex is nothing remotely like married sex, and my suspicion is that many people are in deeply frustrated, wounded relationships because they thought it was.

So there you have it, just a few thoughts on the Christian, the movie, and sex. I would love to hear your thoughts on this too.