Movie Reviews—A Few Films to Celebrate

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The great majority of movies fail to make any kind of culturally mature contribution. But now and then we find exceptions, and when we do, I find it important to celebrate them. Special kudos go to four I’ve seen over the last six months (each widely available):

Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight recounts how the Boston Globe broke the story of child sex-abuse by priests in the Catholic Church. The film makes us grapple with how the church—and the public—could have allowed this pervasive and longstanding abuse of the most vulnerable to go on. It also serves as a reminder of what journalism at its best can accomplish.

I found Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq both provocative in its message and striking in the creativity with which that message was communicated. Lee drew for inspiration on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (the Greek play in which women withhold sex from their men as a way to stop conflict) to confront the crisis of gun violence in the streets of Chicago. Statistics highlighted at the films beginning set the stage: Over the last twenty years, more black men have died from guns in Chicago than the total of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The “usual suspects” of poverty, racism, and gun availability are not ignored. But most fundamentally this film is a challenge to the black community—by today’s most respected black filmmaker—to not allow black-on-black violence to be a kind of self-inflicted genocide. Perspective that is that encompassing is as yet rare—and impressive.

Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl describes the 1930‘s journey of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe (played by Eddie Redmayne). The film would have gotten more points from me if it had been released three or four years earlier before LGBT concerns gained today’s level of visibility—and acceptance. But the challenge faced by transexual populations remains a timely topic and the film is well acted. The sensitivity given to the relationship between Lili and her wife Gerda (played by Amber Heard)—particularly how Gerda grappled with and came to grips with Lili’s changes—gave the film important depth and richness.

Peter Landesman’s Concussion tells the story of pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith) and how he discovered—and worked to make public—the severe brain damage often suffered by professional football players. The film highlights a deeply disturbing limits-related conundrum: The issue with “America’s game” may not be just trauma from periodic concussions, but how even small head impacts (which may happen hundreds of times in a game) can, over time, result in catastrophic damage. The evidence puts football as a whole in jeopardy. Given the importance of the game to so many people—not just fans, but kids who play and the corporations that profit from it—it will be fascinating to see how this unfortunate reality plays out and how we deal with the moral implications.

How did I arrive at the conclusion that these films make at least beginning culturally mature contribution? Personally, I get a heads-up from the simple observation that each engaged me deeply and in some way stretched my understanding (see the concept of Capacitance). At this point, when I engage creative work that stops short, I quickly lose interest. But we can use more specific observations. Each of these films in some way requires us to draw on new capacities that come with Cultural Maturity’s changes—for example, the ability to step beyond ideological easy answers and a willingness to accept the fact of limits (see Cultural Maturity’s Defining Themes). We can also look to the storylines themselves. I’ve described how we can understand the progression from Modern Age belief to Cultural Maturity in terms of the kinds of stories we tell (see The Evolution of Narrative). Modern Age narratives are either heroic (in which we overcome adversaries and defeat limits) or romantic (in which we seek some meeting that will give us completion—either emotional or spiritual)—or sometimes both at once. More recently, postmodern narrative has had a growing influence. With postmodern narrative, such clear-cut answers abandon us, but it remains not at all clear if anything exists that can replace them. Each of these four films confronts us with an essential question for which past answers fail us, but also makes clear that we have no choice but to engage that question with new responsibility, big-picture perspective, depth, and sophistication.