When a new movie arrives, certainly much of what we experience is directly connected to what’s on the screen–the unfolding of the story line and cavalcade of images and sound. But when we sit in the dark watching a Hollywood film featuring our favorite stars, there’s also the undercurrent in our hearts and minds rooted in our personal history with the screen idols we know and love. We don’t so much watch these larger-than-life heroes and heroines as get absorbed in them as they play out for us emotional possibilities we usually don’t realize in our own lives. We return again and again to spend time with certain special performers, because they come to feel like an extension of ourselves. Through the years, our bond with them can act as a kind of drug that can make us feel larger, more adventurous, fuller than we are on our own.
As I was growing up, movie superstars seemed to embody simpler archetypes than those of today. There were warriors like John Wayne, virtuous father figures like Jimmy Stewart, sublime charmers like Cary Grant, and cynical antiheroes like Humphrey Bogart. In some ways, these traditions have continued. We’ve had warrior Sean Connery, good daddy Tom Hanks, beautiful Robert Redford, and cynical Jack Nicholson, who, whatever his role, always seems to know what evil lurks in the hearts of men. But in other ways, our screen world has changed dramatically.
It used to be that the stars played much the same character from movie to movie, each time offering us comforting echoes of an archetype or two, reassuring us of the continuity with the past. But increasingly, today’s stars insist on playing roles outside their familiar repertoire. Perhaps they were influenced by the groundbreaking thrill of Marlon Brando’s getting off his motorcycle, stuffing his cheeks with Kleenex, and romping around the garden with his grandchildren. In the recent Hollywood, we’ve all learned how much a screen idol who tries out a different kind of character can change the chemistry of a film. Some of this year’s most provocative movies showed us this disorienting, but sometimes thrilling, screen chemistry at work.
Eventually Crowe is moved off the street and put on special assignment to track down the city’s big drug dealers. His target becomes Denzel Washington, an elegant and impeccably got-up drug tycoon named Frank Lucas. Silky smooth and ingratiating, Washington conveys a barely submerged aura of danger in whatever he does; he’s capable of sudden, shocking violence whenever he feels circumstances demand it. He sees himself as an inspiration for black men who want to be rich and powerful in a world in which the odds are stacked against them. To rise to the top, he’s willing to defy whatever stands in his way–even the mafia–and buy dope wherever he can to become the most successful dealer in the world. And at the top, he’s surrounded by precious objets d’art he polishes and pampers. We, too, could get seduced by beautiful stuff, even if it’s a lot of trouble.
American Gangster explores the moral ambiguities of the drug trade by making a “bad guy” so appealing to the audience that our sympathies subtly shift from honest cop Crowe to Washington’s classy, albeit ruthless, drug dealer. It skillfully introduces “villains”—like bad cop Josh Brolin—whom we’re cued to feel are much worse than the bad guy played by the irresistible Washington, whom we’ve cheered on in so many previous films.
Underplaying his role, Russell Crowe pitches his performance to be a perfect low-key counterpoint to the dazzling Washington. He drifts in and out of range and awareness, disguising himself or blending into the crowd, always holding back some of his power, making sure he’s underestimated until he’s ready to strike. The two stars are kept apart until they finally come together to cut a deal at the film’s conclusion. After hours of debate and negotiation, they have a final moment of shared insight and mutual understanding. As they make common cause, all the suffering that Washington’s drug- dealer character has created fades into the background. In the mythic world of Hollywood and its archetypes, we’re finally allowed to root for both the good guy and the bad guy.
The film opens with an outlandishly psychotic monologue by a brilliant bulldog litigator named Arthur (played by Tom Wilkinson), who’s snapped after six years of working on a case involving the firm’s largest client, a chemical manufacturer being sued for billions by hundreds of the family members of people killed by a toxic weed killer. Appalled by what he’s devoted himself to doing, Arthur has stopped taking his meds for manic-depression, gone crazy, and stripped naked during a key deposition for the case. Clooney is dispatched to sober him up and make sure he doesn’t botch the lawsuit on which the future of the law firm depends.
Along the way, Clooney sees what Arthur has discovered about the culpability of the chemical manufacturer and why he’s flipped out. It turns out that the weed-killing client, their in-house attorney (hyperalert Tilda Swinton), and the managing partner of Michael and Arthur’s firm, all know about the product’s toxicity and the people it is killing. Michael eventually must decide where to draw the moral line as he realizes how aligned he’s become with society’s unscrupulous fat cats and greed merchants and the lawyers who protect them.
Michael Clayton is a thinking person’s film. It explains very little, just lets the audience feel increasingly engulfed by a growing awareness of the bottomless corruption and ruthlessness of our world. As never before, Clooney leads us behind his dark, puppy-dog eyes to a weakness and uncertainty we’ve never been allowed to see before. It’s his most unglamorous role and–just as was true of Paul Newman in The Verdict–the resonance of unexpectedly seeing our warrior/loverboy hero in the role of a loser offers the audience an emotional wallop.
As we wait for the usual subliminal cues that come from seeing a familiar star up on screen, all we have to go on about Brolin comes from the immediate impact of what’s unfolding with so many twists and turns on screen. We find ourselves unable to anticipate how this morality play is going to turn out, and realize how much of our usual movie experience is guided by our awareness of who’s the hero and who’s the villain, and how thrilling it can be to have to find our way without the familiar signposts.
Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.