When it comes to manly movies, something unusual occurred in recent months — several films came out and are now playing (and have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture) that focus on male characters in mature, thought-provoking, diverse ways. When I say “manly movies,” I don’t mean the usual action-film fare that is considered a staple of primarily male movie-goes — your Transformers and Transporters and so on — but movies that deal seriously with themes that men actually come to grips with in their lives (or, in the case of The King’s Speech, if they’re a king); themes that approach the heart of how and what it means to be a man, and focus on issues that a man will face if he has serious goals and complex relationships (relationships beyond that with his car or his quipping buddy). Matters of strenth and power in conjunction with love.
This does not usually happen. There may be one or two well-made films in a given year that focus primarily on male character(s) in serious-minded ways (last year it was The Hurt Locker and A Serious Man; the year before that it was Frost/Nixon and Milk), but not 5 films. Not of the quality that this year’s crop has. So let’s celebrate it a bit. If you enjoy movies about men doing realistic, manly things, check the following films. They’re mostly still playing (thanks, Oscar prestige) and they’re all worth seeing. (Note: I could have included The Town here but figure it’s on the bubble between realistic-and-serious and action-and-implausibility. Still, an excellent movie that balances testosterone and emotional depth.)
True Grit. I could say that this is the “grittiest” of the bunch but, you know, that would be wrong — both because the pun is too obvious and because it’s not accurate (the grittiest is probably 127 Hours). It is, however, the most stark when it comes to portraying masculinity in a way that much of America has come to define it: in terms of cowboys in the wild west. But these are cowboys who don’t know they’re inhabiting a historic milieu that’s destined to become a cultural cliché. Instead, they’re men simply doing what they have chosen to do: be on one side or the other (good or evil) of violent, barely civilized situations. True Grit is just about a perfect film. The acting is superb, the cinematography excellent (all the compositions are interesting and it’s got that sharp, clean, expansive light), the dialogue is adult-worthy, and it’s consistently engrossing. This film dramatizes the quality of determination in a rather pure way — and it doesn’t detract from it that the central character, who is probably the most determined, is a girl. That is the dichotomy that all of the films here have in common: they portray men who are self-reliant and then ask the question, In the service of what is that self-reliance expressed? Through the high-minded yet demanding presence of a plucky girl obsessively bent on justice, the males involved are encouraged to either retain or regain their humanity. Hailee Steinfeld is a revelation as Mattie Ross, the headstrong girl who hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt down the man who killed her father. Matt Damon provides effective counterpoint in the quasi-Woody Harrelson role from No Country for Old Men. Both Bridges and Steinfeld were nominated for Oscars for their respective roles and both deserve to win, though neither probably will (as this is written, the Oscars are about 5 hours away).
The Fighter. As each of these films depicts a man pursuing a clear-cut goal, they also depict men who are influenced in their pursuit of those goals by the relationships in which they’re enmeshed. After seeing The Fighter, you begin to wonder if the title refers to Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a boxer who is pursuing the ultimate comeback, or Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), the brother of Micky, who seeks simply to come back to life. Some relationships uplift and some corrode. For most people, they can do a bit of both. A man must decide on whose terms he’s going to live — his own, or those of the people he allows to influence him. And if he, like most of us, cannot escape the influence of others, how will it shape him? That is one of the central questions in these films and it is at the heart of The Fighter. Again, this is movie-making at its cinematic best. Everyone does a good job. Christian Bale plays a hyper-active coke addict with manic precision and is nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. So are Melissa Leo and Amy Adams in their respective roles as the mother of the brothers and Micky’s girlfriend.
127 Hours. 127 Hours raises the idea of “If only…” again and again. Follow that notion back far enough and you might begin wondering what would have happened if only the dinosaurs had developed opposable thumbs. Maybe they would have survived that big meteorite. But Aron Ralston managed to avoid becoming a fossil due primarily not to his thumbs but his brain. (And that’s another thing about the male leads in this collection of films: they’re not only intrepid, they think and plan.) Throughout his ordeal, Ralston recapitulated virtually every major drama of survival that humans have endured. Was it carelessness or bad luck that landed him in his predicament? In the end, does it matter? What certainly matters are the decisions he made leading up to it, as well as after he found himself in trouble. As Dr. Johnson said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged…it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” And so Ralston is forced to concentrate on what truly matters to him. There is a fine line between narcissism and self-pity. The film does a good job of suggesting Ralston’s sense of isolation prior to his mishap — a misadventure that magnified that feeling exponentially. A reprieve from death can dilute narcissism to the point that it becomes…what? What is the opposite of narcissism? Empathy? Or is narcissism just a way of looking at ourselves defensively through the eyes of others? This film is an absorbing, multi-layered collaboration between director Danny Boyle and actor James Franco and, since our eyes are upon Franco for practically every second of it, it’s a good thing he was effective enough to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
The King’s Speech. In The King’s Speech, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) is an inveterate fan of Shakespeare, and in this film he encounters one of those men who, as Shakespeare said, have “greatness thrust upon them” and manages to give the guy a hand. In this postmodern era, one suspects that the path to greatness may not be as straightforward as Shakespeare described, and this film does a good job of suggesting that it can be mustered from unlikely sources. In that respect, everyone by now knows who Colin Firth is, since he’s the odds-on favorite to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his rendition of King George VI’s trials and tribulations in service to his countrymen during World War II. (Firth’s previous claim to fame was being nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in a film ignored by almost every American, A Single Man.) With regard to King George VI, if ever there was a man who could more surely use a hand, he would be hard to find. Thank goodness for Logue and for the Duchess of York, the principals responsible for encouraging George to express whatever greatness he had in him. As another famous cinematic king once said, “You have to know these things when you’re a king, you know.” Stubbornness, determination, resolve — stereotypical English qualities that have come to be regarded as part and parcel of every great or effective man’s character — are demonstrated here on all sides, but it is simple friendship and love that win out in the end. Ironic? All of these films dance with irony in their own way. Being a man in western culture, particularly American culture (which, at its core, is English culture) involves any number of seemingly contradictory requirements and expectations. This film, nominated for 12 Academy Awards, investigates several of them.
The Social Network. And now for something completely different… Whereas all the films above deal with things that have happened comfortably in the past, The Social Network deals with the future as it is occurring now. It contains a sense of the future shaping itself before our eyes. This sense is enhanced by Aaron Sorkin’s adroit script, wherein people communicate with each other in focused, fast-forward ways that we can never can quite manage in real life.
There is a subliminal and intriguing tension to this film that arises due to its being a story that is simultaneously being played out in the world through our capacity to update our opinion of it on our Facebook page as we watch. It’s as though we so much want to benefit from the promise of the future that we seek to grasp it in the present. How did this state of affairs come about? The intervals of time during which our collective knowledge doubles and technological eras bloom is continually being halved. In the midst of this technolution, we crave an increase in connections and try to condense the time it takes to make them. This isn’t all due to Mark Zuckerberg but he gave the accelerating merry-go-round a big push. ‘S what happens when you marry post-adolescent hormones to nerdy insecurity and add superior technical intelligence. If only Zuckerberg’d been popular and able to get chicks, FB would never have happened. Instead, welcome to the world many of us seek to inhabit. You never know for sure how things will turn out. That’s another thing these films tell us. Admittedly, the guys in The Social Network are budding men — but if Hailee Steinfeld can be an integral part of a manly movie, so can Jesse Eisenberg.
As with the characters in all of the films on this list, the young upstarts in The Social Network find the need for connection with others, especially women — while oftentimes evolving through, and getting beyond, seeking the approval of others. While a man must rely on a certain autonomy to realize a worthy (or unworthy) goal, these movies imply that, in the end, it is the connections with others that come to matter most. In other words, when we connect with and prioritize our deepest sense of self, pursue our fondest dreams or purpose, and overcome self-imposed internal obstacles, that is when we are most able to vividly connect with and benefit others. (In that regard, it is interesting that all of these films but one are based on actual events and real people.) That’s not all there is to take away from them. A number of other themes and issues are explored and one good thing about these films is that they reward thought (unlike, say, Gamer). See them and find out the rest. Leave a comment below.
And when you want to see them, you can get tickets from Fandango.
Why go through Fandango? Well, it works best when you want to make sure you get advance tickets for a popular new release. It also enables you to avoid waiting in line at the theater (in most cases you can print out your tickets at home and just go right in when you get there, or you can pick up your ticket at a special kiosk in the lobby that hardly anyone uses; see your options when you purchase). Since the movies here have been out for awhile, you probably won’t encounter lines. But the other thing you can do is purchase gift certificates online (Fandango Bucks) and email them to someone else. Since your parents probably haven’t seen all these films yet, why not send them the gift of a superior movie? Yeah, that’s the kind of culture-hound you are.