Heroism in Hollywood: a critical response to James Bowman

James Bowman is upset. Hollywood “no longer aspires to portray genuine heroism,” or so he says in a new article published in neo-con magazine The American. He argues that Hollywood used to show heroes on screen, but now they seem to have forgotten what a true hero is:
American movies have forgotten how to portray heroism, while a large part of their disappearing audience still wants to see celluloid heroes. I mean real heroes, unqualified heroes, not those who have dominated American cinema over the past 30 years and who can be classified as one of three types: the whistle-blower hero, the victim hero, and the cartoon or superhero.
A “true” hero, according to Bowman, cannot be one of three types. The first type, the “whistle-blower hero,” he identifies with the protagonists in films like “The Insider,” “Erin Brokovich,” and “Michael Clayton.” The second type, the “victim hero,” he finds represented well by the “heroes” in virtually all of the Vietnam War films, such as “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket,” and more recently in the remake of “3:10 to Yuma.” And the third type, the “cartoon or superhero,” is perhaps the most prevalent, found in everything from “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” to the characters played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Certain films combine two or more categories. “Batman Begins” combines the cartoon and victim hero. The “Bourne” trilogy combines all three: Jason Bourne is a victim first, then whistle-blower who morphs into a superhero along the way. Bowman’s point is that all three hero types “make sure that heroism can continue to exist only on a plane far removed from the daily lives of the audience.” He then suggests, as the heart of his thesis:
It is hard not to speculate that this is because of a quasi-political aversion on the part of filmmakers to suggesting to the audience that real-life heroism was something to which it, too, could aspire. The subtext of films featuring the whistle-blower hero, the cartoon hero, and the victim hero is that heroism—heroism of the, say, Gary Cooper type—belongs to the public and communal sphere, now universally supposed to be cruel and corrupt, and therefore is really no longer possible or even, perhaps, desirable.
There is certainly something plausible about Bowman’s thesis. One could make a decent case that the “death of the hero in the 1970s” is the result of America’s disillusionment with the Vietnam War. As Bowman notes, “[w]ar had become a shameful thing simply as such and irrespective of the justice of the cause in which it was waged or the net humanitarian good it might accomplish.” All of this is perhaps true, and the fact that the three hero-types mentioned above have dominated the silver screen over the last forty years is certainly an interesting observation. And yet I find myself fiercely disagreeing with Bowman for a number of important reasons.

1. First, the notion that Bowman’s unqualified heroism has simply disappeared is ludicrous. Many heroes of modern movies come to mind: the mother in “Thirteen,” Phil Parma in “Magnolia,” Max in “Collateral,” Babette in “Babette’s Feast,” Lena Leonard in “Punch Drunk Love,” and Carlos in “The Devil’s Backbone.” And these are just from movies that I own. There are so many other possible examples of heroes in contemporary cinema. (If you wish, add to my short list of modern film heroes in the comments.) You’ll notice, however, that most of these heroes are women, not men. And this leads me to my second point.

2. Second, Bowman’s idea of a hero is male, and male only. He writes: “During and after World War II, real-life heroes themselves often looked to the likes of John Wayne or Gary Cooper to see what a hero was supposed to look and act like. Such men hardly exist anymore, except in old movies.” The word “men” here is not being used in a gender inclusive sense. Throughout the entire article, he does not speak once of a female hero. In fact, women only appear once in the article, and they appear as victims to be rescued by the male hero. Speaking of John Wayne’s character in “Stagecoach,” he says that “he wins our hearts not only by being handy with a gun but also by his willingness to form an ad hoc community with his fellow passengers when they are attacked by Indians and by his broad-mindedness and chivalry toward a ‘fallen’ woman.” The mention of American “Indians” brings up a third point.

3. Third, Bowman’s true hero is not only male, but a white male. This almost goes without saying. Almost all of his model heroes are WWII-era WASPs. The white male is free from the category of “victim,” because he is always the superior, always the leader, always the dominant force. The white male is free from the category of “whistle-blower,” because he does not need to engage in subterfuge. He can display his virtue publicly and be rewarded for it, unlike the African-American or the woman. The white male is free from the category of “cartoon or superhero,” because being white and masculine provides all the superiority that one needs. To add anything else to that mix would be redundant and over-the-top. The white male is already at the top of the food chain, so to speak.

4. Fourth, Bowman speaks about the role of the true hero in language that hearkens back to the discourse of colonialism, even though we live in a post-colonial age. He speaks about “the heroism of the ordinary people who brought civilization, peace, and prosperity to the Wild West.” The old Westerns showed heroism in the form of “a story of taming the wilderness, both external and internal, on behalf of decency and civilization.” These statements are indicative of the same problem: Bowman’s definition of true, unqualified heroism is derived from Hollywood’s glamorization and glorification of an era in which white men ruled supreme, conquering the indigenous peoples and taming the wilderness, domesticating the feral unknown through strength, charisma, and superior virtue. This is the ideal which not only forms the basis for most American Westerns, but also undergirds the policies of more than one Western colonial government. Not only is this rhetoric elitist and subordinationist, it is also almost inevitably racist and sexist, too. It is no mere coincidence that these are white men. Bowman talks about “heroism,” but that word is really a cipher for modern Western white male power. This brings us to our fifth point.

5. Fifth, the model heroes, according to Bowman, are the traditional cowboy, represented by John Wayne and Gary Cooper—names he mentions with approval repeatedly—and the traditional war hero, represented, again, by Cooper in “Sergeant York.” As he says, war movies and Westerns are “the biggest generators of movie heroism.” Before I say anything, let’s remind ourselves of Bowman’s thesis: that contemporary movie heroes make sure that heroism can continue to exist only on a plane far removed from the daily lives of the audience.” Let me now state what I think is the most obvious problem with Bowman’s entire article: his two archetypal heroes (the cowboy and war vet) themselves “exist only on a plane far removed from the daily lives of the audience”! How dimwitted do you have to be to fail to see that your thesis deconstructs itself in such a clear and obvious manner? Unless Bowman is surrounded by people who live in a fantasy world of cowboys and D-Day reenactments, the most straightforward thing to say about his entire thesis is that it self-destructs almost immediately. There is nothing at all to connect Cooper the cowboy or Cooper the war vet with the average audience member. I cannot imagine that Bowman himself even connects with those characters, unless he is under a serious self-delusion.

What’s so mind-boggling about Bowman’s suggestion that we need more traditional cowboys and war heroes is not only that he thinks such characters will resonate with audiences today, but also that he thinks movies with Cooper-like heroes will make tons of money. This is precisely the suggestion with which he begins the entire article. I would have thought the fact that AMC has largely dropped such movies from its prime-time lineup to be proof enough that young people today just don’t relate with John Wayne anymore—or even with people who give off a Wayne-like image. Bowman seems to think that the lack of money generated by the anti-Iraq War films is proof that audiences yearn for the days of Wayne and Cooper. But that’s almost as delusional as the idea that cowboys and pious war heroes have anything in common with today’s audiences. There is a reason why movies like “Pleasantville” are made, because we live in a radically different culture. We live in a post-1960s America, and that makes a huge difference. Bowman may wish we still lived in the Wild West or in the pious Pleasantville of the 1950s, but he’s under an illusion if he thinks that everyone else in America shares the same sentiment.

Before I move on to the next point, it’s worth mentioning the wonderful book about the American Western genre by Jane Tompkins entitled, West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. In this book, Tompkins offers a sympathetic but also highly critical reading of Westerns, focusing on, among other things, their selective and sexist understanding of heroism. Bowman would do well to read this work before waxing rhapsodic about the good ole days of Westerns.

6. Sixth, the heart of Bowman’s entire critique of contemporary cinema is his conviction that films should show a world which is morally black-and-white. His approval of traditional Westerns and war films is rooted in this primal belief. His opinion on this matter is made explicit in another article for The American in which he writes about the failure of Akira Kurosawa’s films, because they are “founded on the principle of moral ambiguity.” Early in this article, he asks:
Most of humankind through most of history has happily lived in a black-and-white, good-and-evil world. Why, in the last 50 years or so, has the aesthetic appeal of such a vision faded? Who taught us the charm and sophistication of gray?
What is so remarkable about this statement, besides the fact that he blames Kurosawa for our morally ambiguous films (as if that’s a bad thing), is that he seems to actually believe what he’s saying. He seems to really believe that we once lived in a perfectly black-and-white world. Near the end of this article, he says that “either you’re innocent or guilty, a good guy or a bad guy,” and he faults Kurosawa for seeking a third option. Is Bowman the one person for whom the old adage “living under a rock” is actually true? Perhaps he has never heard the famous line by Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Perhaps Bowman has never read the Bible, despite his nostalgia for traditional Judeo-Christian values. If he had read the Bible, he would know that moral ambiguity runs through that sacred text from beginning to end. As Paul says, quoting the Psalms, “there is no one who is righteous, not even one.” The point is that we have never lived in a black-and-white world of good versus evil, and to the extent that films portray such a bifurcated cosmos, they depart from reality. If it took the Vietnam War to wake us from our naiveté and self-delusion, then we have to say, at least in this sense, thank God for Vietnam!

It’s worth quoting Solzhenitsyn again, this time from The Gulag Archipelago:
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart. . . . This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed with evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts there remains . . . an uprooted small corner of evil.
Bowman’s longing for the morally unambiguous world of cowboys and war heroes is not a return to virtue but is itself the very denial of virtue, insofar as true virtue begins with the humility and wisdom that acknowledges one’s own complicity in evil. We do not and never have lived in a black-and-white world of perfect moral clarity. Those films which portrayed such a world were fantasies; they imagined a society that was subtle and deceptive in its mendacity. These stories misled people into thinking that a person was either good or bad. Because of their deception, such films are infinitely more removed from audiences than films which portray whistle-blowers, victims, and superheroes.

7. Seventh, there is a good reason why heroism looks different in today’s films: not only do we now realize how false the old black-and-white stories really were, but we also live in a different world. Why was (and is) “X-Files” such a huge hit? Because we live in a world in which government leaders are suspect. We live in a society that is easily persuaded to accept conspiracy theories, not because our society is stupid, but because people just don’t trust their leaders anymore—and for really good reasons. We live in a time in which the public sphere is viewed by most as “cruel and corrupt,” because it largely is cruel and corrupt. We know better now. And if we don’t want to go see movies that shove this corruption down our throats, it’s only because we are already too depressed as it is. People can bad-mouth the media all they want—also for very good reasons—but it is undeniable that modern media has shown us just how corrupt our society really is. Part of the reason why pre-Vietnam films are so morally black-and-white is that they did not have the kind of investigative journalism that we take for granted today, the kind that exposes every little bad deed committed by our leaders. We live in a post-“Deep Throat,” post-Clinton, post-Enron, and post-Bush world.

The fact of the matter is that we live in a world of whistle-blowers and victims. It’s frankly rather bizarre that Bowman would think that “Erin Brockovich” is more removed from today’s audiences than “Sergeant York.” Not only is Brockovich a real person, but she is portrayed in the film as the most average of persons. A single white mother who has little education and very little money. How much more average can you get? Bowman might respond: true, but her case is a rare one. Rarer than the war vet or the cowboy? Take the recent National Public Radio story about FAA whistle-blowers. In this story, it is revealed that in the first half of 2008 alone, there have been 32 whistle-blowers, nearly triple the number in 2007. Now, 32 is not a large number, but this is also in 2008 alone and in just one industry among hundreds. This is clearly an important story, and it only serves to demonstrate how different our world is today. We live in the world of the whistle-blower—not exclusively, of course, but this is undeniably a facet of our modern existence.

We also live in the world of the victim. Are the heroes portrayed in “United 93” and “World Trade Center” not “true heroes” because they were victims of a terrorist attack? Try telling that to the families of those who were killed that day. Try telling that to the firepersons who helped that day, many of whom lost their lives, and others of whom live with chronic illness. Are these experiences removed from the lives of everyday audience members? Absolutely. Does that make their efforts any less heroic? Hell no. Terrorism is only the smallest form of victimhood today. What about domestic violence? What about HIV/AIDS? What about poverty and world hunger? What about genocide in Darfur or people (especially women) who live under dictatorships, whether in North Korea or Iran or Zimbabwe? What about sex slaves in southeast Asia? What about child workers? What about the unjustly imprisoned? What about those tortured by so-called democratic governments? What about persecuted ethnic minorities? What about, for example, the Native Americans, who are made the victims by the very same “heroic” cowboys that Bowman praises? I could go on. Already we are talking about most of the world’s population. Is this still somehow removed from the audience? Perhaps removed from those of us in wealthy Western countries, but many of us care deeply about these stories. Moreover, poverty is never something that should be invisible to us. Poverty exists all around us, whether we live in an urban metropolis or in middle class suburbia, whether we live in the “Wild West” or in the distant, remote areas of the world. The simple fact of the matter is that we live most definitely in the world of the victim. And in a globalized society, we are all victims now.

The fact that Bowman identifies the victim hero as someone removed from the lives of people in audiences today only serves to identify Bowman’s status as a comfortable, bourgeois member of the upper middle class whose life is unthreatened by the possibility of victimhood. Ironically, it is Bowman who is removed from reality, not Hollywood. Bowman speaks about how much money a movie portraying traditional heroism would make. And yet his list of “false hero” films includes “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” the “Bourne” trilogy, “Batman Begins,” among others. The fact that Oscar winners like “No Country for Old Men” did not make hundreds of millions of dollars has nothing to do with the fact that audiences wanted a “real hero,” but simply because most Americans don’t care for good filmmaking. They want cheap thrills, and they will pay to see movies like “Transformers,” even if there isn’t a so-called “real hero” portrayed in it. Against Bowman, it seems to me like the evidence favors the conclusion that Americans today spend money on these “false hero” films because they identify with the victim or the whistle-blower or even with the troubled superhero.

The reality is that Bowman doesn’t want to accept the fact that we live in a world of gray. We live in a world that no longer conforms to a black-and-white moral template. We live in a world in which there are few, if any, morally heroic, universal characters that can unite us all. Our stories are full of concrete particularities shaped by a pluralistic, globalized world. We no longer have the luxury of naiveté. We don’t have the luxury of reveling in “Cowboy-and-Indian” pictures which are “heroic” at the expense of both modern sociopolitical realism and a morality which is sensitive to those indigenous peoples who were exploited and oppressed by the “white man.” The world in which we reside is far too fragmented, complex, and diverse to ignore such realities. And so the stories which we find compelling today are ones that bring together a tapestry of individual narratives—a template embodied in films like “Amores Perros,” “Magnolia,” and (to a lesser extent) “Crash.” These films are no less removed from audiences today than Ford’s Westerns; in fact, I would submit that they are quite a bit more relevant to contemporary audiences. Which brings me to my eighth point.

8. Good storytelling does not need to provide abstract, morally unambiguous Everyman and Everywoman characters for the stories to be apposite to audiences. A good story does not need to rely on a protagonist who can serve as a model for imitation. Good stories are able to present particularities and complexities within a morally ambiguous world without those particularities precluding a connection between story and audience. Bowman, I would submit, simply has an impoverished imagination. He expects a heroic protagonist to be a person that can serve as a morally upstanding model for his own life. Never mind the fact that Native Americans, women, and other minorities would find John Wayne a difficult person to imitate. The point is that he needs his protagonist to model the ideal moral man. When he watches a film, he needs to be able to map that character onto his own life with minimal translation.

Bowman seems to have forgotten that universal human characteristics are present even in stories that are distant and remote from the reader or viewer. The Bible is only the most obvious example. But take a cartoon hero like “The Incredible Hulk,” for instance. He may be a superhero of sorts, but the issue of anger and rage is one with which we can all relate. The “X-Men” series has an even stronger connection to audiences. The X-Men story is a thinly veiled reference to racism, sexism, homophobia, and other social ills that create marginalized peoples in modern society. Perhaps the one truly removed superhero is also the least compelling, viz. Superman. I’ve already talked about how compelling many whistle-blower and victim heroes are today. Three of the most compelling victim heroes in modern cinema are Ofelia from “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Theo Faron from “Children of Men,” and Mateo from “In America.” I am willing to grant that these characters are victims—Ofelia of a fascist general, Theo of a corrupt, post-apocalyptic society, and Mateo of AIDS—but each represents a true hero. Each character translates the concept of heroism into a contemporary context, in which political oppression, social upheaval, and global epidemics are everyday realities from which it would be grossly irresponsible to flee. To use Bowman’s own words against him, his call for morally unambiguous cowboy heroes is itself “a denial of responsibility.”

9. Finally, I wish to close by briefly discussing the film “The Station Agent.” In this remarkable story, a group of three friends forms almost accidentally, instigated by the arrival of Finbar McBride, a misanthropic dwarf. In this group, no one person is the “hero.” The group and the world in which they live cannot be split into good guys and bad guys. Each of them instead demonstrates the truth of Solzhenitsyn’s axiom: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Each character is complex, but never in a way as to render any character removed from those watching this story unfold. Each person is rather realistic in the most honest and straightforward way. There is no wildly dramatic climax, which feels like something forced upon it by some Hollywood blockbuster template. We are simply treated to the story of three very ordinary people who become unlikely but still ordinary friends. The film is beautiful because of its simplicity. But its simplicity never becomes naiveté. It does not moralize these characters; it doesn’t try to fit them into an external framework of good-vs.-evil. Each person has his or her flaws, some more hidden than others. And yet in their moral complexity, the characters discover their redemptive bonds which hold them together. It is a deeply moving and profound character study, the kind which Bowman seems entirely unable to appreciate. For that, I pity him, because it is his life which is clearly the impoverished one.


which is why i don't read the american...

really good post, though.
thanks for this.
Anonymous said…
Good post.

What would Bowman have to say about Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers?

As for cowboys, they're about as close to my reality as Spider-man.
Unknown said…
Great post. Any thoughts on Unforgiven as a possibly credible white-male hero?
I don't have any at the moment, only because it's been too long since I've seen that movie, and I would need to rewatch it before saying anything.

What are your thoughts?
Anonymous said…
A well done skewering.

Personally, I think Bowman should be singing with Paula Cole, "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" Where'd they go? They never existed but in your mind. And no, this is not a Shyamalan movie, Bowman just prefers his delusion, which is just about as realistic as those bodice rippers in the grocery store checkout line.
Anonymous said…
Where is the charity in your assessment of Bowman's effort? Is there nothing valid in what he suggests? The "heroes" you proffer prove his point, in a manner of speaking. Is everyone who is unhappy with the ambiguous ambivalent anti-heroes of today's cinema really a sexist neo-colonialist? Perhaps your own narrative has something to inform us on this point? What is it that struck such a nerve about Bowman's analysis?
Anxious Anglican:

I tried to be as charitable as possible with Bowman. I read his essay several times, in addition to reading some of his other writings, just to make sure I got his point correctly. At first I liked what he was saying, and then the more I read the more I became horrified as the realization of what he was actually suggesting dawned on me.

I am not saying that he is a sexist neo-colonialist himself, only that the characters to which he is drawn were crafted and shaped by a cultural context that was (and often still is) sexist and colonialist.

I don't think my personal narrative has anything to do with it. At least, there's nothing unique about my life story. The human condition itself is thoroughly ambiguous. Solzhenitsyn is absolutely correct. The notion that there are "good guys" and "bad guys" is completely ridiculous. There are simply human beings, all of whom are broken, corrupt, and fallen. I think our human experience pretty well confirms this. As Chesterton once said, somewhat cheekily, the doctrine of original sin is the one doctrine which can be empirically proven. There's a certain truth to that.

The only thing about my own personal narrative which might be relevant is that I once thought like Bowman, but it was my engagement with art and theology that quickly shattered such notions. I grew up in conservative evangelical churches, and evangelicals are drawn to these clear moral black-and-white concepts. This is why evangelical art is generally so bad. The Left Behind series is a case in point: you know exactly who is "good" and who is "bad." There is no gray whatsoever in that world.

The problem with evangelicals when it comes to ethics and art is that they cannot comprehend moral ambiguity. They have to find some clear-cut category in which to place people. The pro-life/pro-choice and pro-gay marriage/anti-gay marriage debates are the clearest signs of evangelicals resorting to black-and-white categories, when the reality is so much more complex. But once you realize just how complex reality actually is, you are forced to jettison such pigeon-holing and actually dialogue with others. And that's not something more conservatives are willing to do. It's too difficult and painful; it requires vulnerability.

To be fair, this critique is equally valid of people on the far left who vilify conservatives in the same way that conservatives vilify them. But all this only confirms my point: we are and always have been in a morally ambiguous world, populated by morally ambiguous persons.

In such a world, we need art that reflects and engages this ambiguity, not art that runs away from it and offers escapist pleasures which only distract us from reality.
Anonymous said…
Bowman also seems imply that Hollywood changed the culture by abandoning the American hero. But I think it's fairly obvious the cynicism emerged as those who should have been "heroes" consistently failed to be heroes, Nixon above all.

And then the emergence of the modern corporation, and mass culture: our heroes now are people who struggle with morality in a deeply interdependent culture ("whistle-blowers") rather than self-reliant yet moral loners.

So, it seems to me that Bowman should try to add a little bit more sociological sophistication to his analysis.
Anonymous said…
Of course there is Braveheart and Passion of the Christ, but they depict bygone eras when "men were men" and they are from Gibson who is probably tracking with Bowman's analysis.

I think we prefer true story heroes now like every movie about teachers making a difference. Ugh....they are sometimes the least realistic even when they are true stories.

I wonder what Bowman would think of the hero who is a bad guy somewhat redeemed but screwed up like the hitman in In Bruges, the new James Bond, or especially Unforgiven (which you definitely need to see again since it is Eastwood's answer to Bowman's question). There is no question our heroes (even the teachers) are marred by some sin or problem to humanize them. We are cynical about corny heroes.

Our children's tales still have the black/white morality of past fairy tales since it is psychologically necessary for childhood development as a parent quickly finds out. Kids eat that up and impose it for a few years. Kids haven't changed but our culture has matured.


Case in point...go see The Dark Knight (absolutely brilliant) and contrast it to the ridiculous Batman films from the nineties (damn you Joel Schumacher!!!). Or, likewise, contrast Pierce Brosnan's portrayal of Bond with Daniel Craig's. In either franchise, the hero has transformed into a more tortured, complex, and ultimately human character than the previous attempts were willing to explore.

Through these examples, I am inclined to agree with you completely. A world of moral ambiguity (Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" touches on this point exactly) is not merely a more interesting portrayal of human experience than the westerns of 50-60 years ago. It is more authentic.

You are right to note that the heroic ideal seems to be holding strong primarily in the evangelical community. One need only look at the popularity of Eldridge's Wild at Heart to recognize this fact.

But clearly, going into the woods for a week to "play braveheart" (as Eldridge suggests) does not make you a man...much less does it make you a moral man. Even less, a hero.

Anyway, thanks for a thought-provoking post. I will be curious to hear your thoughts on The Dark Knight.

I saw The Dark Knight on Friday and was thoroughly impressed. And it's almost as if it were filmed as a direct response to Bowman! I'm posting a quote from the NY Times review of the film tomorrow which briefly touches on the subject of heroism.