People mob some films despite what sophisticated film critics say about them; the best case in point being the “Dirty Harry” series of films starring Clint Eastwood. As Harry Callahan, a San Francisco police inspector, Eastwood delights audiences by defying smug bureaucrats and prissy judges, and annihilating scores of deserving hoodlums. In his latest, Sudden Impact, Eastwood’s challenge “Go ahead, make my day,” issued to a menacing criminal, has already achieved classic movie status. But one would be wrong in attributing audience enthusiasm simply to concern for law and order (or base motives, such as racism). Rather, what Eastwood’s audience wants to affirm is the righteous indignation supporting all decent political order. As long as Americans line up to see Clint Eastwood movies, we know their political instincts remain healthy and the possibility for a decent society remains.
Unfortunately, sometimes sophisticated reviewers can keep audiences away from worthy films. Uncommon Valor may be an example. This is fundamentally a critique of purposeless existence, and an account of what makes life worth living. Gene Hackman, father of an MIA held in Laos, rescues Vietnam veterans from their lives of playing games, stargazing, and creating modern sculpture. Hackman makes them more fully human by restoring them as warriors for the purpose of rescuing the MIAs. But these veterans do more: They act to restore the nation’s sense of self-esteem lost by having suffered defeat in Vietnam. This intention of restoring republican virtue in opposition to corrupt contemporary habits and beliefs is emphasized when Hackman wishes his conspirators luck by quoting Brutus’ parting words to his fellow (unsuccessful) conspirators in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. As the film portrays well, a healthy political community takes on the characteristics of a family; private interest and the common good are at one. Fraternity, or what the ancient political philosophers called political friendship, tie it together.
Now it is true that Uncommon Valor is poorly directed; too many scenes lack credibility. But the critics’ focus on these flaws overlooks the overall impression it creates in its viewers. While it would be foolhardy to attribute classic status to it, it is clearly worth seeing as entertainment and edification. The supercilious types who unreflectively prefer the virtues of a Silkwood to those of Eastwood overlook the power of films.
Best Film of the Year: Tender Mercies
Tender Mercies is clearly the year’s best film. Its theme can be summarized in McArthur’s great refrain: duty, honor, country. Robert Duvall plays an alcoholic country singer redeemed by a Vietnam War widow and her son. He resurrects his past excellence through learning his duties to his wife and children. Human happiness is achieved through assumption of duties-not from self-gratification, whether through a whiskey bottle or fame. Duvall takes the place of one who sacrificed his life for his country, and our thoughts turn to his stepson. In the film’s last scene they play football, the game of duties, and we affirm for ourselves the relationship between good family, life and good political life. With such a father and mother, the boy will become a solid citizen.
Worst Film of the Year: Fanny and Alexander
Of all the “serious” films of 1983, the award for worst can readily be bestowed on Fanny and Alexander, whose vices are the obverse of Tender Mercies’ virtues. Where the year’s best film is understated and American, the year’s worst is pretentious and decadently European (and Swedish, at that): simple piety versus vulgar, hedonistic atheism; heroes versus last men. It is an almost perfect depiction of nihilism, from its representation of the Christian God in the form of a tyrannical minister to the concluding speech on the emptiness of life.