1. (January 1993)
Hero, from director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette , The Grifters ), deliberately breaks several of the rules that hitherto governed mainstream American filmmaking for at least a decade.
It sports glamorous stars (Geena Davis, Andy Garcia), but casts its ace performer (Dustin Hoffman) in a thoroughly dislikeable, grubby role. Even worse, it is a story of mass deception and amoral behaviour that refuses to deliver a clean, socially reassuring resolution.
Bernie (Hoffman) is a bum, a loser and a louse. Separated from his wife (Joan Cusack) and faltering in his devotion to his son, Bernie is in hiding from all social institutions – particularly the mass media, which he despises. One night, totally by accident, Bernie stumbles upon a freak airplane crash, and (quite reluctantly) helps to save many lives. But he immediately disappears into anonymity once more, confiding his tale only to a fellow vagrant, John Bubber (Garcia).
The next time Bernie hears of the affair, he is in jail – and John has come forward to claim the credit and be transformed into a media hero, the "Angel of Flight 104". As Bernie fights to make the truth known (mainly for the sake of collecting the million dollar reward), television reporter Gale (Davis) finds herself involved in different ways with both men, unsure which one to trust or believe.
Frears has made a film perfectly in tune with the era of Reality Television, with all its attendant political confusions and moral ambiguities. Bernie may have performed the brave deed but, in the public eye, he is simply not hero material. Conversely, John is a bald-faced liar, but his showbiz charisma actually leads to progressive social reform within the community. What is the use of truth amid such a whirlpool of manufactured appearances and passionate public emotions?
Hero is an uncommonly intelligent film. As scripted by David Webb Peoples (Unforgiven, 1992), it teems with references to the movies of another era that dared dramatise such complex and risky themes – films like Billy Wilder's The Big Carnival (1951) and Preston Sturges' Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). Yet it is far from being a nostalgic rehash. Frears is right up to the moment with his caustic satire on everything from tasteless television documentary re-enactments to the New Age spiel that "everyone is the hero of their own story".
Frears has a fascinating vision of the world. Like his earlier films, Hero suggests that there is no use in lamenting the Good Old Days when television news was honest, family values were decent and society was a less confusing and dishonest place. His characters simply plunge into the chaos, finding their own level and figuring out a way to act effectively. These everyday heroes may be perplexed, but at least they are not paralysed.
Hero is a film that starts to fall apart the more you look at it. Indeed, it seems like one of those contemporary cases described so well on the television series Naked Hollywood where every key participant, from star to director to producer, had a hand in reshaping the material.
Director Frears seems intent on making a gleefully amoral statement for our era of Reality Television. In its best scenes, the film explores the ambiguities and ironies of modern heroism – how Bernie is simply not believable hero material, while Bubber's masquerade actually leads to decent, civic acts. Frears preaches a perfectly postmodern attitude: since there is no absolute truth in the world anymore, just pick the story that works best for you.
Yet the script by David Webb Peoples, for all its jokes and plot moves borrowed from Billy Wilder classics, seems intent on making a more old-fashioned statement. These homeless bums are, after all, Vietnam veterans, and the story works on another level as an apologia for such "forgotten men", and an indictment of our heartless, cynical age.
Put all these levels together and you have a movie which makes precious little sense.
© Adrian Martin January & August 1993