As a film critic who has watched more than 200 features a year for 20 years, I’ve become painfully tuned-in to certain cinematic clichés. There’s the Purging Shower—that staple of earnest dramas in which a traumatized protagonist huddles beneath the showerhead’s spray, hoping to wash away the awfulness. Or the Good Times Montage, a reliable mid-second-act element of every underdog sports movie, or underdog non-sports movie, or sometimes, it seems, every movie, period.
And then there’s the “You Care More About [Issue] Than You Care About Your Own Family” scene, which should be familiar to anyone who’s seen more than a handful of fact-based biographical dramas about a determined heroic figure. It’s one I first remember becoming aware of in Oliver Stone’s JFK—with Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison getting the lecture from Sissy Spacek as his wife—but it’s standard stuff in dozens of profiles in courage. The determined hero (usually, but not always, male), committed to achieving some kind of important change, brings risk upon his family—maybe to the stability of a marriage, maybe to their social standing, maybe even to their lives. It becomes one of the central points of the story’s dramatic conflict: Can you still do the hard work of changing the world while protecting those close to you from the inherent dangers of that work?
It’s an understandable trope, because it speaks to the fear that holds so many back from throwing themselves into demanding, important action. Sometimes we toss out the excuse of being “too busy,” but just as often we tell ourselves that our priorities have to be elsewhere. We can’t be marching in the streets, or protesting against injustice, or even getting deeply involved with the work of political parties. What if it takes us away from our kids? What if our face is plastered on the news, for a cause that alienates us from our neighbors or co-workers? Standing for something—publicly, resolutely, consistently—can have consequences.
But we’re not nearly so quick to recognize the consequences of not standing for something. While we convince ourselves that inaction is actually an act of sacrifice—sure, we would do something, but what about the children?—the world keeps turning. And as became all too clear during the recent government shutdown battle, it starts to turn in the direction of those who make their voices heard, and heard loudly. While those in the moderate center shake their heads sadly at the actions of the fringe zealots, the head-shaking makes no sound beyond the end of their own necks. It’s someone else’s job to throw the bums out, we mutter to ourselves; after all, we’ve got bills to pay, and soccer practice to chauffeur to, and a personal bubble of normalcy to maintain.
Now would be the appropriate time for some sort of Shakespearean St. Crispin’s Day speech, except that there’s no one-size-fits-all call to arms when the fight isn’t against a single monolithic enemy. The real enemy, it seems, is a kind of personal politics of isolationism, because “getting involved” is messy, and offers no promise of quick results—or, indeed, of any results whatsoever. And we don’t like feeling guilt-tripped, so we shuffle our feet and roll our eyes at the foolish notion that we can accomplish anything more profound in the world than beating the next level of Candy Crush.
Here’s where it becomes necessary to rethink that formulaic “You Care More About [Issue] Than You Care About Your Own Family” scene, because it’s based on a false dichotomy—one that the protagonists in these films often gets a chance to articulate. However quixotic an attempt to effect change may seem, it’s usually about a world the Don Quixote in question may not live to see; it’s about the world those kids may get a chance to inherit. Surrendering the playing field to others is a tacit admission that their vision of the future is more worth fighting for than yours. That’s where we seem to find ourselves, over and over again—ceding the power to decide firearms laws to the gun-lobby zealots, allowing desperately frightened reactionaries to control governance, letting paranoiacs hijack the health-care debate. Repeatedly, we fail to be as ferocious in the pursuit of a world guided by rationalism, and it’s hard to imagine what you could do that’s more important for that family you love so much.
“Idealist,” you cry in response, and “crackpot,” and a hundred other names, and maybe all of them fit. Yet we’ve just watched a fraction of a fraction of the American public nearly drive the nation off a cliff, and somehow never questioned what might be the result if a similarly sized fraction of a fraction were made up of people who weren’t terrified of the future, but instead inspired by the prospect of what it might be. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” goes a wonderful Margaret Mead quote; “Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Or perhaps even more appropriate is George Bernard Shaw’s remark that “the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself; therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Imagine the possibilities of being an unreasonable man or woman persisting in trying to create a reasonable world. I’d watch that movie, even if I had to sit through that same scene one more time.