“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.” – Emerson There is no doubt that America is changing. You can feel the old ways reaching out their talons to pull us back into the past but it isn’t going to work. With asshats in silly costumes representing the Tea Party driving our government to shut down for the first time in 17 years (because things were better when women didn’t have the right to vote and we owned human beings as slaves?), all to prevent President Obama’s implementation of healthcare, which is now the law of the land and a live-saving relief to many. But big change often requires a shift in perspective. Most of us hold onto what we’ve been taught to believe, even if it goes against the grain of progress. We can count on the younger generations to come at their future with an open mind. The rest of us will have to wait it out, rejoicing or suffering as the change comes down upon us. The current Oscar race — or the films that display the most vitality within it right now — represent a range heroism. Not for God and country so much, but for individuality and resourcefulness. Probably the most resonate of these at the moment is Paul Greengrass’ magnificent Captain Phillips, which had its Los Angeles premiere last night, with the real Captain in attendance. How easy it would have been to make a film where a hero defended a ship against evil invaders — just give them a bigger boat, perhaps, better clothing and weapons, do not humanize them in any way. But Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray were determined to tell this story truthfully, not through the lens of nationalism. Therefore it’s not possible to watch Captain Phillips without feeling for the gunmen. Captain Phillips, as embodied by Tom Hanks, is an unlikely hero. He was never trained to get himself and his crew out of a hijacking. He was simply sent to deliver food aid to countries in need. He survives — and not one of his crew is killed. The American military that swarmed the scene is visually depicted in the film as the most powerful force in the world, and it is. One of the most memorable shots is the tiny lifeboat where the Captain is being held hostage in the center of massive Navy ships. It doesn’t end well. In Alexander Payne’s stark, moving depiction of old age, heroism could have been defined as success. The American Dream, as it’s been sold and packaged to us, has to do with buying things. Expensive things. We can short-cut it by winning some kind of a once-in-a-lifetime jackpot, like the lottery or Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes. In beautiful, heartbreaking detail we watch this silly dream broken down and simplified by Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson until it evaporates. Heroism, then, isn’t about winning a million bucks and showing your family how successful you FINALLY are. Heroism is about showing up. It’s about sticking it out in spite of the worst traits people can develop in old age. It’s about finding the real buried treasures in one’s past, those that you never recognize until they are long gone. It’s about tiny heroes facing down big dreams. Like most of us, the characters in Nebraska are awash in missed opportunities, failure and compromise. The American Dream dangles before us like an ever-vanishing carrot. It’s almost never achieved because it’s really a lie. That’s the dirty secret you discover once you’re old enough to realize you’ve been had. No matter how much money you make, no matter how pretty your wife is, or how big your house is or how many boats you have or how many times you get laid by the most beautiful hookers in the world — you can’t possibly find everlasting happiness. Failure in Nebraska is to be endured. Unhappiness is the guaranteed result of chasing the American Dream if you don’t read the tiny print. Get the job, get the marriage, have the kids, get the house. What happens to the film’s main character, played by the brilliant Bruce Dern, is that he forgets he’s supposed to simply endure the life he’s been handed. He wants to believe there could be some magic left. One last play to find that elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. No more carping from his wife, nothing but admiration from his children. What he gets, however, is exactly the opposite. That is, until the film’s silent hero, his son (Will Forte) steps up. Heroism here is unexpected, but all the more moving because of it. Sandra Bullock can’t save anyone in Gravity. She doesn’t save humanity. She can barely save herself. Heroism here doesn’t come in any way we’d expect. The will to live amid life’s many disappointments and unpredictable tragedies does take exceptional courage. When you lose everything that’s important to you your own life might seem disposable. Anyone who has ever gone through something as painful as a death in the family, losing a child, or a terminal illness knows that there are those moments when life really doesn’t feel like it’s worth living. And even if it did, you wouldn’t necessarily be one of those who deserved to be living it. It’s an unexpected heroism that drives Bullock’s character throughout Gravity. Unexpected not because she isn’t well trained to withstand survival out there in space, but because she is given the opportunity to abandon the will the live at all. There it is, presented to her in all of its alluring glory. And yet, the funny thing about unexpected heroes, they rise up just when you have all but written them off. The quiet endurance of Forest Whitaker’s Butler is juxtaposed against the more literal definition of heroism as embodied in his son. But make no mistake, there is heroism in Whitaker’s character who plays a butler to many presidents without ever asking for a raise. He shows up day after day to do his job. He has pride in his work and has to swallow a good deal of shit on a daily basis. He’s seen the best and the worst in the men he served. And yet, when it comes time for change — the change that took so long to enact — he is brave enough to take hold of it and summon the courage to finally get that raise. His heroism maybe isn’t the kind that wins medals — and perhaps it isn’t the kind that even lands in history books. But sticking to the job to give your kids a better life — what could be more heroic than that? Whitaker, an astonishingly good actor, depicts that invisible hero so well, with traces of shame lining his face at times, even if he has to put on a smile and greet the white tourists with a tray of cookies. Men like him helped build this nation, and helped to pave the way for that skinny kid with the funny name to become president. The Butler itself has been made by one such hero, a man who was probably underestimated by anyone who came in contact with him and continues to be underestimated today. But the strength and the courage of Lee Daniels, the first African American director to be nominated along with Best Picture is that unlikely hero. This is part of the reason The Butler resonates, no matter what the Wall of Noise on Twitter thinks. In the film 12 Years a Slave, there are many such silent and invisible heroes. Each one of them forced to live in a manner that is both unnatural and repulsive — and yet, they must live as mule and whore to the slaveowner just to stay alive and not get beaten. They must accept losing their own children because they can’t be kept together during an auction. A grown man must bow his head and accept being called a “boy.” What could be worse than having to abandon all sense of self just to stay alive? That’s what the main character in the film does. He spends 12 years pretending to be a slave just so that he can eventually return to his family. There is something beautifully mysterious about every line on Robert Redford’s face. The pretty boy — maybe the prettiest in all of Hollywood history — is long gone, yet his own life and history can be traced in the deep lines on his face. Those famous hips and legs still strong but definitely showing age, and his hands, though aged, still work well enough to keep himself alive in All Is Lost. The J.C. Chandor film is a metaphor for not giving up, quite literally. To manage that requires heroism that comes from deep within. Redford’s character appears to have no idea whether or not he will live. But he uses his best nature-given tool, his brain, to try everything within his power to ensure he will. I think that when we get to a certain age we are simply written off. To many, Redford’s age was seen as the end of something that once was. To be seen as is for man like that — lines and all, without a lens filter — is its own sign of heroism. And yet, many people facing old age don’t see themselves as vital, resourceful human beings with much life left in them. All is Lost would not have had the same resonance were it about a man in his 20s. Well, we kind of saw that movie and it was 127 Hours. In that film, James Franco had to recall all that he had waiting for him at home to gain the will to survive. But in All Is Lost, Redford doesn’t even have those tools at his disposal as an actor: it is purely the will to not give up until everything is gone. It’s funny that some people feel the film has an ambiguous ending. To me, it isn’t ambiguous at all. I suppose that’s because I’m a pragmatist who doesn’t believe in magical forces. It probably also helps that I could never see this movie as having Redford “find God” at the end. No, to me, survival is as primal as breathing and thirst. You do it because you have no other choice. Therefore, there is no question to me how the film ends. I suspect, when this season comes to a close, heroism will be the centerpiece of most of the final films. We are in desperate need of heroes now, not just those who fly in with capes, but real ones, those we pass every day without looking them in the eye. Heroes who show up to teach our kids in school, who care for our elderly, mothers who raise disabled kids, and the people with no money to buy food who somehow find the will to carry on another day. I suppose some films that aren’t really about heroes, but are about anti-heroes, won’t do as well in this climate, despite the popularity of Breaking Bad, Hannibal, Mad Men and House of Cards on the small screen. There is still a big part of our culture that believes in movies as a transformative experience. Some moviegoers would never buy a ticket to a film if they didn’t think it would take them to unexpected places, good places, dark places, places where our dreams are buried and rediscovered. It could turn out in the end that George Clooney’s Monuments Men is the best of these. The story of unexpected heroes who rescue and liberate great art from the hands of the Nazis. Word about Clooney’s film is the most quiet of all right now, and one has to wonder whether we’re not all being punked by a movie that is mostly bypassing the Oscar circus. It still seems to have all of the ingredients for a Best Picture winner — but it will have to duke it out with 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Captain Phillips, The Butler, Nebraska and whatever else is coming next. How I see the race right now of the films that have been seen: 1. 12 Years a Slave 2. Captain Phillips 3. Nebraska 4. The Butler 5. Gravity 6. Inside Llewyn Davis 7. All is Lost 8. Fruitvale Station 9. Labor Day 10. Blue Jasmine Films that will likely bump one of those: 1. The Monuments Men 2. American Hustle 3. Saving Mr. Banks These three above could turn out to be the strongest films in the race. There is no way of knowing yet as they haven’t yet been seen. Some will be seeing American Hustle around, since it’s test screening at the moment. Some have seen Saving Mr. Banks already, as Jeff Wells at Hollywood-Elsewhere wrote about. From early word over there it sounds like a solid contender. Clooney film is the only mystery guest in this year’s Oscar race. I can’t wait to see how that one turns out.