I’ve been captivated, almost forever, with the ambiguous hero; the good guy who does bad things (and, conversely, the bad guy who does good things) and what role he plays in our psyche and, in a larger sense, in our culture.
A friend of mine wants to teach a summer class with film, and we were talking about this idea over dinner the other day. I haven’t been able to let it go, and here’s what I’ve come up with. I’m going to need some help zeroing in on the specifics – the assignments, the competencies and objectives, that kind of thing – but here’s what I’ve got for materials so far:
The Dark Knight: the second of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – this is the one with Heath Ledger as the Joker. Christian Bale’s Batman is the perfect example, I think, of the ambiguous hero.
A Dry White Season: This is based on a novel written by a white South African who gets involved in the anti-apartheid movement after someone he knows personally dies in police custody.
Gandhi: You know this story, and I keep coming back to it as a conversation about civil disobedience and the question of how resistance is characterized on the different “sides” of the debate in question
Gone Baby Gone: PLEASE tell me you’ve seen this movie! It’s about a kidnapping, and centers around HUGE issues of “right” and “wrong” and where the law clashes with morality
Harry Potter: I want to investigate Snape. The idea of the double agent is always an interesting one. I’m not sure which film I’d use, though; likely the last one.
Iron Jawed Angels: Another civil disobedience film – this one focuses on women’s suffrage and the outrages that some women suffered at the hands of law enforcement.
Milk: About Harvey Milk and the early struggle for GLBTQ rights and recognition
Mississippi Burning: This remains one of my MOST favorite films, mostly because of Gene Hackman’s REALLY complex character. This scene alone is worth the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlzaBi_QxPw
The Negotiator: This is the story of a cop who takes hostages in order to reveal corruption in his department – a good guy doing a bad thing for a good reason.
Leon, the Professional: A hit man who adopts his 12 year old neighbor after her family is killed by a corrupt cop (played terrifyingly by Gary Oldman). He’s a good guy who does bad things, and we have to reconcile his work with his personality.
Schindler’s List: You know this one, too, I’m sure. I think that Schindler started out as a bad guy doing a good thing (though for selfish reasons) and evolved into a good guy.
Shawshank Redemption: Andy as a wrongly convicted man who becomes a criminal in prison, but who never gives up his humanity.
Tsotsi: I haven’t seen this one in a LONG time, so I’m not sure if I’m remembering it correctly, but I think it’s about a boy who steals a car and discovers that he’s also stolen a baby. The film tells the story of what he does after he realizes he’s got a tough choice to make.
Unforgiven: This is a Clint Eastwood western. Eastwood is a retired gunslinger who gets called back into the life of crime for reasons that he thinks are honorable. His character is a tough one to suss out, and the film really makes the viewer work for the payoff (plus, it stars Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, which makes it that much better).
I was also thinking that I would have the kids read Bel Canto (which asks the “terrorist or freedom fighter” question) and, if they’re given permission from their parents, to look at a couple of episodes of Dexter (a serial killer in a Showtime series who only murders murderers who get away from the legal system).
I think there’s a lot of richness to be mined in this “good guy doing bad things / bad guy doing good things” question, I just need to think about it a bit more before it takes on any kind of substance that resembles a for-credit class.
What do you think?