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November 2003 -- That Tuesday morning, like most, found me staring at my computer screen.
A white rectangle of Microsoft Word stared back blankly.
Glancing around for inspiration, my eyes settled on my coffee mug. Still half full, but like me it had lost its steam an hour ago. I noted the quotation from Noël Coward printed on the mug: "I am determined to travel through life first class."
The sudden warning ting of an incoming e-mail message startled me.
It was from Himself—a new Navigator assignment.
"List the ten best-made movies that depict man as a heroic being," He ordered. "Extra points if they depict reason as his only absolute and productive achievement as his noblest activity. Let's leave the two Rand films out of it."
I began to laugh. Soundlessly.
Didn't He realize that He was asking for the impossible—objectively, rationally, contextually, epistemologically, possibly even metaphysically?
First, there was the daunting scope of such a reviewing task. My trusty VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever reference book lists more than 25,000 titles available on videocassette or DVD. Given average running times of two hours each, that amounts to some 50,000 hours of viewing, or—in terms of eight-hour work days—17.12 years of film watching. Even as an insatiable cinéaste, I couldn't have spent more than a third of that time watching films. How could He expect me to rate films I'd never seen?
Secondly, I reflected upon His arbitrary demand for the top ten films. Ten? Why not a hundred?
Thirdly, there was the utter silliness of trying to rank films according to multiple independent variables. After all, films often present viewers with trade-offs among many matters of quality and content. Take Things to Come (1936), based on an H.G. Wells science-fiction story. Raymond Massey's closing speech extols the value of reason and science over primitivism and superstition so poetically that you want to stand up and cheer. But its plot structure is deeply flawed, and by today's standards its production values are crude. Contrast that with Contact (1997), a beautifully made film that addresses the same theme—but with a philosophic climax far more ambiguous and far less satisfying.
So which film is "better"?
Apart from technical considerations, on the content side you have a plethora of Objectivist premises to apply: three
cardinal values, plus seven basic virtues (eight, if you agree with David Kelley), all to be weighed against that overarching, nebulous thing called "sense of life."
Do we position higher on our list a film whose hero embodies the cardinal value of self-esteem (for example, Cyrano de Bergerac ), or one that romanticizes the virtue of productivity (such as Boom Town, a tale of two irrepressible entrepreneurs)? Does a movie that expresses an upbeat sense of life (such as the baseball film The Rookie ) trump one that enunciates sound philosophical ideas (such as Shenandoah , where James Stewart defends his family's independence against government encroachments)?
How could I possibly stack films embodying all these diverse considerations into one tidy hierarchy of values?
I looked up moodily: the clock hands were rising lethargically toward noon, as if in surrender.
But then I realized that there were ways to narrow the scope of my task.
I was, after all, to employ Objectivist criteria. That meant I could rule out all the films that I'd been fastidiously avoiding for decades. You know—those directed by Ingmar Bergman, Costa-Gavras, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, John Waters, Quentin Tarantino, Oliver Stone, Woody Allen, or, given recent events, anyone from France. Plus, any movie starring Elvis, Burt Reynolds, John Cassavetes, Harvey Keitel, Dennis Hopper, Mickey Rourke, Madonna, Pee Wee Herman, Julia Roberts, or, given recent events, anyone from France.
Seizing my calculator, I quickly determined that their output amounted to a staggering 42.5 percent of all films. These I simply eliminated from consideration, with another soundless laugh.
I also realized I could safely ignore entire genres: slasher movies, creature movies, robot movies, religious films, animated films, beach films, movies starring animals, movies starring comic book characters, movies starring members of the Hollywood Left, movies with "Part II" in the title, and all films adapted from titles in Oprah's Book Club.
This meant I could dismiss an additional 57.4 percent of all films—perhaps with a smile of contempt.
Using established Objectivist standards left but one film in a thousand worthy of consideration. Of 25,000 films available for rental or purchase, I would have to rate only twenty-five. Piece of cake!
The first screening test I applied was qualitative. Many worthwhile films can't make it into the top ten because of various production shortcomings. Most common are script deficiencies. For instance, some classic films adapted from plays come across today as too stagy or dated. José Ferrer's Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) and 12 Angry Men (1957), starring Henry Fonda, are examples. Scripts more episodic than tightly plotted burden other films of merit, such as Things to Come , Shenandoah (1965), and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). That same criticism applies to the charming 1944 romance Mrs. Parkington , a tribute to the spirit of a fictional nineteenth-century "robber baron." Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy also evoke the can-do spirit of the American entrepreneur in Boom Town (1940), but its screenplay is freighted with Hollywood clichés. A convention-riddled script weighs down The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), despite a soaring, Oscar-winning performance from Paul Muni as a champion of science over superstition.
Philosophical shortcomings keep others out of the top ten. Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) can't quite decide if it's promoting independent entrepreneurship or attacking the capitalist system. In defending reason over faith, the impressively mounted Contact loses its philosophical nerve during its closing moments. A similar failure of nerve undercuts Hombre (1967), an unusually thoughtful western in which Paul Newman portrays a man of Roarkian independence…until the morally ambiguous climax, when he appears to surrender to an appeal to selflessness.
Lastly, several otherwise superb films fail to make the cut, not because of flaws, but because the values they espouse are not especially unique to Objectivism. In this category I place The Rookie (2002), The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), and The Winslow Boy (1950), which honor self-realization, courage, and justice, respectively.
Important as they are, virtues such as honesty, integrity, justice, tolerance, and courage are common to most philosophies and religions. However, since Objectivism especially emphasizes virtues required for succeeding in everyday life—rationality, productiveness, and pride—I thought it best to focus on films that feature these less-recognized virtues. I also decided to drop from consideration science-fiction, fantasy, war, action-thriller, and sports movies, whose heroes manifest virtues in extreme or artificial contexts.
To make my top-ten list, then, a technically proficient film had to advance a heroic view of human potential unambiguously and manifest one or more of the distinctively Objectivist premises: rationality, productivity, intellectual independence, self-interest, and pride. I also gave bonus points to pro-capitalist movies, because these emerge from Hollywood even less frequently than do coherent statements from Ozzy Osbourne.
This established, I hereby present Bidinotto's top ten films for Objectivists, which I dub:
To add to the suspense, I'll first divide this list into unranked groups of three and then name number ten last rather than first.
The trio at the top of the celluloid heap includes Apollo 13 , Cash McCall , and A Man for All Seasons . These films have just about everything: good production values, literate scripts, fine acting, and a heroic spirit. Moreover, all promote uniquely Objectivist virtues in compelling, persuasive ways.
Apollo 13 (1995) masterfully chronicles the true-life catastrophe that nearly cost three lunar astronauts their lives. The film's ultimate hero, illuminating every scene, is rationality. It's the virtue exhibited by everyone on the flight crew and by every member of the NASA team trying desperately to save them. As mission pilot Jim Lovell, Tom Hanks is the image of courageous human intelligence. But Ed Harris nearly steals the show in a commanding performance as indomitable mission control chief Gene Kranz, a man who simply refuses to give in to disaster. The production is impeccable, the script and pacing gripping, the ending a heroic triumph of human ingenuity over adversity.
Cash McCall (1960) is as Randian as any non-Rand story you'll ever see. It dares to take for its hero a corporate raider, played with d'Anconian dash by a young, impossibly handsome, supremely confident James Garner. Here you'll find a proud, no-apologies depiction of self-interest and profit-seeking, a value-conflict happily resolved, a script that doesn't insult your intelligence, and a wonderful sense of life.
A Man for All Seasons (1966) is the unforgettable story of a brilliant, independent man of principle standing his ground against enormous social and political pressure. Paul Scofield won the Academy Award as Sir Thomas More, towering over a cast of giants in a meticulous production directed by Fred Zinnemann. Robert Shaw, Orson Welles, Wendy Hiller, Nigel Davenport, Leo McKern, and John Hurt also give flawless performances in Robert Bolt's superb film adaptation of his play about "a hero of selfhood."
Ranked just below these Olympian entries are the next three film greats.
Ninotchka (1939) is a delightful romantic comedy starring Greta Garbo as a grim Soviet agent sent to investigate three Russian trade representatives who have been seduced by the good life in Paris. The theme of this hilarious satire of life under communism is the pursuit of personal happiness. Garbo is captivating as the stern bureaucrat who learns to live, laugh, and love; and when she is introduced stepping off a train in a raincoat, you'll swear that you're looking at Dagny Taggart. Only because its production values and acting seem a trifle dated does this one not make the top tier.
October Sky (1999) is the true story of young Homer Hickam, an intelligent, sensitive boy mired in the poverty and hopelessness of a West Virginia coal town, and of his heroic quest against all odds to become a rocket scientist. His poignant story pits the values of reason, science, ambition, and independence against a dispiriting world of mindless conformity and bleak resignation. Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific as Homer, Laura Dern heartbreaking as his ailing mentor, and Chris Cooper mesmerizing as the sullen, blue-collar father trying to stifle his son's "unrealistic" dreams.
The Miracle Worker (1962) was one of Ayn Rand's favorite films, and it's easy to see why. Anne Bancroft is magnificent as Annie Sullivan, indefatigable teacher to blind and deaf Helen Keller, who is captured in an equally awesome performance by young Patty Duke. Their Oscar-winning acting wrings everything possible from William Gibson's adaptation of his hit stage play. Rand praised it as the first epistemological film, dramatizing the human process of rising above the animal level by learning to form concepts and think for oneself. But a residual staginess keeps this one out of the top rank.
The third tier of films includes another adaptation of a classic play, Inherit the Wind (1960).In this fictionalized version of the notorious Scopes "Monkey Trial," Spencer Tracy, playing a famous defense attorney, represents a school teacher on trial for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in a small town ruled by religious fundamentalism. Tracy argues, explicitly and eloquently, for reason and science—and against the forces of blind faith and superstition led by rabble-rousing, showboat prosecutor Fredric March. It's a vivid dramatization of clashing basic premises, except that the Tracy character's agnosticism and skepticism undercut his otherwise passionate defense of reason, especially at the end.
Less explicitly philosophical, The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) is nonetheless a rousing concretization of the power of rationality. James Stewart pilots a charter plane that crashes in the Sahara. Food and water are running out, crew and passengers are at each other's throats, and everyone's survival may rest in the hands of the most hated passenger—a German aeronautical engineer played by Hardy Krüger. A study in cool reason and serene independence, he claims he can rebuild the battered plane to fly again. But is he for real? And can Stewart get everyone to obey Krüger's orders? Intellectual independence and human ingenuity are glorified in this highly suspenseful tale of man's courageous unwillingness to succumb to disaster. If it were a bit more philosophically explicit, it might have made the first or second tier.
The same could be said of the 1956 version of Ransom! an almost unbearably suspenseful drama about a successful businessman whose unyielding independence is brutally tested. Glenn Ford is the man who finds his domestic tranquility shattered when a kidnapper takes his young son, then demands a hefty ransom. Warned by authorities that paying a ransom won't improve the odds of his son's safe return, Ford faces an agonizing moral choice: to pay or not? His unorthodox decision turns everyone against him—his distraught wife, his envious brother, friends and associates, even the authorities. Will he cave under the enormous pressures? And will his decision cost him his child?
Psychological independence and an inviolate sense of honor also lie at the moral core of the final film in my top-ten list. High Noon (1952) is the classic Gary Cooper western about an ex-sheriff who returns to face down four vicious killers, while his new bride, closest friends, and fellow townsmen all cower in fear and abandon him. Fred Zinnemann, who directed the thematically similar A Man for All Seasons, ratchets up the suspense with shots and sounds of ticking clocks while Cooper stoically awaits the gang leader's arrival on the noon train. Butthough he projected enough strength and independence to win the best actor award, Coop isn't anyone's image of the heroic power of the human mind. While High Noon makes the cut at number ten, I can't rate it any higher.
So how do I rank the rest?
9. Ransom! is similar in many ways to High Noon, including its lack of philosophical depth. But unlike Gary Cooper, Glenn Ford's commitment to principle comes off as more intelligent than intuitive.
8. The Flight of the Phoenix is an unusual, exciting depiction of rationality—and of Rand's "pyramid of ability"—in action.
7. Inherit the Wind beats out the preceding because it dramatizes the clash between reason and faith so explicitly, literately, and compellingly.
6. The Miracle Worker is another moving tribute to the role of reason in human life, but without some of the philosophical shortcomings of Inherit the Wind.
5. Ninotchka is Randian "tiddlywink music" in the form of a light romantic comedy. It's a charming love letter to the American sense of life and the pursuit of personal happiness.
4. October Sky is a simple yet boundlessly inspiring homage to reason, science, and human aspiration. Every kid should see this one.
3. Apollo 13 , like October Sky, is a powerful true-life tale of space exploration, based on the same noble values and superior only in its awesome scale and stunning complexity.
Now, to the contenders for first place. And the envelope, please…
2. A Man for All Seasons is a flawless production whose extraordinarily articulate defense of the independent human mind against coercion raises it above most of the movies on the list. Only two things keep it from being number one. First, More's truly heroic stand rested on his Catholic faith rather than on reasoned conviction. Secondly, his martyrdom doesn't square with the Randian sense of life or with Objectivist ethics. In short, independence and integrity are exalted, but in a philosophically muddled context.
This means the winner of the top Atlas Award is
1. Cash McCall . Although its production values, complexity, and subtlety don't begin to rival those of the films ranked in second and third place, I can think of no other movie in which self-interest, money-making, and the capitalist system are presented so appealingly and unapologetically. From a sense-of-life standpoint, only Ninotchka rivals its lighthearted spirit. And you'll find no better embodiment of the Randian sort of businessman-hero than young James Garner in the title role. There's a startling moral purity and innocence about Cash McCall, and for two hours you can experience what it would be like to live in an Objectivist world
Okay, assignment completed.
But I'm still annoyed that He would limit me to only ten recommendations. So for the hell of it, I'll append my list of the 100 most inspiring films , arranged by category.
After all, He is always begging me for more material.
Film fanatic Robert James Bidinotto is a contributing editor to Navigator and author of the Web site ecoNOT.com .
This article was originally published in the November 2003 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.