Friday, March 18, 2005

A St. Patrick's Day Revelation

Yes, I realize it was yesterday, but that's when I had it. But it wasn't until later last night and typing on my blog wasn't my top priority (hey, I'm doing a half-decent job of cutting back my internet time).

Last night we watched the movie Man on Fire. If you aren't familiar with it, it's one of Denzel Washington's recent films, another of his 'One Man vs. Everybody Else' flicks, of which he's made his fair share over the years. For every one of his critically-acclaimed Oscar-nominated heart-tugging braving the system claiming his identity as a human being epics, he makes a movie like this.

Anyway, this one is set in Latin America and is about an alcoholic tapped to be a bodyguard for a rich couple's elementary-aged daughter (only the husband/father is Latin American, though; the wife is a slender blonde caucasion. Significance? Eh...). So at first Denzel is quiet and grumpy, just doing his job and all that. And then at some point his heart begins to melt with the help of the girl who just wants to be his friend and we end up with a cute little bond between them. Then she gets kidnapped and we get Denzel's one-man vigilante killing spree to get her back.

It's really formulaic in a lot of ways. You get redemption and revenge and hoping for the best for the little girl all in one package. It's like 10 other movies in the same genre. So why am I telling you about it?

Well, first, the very end of the movie (spoiler alert), which in other movies with similar plotlines features the by-this-point fully redeemed and sympathetic anti-hero 1) killing the final bad guy a) while walking away fine b) while walking away injured c) while sacrificing his own life in the process 2) and getting the kid back, this one has a slightly different take: he does not kill the final bad guy (but someone else does as a postscript), but he does sacrifice himself, trading his life in exchange for the girl's. Another variation: he's already been critically injured so while he's driven off in the bad guys' car to meet what we can presume to be torture and death his life quietly slips away.

The revelation I have during these final moments: this movie features some people who have chosen to be ugly doing ugly things, and one person decides life isn't so ugly any more, nor does he want to be ugly any more, but now has to do ugly things to do something beautiful. And after he's done all these ugly things, his last act is beautiful: giving up his own life to save another. In other words, humanity has the potential to be ugly (metaphorically speaking, of course) or beautiful, and sometimes those lines intersect.

In typing that last paragraph, my readers might have a myriad of reactions, including the following: "What the heck are you trying to say?" "Well, duh." "So does that justify the ugliness in any way?" "Why'd you have this revelation during THIS particular movie?"

Let's take these in backwards order. To answer the last reaction: I have no idea. This revelation was had by someone who has seen countless movies of this type, who lists Goodfellas and Fight Club among his favorite movies and has the first three seasons of The Sopranos on DVD. So why was this revelation had during this particular violent film about violent people that is no different from any other violent film? Maybe it struck me in just the right way. Probably closer to the truth is that final scene. You never see Henry Hill or Tyler Durden or Tony Soprano offer up their own life for someone else's.

Okay, so does that justify the ugliness in any way? Well, I've wrestled with this before and am still wrestling with it.

"Well, duh." Yep. Over the past year or so I've been rediscovering a lower theological anthropology. In other words, I'm coming to grips with the idea that people aren't as saintly or prone toward The Good as some more 'liberal' colleagues might suggest. Matt Ridley has some thoughts on that, as well as how we like to think that other parts of the animal kingdom are equally wholesome and pure. Some of the stuff he shares in his book might cause you to think differently, though.

Which brings us to what the heck I'm trying to say. Look, the movie is nothing special for the most part. 'Man on Fire' can be compared to many other films about men on fire (metaphorically speaking, of course). It's that last scene that got me. He is resigned to his fate after snuffing out a lot of the bad guys. The only way he can save the little girl is to sacrifice himself. And he does it willingly. He does something beautiful after doing all those ugly things to put a stop to other equally ugly things.

This got me to thinking about all the world's ugliness. I've been trying to wrap my brain around the complicated story of the Middle East, neither 'side' of which is good and pure (why can't more people admit that?). I'm trying to wrap my brain around the ugliness that people I know are facing (not necessarily inflicted by others of course) and how they're dealing with it. It ended up being too much to think about at once, and I was able, thankfully, to let it go for the night.

But there was something to one person totally giving himself up/to/for another, a flash of beauty in what was otherwise an ugly situation. Maybe it's no coincidence that I'm thinking about this a week before Good Friday.

This post has gone on for a very long time. If you've read this far, congratulations.