Meaning At The Movies

Jerry Walls

What do these movies have in common: Les Miserables, Saving Private Ryan and Armageddon? All were in the theatres during the summer of 1998 and the latter two were among the biggest hits of the year. All are frequently watched these days on DVD. But there is a deeper similarity which runs through these three films. In each of them, there is a climactic scene in which the central character does something extraordinarily unselfish.

In Les Miserables, the recent remake of the classic story, it occurs when Jean Valjean identifies himself in the dramatic courtroom scene when an ignorant peasant has been mistaken as Valjean and is on the verge of being convicted of crimes which Valjean had committed. Valjean has assumed a new name and has become a wealthy and honorable man. He is witnessing the incident in which the peasant is being charged and finally he steps forward and insists the accused is not the man they seek. "I am Jean Valjean" he declares to everyone's astonishment.

In Saving Private Ryan,, the scene occurs after the group of men searching for Private Ryan eventually locate him after a dangerous and costly search. When he is told that their mission is to bring him home, Ryan declines the opportunity and insists on staying with his company and fighting to protect the bridge they have secured. When asked what they should tell his mother who has already lost her other sons in the war, he says they should tell her he is staying with the only brothers he has left and that she will understand.

In Armageddon, it becomes clear as the story winds down that one of the men will have to stay behind and lose his life to complete the mission. The men draw straws to see who will stay and although one of the other men gets the straw, it is the Bruce Willis character who chooses to stay and sacrifice his life. So in a non-stop action film, it is an act of self-sacrifice which in the end is the most memorable and moving part of the movie.

Philosophers call such acts of selfless giving acts of altruism. Curiously, there is debate in academic circles over whether there really is any such thing as altruism. Some evolutionary biologists, for instance, argue that all so-called altruistic acts are really subtly disguised acts of selfishness.

While this debate rages, the fact remains that most people see in the sort of actions portrayed in these movies the highest reaches of human excellence. We find ourselves moved not only by Private Ryan's choice to stay with his company but also by his claim that his mother would understand his choice. What does it say about human nature and what does it suggest about the nature of a truly meaningful life that these sort of actions stir the deepest wells in our hearts? And what would it say about our culture if we came to a point where most people in our society failed completely to understand what Private Ryan assumed his mother would understand? If altruism loses its meaning for us, what meaning do we have left?


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