Every culture ends up with a hero that defines it. From the trickster Odysseus of Homeric Greece to the chivalrous Lancelot of Arthurian romance to the lone lawman of Hollywood westerns, heroes reflect the values and ideals of their time and place. But who is the heroic icon of 21st century America? Who defines us?
Warner Bros. announced recently that Clint Eastwood’s next movie will be a biopic of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot whose US Airways flight collided with a flock of geese during takeoff in 2009 and he famously had to ditch it in the Hudson River. All 155 passengers survived. True to a selfless hero’s commitment to his duty, Sullenberger was the last to leave the plane, which he did only after personally inspecting it twice for any stragglers.
Sully was instantly hailed an American hero. “I don’t think there is any other pilot in the world that could have done what this guy did,” said one grateful passenger. “He’s the reason my wife has a husband and my daughter has a father,” said another. “I’m 56 now, thanks to Captain Sullenberger,” said a third.
But even Sully had his critics. Writer and pilot William Langewiesche, for example, carped that Sullenberger exhibited not heroism but merely calm skill: “His performance was a work of extraordinary concentration, which the public misread as coolness under fire,” he wrote, although I can’t fathom how extraordinary concentration, with your life and 155 others hanging in the balance, differs from coolness under fire.
Sully’s film will be Eastwood’s first after his Oscar-winning blockbuster American Sniper about another true-life hero, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Sniper raked in $543.4 million and became the top domestic release of 2014 – not because of spectacular special effects or fast and furious cars, but because after long years of anti-war box office duds, Hollywood finally served up an Iraq war film that celebrated an American hero.
But Kyle had his detractors as well. The most lethal sniper in American military history, he was glorified by many but vilified by others who saw him as a warmongering murderer.
And most recently, ESPN’s wildly controversial choice to honor Caitlin Jenner with its Arthur Ashe Courage Award for her gender transformation showed that, as a culture, we no longer even agree on the very definition of heroism. Is it sacrifice in service to others, as it has usually been understood, or is it now about a liberating celebration of the self?
Conflicted as we are as a culture about real-life heroes, pop culture seems to be the one arena where we can all consume heroic narratives, fictional though most may be, in something approximating cultural unity.
And by pop culture, I mean more specifically the movies. Television, even a big-screen TV, is too small to accommodate epic heroics. Indeed, the most memorable protagonists of TV dramas in recent years are anti-heroes: Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, Vic Mackey, Dexter, the entire casts of Game of Thrones, Vikings, and Sons of Anarchy, to name several of many that come to mind.
Anti-heroes may be guilty pleasures that keep us coming back week after week (or straight through the weekend, in the case of binge-viewers), but deep down, audiences don’t find them as compelling or satisfying as traditional heroes. The former don’t speak to our better nature like the latter. They don’t feed our age-old yearning for role models to elevate and inspire us.
For that we have to look to the big screen, which is the more suitable canvas for the heroic exploits of such larger-than-life icons as James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Frodo, a whole galaxy of superheroes like Captain America and Batman, even Sherlock Holmes. But all of those are classics from other eras, and it’s too soon to know if more contemporary hero(in)es like Katniss Everdeen and Harry Potter will have cultural staying power.
In any case, like the epic poetry of the distant past, the movies of today are where we commemorate the heroes who represent us, whether true-life or fictional. Let’s just hope we don’t end up being defined by our anti-heroes.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 6/12/15)