Heroism, after Wayne and Cooper, in the Work of Eric Bana: Eric Bana’s Love the Beast; and Joe Wright’s Hanna, starring Bana and Saoirse Ronan

By Daniel Garrett

Eric Bana’s Love the Beast, 2009

Joe Wright’s Hanna, 2010

Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, 2010

Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, 2011

In the movie Hanna, starring the gifted young actor Saoirse Ronan, a young woman who seems to present the mind and soul of her characters as well as their emotions, and co-starring Eric Bana, Eric Bana plays an intelligence agent who becomes involved with a plan to create perfect soldiers, and chooses to protect one of the children involved when the project is stopped, taking her to a snowy wilderness, where he continues her education in languages, strategy, and survival. The film starts in the wilderness, moves to a somewhat peopled desert, and then ends in a city that has aspects of decay and threat as well as fantasy and nature. Bana infuses his character with pragmatism, weary sympathy, and a surprising humor; and it is easy to imagine him as a man of unusual complexity. Bana has been featured in an impressive panoply of films—I immediately think of Munich and Troy; Bana played an assassin with a conscience in the first and a reluctant royal warrior in the second—and it is hard to predict what Bana might do next or how that will be received or remembered. I was surprised to learn of Love the Beast, his documentary about his obsession with cars, particularly a car he had rebuilt, and which he raced and then crashed. Bana is a boy boy—tight with a group of male high school friends with whom he still goes to the races. Who knew? It is easy to anticipate but impossible to be sure of who other people really are, or what it means. To tell the truth, we do not always get their work right. I recall that I had seen a bunch of John Wayne western movies when I was a child, and I suppose that by the time I was a young man I did not think about him much, probably not objecting to descriptions of him as a kind of relic: however, when I saw a good number of his early films recently, I was struck by his sensitive and well-intentioned characters and by the significance of presenting the conflicts between immigrant Americans settling the land and native Americans that had been removed from that land. It was great, as well, to see the land itself. Those old movies, and Wayne’s legacy, had been simplified; and I was reminded, yet again, how often interpretation leaves what it considers smaller than it found it.

We often describe those old filmed western stories as being about good and evil, but often they were about the ambiguities between the two—and how ambivalent people could be in choosing one or the other. Seeing Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), the western film about a newly married and retiring sheriff who is called back to duty when a criminal is released from jail and is scheduled to arrive on the noon train to meet his cohorts in town, a film starring Gary Cooper, who seems—interestingly—a resolute gentlemen with a soft core, it is hard not to be gratified by the clean timeline of High Noon and its polarities (on one hand, a peace-loving Quaker bride who wants to leave town and begin married life out in the country, a woman who represents beauty, love, virtue, and the future; and on the other hand, her sheriff-husband’s sense of official duty, which compels him to risk his life and face the dangers of the past in the form of the gathering criminals). The performances are sound, including by Grace Kelly as the sheriff’s confused bride, Lloyd Bridges as his vain, callow absentee deputy, and Katy Jurado as a bruised but knowing and successful Mexican businesswoman and onetime paramour of both the sheriff and the arriving criminal. It is important to remember that it is the retiring sheriff who insists on his own authority—putting on the badge he had removed, before the eyes of some of the town’s leading citizens, shortly after his wedding; insisting on his public duty even after he is asked by worried townspeople to leave the vicinity and thereby prevent violence—and the retiring sheriff could be seen as a kind of free agent, as self-authorized, a vigilante, insisting on his own sense of justice. (It is arguable that the moral of the story is that those who kill together stay together.) What is simple about that? In Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961), starring Paul Newman, and taking place in a later time in modern urban locations, with many scenes in pool halls, restaurants, parks, and cars and trains, the scenario focuses on a capable pool hustler who wants to win but does not quite believe in himself enough when he is winning thousands of dollars to stop playing and take his gain with him—and he plays until he loses (he wants not only to win the pool game but to defeat the man he is playing—which are two different things: he wants to vanquish someone’s spirit, and that suggests something about his own). Newman’s lean, quick hustler inspires different responses in the viewer—attraction, disapproval, sympathy—as does Piper Laurie as his honest but fragile girlfriend whose leg limp suggests both her social marginality and one source of her courage. The hustling man and vulnerable woman meet and get together quickly, desperately; and there is no doubt that theirs is first a relationship of convenience and that sex is what they share. It is—with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Cool Hand Luke—one of Newman’s most interesting early performances. The character Newman plays comes to realize he has lost something he did not know he cared deeply about; and if there is a critique to be made about his performance it is that he is not angry and hurt enough by that discovery—but then, the point of the film is that he grows (rather than is defeated) at a terrible price. He is a flawed hero. Neither High Noon or The Hustler presents the form of film in an obviously new or radical way, as certain late mid-century European films are thought to do: films that present insight into an individual and his society, as well as a profoundly different way of seeing that utilizes the actual construction of a film—its framing, mood, and tempo, its structure, its shading and tone—to articulate its ideas; but in their personality and drama, in their directness and vitality, High Noon and The Hustler fulfill some of our best expectations of cinema.

I have thought for years now that the last two decades have given us some very good films. Yet, some of the older films retain their great charm. I have seen Cary Fukunaga’s 2010 filming of Jane Eyre, released by Focus Features in 2011, and featuring Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska; I saw it twice. It is, as many people know, the Charlotte Bronte story of a girl who is misunderstood, neglected, and forsaken by her rich aunt, brought up in a religious institution for girls, becomes a teacher, and gets a job as a tutor of a rich landowner’s French ward; it is the story of Miss Eyre and Mr. Rochester and their developing respect and love for each other. Fassbender did register the harshness of Rochester’s character, and Wasikowska registers Jane’s having been wounded; but I would have liked to have seen some sense of Rochester’s capacity for private joy or sensuality and some resilient strength in Jane. While the film—which presents the story in revised sequences, with flashes of memory, rather than chronological order moving forward—is not embarrassing or even bad, it does not rise to its acclaim, though I did like the casting of the missionary St. John and his admiring sisters (Jamie Bell is impressive as a hopeful but rigid St. John). I had enjoyed more the much earlier (1943) film version starring the baby-faced but booming-voiced, large-thighed and striding Orson Welles as Rochester and a bright-eyed, pretty Joan Fontaine as a Jane who seemed quite satisfied, too satisfied, by her circumstances; and, I enjoyed most the year 2006 BBC television version starring Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson (Stephens was abrupt, intense, observant, and sexual; and Wilson was all-seeing and restrained but self-possessed, and it was easy to believe in both as living people). New is not always better; and yet many new films are wonderful, especially the ones that depend on technology, such as fantasy or science fiction.

Eric Bana played the tattooed, time-traveling villain Nero in the J.J. Abrams’s brisk science-fiction origin tale Star Trek, starring Chris Pine as James Tiberius Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and Zoe Saldana as Uhuru; and at the beginning of the movie we saw a slim, intelligent-looking Chris Hemsworth as Kirk’s heroic, sacrificing father. Hemsworth comes to a bad end in that story, thanks to Bana’s vengeful traveler, a man driven mad by the painful loss of his own family and home. Chris Hemsworth has been to the gym since then, and as the title character in the fantasy film Thor helmed by the Shakespearean actor and experienced film director Kenneth Branagh, from Paramount and Marvel, Hemsworth has a body that is nearly monumental in his muscularity, and his face is not as taut as before but it is plumper and seems a little less defined and handsome, a little less distinct: Hemsworth’s face has lost some character but that works here for a warrior-prince who is brashly instinctive rather than thoughtful. The movie Thor might be a perfect machine, and it is easy to view more than once, more than twice. It is a colorful and stylish movie: apparently the attempt was made to refer to Viking aesthetics, but I also thought of ancient Roman scenes as shown by painters such as Jacques Louis David, and the western modernism of Art Deco, and the contemporary theatrical surrealism of Tarsem Singh—and, unfortunately, disturbingly, there seems in all the gold grandeur, ornamentality, and uniforms something latently fascist and sadomasochistic. The movie has humor in how two young women (Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings) working as scientists relate to a fallen god, Thor, as well as romance. It has a certain gravity in the performances of Anthony Hopkins as Thor’s wise father, and Stellan Skarsgard as an elder scientist. Yet, although its themes of father-son conflict and of growing beyond pride into compassion are immediately recognized, even after three viewings the entertaining movie seems no more than a perfect machine. Thor does not resonate as art. I do recall that movies such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and The Matrix could convince as art of a certain kind.

Eric Bana has appeared in Chopper, Black Hawk Down, Hulk, The Other Boleyn Girl, and The Time Traveler’s Wife, as well as Hanna, released by Focus Features in 2011. The film Hanna touches on a number of things—the randomness of life, the amorality of government, and the resourcefulness of youth; and it is one of those films that can be seen as a story of family or of government corruption, as a drama or as an action thriller. The man played by Eric Bana, an intelligence agent, becomes a father to the girl played by Saoirse Ronan, teaching her things to help her survive wherever she might find herself. She can speak many languages, slay big and small game, and maneuver beyond a man twice her experience and size. It is she that decides she is ready to face the world, changing both their lives. She is adaptable, but realizes once she leaves the wilderness, meets other people, and finds herself in a large city, that she does not know who she is—she can be anyplace but does not belong anywhere. In a strange way, her existence demonstrates the limits of independence. Near the end of the film, Bana as father says that he tried to prepare her—and she says that there was no preparation for this, for what she has found; a classic confrontation between conscientious parent and child. He has done the best he could for her, and, though a skilled fighter, he has been willing to sacrifice his life; and it is not enough. The daughter confronts an armed and determined woman, the woman—a senior intelligence officer, a woman who herself gave up the opportunity to have a child (playing the woman as wolf is actress Cate Blanchett, extremely pale and slim and using a southern American accent I found incongruously earthly, fleshly)—who initiated the project that brought the girl into being, knowing one of them, girl or woman, must be defeated: the girl asks to be let go, though it is hard to imagine what her life might become, and the girl is refused and then she shows what she has learned of life and death.

When Eric Bana plays a character who is a hero, it is usually a part that shows us what heroism costs. We can admire his boldness, efficiency, intelligence, and strength, but we also see his doubt and torment and his wish for a simpler or more peaceful life. With a wife and child and childhood friends, the actor Eric Bana himself seems to have a normal, stable private life—one that is both expressed in and challenged by his love of cars. Many men like big, shiny things, things that move fast and make noise and go bump, and that’s what Bana’s got with his sleek red car, though wife and mother worry that he will get in an accident. Bana does get in an accident in the documentary Love the Beast (Whyte House Productions/Pick Up Truck Pictures), but survives and considers whether to spend the time and money rebuilding the wrecked car: more boyish than in any of his fiction films, his crumpled face when looking at the wreck is sweet and a little laughable. Sorry Eric—but it’s the sensitive stuff in metaphorical and political filmed stories that I like.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House. Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. Garrett has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.