Best-picture nominees offer a twist on hero worship

Oscar smiles on heroes. Movies that have won the Academy Award as best picture have almost invariably emblazoned stirring, straightforward notions of heroism. From Fletcher Christian standing up to the tyranny of Captain Bligh in 1935's "Mutiny on the Bounty" to Oskar Schindler risking his life to save Jewish victims of the Holocaust in 1993's "Schindler's List," Oscar movies have served up true-blue champions fighting the good fight.

This year the five movies nominated for best picture all celebrate heroism, but they enshrine intriguingly different forms of valor, which suggests how our understanding of what makes a hero has expanded since the days of "Mutiny on the Bounty." The contenders range from an old-fashioned sword-and-sandals epic ("Gladiator") to a soulful martial arts extravaganza ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), a couple of hard-hitting social-problem pictures ("Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic," both directed by Steven Soderbergh), and a whimsical fairy tale ("Chocolat").

Despite their diverse styles, all of them ponder the parameters of heroism. And in this regard they perpetuate a proud Oscar tradition.

Past Oscar winners have sometimes spotlighted closet heroes like Rick in "Casablanca," who wore a mask of cynical detachment but ended up marching off to defend the Allied cause, or C.C. Baxter in "The Apartment," who started out as a weasel but finally thwarted the sexually exploitative behavior of his leering bosses. More often, though, they have paid tribute to unabashed martyrs like Sir Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons" and William Wallace in "Braveheart."

Even many movies that might seem to be exceptions to this rule of Oscar heroics only sport a veneer of pessimism. Everyone remembers the sadistic Hannibal Lecter from "The Silence of the Lambs," but he was really a secondary character in that 1991 movie; the hero was Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling, who trafficked with the devilish Hannibal to save the victim of a serial killer.

And in last year's Oscar winner, "American Beauty," although Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham began as a corporate drudge, he freed himself from that stunted life and, in the movie's climactic scene, demonstrated his nobility by gallantly refusing the advances of the nubile teen-age cheerleader who threw herself at him. At the very last moment, he embraces life -- an existential hero, perhaps, but still a hero.

Movies that are genuinely dark, antiheroic but nonetheless piercing dissections of human foibles rarely even get nominated for Oscars, much less win. The faithful film version of Edward Albee's scathing "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" did get nominated for a near-record 13 Oscars in 1966, but it inevitably lost the big one to "A Man for All Seasons." And brilliant black comedies like "To Die For" and "Election" -- which brandish an unvarnished, unredeemed vision of ordinary people's cruelty and corruption -- never make it into the exalted best-picture category.

All five of this year's nominees contemplate loftier human potentialities, though some of them accentuate soaring victories while others chronicle more agonized struggles to transcend the dark side.

"Gladiator" is closest in spirit to the square, stalwart epics of years past. It honors traditional manly virtues of courage and loyalty. Not only is Russell Crowe's Maximus the bravest fighter in the Roman Empire, but he is also selflessly devoted to his family. Of the five nominated movies, "Gladiator" is the only one with an unblemished hero. Maximus has no flaws; he is the essence of uncomplicated virility, and the film is so rousingly made that it seduces us into cheering its glorification of the warrior prince.

"Chocolat" represents a dramatic contrast. First of all, its hero is a woman, the pastry chef Vianne, played by Juliette Binoche. Besides, she epitomizes virtues that are 180 degrees from the manly fortitude embodied by Crowe's Maximus. Proudly flaunting her child out of wedlock and her disdain for traditional religion, Vianne is the bohemian hedonist as torchbearer; we are meant to admire her sexual audacity and her tolerance for society's outcasts. She is very much a heroine in the freethinking liberal mold, whereas Maximus appeals to warmongering chauvinists and pious devotees of family values.

Some critics have argued that "Chocolat" is just as simplistic in its celebration of liberal feminist values as "Gladiator" is in its lionization of conservative macho posturing. But this is a bit unfair to Lasse Hallström's film, which has a note of ambiguity missing from "Gladiator": Vianne is not quite the paragon she initially appears to be. As the film continues, we perceive that she has an almost pathological terror of commitment.

Erin Brockovich, the heroine of the third nominated film, is an even more flawed protagonist -- reckless, a little slutty and more than a little irresponsible as a mother. But like Vianne, she's a crusader fighting the forces of ignorance -- in this case, an army of environmental polluters. "Erin Brockovich" is in the tradition of Oscar winners like "The Life of Emile Zola," "Gentleman's Agreement" and "In the Heat of the Night" -- liberal message movies that focus on heroes championing a progressive cause. But as embodied by Julia Roberts, she's a more fallible human figure than the icons at the center of those earlier films, and that makes her victory against the big bad wolves of PG&E more stirring.

Even if they have a few ambiguities, these three movies end up deifying their characters. Their notions of heroism are quite different, but all three are definitely tales of brave souls triumphing over tyranny and repression.

The other two nominees are the most interesting, because they present the most complicated and original images of heroic action. "Traffic" offers up a more measured view of heroism than any of the other best picture nominees. In dramatizing the vast, unwieldy nature of the drug problem, it recognizes that bold action is utterly futile.

Characters who might have been painted as spotless heroes in a more simplistic movie -- the Drug Enforcement Agency agents or the well-meaning drug czar played by Michael Douglas -- come off here as ineffectual at best and misguided at worst. "Traffic" is far too realistic to believe in the viability of grand gestures against the omnipotent drug cartels. But it does see a place for small victories -- the only kind that count when the obstacles are so overwhelming.

In the film's mature, sensible view, heroism means reaching for a narrow goal and preserving a sense of purpose even when the larger problems remain insoluble. The pragmatic Mexican cop played by Benicio Del Toro seems to court all the combatants in the drug war, moving from law enforcement to the underworld with slippery ease. In one of the most telling scenes, he entraps a Mexican assassin by posing as a hustler in a gay bar. His identity is constantly shifting, and part of the tension of the movie grows from our uncertainty about his true motives. His integrity seems precarious; we have no assurances that he is incorruptible. This smart, searing film sees heroism as far from absolute but as an ever-changing, painfully forged compromise.

To my mind, however, it is the fifth nominee, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," that contains the most profound and provocative depiction of the elusiveness of heroism. This film presents a definition of heroism that is more all-encompassing than any of the other movies; director Ang Lee suggests that a great warrior combines physical courage, mature judgment and spiritual grace. (One might say that "Crouching Tiger" incorporates the masculine credo of "Gladiator" as well as the feminist slant visible in "Chocolat" and "Erin Brockovich.") But none of the characters meets the lofty standard that inspires them.

The older warriors played by Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh are not only highly skilled at battle, but also repositories of generosity and wisdom. Yet they have sacrificed personal happiness in their adherence to an abstract code. They realize too late that their emotional reticence has cost them dearly.

At the opposite extreme is the young princess, Jen (the luminous Zhang Ziyi), who embodies many of the qualities these older characters lack. She's a firebrand, a great fighter, a passionate lover -- and yet she's wrongheaded in every important way. Her impetuousness leads her to make some appalling misjudgments.

The ending is ambiguous, but it evokes a bittersweet mood of melancholy in contemplating the awesome challenge of heroism and the near impossibility of achieving it. This ambiguity puts "Crouching Tiger" in the best tradition of Oscar movies that complicate hackneyed notions of heroism. It calls to mind David Lean's two Oscar-winning epics, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Lawrence of Arabia."

In "Kwai," Alec Guinness' Col. Nicholson has astonishing discipline and stamina, but he's also so completely crazed in his stiff-upper-lip perfectionism that he ends up aiding the enemy he intends to defy. And Peter O'Toole's T.E. Lawrence is another valiant warrior who proves to be a tangled mess of neurotic impulses that cloud his dazzling victories.

Great movies, and that includes great Oscar movies (of which there are fewer than you might think), tantalize us with heroic goals and end by reminding us that human experience is an always tenuous, tortured interplay between exalted ideals and bleak, brutal realities.