The new inner heroes As the '90s wind down, movies are showing men struggling to answer life's most compelling questions.

September 06, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,sun film critic

The title character of "Simon Birch," which opens in theaters Friday, is a new kind of hero. A pint-sized youngster born with a heart ailment resulting in severe dwarfism, Simon is an acerbic lad, as given to vinegary asides and the occasional vulgarity as to talk of God and transcendent values.

Aware that he most likely won't see his 16th birthday, Simon feels he can call things exactly as he sees them (a source of considerable consternation in his tiny New England hometown). And as he sees it, God has a grand, heroic plan for his life, however abbreviated. Simon - portrayed in the film by Ian Michael Smith - makes no bones about the spiritual impetus of his life, and he makes no apologies for thinking that he could be an elemental spiritual force.

Simon Birch, who is loosely based on the title character of John Irving's novel "A Prayer for Owen Meany," is the most explicit example of a type of hero that has recurred throughout movies this summer.

These heroes didn't prove their mettle by smashing asteroids with their bare hands or solving serial murders. Rather, their heroics were distinctly interior. In these films, the screen action was taken up with the hair-raising drama of one man grappling with such looming issues as his own mortality, his place on the planet and the purpose of his life.

If the summer of 1998 is remembered, it may well be as the Summer of Men on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Consider that this summer, three of America's best-loved leading men broke down in tears.

First Warren Beatty collapsed into uncontrollable sobs during the first few minutes of "Bulworth," which the actor directed, produced and starred in. Beatty plays California Sen. Jay Bulworth, who happens to be in the final throes of a re-election campaign, but is more importantly in the throes of a systemic breakdown, the victim of the myriad political and ethical compromises he has made throughout his career.

After his breakdown, Bulworth takes a contract out on his own life, then experiences a change of heart. He resolves to grapple with the most crucial issues facing the country - race and class - with that rara avis of political discourse: intellectual honesty.

"The Truman Show" also addresses current events, albeit in a lighter vein. As Truman Burbank, a man whose life has been the subject of a round-the-clock TV drama, Carrey also breaks down when his character realizes that his whole world is fake.

Alone in a sailboat, exhausted by the artificial storm with which his own creator tries to destroy him, Truman also collapses into sobs, his back turned to the camera. For Truman Burbank, the moment of truth comes when he chooses real life over its sanitized, safe and synthetic version on TV, a choice with obvious resonance for a population that has increasingly eschewed civic engagement for pop culture.

Just weeks after filmgoers saw Jim Carrey lose his grip, they watched Tom Hanks - the All-American Movie Star of the Decade - endure his own tearful breakdown.

As Capt. John Miller in "Saving Private Ryan," Hanks is on the edge from the beginning. His hand twitches involuntarily moments before he leads a doomed squadron onto Omaha Beach.

Later in the film, the captain - a hero of almost superhuman proportions to his men, but of all too human limitations to himself - fights back sobs, unsuccessfully, as he contemplates burying yet another soldier under his command.

Unlike World War II dramas of yesteryear - in which the leading man was either a tight-lipped leader of undaunted courage or a good-hearted grunt of undaunted courage - "Saving Private Ryan" features a new kind of military hero: a man haunted, numbed and eventually almost paralyzed by the loss he has witnessed and sometimes even hastened.

Having long ago left the safe purchase of moral certainties, Miller teeters on a terrifying precipice, not between life and death, but between meaning and meaninglessness. At one point, surrounded by destruction and carnage, he urges a young soldier to "earn this," meaning the human sacrifice that surrounds them. For Miller, heroism didn't mean dying with honor, but living honorably - a distinction of enormous subtlety and no little consequence. Clearly Hanks has come a long way from five years ago, when he personified the disheartening conflation of morality and imbecility in "Forrest Gump."

Big Hollywood movies aren't the only ones concerning themselves with transcendent questions this summer.

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