Fathers and Sons

In The Road to Perdition, John Rooney (Paul Newman) declares that, “Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.” Father-son relationships in films are often troubled, or at the very least complicated. The fathers butt heads with their sons, they want different things, or one disappoints the other. The father may wish a certain life for his son, but the son blazes his own path. These conflicts create natural drama that can be perfect for films. As Father’s Day approaches, I reviewed some of my favorite cinematic father-son moments. Some left a smile on my face, some a lump in my throat, and some a bit of both:

10. Frequency, “I’m Still Here”Frequency is a textbook wish fulfillment film as John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel) gets a chance to talk with his father Frank (Dennis Quaid), who died 30 years ago. John is able to rewrite history, and, through a series of changes, John and Frank end up fighting the same man 30 years apart. Screenwriter Toby Emmerich and director Gregory Hoblit keep the time travel logic consistent and the special effects seamless. So the real focus is on Frank and John. After Frank saves John, he tells him “I’m still here,” a message that sums up what many sons want from their fathers, for them to simply be there.

9. The Royal Tenenbaums, “I’ve had a rough year Dad.” “I know you have Chassie.” – To say that Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) was a bad father would be a gross understatement. He let down all of his three children repeatedly. But Royal clashed the most with eldest son Chas (Ben Stiller). Royal shot Chas in the hand with a BB gun and stole money from his bank account. Chas, in turn, sued Royal and had him disbarred. Much of the film concerns Royal’s attempts to make amends with his family. Not surprisingly, Chas is the most resistant to the idea. After Royal finally proves himself to Chas, they have the brief exchange noted above. Writer-director Wes Anderson keeps the scene understated, as a long drawn out reconciliation would have felt phony. Instead, Anderson relies on those two short lines of dialogue, and his actors’ talents to convey all of the pent-up emotions. This restraint makes the rapprochement all the more powerful.

8. Yankee Doodle Dandy, “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.” – George M. Cohan (James Cagney) has grown up in a show business family, learning the business from his father Jerry (Walter Huston). One night when the family is performing Jerry allows George to give the final thanks, which then becomes a staple of their act. Many older movies feature death scenes where characters talk about something unrelated, but none finer than this one. As Jerry lays dying he asks George about the theater receipts. Theater had been the Cohans’ primary connection and it remained so until the end. As Jerry and George discuss the show George repeats his final line one last time. He puts a special emphasis on “and I thank you.” This is not just a son bonding with his father over the shared memory. George is thanking Jerry for the love and life he gave him. Yankee Doodle Dandy is best remembered for its musical numbers and patriotism. But for me the film’s fine performances (such as Cagney’s and Huston’s) and its heart are what makes it a classic.

7. Boyz n the Hood, “Now I want you to give me the gun.” – The relationship between Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his father Furious (Laurence Fishburne) is at the core of Boyz n the Hood. Writer-Director John Singleton holds nothing back in his depiction of South Central Los Angeles. Singleton shows how easy it is to become lost in the culture of crime and drugs. Furious tries so hard to steer his son away from this temptation. Both Furious and the film itself argue that a responsible father can be the difference between death or jail and a productive life. Furious’s efforts are put to the greatest test when Tre’s friend Ricky is killed in a drive-by. Furious confronts Tre and gets his son to hand him the gun. But then Tre jumps out the window to meet his friends who are all bent on avenging Ricky. Tre does some soul searching in the car and demands to be left out. He returns home as his friends continue upon their path of violence. After Tre walks through the door, he and Furious exchange a silent look. Nothing needs to be said. Tre has absorbed what his father taught him but in the end both of them realize that Tre needs to learn some lessons on his own.

6. Finding Nemo, “I can do this.” “You’re right. I know you can.” – While Finding Nemo is worlds away from Boyz n the Hood, both films center around a father trying to protect his son and learning that there are limits to what he can do. Like the best of Pixar, Finding Nemo grounds the characters with a backstory that explains why they are the way they are. Marlin’s (voice of Albert Brooks) and most of his children are killed, leaving him with only one son, Nemo (voice of Alexander Gould). Marlin is determined to hold on to Nemo and never let anything happen to him. Nemo gradually chafes at his father’s overprotective behavior. Finally he has his fill, runs away and is captured, setting the stage for his father’s quest to find him. Writer and co-director Andrew Stanton, besides depicting the characters’ journey, also shows how they learn and grow. So it makes perfect sense that, at the end, when Marlin and Nemo are reunited, the father wants to hold on to his son again. When Nemo wants to help their friend Dory (voice of Ellen DeGeneres), Marlin resists, saying “I’m not going to lose you again.” This time Nemo doesn’t get angry, but firmly says “I can do this.” Marlin realizes his son is right and supports him. Even though this is a story about talking fish, Finding Nemo beautifully touches on parents’ struggles with their children growing up. It shows how the toughest act is sometimes simply learning to let go. Speaking of letting go...

5. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “Indiana ... let it go.” – One of the most striking aspects of the third Indiana Jones movie, is that, while Jones is one of the greatest cinematic heroes of all time, he still hasn’t quite proven himself to his father. Indiana (Harrison Ford) and Professor Henry Jones (Sean Connery) bicker constantly throughout the film. The son is irritated and even at times intimidated by his stern father. Of course it helps that Connery is one of the few actors we could ever accept intimidating Ford. One of the clearest signs of the Jones’s contentious relationship is the father constantly calling his son Junior, no matter how much Indy protests. It’s the older man’s way of putting the younger one in his place. Things change when Indy falls into a crevice at the end of the film. Professor Jones grabs Indy’s hand, but he can’t pick him up because Indy is reaching for the Holy Grail on the other side. First Professor Jones commands his son, “Junior, give me your other hand!” That doesn’t work, but then Professor Jones speaks in a soothing tone, saying “Indiana” then “Indiana ... let it go.” Indy gives his other hand and his father pulls him to safety. By calling his son “Indiana” for the first time the elder Jones at last treats his son as an equal. The two of them make the connection that has eluded them through most of the movie and most of their lives. Professor Jones recognizes that the real prize is not the grail, but a strong relationship with his son.

4. The Bicycle Thief, “Want a pizza?” – Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece is, on one level, simply the story of a man looking for a stolen bike. At its heart, thought it’s the tale of a father, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) trying to make good in the eyes of his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola). Antonio’s bicycle is a way to make a living in an impoverished Italy still reeling from World War II. Without it, Antonio grows increasingly desperate. The pain in Maggiorani’s face is heartbreaking, but what makes truly tugs the heartstrings is the look in Staiola’s face, a combination of hope and longing. Bruno believes in his father, even when Antonio doesn’t believe in himself. Really Bruno looks after Antonio more than the other way around. One of the film’s highlights is when Antonio decides that he and his son need a break. He takes the boy to a restaurant and they eat well. The joy they share is a welcome respite from their hard lives. By this point we as an audience have invested so much in the pair emotionally that we share in their joy. Still this is a neorealist film, and the stark reality of their lives creeps in. But for that one brief moment the father and son get the happiness together that eludes them for the rest of the film.

3. Return of the Jedi, “Tell your sister you were right.” – The true payoff of the original Star Wars trilogy comes from the final showdown between Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones). Luke, of course, has already gone through a familial roller coaster. After learning that his father is an evil warlord, he also finds out that Leia is his sister (and, by implication, that his long kiss with her in The Empire Strikes Back was incredibly inappropriate). When he meets Vader again, Luke tries to use the same techniques that Vader tried with him, raising doubts and encouraging internal conflict. This approach fails miserably, especially when Vader reads Luke’s thoughts and learns the truth: “So, you have a twin sister. Your feelings have now betrayed her, too... If you will not turn to the Dark Side, then perhaps she will.” After an angry Luke defeats his father in their lightsaber battle, the Emperor fells the young Jedi with electrical currents. An anguished Luke cries out “Father ... please.” In the end it’s not psychological tricks that get Vader to turn around, it’s the simple act of a son pleading to his father for help. When Vader kills the Emperor, he exposes himself to the currents. Knowing that he doesn’t have much time, Vader has his only father-son moment with Luke. The key point in this scene is Vader saying “You were right about me.” So much of the Star Wars trilogy is about belief in others and in yourself. We all like to hope that belief in people’s humanity can overcome evil, hate, and anger. Luke bringing out the good in his father represents that hope so well.

2. The Godfather, “There wasn’t enough time Michael.” – Supposedly while shooting The Godfather, director Francis Ford Coppola and the film’s producers realized that they didn’t have a scene with just Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his son Michael (Al Pacino). They brought in famed “script doctor” Robert Towne (who later wrote Chinatown) to draft such a scene. For all of the violence in the film, some of the most powerful moments are of the Don and his son talking. At first they are discussing their plans regarding the other crime families. Don Corleone is already fading and handing over power to his son. Then, after Michael asks him what’s wrong the Don explains, “I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life, I don't apologize, to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool dancing on the strings held by all of those big shots. That's my life, I don't apologize for that. But I always thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone.” There’s love in Don Corleone’s voice, but it’s mixed with regret. When he tells his son that there wasn’t enough time, he’s admitting failure. Don Corleone realizes that despite all of his efforts, his troubles and problems will be passed to his son. Besides existing as a brilliantly written, directed and acted (Brando and Pacino are at the top of their game) scene, it touches on a universal truth. What parents want for their children often does not translate into what actually happens.

1. Field of Dreams, “You wanna have a catch?” – It’s no accident that grown men get teary eyed at the end of this film. Yes, Field of Dreams is about baseball, but not in terms of balls, strikes, or even home runs. It’s about baseball as a bond between generations. Midway through the film Ray (Kevin Costner) notes with regret that he used to play catch with his father, who died many years ago. Then at the end, after building the baseball diamond in his cornfield, after some of the game’s all-time greats have played there, Ray learns what it all meant. All the messages he received: “If you build it he will come,” “Ease his pain,” and “Go the distance” were about his father, who Ray realizes was on the field all along. When the father and son play catch, it’s a second chance to connect in a way far beyond words. Real life often does not provide such second chances, but I’m glad that movies do.

Adam Spector
June 1, 2011

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