Four movies about freedom

I went to see “Atlas Shrugged” last night, part 1 of the depiction of Ayn Rand’s novel.  Meh.  There were some nice scenes (the depiction of Reardon Steel and the steel bridge made on the John Galt Line was really elegant).  A lot of the acting was very wooden.  The movie was about as good as you’re going to get, but in the end the Gary Cooper depiction of “The Fountainhead” is still better for Rand fans.

In any case, I have four other suggestions if you want to see movies about freedom.  These are not necessarily popular or well-known movies, but each of them is wonderful in its own way.

First, “Sometimes a Great Notion,” with Henry Fonda and Paul Newman, directed by Paul Newman.

“Sometimes a Great Notion” is based on the Key Kesey novel.  I consider Kesey one of the great American authors.  The central characters are Henry and Hank Stamper (Henry’s son, played by Paul Newman).  The former is the Great American Individualist, a hard-working, profane, sometimes immoral hero and anti-hero played by Henry Fonda.  The Stampers are lumberjacks in Oregon.  They are the last holdouts as independents, resisting the tide toward unionization in the northwest.  (Keep in mind that the unionization movement was primarily a response to the introduction of modern chain saws and other technological improvements, which union members saw as threatening their jobs).

The union, whose members include every neighbor of the Stamper family, try every trick they can to get the Stampers to join their strike.  The Stampers refuse, primarily because they simply don’t like being told what to do.  They are the great individualists, celebrating their right to do what they want with their time and their money.  The result is union thuggery (just like we’re seeing today at work in Wisconsin and elsewhere), with goons burning Stamper vehicles and equipment in an attempt to impose collectivism.

The Stamper world is a complicated one.  The characters, although they are heroes, are filled with contradictions, as are real-life characters (unlike, for example, the cartoon depictions in Ayn Rand novels).  They are not uniquely moral.  But at the end of the day, they just want to be left alone and represent some of the best qualities of hard-working Americans.

The story climaxes in a beautiful, gruesome scene that I cannot describe without ruining the movie.  Trust me, it is one of the most powerful scenes on film.  Rent this movie and see it.  This movie is PG-rated and includes some violence and some salty language but nothing most latter-day Saints would object to.

“Serenity.”  Even if you don’t like science fiction, there are many things to like in this movie, which is a continuation of the “Firefly” TV show that briefly aired about a decade ago.  This movie is about a future in which humans leave Earth and populate a nearby area of the galaxy.  New Earths are “terra-formed” using technology to make them inhabitable.  The central planets are “civilized” — the distant planets kind of like the Wild West.  The government is an elitist group called the “Alliance,” which is supposedly well-intentioned but spends most of its time imposing conformity on people who just want to be left alone.

As you might expect, the Alliance is filled with secret combinations.  During this movie, we discover one of the worst ones.  In an attempt to change human nature, the Alliance gave all of the inhabitants of one planet a drug to make them more passive.  They had two reactions to this drug.  They either became so passive that they didn’t care about living anymore and literally sat until they died.  Or they had a negative reaction and turned into “reavers,” monster-like aggressive maniacs who mutilated themselves and spend their lives attacking others.

The crew of the Serenity discovers the gory secret regarding the Alliance’s plan.  They are led by another great American (presumably) individualist, Captain Malcolm Reynolds, who makes his living as a pirate and transporter of illegal cargo.  Reynolds is like the privateers of the 18th and 19th century, fighting against the system, living his own life, surviving by guts and glory.  He is, again, a hero and anti-hero, likable for his innate moral compass and refusal to give in and become a government drone, but difficult to admire because of his ruthlessness, violence and lack of manners.

At the end of the day,  Serenity is a movie about the Individual’s need to be free from the constraints of well-meaning but smarmy bureaucrats who run the Alliance.  The heroes are people who decide not to be taken over by the collective.  This movie is rated PG-13 and has a lot of violence and a few gory scenes. The reavers are pretty scary.

Moscow on the Hudson.”  This movie was very controversial among leftists when it first came out in 1984 because of its positive portrayal of American society compared to the Soviet Union (at the height of the Cold War).  I saw it in college when it first came out, and I thought the acting was great and the message was wonderful.

Robin Williams plays a circus musician who gets to travel to New York on tour.  He lives in a dour, cold, poor Soviet Union where all are constantly under surveillance or forced to rat on their neighbors.  He spends all of his time trying to find the necessities of life, standing in endless lines or trying to buy black market gasoline.  Bottom line: he is not free…although he does not realize how miserable he is until he travels to New York and sees the bounty and the freedom available there.

Much to his own surprise, Williams defects at Bloomingdale’s.  His defection causes a scandal, but it is good, every-day Americans who come to his defense.  He ends up living with a black family in Harlem and dating an Italian girl (played by Maria Conchita Alonso, in her first film role).  He has a Cuban immigration lawyer.

The America created by director Paul Mazursky is a kaleidiscope of color and diversity and misery and fun.  The poor truly do suffer. There is opulence but it is not available to everyone.  Williams’ character is lonely and goes through rough times.  But he works hard and at the end learns to love all of the variety and independence available in America.   Most of all, this movie is a celebration of the spirit of free will, of being able to make your own decisions, even if they don’t always turn out the way you would like.  “Moscow on the Hudson” is R-rated and includes a pretty graphic sex scene.  Get an edited version if you can.

“I am David.”  Almost nobody has seen this film, but it is wonderful and worth getting if you can.  The story is about a boy who  escapes a Stalinist labor camp in Bulgaria and travels to Denmark, where he hopes to be reunited with his mother.  But this movie is really about the human spirit, which can never truly be free unless it is allowed free will and time with family members.  This movie also shows that trust comes from freedom.  PG rated with a few violent scenes but mostly very unobjectionable.

Feel free to add any movies about freedom you have seen.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

16 thoughts on “Four movies about freedom

  1. I am David is a fairly solid movie. Serenity is awesome, although I recommend watching the Firefly series first. The TV series and the movie together probably take as long to watch as the Lord of the Rings series (extended version), and I recommend it just as heartily.

    And you need a “spoilers” alert.

  2. Tim, I’m glad somebody else saw “I am David.” There weren’t that many of us. You can’t discuss “Serenity” without spoiling a few things. Don’t agree on the spoilers alert. I don’t give away the ending.

  3. “Brazil”, similar to 1984 but funnier. “The Killing Fields” about an American in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. “In America”, an Irish family illegally immigrates to America and tries to make it in NYC. “Metropolis” one of the first sci-fi films made, looks at the lack of freedom in classes.

    Geoff, try “In This World”. It’s a similar story to “I Am David” but uses a lot less deus ex machina to get the boy where he needs to go safely. I didn’t like “I Am David” but it’s one of my wife’s favorites.

  4. Jjohnsen, agreed on all your suggestions. Didn’t the sam waterston character drive you crazt in “The Killing Fields?”. I wanted to choke him half-way thru the movie.

  5. I haven’t seen “I Am David” yet, but my mom read the book it’s based on to the family when I was growing up; it’s one of her favorites. (The book was first published in English with the title “North to Freedom,” though it’s just called “David” in the original Danish. If I’m not mistaken, current English editions now use the same title as the movie version.)

  6. He was infuriating Geoff. Have you ever read up on the actor who played the other lead, Haing Ngor? He was actually in Cambodia at the time of the Khmer Rouge and his wife died in one of the concentration camps while giving birth.

  7. The Sci-Fi blockbuster “Independence Day” is worthy to add just for the President’s speech if not counting the rest of the movie.

  8. I’m in a philosophy course taught by a woman who grew up in Soviet Russia. There have already been a couple moments of tension between her and a dogmatic Seattle leftist that you likely would have enjoyed. 🙂 It is interesting to me that at this late date, and with everything published, that there would be any sympathy left for the Soviet Union, and yet there is.

    I always loved Moscow on the Hudson.

    (note: I’m a Seattle leftist, too, of a very mild variety.)

  9. Can you give details of the Wisconsin “thuggery” you write about? Other than protesting their collective bargaining rights, what exactly are you talking about?

  10. Aaron, keep on reading M*. We will discuss union thuggery and other efforts against freedom in the future. The title of this thread is “four movies about freedom.” You are welcome to discuss movies having to do with freedom.

  11. Thomas Parkin, you seem like a pretty nice guy. We might have some stories to swap. I worked for “The Nation” magazine in the summer of 1982 and knew a fair amount of people in the professional left in 1984. I think there were three general feelings about “Moscow on the Hudson.” One, that it simply portrayed a reality, a lot of people DID try to escape from Soviet Russia, and that by comparison New York was a world of freedom and diversity and plenty. The movie also portrays the negative side of capitalism pretty accurately, so deal with it, this is simply reality. The other view (held by an extreme minority) was that any negative portrayal of the Soviet Union fed into the U.S. propaganda machine and was exaggerated and hurt the international Marxist effort. The last view, which had a sliver of truth, was that, given the bellicose nature of the Reagan administration, any attempt to make the Soviet Union look bad and the U.S. look good at that particular time was not to be celebrated.

    With time and more perspective, we can see that a lot of the assumptions people made in 1984 turned out not to be true in a variety of ways.

  12. Thomas Parkin’s comment reminded me of the movie Silk Stockings, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. I wouldn’t call it a movie about freedom except in a rather broad sense of the term; it’s a musical comedy about a Soviet woman sent to Paris by her Stalinesque boss to extradite three fellow Soviets who have defected to Western culture. She meets Astaire (an American businessman) while trying to do her duty, they go through the usual romantic comedy sequence where he likes her but she despises him, then she decides he’s not that bad, then breaks up, then decides she wants to be with him after all.

    One of my favorite bits of dialogue has her asking him, “Tell me, are you one of the oppressors, or one of the oppressed?”

    “Oh, definitely one of the oppressors!”

    “You’re proud of this?”

    “Well, speaking as one oppressor to another, it’s the better place to be.”

    Here’s another movie about freedom, and what some people will do to get it: Chicken Run. Or, if animated clay chickens is below your dignity, try The Great Escape.

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