Grace and class are perpetual antagonists in the human drama and that conflict is the heart of the provocative "Hero."
Take a small man. Make him mean and greedy. Make him selfish and dishonest. Make him lazy, whiny, feral and disputatious. Now crash an airplane in front of him and let him momentarily be touched with grace: Make him a hero.
So it happens to Bernie LaPlante (a grubby Dustin Hoffman). If he were a dog, he'd be a mangy rat terrier, all yip and no bite. But one incredible rainy night on the outskirts of Chicago's O'Hare airport he comes across a fallen airliner, about to burst into flames. Grousing, whining, embittered and sullenly resentful, manages to rescue all 54 people aboard. What, Bernie, are you nuts?
As a consequence of this uplifting experience, the greedy, sullen bitter man emerges profoundly changed: Now he's really greedy, sullen and bitter. His imagination, if anything, is smaller; he has no wider view of what he's done and is extremely irritated that he lost a shoe in the mud. He takes off, back to the seedy alleys that are his life (he's facing jail on a petty charge, in danger of losing his job and also behind in his alimony payments). He complains about his missing shoe to somebody who picks him up and in a moment of anger, gives his driver the shoe.
What Bernie can't have known is that one of the people he rescued was a hard-hitting TV news reporter named Gale Gayley (Geena Davis), looking for a big story but also a human story. She sees it in "The Angel of Flight 104," as she terms the figure of a mud-spattered, mumbling little man who emerges from her own and the other passengers' jangly memories of the event. Her station publicizes a hunt for the Angel of Flight 104.
Enter the hero. This is John Bubber (Andy Garcia), a homeless Vietnam veteran of angelic demeanor and compassionate mien. He has the shoe -- which Bernie gave him when he picked him up. He knows enough of the details, which Bernie muttered angrily during the drive home. And John is a very good hero: Cleaned up, he's a beautiful man, almost Christlike in his personality, with liquid brown eyes and a beaming radiance for zTC the lost souls of the world. Everybody loves him. He is class, personified.
The signal cleverness of "Hero" is just that stroke: that Bubber is no shark. He is, in every way, a better man than Bernie. He's big where Bernie is small, he's gifted where Bernie is banal, he's sweet where Bernie is bitter. He looks great on TV; he was born for the spotlight. He was born to be a hero. He just isn't one.
"Hero" hails from the incisive intelligence of director Stephen Frears, a transplanted Brit with a litany of brilliant films behind him, including "The Grifters," "Dangerous Liaisons" and "My Beautiful Laundrette." His work has been characterized by something utterly vanished from American film culture: incisiveness. He just whips along in an old-fashioned clip, never overdoing, never underdoing. He trusts the story, in a way American directors seem to have forgotten, and this one, created by writer David Webb Peoples, is a doozie.
It keeps cranking out new and unusual permutations as it whirls through events. Bernie is finally moved to reclaim his rightful place in the spotlight when he realizes that part of the deal is a million bucks; John, for his part, is consumed with guilt over his deception, even as the accolades and possibilities mount; Gale, initially in love with her savior, is beginning in small ways to see through him.
As a satire of American media's need for larger-than-life characters to fill their larger-than-life mythology and to impose melodramatic formula on untidy reality, "Hero" is first rate, chastising without quite ever becoming angry. As a celebration of human possibility among the confusion and mayhem that constitutes so much of life today, "Hero" is brilliant. As a throwback to the kind of "inspirational" humanistic filmmaking of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges, it manages to be profoundly respectful without overindulgent in film-school allusions.
But most of all, it puts you in a frame of mind to ask the key question, far too long absent from the screen: What happens next?
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Andy Garcia and Geena Davis.
Directed by Stephen Frears.
Released by Columbia.