ONE SELFLESS ACT OF COURAGE CAN REALLY MESS UP YOUR WHOLE DAY
What makes a person? Specifically, what drives them to be self-centred shmucks as opposed to selfless do-gooders, or vice versa? Is it possible for someone to step outside of his or her own character and, more importantly, will anyone believe it if they did? Such is the central concern to Stephen Frears’ comedy-drama Accidental Hero. Part media satire and part morality play, the action surrounds three disparate individuals – a selfish conman, an almost jaded news reporter and a destitute war veteran – as they find themselves thrown together by circumstance and opportunity in the shape of a plane crash.
Bernie LaPlante (Dustin Hoffman) is a cynical hustler whose life is quickly falling in on itself. Whilst on his way to his son’s birthday, he witnesses a plane crash right in front of him. He begrudgingly goes on board to help, and rob, some people, including television reporter Gail Gayley (Geena Davis). It’s too dark to see who it is, so Gail starts a campaign to find the hero, offering one million dollars reward. In steps John Bubber (Andy Garcia), down-and-out nice guy, to claim the credit and reward. Media attention grows as Bubber’s conscience starts to creep in, and Bernie wants his money.
Right from the off, Frears tries to evoke a sense of the olden days, with the stirring music of Auld Lang Syne playing over the opening credits. Not the real olden days, though. The olden days as filtered through the haze of nostalgia and filmic memory. A time when many who saw Accidental Hero when it came out were young, when life was simpler, when there was no real complexity to moral questions and problems. There was right and there was wrong and you didn’t need any kind of moral compass to know which was which. God, if only it could all be this simple.
Things are then dragged into the here and now with a resolute introduction to two of our main characters and the world in which they live. Bernie LaPlante is in court, being defended by a young lawyer fresh from school, watching proceedings with a look of both bafflement and cynical resignation. Whilst the judge and lawyers work out the terms of his case, Bernie, noticing his lawyer’s unguarded purse, snatches it up, empties it of all cash. After they leave, he then gives the money back to his attorney as a repayment for a loan she gave him the week before… and then takes it right back again because, you know, he needs some gas money to go see his kid. His family life is, as you’d expect, not exactly glowing either. Long since split from the mother of his child, he’s a part time dad at best, and given some of the advice he dispenses to his son when they do get together, you get the feeling that maybe the boy would be better off without his father’s influence. In a single trip to a diner for lunch, he ditches the bill, keeps a wallet that his son found (and tried to return himself) and tells the youngster that he should try to avoid feeling bad for homeless people because most of them have plenty of money anyway and are just looking for more. In Bernie’s worldview, everyone’s like him… a hustler, a conman, someone just looking to take advantage. As far as Bernie’s concerned, being honest about dishonesty makes him the honest one… what a scumbag.
Our introduction to Gail Gayley isn’t exactly a shining one, either. We meet her as she interviews a man, a respectable man, with a nice suit, nice hair and something of warm smile on his face. When their interview concludes, he promptly turns round and jumps off the ledge he was standing on. Turns out that Gail was there, standing right on the ledge next to him, to get the final words of this man’s story before he leapt to his death. She is shocked that he actually does it, of course, but she’s clearly in conflict with herself about the situation. The second the poor sap lands, she says to her cameraman, “Did you get that?… Did I just say that?” She knows it’s her job to get the story at all costs, because there’s nothing worse than being scooped, but she is aware that this need to get the story is having an adverse effect on her personality. So, from the start, we’re shown that our protagonists (for now) are both at some stage of moral compromise.
Later that night, when Gail is flying back from a ceremony where she was given an award for her tireless pursuit of truth (where her acceptance speech is a rather frank dissemination on the nature of the media’s propensity to reduce individuals to stories than human beings), a disaster strikes. Gail’s plane crashes, trapping everyone on board. At just this moment, Bernie is driving along nearby, and sees the plane go down… but he doesn’t want to help out. Why would he? It’s wet out there and it’s dangerous and he’ll end up ruining his $100 shoes. Eventually he relents, swims through the muddy water the wreckage and opens up the emergency hatch. After a little boy begs him to save his dad, Bernie heads into the flaming fuselage to drag people out. When he stops to help the attractive redhead (Gail) from her seat, he can’t help but steal her purse and award, too. Well, he should get something for all his trouble. After all, he does end up losing a shoe in the process. When everyone’s safe, Bernie gets out of there because he’s late for his son’s birthday.
After the crash, the media are all over it, with everyone trying to find out who the mystery rescuer was. A massive campaign is started, headed by Gail, to find him. When they offer a $1,000,000 reward to the hero, every crazy person comes out of the woodwork, claiming to be him. Bernie can’t make it, though, because he gets arrested trying to sell Gail’s credit cards to some undercover cops. In court, he hears news that the mystery hero has come forward… John Bubber, an impoverished war veteran whose sincere eyes and humble words make him an instant hit. Bernie now has to get himself out of jail as soon as possible so he can get what’s coming to him. Sadly, he’s such a parasitic low-life to all that know him that his cries fall on deaf ears. Meanwhile, as the world, and Gail, become more enamoured with their new media sensation, John begins to feel the strain of being so loved for something he doesn’t deserve.
David Webb Peoples provides a wonderful script, with intriguing characters that oppose and parallel in equal measure. There’s a concern with legend or notoriety versus fact that Peoples used to near perfection in the same year’s Unforgiven. Bernie deserves the attention, but doesn’t want it; John doesn’t deserve the attention, but thinks he can handle it; and Gail knows that the attention is, for the most part, fleeting and all just a matter or perception, but it's her job to give that attention. It’s a fascinating dynamic, and pulled off very nicely. Peoples has also got a great sense of the dialogue for his players, giving Gail a media-savvy air to her words; lending John an eloquent, old-time corny manner of speaking honestly about life; and distilling Bernie’s cynicism into a few choice, occasionally profane, phrases… his simple rules of cutting through bullshit with even more bullshit. At some point during proceedings, when John wants to come clean and tell the world of Bernie’s heroism, Bernie tells him, “I don’t take credit, I’m a cash kinda guy.” Tell me you don’t get a sense of this man just from that one line.
Whilst it never just comes out and says it (which would be a bit much), Accidental Hero plays on the notion of morality, not just in the heavy maelstrom of a media blitzkrieg, but more when it actually counts. No one believes Bernie is capable of such selflessness, except for his son. John doesn’t think he could have done that, though everyone is positive it’s within him, including Bernie. Perhaps these guys are representative of the struggle within every person when faced with any kind of moral decision – John is who we want to be, with his humble nature and desire to do good and inspire good in others; Bernie is who we really are, with his more self-centred and cynical ways, wanting to be sure that he never gets taken advantage of. And within all this is the consideration that, when crisis comes knocking, we know we can depend on Bernie… we’re not 100% sure of John.
As previously noted, Stephen Frears does a nice job in bringing about the feel of an old screwball comedy from the 40s, as if Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks were in the director’s chair. Even the musical underscore echoes this kind of throwback, with it's play on songs by Gershwin and the patriotic stirrings of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Within this, though, he doesn’t lose sight of the contemporary concerns of the film, like the satirical take on the modern media’s hysterical propensity to deify and manipulate, creating their own stories that can be mined as long as the star player holds out. It almost feels like Network if it were directed by Frank Capra.
There are maybe some points where this approach seems to contradict itself. Capra was a master at emotional manipulation, but for a good cause. With Accidental Hero, there are some times where you will watch the careful deification of a hero in an editing suite, the emotional manipulation to create an idol for a news story, only to have yourself be on the receiving end of a different form of emotional manipulation for the film. Fortunately, Frears is savvy enough a director to be aware of this. At a key climactic scene, he turns his camera away from the moment and points it at another camera, which just stares right back at you. Some moments are too personal to be shared with the world. Sometimes they’re just for those involved.
The cast handle themselves beautifully, too. Andy Garcia brings such a humble, ‘aw shucks’ quality to the role. A soft-spoken, wide-eyed charm that makes John Bubber, who could so easily have been too saccharine or preachy, feel like such a genuinely nice guy trying to do good. Geena Davis is equally charming, capably handling the role of a woman divided between being the battle-hardened journalist and the caring human being. Each has its draws and drawbacks, and Davis works it well (although her last conversation with her boss may be a bit too sob-filled for some). As it would be, it’s Dustin Hoffman who’s the standout. He’s always had that downtrodden sad-sack look about him, but tempered by a fierce emotionality that he can focus into a single look, which is ultimately what sells Bernie. For all his indignation and ranting and speeches about a terrible world, one look in his eyes and you can see that he’s not the soulless misanthrope he thinks he is. His biggest con is against himself. He’s just as vulnerable as anyone; only he’s got himself a much better shield.
There’s great support throughout, too. Joan Cusack is always a treat, particularly when you watch her react to other people in the scene. She’s a goldmine of comedic twitches and inflection. Chevy Chase, in keeping with the old-time feel of the piece, channels some of the great screwball comedy bosses, all sharp tones and staccato sentences, and Stephen Tobolowsky is a great partner for these moments. Kevin J. O’Connor is also a light joy as Gail’s cameraman, Chucky, a guy who can’t help but give a running commentary on the visual poetry he tries to create with every shot, convinced that each one is a prize-winner. Even James Madio does well as Bernie’s son, Joey.
Accidental Hero is a great, and surprisingly overlooked, little film. Performances are strong, the direction and script are great, and it’s a genuinely affecting piece of work. The message it holds may not be anything new, but it is a worthy one. Even if you don’t come away with the desire to give a helping hand to some poor bugger in the street, or be a better person to those around you, it’s still warm, funny and well worth the time you give it.