Ghost Papas: Fatherhood in ‘The Patriot’ and ‘Interstellar’

I recently rewatched The Patriot for the first time in a long while. I was big into this movie as a lad, so rewatching it as a thirtysomething dad was something of an experiment to see how my adolescent tastes hold up.

There’s good (John Williams’ score, Mel Gibson as likeable movie star) and bad (how benign slavery is depicted in colonial South Carolina, a lot of the writing and acting to be honest).

But there was one aspect of The Patriot I appreciated completely differently than before, and that’s the depiction of fatherhood. I also noticed just how much the movie shares in common in that regard with an entirely different movie: Christopher Nolan’s 2014 sci-fi epic Interstellar.

(Here be spoilers.)

There were two moments in The Patriot that kinda breezed past me before but totally annihilated me this time around.

“We named him Gabriel”

The first act finds Gibson’s Benjamin Martin as a kindly if emotionally distant father butting heads with his oldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger), who joins the Continental Army against Benjamin’s wishes, and his second-oldest, Thomas, who’s eager to join once he’s old enough.

When the British kill Thomas and capture Gabriel, Benjamin enlists the younger sons, Nathan and Samuel, to ambush the British unit and rescue Gabriel. All three sons survive but then witness, a bit stunned, their father’s repressed brutality unleashed in a fit of rage and grief for Thomas.

Benjamin and his sons respond to this differently. Gabriel rejoins the war effort. Nathan expresses pride in the ambush. The younger Samuel withdraws into a post-traumatic cocoon. And Benjamin succumbs to shame: for failing to protect Gabriel and Thomas, for subjecting the younger boys to the terrors of war, and for letting his violent past overcome him.

Yet the ambush earns him a serendipitous (for my purposes) nickname: the Ghost. It’s fitting for his subsequent militia fighting style, with its emphasis on guerrilla tactics and ability to evade capture. But it also signifies his presence—or lack thereof—in his children’s lives.

He carries all of this and more into the climactic battle, where he finally avenges the deaths of Gabriel and Thomas at the hands of the ruthless Colonel Tavington. Before heading home, Benjamin says goodbye to his friend and fellow soldier General Burwell (Chris Cooper), who tells him that his wife recently gave birth to a son.

“We named him Gabriel,” he says. It’s such a simple moment, elegantly delivered by Cooper, that manages to avoid mawkishness and serve as an emotional capstone to Benjamin’s long journey, which included losing two sons and his home.

“Papa, don’t go!”

Back on the daughter side of the Martin family, Susan is the youngest child and most distant to Benjamin. She refuses to speak to him, whether due to her still grieving the loss of her mother or being resentful of Benjamin’s long absences. Even after he visits the family while on furlough, she continues to stonewall him.

But when he sets off yet again, she finally lets go:

Papa! Papa, please don’t go. I’ll say anything. Just tell me what you want me to say and I’ll say it.

Reader, I cried. It’s a wrenching moment of a father and child equally longing for connection before yet another separation. I couldn’t bear to consider such a moment ever befalling me and my son—now a rascally and wondrous 18 month old.

It didn’t matter to Susan that Benjamin was riding off to avenge his sons and fight for a political cause. Her Ghost was disappearing again, and she finally had something to say about it.

And this is where Interstellar comes in.

(Again I warn of spoilers.)

“Ghost of your children’s future”

A key motif in Christopher Nolan’s near-future, time-bending space drama (a recent subject on Filmspotting’s Oeuvreview, a series I helped coin) is the “ghost” that young Murphy claims is haunting her room and sending her messages in Morse code. Her pilot father, Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, is leaving on a mission that will take him decades in Earth-time to complete, but the despondent Murph insists the ghost’s message is telling him to stay.

In a heartbreaking scene, Cooper comes to her room to say goodbye and offers a bittersweet reflection on parenting:

After you kids came along, your mother said something to me I never quite understood. She said, ‘Now we’re just here to be memories for our kids.’ And I think that now I understand what she meant. Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.

Cooper’s prophecy comes true when he completes his mission and then, in another heartbreaking scene, watches years’ worth of messages from his kids, who bitterly rue his absence:

We also discover that the ghost in Murph’s room was actually Cooper himself, trying to communicate with Murph from across spacetime.

And that’s where Benjamin and Cooper—an 18th-century soldier and a 21st-century astronaut—also have now magically linked across spacetime: as fathers desperate to return to their children, and not merely as phantoms of themselves. They even share their goodbyes:

  • Benjamin to Susan: “I promise I’ll come back.”
  • Cooper to Murph: “I love you forever, and I’m coming back.”

A Hollywood cliché? Maybe. Would I say it and mean it to my own child? Absolutely. Which is not something I would have predicted as a youngster.

Perhaps that’s the benefit of rewatching movies at different life stages. As Roger Ebert wrote about why he loved La Dolce Vita so much: “Movies do not change, but their viewers do. The movie has meant different things to me at different stages in my life… It won’t grow stale, because I haven’t finished changing.”

Having been working from home since mid-March, I’m incredibly lucky to have had more time with my son that I would have otherwise spent away at work or on my commute. “Kids spell love T-I-M-E,” my own dad has said. It’s an insight that The Patriot and Interstellar have made ever more resonant.

Favorite films of 2018

My theme for last year’s movies was the strength of women. This year, it’s time for some manly love. (Archer voice: “Phrasing!”)

Since June, when I found out I was going to be a father, I’ve been keenly aware of how fatherhood has been portrayed in this year’s crop of movies. What strikes me now, looking back on all of them, is the wide array of characteristics the 2018 Film Fathers represented.

There were men who weren’t fathers yet but pined to be (Private Life and Game Night) or despaired of their fatherhood (First Reformed).

There were men whose defining characteristic was their absence (the doctor in Roma, Apollo in Creed II, T’Chaka in Black Panther)

There were men whose children inspired in them unconditional love (Eighth Grade), desperate determination (Searching), painful grief (First Man), righteous if misguided zeal (Blockers), and a longing to stop time (Hearts Beat Loud).

And there were men whose family life, whether through inspiration or inertia, led them towards apathy (Tully), frustration (The Incredibles 2), and flight (Wildlife).

Not all of these films made my best-of list, but I’m grateful to all of them for demonstrating just how consequential fatherhood can be.

On to the list…

1. The Death of Stalin

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this, Veep creator Armando Iannucci’s film about the machinations of Stalin’s inner circle after the dictator’s sudden death in 1953. Don’t be fooled by the serious title: this is social and political satire at its sharpest, loosely based on real events but also exactly right about much more than its titular subject. (Review)

2. The Favourite

Rachel Weisz I’ve loved since The Mummy, Emma Stone since Superbad. But Olivia Colman is basically new to me, and she might have won this movie as a querulous, manipulative Queen Anne balancing the competing bids for favor from Stone’s Abigail and Weisz’s Sarah. Writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster barely missed my top 10 list in 2015, but he nearly conquered this year’s with this delicious, darkly comic period piece that takes “be careful what you wish for” to a delightfully daring level.

3. Wildlife

Stunning directorial debut from actor Paul Dano. A very well composed and controlled story of a 1960s family struggling against disintegration, experienced by the perspective of 14-year-old only child Joe. Everything felt so specific and slo-mo tragic, Carey Mulligan’s performance especially.

4. First Reformed

What to do about despair? As the priest of a small historical church, Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller communes with it for a living, whether fighting his own ailments, struggling against professional obsolescence, or pastoring a young couple haunted by the specter of global warming. An intense portrait of the search for meaning, a reckoning with darkness and extremism, and a worthy entry into the “priest in crisis” canon (a personal favorite subgenre) alongside Winter Light, Calvary, and other gems.

5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

It’s a rarity for me to see a movie in theaters twice, but I was happy to do so for this one so I could see it with my wife. This could be the movie that changes superhero movies—in style, personality, and thematic exploration. If you haven’t seen it yet, go into it with as little foreknowledge as possible.

6. The Rider

A rodeo accident forces horse rider Brady off the saddle, leaving him in poverty with brain damage and an existential crisis. This lithe, mesmerizing, and richly empathetic film rides a fine line between fiction and documentary, as Brady and most of the characters are essentially playing themselves. Director Chloé Zhao has an eye for beautiful shots and tender moments.

7. Roma

I didn’t fully appreciate Roma until it was over, when I could see the full scope of Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical take on a year in the life of Cleo, a live-in maid in 1970s Mexico City. Still, from the first shot—a meditative long take of a floor being mopped—I cherished Cuarón’s ability to see grandeur in the granular, to magnify the minute details of a humble woman’s hidden but compelling life.

8. Searching

“Thriller whodunit that takes place solely on a computer” sounds like a cheap direct-to-video B movie, but Searching is shockingly effective at overcoming this supposed gimmick. Why is this story of John Cho’s David using everyday technology to track down his missing daughter effective? I think it’s the specificity of the tools—everything from Windows XP to Facebook and FaceTime—used in a panicked silence throughout. David could be any of us, alone at a computer clicking desperately against time.

9. BlacKkKlansman

Based on a true story of the first black police officer in 1970s Colorado Springs infiltrating the local KKK chapter, with the help of a fellow officer, played by Adam Driver. True to a Spike Lee joint, it’s brash, cutting, funny, loose when it needs to be but solid at heart. The Birth of a Nation montage could be the scene of the year. John David Washington (son of Denzel) deserves not to always be compared to his famous father, but they share a compelling verve that bodes very well for John David’s career.

10. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Not all of this Coen Bothers anthology’s six parts are equally good: “The Girl Who Got Rattled” and “Meal Ticket” did a lot of the heavy lifting (or gold digging?) to get to this spot. But this would have made the list for the Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck performances in “Rattled” alone. Like most Coen Brothers joints, I expect this to reward repeat viewings.

I also liked: Avengers: Infinity War, Leave No Trace, Tully, If Beale Street Could Talk, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Black Panther, Private Life, Game Night, Hearts Beat Loud, Annihilation, Widows

Favorite non-2018 films I watched this year

  • Moonstruck
  • Anatomy of a Murder
  • Tension
  • Monty Python and the Life of Brian
  • King of Comedy
  • Battle of Algiers
  • The Seventh Seal
  • Three Days of the Condor