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.

Statues and Star Wars

In an email thread about the controversies surrounding the removal of statues, I suggested we relocate all statues to museums and use the space for parks and Little Free Libraries.

But that’s destroying history! First Amendment!

Statues aren’t history, as this Twitter thread by Elle Maruska articulates well:

Statues are mythology. Statues are hagiography. If you care about history as a discipline, as a way of analyzing the past, tear down every single statue.

Somehow, the history of Nazi Germany is available without statues of Hitler in every German square.

We can somehow still access the history of Mussolini’s rule without having statues of him in Rome.

We know about Ceaușescu without his stone visage glaring out over Bucharest.

Statues tell us about how we understand the present, not the reality of the past. Statues teach us nothing but who we find worth elevating into godhood. Statues are about the lies with think are worth believing in. Statues aren’t history.

The recent spate of statue removals run the gamut from coordinated (Theodore Roosevelt’s) to chaotic (Madison’s). But all of them share the same underlying sentiment, as articulated by Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi (the only good Star Wars movie):

Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.

The irony of this sentiment is Kylo spends the entire movie trying to actually kill connections to his past but still can’t fully shake them. (After all, the past isn’t past.) As James Whitbrook writes:

So maybe “Let the past die” needs to be paired with another great quote about legacies from The Last Jedi—something Yoda says to Luke, as they watch the glowing embers of the burning tree on Ahch-To: “We are what they grow beyond.”

Just as Rey learns and grows beyond what Luke and his failures can teach her—just as she steals away those ancient Jedi texts before they can be destroyed forever, to potentially build upon their ideas herself—so must Star Wars as a franchise if it’s going to keep adding more and more stories to its ever-growing saga. Respect its past, learn from it, and let it go and move on.

As a long-running franchise and “ever-growing saga” itself, America needs to take the best of its past and let go of the rest.

Which isn’t the same as forgetting or destroying it. To me it means severing ties from two contrasting yet equally toxic and “bitter clinging” impulses: nostalgia, which insists the past was better than the present, and resentment, which only finds fault with it.

Let the past be only what we grow beyond.

Long Quotes on the ‘Prairie Fires’

Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder is about 150 pages too long, and spends a lot more time with Laura’s daughter Rose than I expected or desired. But the first third of the book, with the Ingalls family and Laura as a young adult, was quite illuminating. (Great Scott am I glad I don’t live on the prairie in the late 1800s!)

The Little House novels and TV show were, shall we say, not quite accurate. But they certainly contain a grain of truth, as Fraser writes about the Ingalls family’s time in Kansas in 1870-71:

In a brief and concentrated span of time, the Ingallses had experienced virtually everything that would come to be seen as quintessentially Western: encounters with wolves and Indians, angry disputes over open range, prairie fires, neighbors coming to their aid. Although they would retreat for a time to Wisconsin, an enduring impression had been made, one that would strengthen over the years as the family moved. From the open doorway of a tiny log cabin, Laura had watched as a parade of Western iconography passed by. It was as if the spirit of manifest destiny had been imprinted in her memory, leaving a series of stereoscopic images, each more dramatic than the one before, each intensely experienced and utterly unique, yet emblematic of all western settlement. The family spent little more than a year on the Kansas prairie, but it shaped her temperament and outlook for the rest of her life. That year made her who she was.

Another quote rang relevant to today. Powell, a Civil War hero and the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, warned that the West (today’s Great Plains states) was too arid for farming and spelled bankruptcy for farmers. He advocated cooperative irrigation and grazing schemes, but “bonanza farms” promoted by Big Business at the time offered get-rick-quick fantasies that were much more alluring:

Fundamentally, the question was whether national decisions of significant economic import, affecting thousands of citizens, would be governed by Enlightenment science or by huckster fantasy. The outcome was immediately clear to anyone reading the newspapers: fantasy won. In a campaign comparable to modern-day corporate denial of climate change, big business and the legislators in its pocket brushed Powell’s analysis aside. Railroads were not about to capitulate to the geologist’s limited vision, and his plans as director of the U.S. Geological Survey to limit western settlement would be undermined by intense political attacks. James B. Power, land agent for the Northern Pacific—who had earlier admitted that Dakota was a “barren desert”—dismissed Powell as an elite intellectual, lacking the experience of “practical men.” “No reliance can be placed upon any of his statements as to the agricultural value of any country,” Power said. For good measure, he called the geologist “an ass.”

Shorter Power: “Fake news!”

Go Pack Horse Librarians, Go!

One podcast that survived my recent purge is The Keepers, a series from The Kitchen Sisters and NPR.  The series features:

“stories of activist archivists, rogue librarians, curators, collectors and historians. Keepers of the culture and the cultures and collections they keep. Guardians of history, large and small, protectors of the free flow of information and ideas, eccentric individuals who take it upon themselves to preserve some part of our cultural heritage.”

The latest episode is about the “Pack Horse Librarians,” a group of women in 1930s rural Kentucky who brought books to isolated areas. The Depression-era WPA paid their salary of $1 per day; everything else was their responsibility, including renting the horses and collecting donated books and magazines to distribute.

It’s an inspiring, well-told story that shows the value of preserving local history.