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 2014

lego

Because synchronicity has been on my mind recently, I wondered while considering my favorite films of 2014 if any of them were thematically aligned, explicitly or otherwise. Turns out they are. The ten-ish films that lodged themselves into my brain this year naturally arranged themselves into pairs or groups—some odd ones, to be sure, but nevertheless interesting. I landed on four categories, some of which could easily describe many of the listed films but felt like the right headings for the films they contain. Keeping in mind the usual disclaimer that I’ve yet to see a number of 2014 films I suspect would make this list, here are the ones that made movies fun this year. (Spoilers aplenty ahead.)

LOOKING CLOSER (h/t Jeffrey Overstreet)
Boyhood
, directed by Richard Linklater
Life Itself, directed by Steve James

I preemptively connected these two films in my review of Boyhood, but time has revealed even more. Both films concern themselves with telling the unvarnished truth: in Boyhood it’s via the yearly check-ins with Mason & Co and the focus on quotidian moments over Kodak ones, and in Life Itself it’s via the camera’s unblinking view of Roger Ebert’s sad yet dignified decline. The march of time, which these two films concern themselves with greatly, is relentless and revelatory. Its power is best seen at the extremes: zoomed in to the micro, the everyday details we can see only on foot, and zoomed out to the macro, where the cosmic, birds-eye view of things looks oddly like the micro. Isn’t it funny how images from a telescope can look like something captured from a petri dish (e.g. Hubble’s picture of the Andromeda Galaxy, not-so-ironically dubbed “Pillars of Creation”). Set up a double feature, rename them The Beginning and The End, and you’ve got an amazing portrait of life, to name-check another fine movie, rendered in the spectacular now.

A RECKONING
Calvary, directed by John Michael McDonough
Ida, directed by Paweł Pawlikowski

Let loose into their outside worlds, the Catholic priest of Calvary and the novice nun of Ida encounter the hostile brokenness of laypeople who either don’t see the need for the Church or resent it outright. These ecclesiastics—one in postwar Communist Poland and the other in modern Ireland—are spurred out from their cloistered lives by a similar commission: Get your life in order. They face a reckoning with their calling, one last chance to ponder the consequences of their decisions and make things right before destiny calls. Yet despite the gravity of their pilgrimage among the people, they mostly just listen. They absorb the pain and bitterness around them while trying to reconcile their vocation with their tempestuous milieus and arrive at peace. Can it be done? Good question.

LET’S GO EXPLORING
Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan
The Lego Movie, directed by Chris Miller and Phil Lord

Multiple dimensions. New worlds. A hero destined to save mankind. Travels through black holes and time portals. An old sage with questionable tactics. Love conquering all. I wasn’t expecting two of my favorite movies of the year to have so much in common while also being essentially polar-opposite in their style and audience, and yet here we are. Who is Matthew McConaughey’s character in Interstellar if not the Master Builder reluctantly fulfilling his destiny to save the universe through ingenuity and love? And what are The Lego Movie’s Cloud Cuckoo Land and other worlds if not the mystery planets the Interstellar crew sought for salvation? Even the final twists echo each other: Interstellar’s time-hopping tesseract and The Lego Movie’s portal to human Earth reveal the handiwork of an extra-dimensional Creator and redefine everything we’d seen before. Never was I in awful wonder more this year than during these two films.

MAN ON A MISSION
Locke, directed by Steven Knight
Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle
Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky
Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-ho

What are you prepared to do? (I can’t help imagining that line being said in an intense Scottish accent.) The protagonists here have a mission and will not stop until it is accomplished. Locke’s Ivan and the Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical epic set a course and stick to it, come personal hell and high water—even while their worlds crumble around him and their decisions inflict suffering upon innocents. In Whiplash, Andrew’s steely determination to succeed as a jazz drummer draws blood and fractures his psyche. And Curtis, the reluctant leader of the train-bound proletariat uprising in Snowpiercer, forges forward for answers, making brutal personal sacrifices along the way. Is all this carnage worth it? Results vary, but all four of these films’ endings seem to have a similar answer.

JUST BECAUSE (Bonus)
They Came Together, directed by David Wain

Because this made me laugh so hard.

Einterstellar

My new definition of cosmic irony: to be in the midst of Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe as I went to see Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a marvel of a film that directly references Einstein and his theory of relativity. I had a chuckle during the film when that moment arrived, not because I understand the theory of relativity in the least, but because the universe is mysterious and funny in that way.

Einstein would probably agree, according to Isaacson’s book. I picked it up on a whim. For being such a ubiquitous figure I knew nearly nothing about him, and since for the last few years I’ve grown increasingly interested in (and therefore increasingly perplexed by) astrophysics and the stuff of space, I thought a well-regarded biography of one of astrophysics greatest would be a good place to start. And indeed I’d recommend it to anyone, even, or especially, those who will have to skim over the arcane science passages as I did.

I think Einstein would have loved Interstellar.