True courage

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One of the most enduring misrepresentations in cinema is the continual conflation of bravery with fearlessness. 

Action heroes, from Sylvester Stallone to Bruce Willis to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Vin Diesel to Daniel Craig to Jason Statham, are invariably fearless but largely, you suspect, because they are brainless. To be brave you have to experience fear, and overcome it. Where then are the best portrayals of actual bravery in action films?  

Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, Linda Hamilton in The Terminator, and – although it’s not an action movie – Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs would make a good starting shortlist. Unlike the trigger-happy muscle-bound caricatures who run around blowing things up without even a twinkle of forethought for risks and consequences, these protagonists are scared for their lives just about the whole time but never let it master them for long.

It’s notable that it’s easier to find women exhibiting courage in movies, because men – at least, the heroic ones – are rarely allowed to show fear (either to the audience and especially to other characters). How many instances are there of male leads actually showing courage in action films? Only in historical war movies are you likely to get a realistic portrayal of human behaviour in high-stress combat situations, but even there the dramatic exigencies of the script tend to result in superhuman feats of sang-froid.

Action heroes are stereotypes, archetypes, as alien as Superman and as overblown as their frequently steroidal physiques. 

Is it then a coincidence that in a society which continually encourages us to think big and take risks, our entertainment is composed of people immune to the fear of consequences? The cartoonish behaviour of many film characters – exemplified in the last decade by Marvel Studios’ wise-cracking and insouciant leads – presents as an ideal a standard of behaviour that would be shockingly irresponsible in most real-life situations. Ask any combat veteran what bravery really looks like and you can guarantee that it’s not the kind exemplified by Captain America.

It’s relevant because bravery is something that we’re required to show more often than we realise. Modern life seems to only get more stressful, and more stress situations means more fear. We’re tested from childhood, swamped with responsibilities, and stalked by performance metrics. But because we’re more likely to be exposed to examples of fearlessness than of bravery, it’s arguable that we don’t get enough advice on how to deal with such situations. Art is not just there to entertain; it’s also there to educate and inspire us, to enable us to vicariously experience events and rehearse our own responses.

And producing that art requires bravery in itself. Making art of any kind requires a level of emotional and psychological honesty whose very exposure creates vulnerability. Whether standing on a stage, publishing a book, or exhibiting an artwork, the artist is inviting scrutiny and critique, with all the positive and negative consequences that may follow.

Such exposure carries an inevitable burden of comparison. In “Year of the King”, actor Anthony Sher berates Laurence Olivier’s ghost for filming Richard III. “Why did Olivier film it?” Sher grumbles while preparing for the same role, painfully aware that now anybody can watch the two performances and compare them. 

The advantage in theatre at least is that most roles are enriched by regular reinterpretation: every generation needs its own Hamlet, and every script can be seen afresh through the prism of recent history.

This advantage – the continual reinterpretation of universal themes for successive generations – isn’t shared by science. Science always builds on what’s come before. Science has permanence. Not to the same extent as mathematics, where Pythagoras’ proofs are as true now as they were in 500 BC, but still closer than most areas of human activity.

Consequently, few professions are as assailed by doubt as science. First, doubt is critical to the scientific process itself. The assessment of your results, the evaluation of your own data, the questioning of your hypotheses – this is part and parcel of good scientific practice. Second, we don’t just practise doubt, we outsource it – we let our peers and colleagues subject our work to the most unsentimental and often brutal oversight possible before it gets published. This unrelenting scrutiny understandably has a major impact on self-esteem, to the point where submitting work for publication is sometimes itself a stress test.

At a more existential level, part of the chronic sense of worthlessness that can pervade science is the unavoidable recognition that your input has been preceded by genius, and will likely be followed by it too. You’ll never be as bright as the intellectual giants that preceded you. And if you don’t do something well enough, you’ll get shown up by someone who comes after. 

Actors like Sher are intimidated by their antecedents; scientists can additionally worry about their descendants. And – for the current generation – that worry exists under unprecedented career pressure. It’s scary.

To be able to carry on.

To use that sense of worthlessness as a spur to higher standards.

To keep proving yourself to yourself time after time. 

That’s real courage.

15.3.20: At the time of writing, the coronavirus pandemic is making its way around the globe. As noted here, it’s easy to be fearless if you have no sense of danger – and therefore easy to be complacent if you are not a member of a high risk group. Don’t be. We don’t need any action heroes in this situation. Stay safe, and keep others safe too.

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