Films are stories, stories have heroes, and heroism is almost by definition a celebration of the individual. Great films codify and reflect our greatest values back to us. Even antiheroes are instructive about their personal goals and flaws.
But this year’s Oscar nominations offer up a few films with especially strong individualist themes.
For an in-depth look at the individualist philosophy, one could do worse than Eric Foner’s even-handed overview, “Radical Individualism in America.” But, tl;dr, individualism places an emphasis on the rights of the individual and the pursuit of his or her happiness, rather than the prerogatives of collectives or states, as the core to a just and liberal society.
Martin Scorsese’s Silence, nominated for best cinematography, stars Andrew Garfield as a 17th-century Jesuit priest, Alessandro Valignano. He travels to Japan to rescue his mentor (Liam Neeson), a missionary. At that time, Christianity was illegal in imperial Japan, and anyone caught practicing the religion could be subjected to torture until they renounced their faith.
Scorsese subjects us to multiple scenes of Japanese Christians put through torture to renounce their faith, with a mostly helpless Valignano doing his best to maintain the community’s morale. Ultimately, he is forced to watch five of his disciples brutally tortured until he personally renounces his own faith. He spends the rest of his days in Japan as an apostate priest, sadly sorting through foreign imports for any forbidden Christian iconography.
The freedom to practice the religion of one’s choosing is essential to a free society. Leave aside for a moment the immorality of torturing people because of their faith. Even if it weren’t wrong, it is nearly impossible to force someone to change their core beliefs. The viewer assumes Valignano has been broken by the torture he endured, but the last image we see is his dead hand clutching a contraband cross.
Silence is an excellent, if difficult-to-watch, exploration of an individual pitted against the most extreme hostility of a larger collective.
Ayn Rand would have been proud of Andrew Garfield’s acting choices in 2016, because he stars in this next film as well — in fact, this performance has earned Garfield a nomination for best actor. Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of Corporal Desmond Doss, who was the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor.
Doss, a hardline pacifist, volunteers for military medical service at the outbreak of the Second World War. Although he undergoes, and excels at, the harsh training of boot camp, he refuses to touch weaponry or train on Saturday (the sabbath day for Seventh Day Adventists). His peers and superiors ostracize him, even going so far as to have him discharged for psychiatric reasons. He endures a savage beating, but refuses to identify his assailants.
His refusal to handle weaponry as an enlisted soldier leads to his being arrested for insubordination. While in a jail cell, his fiancée begs him to plead guilty so he can be released, but Doss won’t compromise. He is ultimately vindicated and goes on to serve heroically as a medic in the Battle of Okinawa.
Much like Silence, Hacksaw Ridge digs deep into the concept of religious freedom. But the religious part isn’t really the point so much as the freedom part. The liberty of the mind is a core individualist value. Thomas Paine once put it succinctly: “My own mind is my own church.” The liberal society is strong in large part because different people believe, and argue for, different ideas. Societal change is impossible without competing views butting heads.
La La Land
La La Land has a massive total of 14 Oscar nominations this year. The film is at once a throwback to the golden era of musicals and a reinvigoration of the genre.
It’s wildly unlike the above films in tone. But it is also a fierce defense of individualism. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) both have big dreams. Mia wants to be an actress, and Sebastian wants to open a jazz club, in part so that he can protect the heritage of a genre that he thinks is growing corrupted by the pervasiveness of pop music.
Like a lot of individualists, they’re both incredibly headstrong. Sebastian loses gig work because he constantly goes off preapproved set lists in favor of jazz improv. Mia is all-in on pursuing a dream career, one that results in failure for just about everyone who tries. But being headstrong is only half the story: they acknowledge their stubbornness and accept the consequences.
Rebellion against societal norms carries costs for these types. They full well know it, and rebel anyway. In an earlier era, before the word was ruined, we called this romanticism.
The claim that La La Land is about radical individualism may seem like a stretch, but it’s encoded deep within the film. For instance, Sebastian and Mia go on a date that involves first watching, and then recreating a scene from one of the great films about individuals confronting societal pressures, Rebel Without a Cause.
Sebastian and Mia clearly love each other, but they ultimately decide not to compromise on their dreams. This is neither right nor wrong, but it does come with consequences. They could either have each other, or have their respective dreams realized. Call it the “pursuit of happiness,” even though the film’s ending is wicked sad.
Here’s to the Individualists
There is something to be said for the risk-taker, the visionary, the rebel. Ayn Rand, in “The Soul of an Individualist,” phrased it memorably:
The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. But … they fought, they suffered, and they paid. But they won.”]
This is perhaps even more true for the great heroes of film than it is for the great heroes of history, although “winning” is often more like getting a seat at Valhalla than actual victory.
Great stories almost always emphasize the worth and moral dignity of the individual. This does not mean groups don’t matter, or that one should descend into solipsism. Individualism matters because you only get one life to live, and nobody is in a better place to make the most of it than you.