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Do the right thing: Hollywood seems to be conscious of the conscience, as tough movie heroes are listening more to that little voice inside their heads.

YOU MIGHT NOT EXPECT it, but Hollywood often has been good to people of conscience. America's dream factory has produced many a tall tale about courageous folk ready to do the right thing in hard times. Moviegoers love men and women of action charging across battlefields and storming castles, but we also like heroes with moral muscle, gutsy folks ready to do the right thing when everyone else is willing to go along or look the other way.


Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (Columbia, 1954) cast Marlon Brando as an ex-boxer and union thug who finally finds the courage to fight for what's right. Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons (Sony Pictures, 1966) had Sir Thomas More standing up to a king and laying down his life for a moral principle. And in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (Universal, 1993), Liam Neeson risked everything to save the lives of people he had never noticed. Tinseltown awarded these three stories of conscience 21 Oscars, and over the decades countless millions of viewers have cherished these tales of moral courage, finding inspiration and encouragement in the example of these imaginary and real heroes.

THIS PAST YEAR HAS PROVIDED MOVIE AND TELEVISION audiences with something of a revival of "conscience" stories. In Michael Clayton (Castle Rock), Gone Baby Gone (Miramax), and Rendition (New Line), George Clooney, Casey Affleck, and Jake Gyllenhaal, respectively, play the sort of thick-skinned cynics who count on others behaving badly, making it all the more unsettling when their own moral compasses force them to take an inconvenient stand for justice and truth.

Meanwhile on TNT's Saving Grace, Holly Hunter plays an adulterous, blasphemous, and alcoholic cop haunted by a slightly obnoxious angel named Earl, who is determined to get Grace back on the straight and narrow.

Clooney, Affleck, and Gyllenhaal are unwilling heroes in Michael Clayton, Gone Baby Gone, and Rendition, pressed into service by forces and circumstances that awaken and challenge their callous and slumbering consciences. But their moral stains are also what makes them interesting, believable, and ultimately inspiring. If callous and gritty guys like this can have a conscience, perhaps we all have better angels within us--and maybe each of us can find the courage to follow the sirens of our conscience.

FOR EACH OF THESE CHARACTERS, THE KEY to their moral awakening and conscience is personal. Michael Clayton (Clooney) is the "fixer" at a corporate law firm whose slumbering conscience is awakened by the murder of his colleague and friend. Suddenly the cynical attorney is unwilling to look the other way, even to save his career and ruined finances.

In Gone Baby Gone Affleck's Patrick Kenzie is a streetwise private investigator eager for any case that will improve his reputation and bank account. But when he discovers the truth about a kidnapped child, the cynical investigator cannot bring himself to look away, even if it costs him his life and his beloved.

And Rendition introduces us to office-bound CIA operative Doug Freeman (Gyllenhaal), who finds his liquor-soaked nightmares haunted by the screams of a suspected terrorist our government has secretly arrested and handed over to Middle Eastern torturers.

In each of these tales, the conscience that haunts our would-be heroes has a human face, and this face, along with accompanying cries and screams, keeps our protagonists from the untroubled sleep of the good. The cries Clooney, Affleck, and Gyllenhall's characters hear in their consciences are like the cries Moses heard coming from the burning bush, the wailing and weeping of victims of violence and injustice. They are the cries that haunted the sleep of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea, and that made these prophets the conscience of Israel. And they are the cries that kept Vincent DePaul, Dorothy Day, and Mother Teresa awake at night--the cries of the poor, slaughtered, starved, silenced, and enslaved. Hearing these cries can make one crazy. But not hearing them can mean we are already dead.

In Saving Grace Holly Hunter's conscience is a blue-collar angel with an attitude, a sardonic bull in a China shop hell-bent on shattering his charge's defenses. Hunter is a boozing brawler who would make short work of Walt Disney's Jiminy Cricket or Frank Capra's Clarence, so God has sent a bruiser named Earl to lay siege to her soul, reminding us just how rough and tumble a hard-working conscience can be, sticking to our scent like Francis Thompson's "Hound of Heaven" or Samuel Taylor Coleridge's mythical albatross. This is the kind of conscience that made a coward of Hamlet and that gave Richard III a clammy case of the sweats.

ST. PAUL BELIEVED WE HEARD THE VOICE OF GOD in our conscience, and in the 1943 Western The Oxbow Incident (20th Century Fox), Dana Andrew's character writes his wife that "if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience?"

In the Bible and this recent batch of Hollywood films, the divine voice we hear in the inner sanctum of our conscience sounds a lot like the cries of the poor, oppressed, abandoned, and violated, and the difference between those with a conscience and those without is usually the difference between those who hear these cries and those do not.

By PATRICK McCORMICK, professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Title Annotation:culture in context
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Feb 1, 2008
Previous Article:Is all church teaching created equal?
Next Article:Briefly noted.

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