DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Good Will Hunting, Reign Over Me 

Title: Good Will Hunting

Release Date:  1997

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about 120 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  R

Distributor and Production Company: Miramax

Director; Writer: Gus Van Sant (screenplay and story by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck)


Cast:   Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Robin Williams

Technical:  1.8 to 1; digital

Relevance to HPPUB site: creative writing


            This film propelled Matt Damon and Ben Affleck into stardom, as writers as well as (or perhaps more than) actors. And the importance of this film is that it shows what one or two people on their own can do with enough initiative -- even after dropping out of college. This film deservedly got nominated for Best Picture in 1997.

            Damon and Affleck wanted the story to be much bigger -- one in which Will's capacities are used in some sort of international caper. The end result is touching enough -- the relationship between the therapist (comic Robin Williams) and Hunting, to get Will (who comes off the streets of South Boston getting into fights, getting busted, smoking etc.) to take his gift seriously. Great effort!

            Will Damon and Affleck publish their complete international-thriller plot in book form? Sounds like a sure best-seller to me, and the literary agents would love to see it.

***  (a second look at this film--)

            On Presidents’ Day, 2001, ABC broadcast Good Will Hunting in a 3-hour prime-time spot.  This time, sure, I recollected about Bernie Carbo’s famous game-tying 3-run homer in the 6th game of the 1975 World Series—and then Carleton Fisk’s game winning shot off the foul pole above the Green Monster in Boston’s Fenway Park.  I had been lying on my couch, dozing off in my Cast Iron Building efficiency in Greenwich Village when this happened—I didn’t remember the foul pole.  I remember that friends of mine had been unimpressed by early scenes in this film—all the stuff about being a “Southie” and all that lower-class Beantown talk—and all that fighting and particularly chain smoking was described to me as “depressing.”

            Of course, though, this film builds up like an emotional mountain climb in its routing interest for the Will Hunting character. In fact, he is no spoiled nerd, but rather compelling in his muscular energy and sincerity. And the whole treatment of his giftedness and his use of his gifts brings up some paradoxes.

            One of the points of his therapy is that he supposedly drives other people away so that they can’t reject him as his natural biological father had before he became an orphan.  Is that what all the intellectual games do for him?  Is solving differential manifolds on the board while working as a janitor a form of “escape”?  The perplexes me, because one can argue that involvement in meeting the needs of others gives one the concentration it takes to solve difficult problems from out of the blue.

            We encounter different kinds of “brilliance” in the work world and the arts.  Some people develop their own agendas and execute their own purposes so thoroughly that they seem “brilliant,” when actually their problem-solving abilities may be rather constricted by their rather selfish focus. Other people, like the Will Hunting character, seem to be able to handle anything thrown at them. In the computer software world and in human resources we call such people “asset persons.”  It takes a certain openness to outside feed-in and a certain willingness to suspend a preoccupation with one’s own purposes or psychological defenses to respond effectively to outside problems caused by others, even if they are “math” problems whose solutions are hard to motivate. An interesting case is posed by the career so far of Shawn Fanning, inventor of Napster—a conception that seems so brilliant but was motivated by a singular, inner-defined purpose but which was supported by previous experiences with teamwork, as in playing baseball.

            It is also interesting to ponder Hunting’s unwillingness to use his gifts for employment or personal gain.  It’s easy to say that he sees it all as corrupt, as in the scene where he is interviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA). He is hardly interested in becoming a Jake 2.0.  His quick real-player answer is pianistic. He is persuaded only by the wishes of his best male friend, Affleck, with whom, according to the film, he has some homosocial bond, without sexual tension—following the model of bonding encouraged (even required) by the military or groups like the Boy Scouts—where even his relationship with his girl friend seems spoiled.  In the end, we know he will do just fine.

            Okay, you can argue, there is a difference between a “very intelligent person” and a “genius,” the likes of Alan Turing (as in the PBS NOVA film Decoding Nazi Secrets about the breaking of Enigma), without whom the Allies might have lost WWII to the Nazis and with whom the modern computer became a reality. Turing’s genius seems to have been “biological,” as much as his social awkwardness and, in his case (according to history) homosexuality. But genius can come in all ranges of personality types. 

            Enriching the story are the lifelines of the therapist Sean McGuire (Robin Williams) and rather duplicitous professor (Stellan Skarsgard). The scene where McGuire repeats to Will, “It’s not your fault” and then invites a bear hug from a sobbing, previously cast-iron Will Hunting, brings the audience to its feet. (Current events in early 2007 make the line relevant.)

            This film, like Miramax’s English Patient that came out around a year earlier, is a small (or not so small) and complex masterpiece, one out of young manhood like a Richard Strauss tone poem. It raises more questions than it solves, and seems to recognize the moral problems that we encounter as we seek our own purposes.

            Damon and Affleck are proud of this opus as a literary concept as well as a movie with compelling acting.  Damon talks about the drafts still on his hard drive at home; this one project of his and Affleck’s creation more than any other accomplishment put them where they are.

Peter Beskind adds some details as to how Good Will Hunting got made in an article about Miramax in the February 2004 Vanity Fair, “The Weinstein Way: how the Weinstein brothers re-invented the movie business from outside in.”

Visit the Miramax Damon-Affleck Project Greenlight and screen-writing contests

Reign Over Me (2007, Columbia, dir. and wr. Mike Binder, R, 124 min, p-1,a-1,t-1). First, the leading word of the title -- one of those derived Middle English words that makes English so hard to learn to spell. The title suggests the processing mode of the leading character, Dr. Fineman, played by Adam Sandler, in a role that is still a bit comic, if tragic-comic. He becomes emotionally dependent on his "friend" (and that isn't a Myspace friend), another dentist Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle). This is upper middle class life in New York City, and completely color blind. You could say that the former dentist has a "symbiotic" relationship, in the terminology of that freshman English essay "The Art of Loving" by Erich Fromm. Other than that, Fineman leaves a life filled by a vinyl record collection, electronic music, and video games. Sounds familiar. One can make a life of that if one is allowed to. I've been in that space. It seems like Fineman is in an arrested adolescence, but he is coming apart. He is starting to behave in a manner that some would call autistic or asperger-like.

We learn, at well spaced intervals, that Fineman had a wife and three children, all of whom were lost in the 9-11 attacks. He once had his own thriving dental practice (indeed "The Secret Lives of Dentists"). He relates the 9-11 event, his watching it at an airport, with a detailed narrative, although it is never shown. In emotional terms that a simple majority of Americans know, he once had a "real life". And he has lost it.

Johnson has his own problems in his dental practice. Early on, he fends off a patient who makes an inappropriate sexual advance, and she threatens to sue. The confrontation, where his office administrator tells her not to come back, is quite funny and convincing. In time, Fineman's demands on Johnson become quite challenging, and he winds up, after an arrest, in Roosevelt Hospital with a commitment court hearing.

There is a scene where the two "friends" go to a Mel Brooks film festival at an East Village theater (I wonder if it is the old St. Marks, the dollar house on 2nd Avenue during the 70s when I lived there.) The film shows odd clips from "Blazing Saddles", "Young Frankenstein," and "Silent Movie", the latter with an odd scene of men soaping each other in a shower. Fineman says, outside the theater, that the word "faggot" is offensive only to gays, and asks the box office for two tickets, "one man and one faggot." An ironic way to say he is straight.

I can match myself with Fineman's character, but I came into that psychological space from a completely different direction. 9-11 for me represented a wedge point in which some freedom was lost. In the case of Fineman, his own fathered family, that that which he had seen as making him a man, had been lost. It makes an interesting comparison. 


Related review: Gerry  The play Matt & Ben   The Secret Lives of Dentists     9/11 films


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