"The Art of Seeing" by Michael Milton
When was the last time you watched an action movie in which the hero-- at the moment of his (or her) greatest challenge-- prayed to God for help?
This thought came to me the other night when I watched the new Dwayne Johnson movie, Skyscraper. Bear in mind, I like The Rock and anything that follows is not a judgment of him or his talent, nor is it a criticism of his values and beliefs.
Briefly, in the film, Dwayne is in charge of security for a newly built tower, The Pearl, located in Hong Kong. The structure is two hundred and twenty stories tall, the tallest building in the world by almost twice. His wife (actress Neve Campbell) and their two children are inside The Pearl when terrorists set a fire on the 96th floor. Mr. Johnson's character is elsewhere in the city when the blaze is set and naturally is determined to get back into the building to save them.
Oh, did I mention he is missing a leg and wears a solidly built prosthesis?
Dwayne roars into hyper-drive when he realizes that his family is being pursued by very bad guys, also still inside the building. In order to get into the tower, he climbs a ninety-six-floor high skeletal metal stanchion situated next to the skyscraper, a crane perched on top. From the crane, he leaps across an impossibly broad abyss to access the building. Later in the movie, he literally holds two halves of the imploding tower together while trying to rescue one of his children; then he fights lots of bad guys and uses duct tape on his hands and feet in order to stick to the exterior of the building as he well, you get the idea.
His character is in no way supernatural or blessed with any strange genetic powers. He's not a Super-, Bat-, Iron- or Spider Man. He's an ordinary guy—like you and me-- missing a leg and out to save his family.
We've all seen many versions of this kind of action-packed drama; the Die Hard series, Lethal Weapon, Jason Bourne, Indiana Jones or any of the Marvel films inhabited by characters who, by and large, have all their limbs and are, in addition, especially gifted.
And gifted or not, there is a point in all of these films when the hero is spent, choices narrowed to zero and the final challenge seemingly impossible to achieve.
What I haven't seen in these tense dramatic moments of this sort of film is prayer. No hero ever asks God for help. Come on! Whether you are an atheist or a Christian, a Buddhist or Hindu, moments of great challenge will bring on some exhortation of the divine.
It may catch you by surprise but there it is. If you, an ordinary person even with both of your legs, were staring at a fast-spreading fire on a high floor of a skyscraper through which you must proceed in order to rescue your daughter, wouldn't you, -- by force of habit, from fear for your mortal soul or from the sheer magnitude of what lies ahead --mutter something like "Help me, God," or "Watch over me, Jesus," or "My life is in your hands, Allah?"
What better time to appeal to the almighty or to some force greater than our puny selves? OK. Mr. Johnson is in no way puny. But still!
When I am nervous before, say, an important job interview, I will utter some version of "Watch over me, God." I say this almost by rote, a religious rabbit's foot I rub with no particular belief but not wanting to leave any spiritual stone unturned. I was raised Catholic, yet haven't counted myself formally religious for years. I am spiritual, I suppose, with no singular God in my mind when I call out for some divine assistance. It's just a thing.
So why don't Dwayne, Bruce, Mel or Matt or even the uber-gifted Avengers ever call upon some heavenly energy to help them when they are at the penultimate life or death moment of the movie?
Does praying to God make a hero a wuss?
Do we expect our heroes to be completely cut off from the Divine and that their strength, endurance and bravery is found flowing exclusively from their own brawn created by their own hard work?
In the course of our own humdrum lives, have we become suspect of a God who doesn't seem to acknowledge our most fervent prayers to him or her?
The answer could be partly any of the above, yet I can't help but wonder, is this cinematic God-neglect related to America's struggle to identify who, in fact, God is? Is God Catholic? Is God Jewish? Is God Muslim? Is God an evangelical Christian?
The producers of films may feel that the mention of God in their action movies will bring about attention to this question. What God is the hero referencing? The "wrong" God could be bad for the box office. And no one wants to do poorly at the box office.
Is Dwayne Johnson's God in Skyscraper the God of Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man?
I wish folks who believe in the divine would, no matter what their religion is, agree that God is God. End of story. Whatever the religion, the divine energy is the same whatever earthly name that entity may have been assigned by His gravity-bound celebrants.
We are a long way from that kind of sacred giving over; Evangelicals line up against other Christian sects. Jews disavow Allah. In India, the Sikhs are at war with the Hindu, all fighting against and politicalizing one another's concept of God.
At the end of the day, I have no single answer to the heroes of cinema's rejection of God. There is something so very American about the expectation that "real" men, heroic men, are to be alone, silent and self-propelled, be it in going to a job interview or fighting terrorists on the two-hundred and twentieth floor of a fictional skyscraper.
George Lucas solved the divine problem quite deftly in his various Star Wars iterations. The solution certainly worked for Luke Skywalker and his millions of loyal fans. Maybe it is the closest we will ever get to a hat tip for the Supreme.
"May the Force be with you."