Mr Mom: an insider’s retrospective

Mr Mom (1983) is a major Hollywood film, starring Michael Keaton and Teri Garr, about a man called Jack who loses his job and ends up caring for his children while his wife, Caroline, goes out to work.

I like to think it couldn’t be made now. At this point there are enough men who are not breadwinners, or at least enough people who understand that this shouldn’t matter, that the premise no longer seems whimsical.

If anything, it’s a surprise that it could have been made as recently as 1983. I mean, watch this trailer.

“He became the lady of the house”? What the hell?

I have a special interest in Mr Mom because my life is approximately the same as Jack’s. That is, I’m a stay-at-home dad, but I wasn’t always.

The first thing to say is that Mr Mom is much more nuanced than its trailer suggests. While the cinematic trailer does indeed frame Jack’s predicament as an absurd and mind-boggling violation of the natural order, in the actual film he just gets on with it like a good sport and nobody really raises an eyebrow.

This more or less reflects my own experience. While it’s not always easy to be a “lady of the house” when you’re a man, nobody has ever ridiculed my lifestyle to my face. When I tell people what I do they tend to be indifferent, though older people are often effusively supportive, presumably to mask their deep shock.

Even so, I sense that assumptions are made about my competence as a male full-time parent, and I sometimes play up to these. My tacit role whenever I speak with the women who run the office at my children’s school is the hopeless, forgetful, congenitally useless dad, which suits me because that’s actually what I am. The widespread assumption that I’m a fish out of water – or at least my own assumption that that’s how everybody sees me – allows me to get away with not trying to appear competent, which is clearly an excellent perk of being a man which isn’t available to women, who have to suffer the burden of assumed competence.

Mr Mom gets this about right, with some dramatic licence. On his first day in charge of the home, Jack goes to the supermarket, clutching a shopping list that his wife wrote for him. His children knock over displays, he can’t decide which kind of ham to buy, and at one point he even loses his youngest child – a baby – altogether. His closest character analogue from the world of film is Corporal Upham in Saving Private Ryan during the battle at Ramelle. Watch.

Later on he tries to do the laundry. He overloads the machine with detergent and it judders ominously, before exploding. A TV repair person, a pest control person, and a plumber all arrive at roughly the same time and compete for his attention while he runs around trying to keep his children alive and his house intact. He succeeds, but only just.

Over time, Jack loses pride in his appearance. He wears his wife’s glasses for some reason (if they share a prescription, why doesn’t he have his own glasses?), along with a dirty old flannel shirt that he never washes. He puts on weight (like me), and grows a careless beard (like me), exhibiting the signs of a person in a state of mourning or deep depression (still me).

Obviously, this is a comic exaggeration of what happens when an inexperienced parent takes over the running of a household, but there’s a kernel of truth in it. When I took over I genuinely couldn’t work out how to get my eldest daughter ready for school in the morning. I went absolutely batshit on a daily basis as I scrambled to iron clothes, clean teeth, and brush hair within the time allowed. Every school run was a furious wrist-yanking speed march in time bomb conditions.

But that was then. Jack eventually learns how to run his house like a pro, and so have I. I now have to get TWO children ready for school, rather than just one, and I even have to make a packed lunch for one of them due to an ill-advised moment of indulgence several months ago that I cannot reverse. And it’s easy.

I was probably a bit more competent than Jack at the outset, and arguably a bit less competent by the end of the film, when Jack successfully runs the household for a day and prepares a gourmet dish for his wife after the children have gone to bed, which I have never done, nor attempted, and never will. But I think Jack and I went on more or less the same journey, from idiotic buffoon to proficient homemaker.


There are respects in which our stories diverge, however. Mr Mom has something to say about the dangers that await men and women who venture outside their respective habitats. When Caroline starts going to work in an office it soon becomes apparent that her male boss wants to seduce her, and his eventual attempt at this almost certainly constitutes sexual assault. Meanwhile at home Jack ends up in the sexual crosshairs of a glamorous divorcee, who bamboozles him with her cleavage and even climbs onto his bed.

Nothing of this kind has happened to me.

Yes, Jack is far more personable than I am, but the ease with which he integrates himself into the community of housewives and mothers is still a bit of a stretch. And I have to say the film loses points here in its gender politics, because he doesn’t just integrate. He dominates. Pretty soon his wife’s former friends are congregating at his house, where he shows them the error of their ways by teaching them how to play poker instead of the inferior, female game of bridge. His amorous pursuer turns on the charm, despite his hirsute appearance, unwashed clothes, expanding waistline, and the unappealing disorder of his home. (This isn’t a gender politics issue in particular. It just doesn’t seem fair.)

But there’s another striking gender politics misstep in Mr Mom, and it concerns Jack’s continued search for a job. Jack’s wife finds work before him, and it emerges that she’s at least as talented an advertising executive as he is an engineer. So, great, you’d think. The family is saved. The instigating problem – loss of household income – has been solved, and all that remains is for Jack to attain the level of competence and satisfaction in his new role as his wife once enjoyed.

That’s broadly the arc of Mr Mom, but something odd keeps happening. Even though Caroline is gainfully employed, Jack keeps going to interviews. Why? There are two possible explanations. A) Caroline isn’t paid enough in her advertising job to support the family. And B) Jack is a man.

According to, the median salary for an advertising executive is $43,653, while an automotive engineer earns $74,363 on average. Assuming the relative status of these professions hasn’t changed too dramatically in the last 30 years, this lends some weight to explanation A. But why wouldn’t the script make this clear? How hard would it have been to include an extra line of dialogue explaining that Caroline is working pro tem while Jack finds more lucrative employment?

For that reason, I suspect explanation B is correct. After all, there are numerous examples of fictional advertising executives earning a comfortable living (Bewitched, Friends, The Crazy Ones). For all that Mr Mom seems remarkably progressive, it still contains an underlying assumption that Jack will go back to work. In order to satisfy audience expectations in 1983, the absurd anomaly of Jack’s male worklessness must end.

As it happens, the film resolves this issue with a cleverly ambiguous fudge. Caroline quits her job after her boss sexually assaults her, but her boss shows up at her house and begs her to come back. At precisely the same moment, Jack’s former employer shows up and begs him to come back too. The credits roll while negotiations are still ongoing, so the audience can make its own mind up about how things pan out.


The scene in the film that best evokes my own experience is the one where Jack brings Caroline dinner in their bedroom and they have an argument. Here it is.

I’ve had pretty much this exact conversation, though my wife was nicer to me than Caroline is to Jack.

“My brain is like oatmeal,” Jack says. “I yelled at Kenny today for colouring outside the lines. Megan and I are starting to watch the same TV shows, and I’m liking them. I’m losing it.”  

Check, check, check.

I once had an idle conversation with my wife, to pass the time on a long drive, about how many anonymous people we’d be prepared to kill or let die to save our children. The answer, of course, was all of the people on Earth, anonymous or otherwise. As you would rightly expect, nothing matters more to me than my children, and, when I’m in the right mood, nothing delights me more. Yet I crave their absence almost constantly, and I’m certain that they have dulled my brain, shortened my life, and radically diminished me as a person.

Honey, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve been there myself, okay?

This is the bit that shames me. Whenever I go into a sulk, which is every day for between two and five hours depending on the Radio 4 schedule, I’m aware that the condition I’m bemoaning is the one that women have been expected to put up with for centuries. I didn’t really sympathise before. I do now.

Well if you were so unhappy why didn’t you say something about it?

Many women did, of course. I grew up watching the Carla Lane sitcoms that my mother watched, about disaffected housewives and underappreciated matriarchs. The sitcom Butterflies and the movie Shirley Valentine were about women who had given up work to look after their children. I have to admit that I played devil’s advocate back then. What about the husbands? I thought. Do you think they enjoy going out to work every day? Don’t you think they might like to stay at home and watch soap operas instead? What a fool I was.

Look, maybe I was a little confused. Maybe I was a little frustrated. But I knew what I was doing was important, because it means something to raise decent human beings. What saw me through was pride. I had pride in the kids. I had pride in this house, and I had pride in being Mrs Jack Butler.

This is great. This is exactly how a person should feel about staying at home and looking after their children. But for some people, maybe most people, pride is elusive. It’s a purely theoretical phenomenon, easily eclipsed by the actual boredom, anger, and frustration that giving up work to care for a small child can engender.

I wish I could see things the way Caroline does. It’s not clear whether Jack ever gets to, but he certainly seems happier by the time his former employer shows up to restore harmony to the universe by putting him back to work in a loud manly factory.

Is there a message about gender in the different ways that Caroline and Jack understand the role of full-time parent? Yes and no. Mostly no. Like many stay-at-home fathers raised in a patriarchal society, I occasionally feel embarrassed not to be out at work all day, providing for my family. But Jack is much more mature than me, and doesn’t seem to have that hang-up at all. He just struggles with the logistical and mental challenges of full-time parenting, like anyone – male or female – would if they were suddenly required to do it.

Eventually he starts to experience the perks. In one scene, as Caroline is about to abandon the family on Halloween to shoot a commercial in LA, Jack tells her, “Megan just cut two new teeth. I bet you didn’t know that. Alex is playing football. Remember Kenny’s security blanket? He doesn’t have it any more. He doesn’t use it. It’s gone.”

Jack is set up as the wisdom-dispensing good guy in this scene, but I find his remarks a bit unkind. Caroline, her eyes shining, is powerless to do anything about it. “You gave me some real good advice once,” Jack continues. “So now let me give you some of mine: it’s real easy to forget what’s important. So don’t.”

This is an oversimplification, of course. Family is important, but so is having an identity outside of family, and aspirations that are particular to your own sense of what you’re cut out for and what you can achieve.

Being a full-time parent robs you of all that. But it gives you other things in return, such as the (absolutely reprehensible) secret thrill of knowing that you are the winning parent – the one your child runs to after an absence, and seeks out after a nightmare.

As consolations go, that’s okay.


The grief shark (or, you won’t believe what these 7 stories have in common!!!)

Warning: this post contains spoilers for Good Will Hunting, Rushmore, Dean Spanley, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, True Detective, Inside Out, and Manchester by the Sea.


When I was 14 my dad died suddenly of a heart attack.

I was out at the cinema on the night that it happened. The last words I said to him were probably, “give me a fiver.” I don’t know what his last words to me were because he gave me the money without saying anything, and I took it without saying anything, and that was that.

I didn’t go to the funeral. I didn’t cry. I was too weird, angry, and repressed. I wondered later whether it was strange that I hadn’t grieved, but I figured it just came at the wrong time. I was too consumed by adolescent madness.

I pushed my grief down and now it lurks in me, like a shark. I never know where it is, but I’m pretty sure it can’t get out, and I don’t want it to. Even if I could de-shark myself, as though it were an abcess I could drain, which is another of the things it feels like, I wouldn’t, because this is all I’ve ever been and I don’t know how being fixed might change me.

Anyway, let’s talk about telly stuff!

After watching Manchester by the Sea a couple of weeks ago, and then enduring the massive bout of crushing melancholia this duly triggered, I realised that throughout my life certain films, television programs, and even videogames have got under my skin, by which I mean I couldn’t stop thinking about them after watching or playing them.

Having something get under your skin is different from just being emotionally affected by it. Kramer vs Kramer affected me, in that it seriously bummed me out. Ditto Awakenings, Room, and The Road, but none of these films got under my skin in the way that Manchester by the Sea did.

The stories that have managed to get under my skin, as opposed to just bumming me out, are mainly, but not entirely: Good Will Hunting, Rushmore, Dean Spanley, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, True Detective, Inside Out, and Manchester by the Sea.

Four of these came after I had children, and it’s pretty obvious that their ability to get under my skin had a lot to do with parenthood. It’s much easier to get under my skin now. The Walking Dead is all about looking after a little girl. True Detective is about a man whose daughter died. Inside Out is about a little girl going through a traumatic life experience. Manchester by the Sea is about a man whose children died in a fire. It’s possible that if I had watched Kramer vs Kramer and The Road after I had children they would have got under my skin too.

But I don’t think so. In all of these examples, parenthood just intensified the effect, in the same way that religion seems to intensify, but not cause, enmity towards others. Being a parent has made me more anxious and emotionally vulnerable, but that has only helped stories to do their work. Good Will Hunting, Rushmore, and Dean Spanley were able to get under my skin without the emotional accelerant of parenthood, so clearly there’s an objective, qualitative difference between stories that get under my skin and stories that merely bum me out, above and beyond the presence of sad children.

For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to give a synopsis of any of the films, games, and TV shows I’m about to discuss, so if you haven’t seen or played them you won’t know what I’m talking about.

The bit of Good Will Hunting that gets under my skin is, obviously, the bit where Sean tells Will that it’s not his fault.

See this? All this shit. It’s not your fault.

The bit of Rushmore that gets under my skin is when he’s introducing his play at the end.

This play is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Eloise Fischer. And to Edward Appleby. A friend of a friend.

The bit of Dean Spanley that gets under my skin is the ten-minute flashback at the end in which Dean Spanley describes the final hours of his previous life as Horatio Fisk’s beloved childhood dog.

I am put in memory of my son, Harrington. That is all.

The bit of The Walking Dead that gets under my skin is when Katja realises that Duck has reached the end of his life and Kenny, having been steadfastly ignoring the subject, finally concurs.

Kenny, it’s time.

The bit of True Detective that gets under my skin is when wheelchair-bound Rust tells Marty about his near death experience.

And beneath that darkness there was another kind – it was deeper – warm, like a substance. I could feel man, I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me there. So clear. I could feel her.

The bit of Inside Out that gets under my skin is when Joy and Sadness get back to the command centre and Sadness takes control of the console.

I know you don’t want me to, but I want my old friends, and my hockey team. I want to go home. Please don’t be mad.

These examples all use the same story technique, though in different ways. I call this technique ‘grief sharking’, and this is how it works.

First, at the outset of the story, or scene, the author establishes that a character – usually the protagonist – has grounds for grief. Then the story goes on to deal with other business that ostensibly has nothing to do with that grief. It disappears under the surface and swims out of view, reappearing only occasionally as a vague troubling shadow, before leaping out of the water and emotionally savaging the audience in the final act.

The technique is used in different ways. In True Detective, perhaps the greatest feat of narrative misdirection on this list, the grief shark barely makes an appearance in eight hours of television. In episode one, while drunk, Rust tersely reveals to Maggie over dinner that he had a daughter, but that she passed, and Marty raises this shock disclosure with him later by way of offering consolation. Much later, while being interviewed by two detectives, Rust mentions his daughter again, this time apparently trying to persuade himself, within his own pessimistic philosophical framework, that her death was a kindness.

I think about my daughter now, you know, what she was spared. Sometimes I feel grateful.

Other than that, she doesn’t really make an appearance until the final scene, when Rust discards his ultra-sceptical worldview and describes with wonder the moment he encountered his daughter’s soul in the anteroom to the afterlife, before dissolving into tears.

In an instant, every word that Rust has said throughout the preceding eight hours of television, his obsession, his nihilism, his rage, reveals itself to be a symptom of grief. The sceptical mindset he adopted was a way of containing that grief. The whole time he was on screen he was just really, really sad and really, really angry, and everything he did was a result of those emotions.

True Detective is an epic demonstration of highly disciplined grief sharking, but it can take place in a much smaller frame. In Telltale’s The Walking Dead it happens within a single sequence. First, Duck is bitten by a zombie. Then, he becomes ill. Then you spend some time walking around solving puzzles, while Duck’s father, Kenny, stoically refuses to contemplate the implications of Duck’s infection.

The sickly boy being comforted by his mother Katja is a raw wound in the chapter. I found myself looking away whenever I had to cross that bit of scenery, not really thinking about it but hoping on some level that Kenny was right, and, more prosaically, that Telltale wouldn’t kill off a child whom the player had got to know.

So when Katja said to Kenny, “It’s time,” I completely fell to pieces, precisely because up to that point I had been ignoring my grief. It was a grief shark, and it bit me in half.

The authors of Rushmore and Dean Spanley take a different tack, distracting you from the grief shark with whimsy. Early in both films we learn that a close relative of the central character has died. Then for much of the remainder of both films we enjoy a quaint story in which the protagonists develop strange obsessions, before those deaths resurface amid thrashing and blood in the final act.

In Rushmore, Max spends most of the film embroiled in a farcical love triangle with a teacher and a middle-aged man, but when he eventually takes to the stage and dedicates a play to his mother, Eloise Fischer, and to Edward Appleby, a friend of a friend, we come to understand that his infatuation with Miss Cross was never romantic. He just misses his mother, and wants her to be proud of him, and he mistook his craving for something else. (Side note: Wes Anderson uses grief sharking in a lot of his films. One of them, The Life Aquatic, is literally about a grief shark. See if you can think of any more examples of Andersonian grief sharking!)

In Dean Spanley, bereaved brother Henslowe Fisk spends the majority of the film trying to acquire dessert wine in order to coax a dean into admitting that he used to be a dog belonging to Henslowe’s father, Horatio Fisk, making him a brother of sorts. It is only when he succeeds in this enterprise in the presence of his father, who has so far exhibited indifference over the loss of his son, that we see what Henslowe has been getting at. Listening to an account of the final hours of his beloved childhood pet, Horatio is put in memory of his son – a place he has hitherto resisted being put. Dean Spanley leads us into the water and the grief shark lunges.

Inside Out uses a different approach. Instead of submerging grief it hyper-articulates it, showing us not only the outer effects but also the internal processes that underpin these effects. In shark terms, it uses a high definition underwater camera and GPS tracking beacon. Through the exploits of Joy, Sadness et al we know exactly what’s going on in Riley’s head as she copes with the double-loss of her childhood and previous happy life. It’s as if there’s a whole school of grief sharks on the screen, painted in primary colours and performing tricks.

Except that’s not what’s happening at all. The exploits of Joy and Sadness are just a colourful, mostly happy distraction. Nobody is at the controls, and Riley is numb. When Sadness finally puts her hands on the console to bring about the simple spectacle of a little girl in distress, the real grief shark breaks away from its rainbow school of decoys and rips your head clean off.

I think stories get under your skin when they articulate feelings that you can’t properly articulate to yourself. The story leads you down a neural pathway and into a mental chamber that you can’t, or won’t, find on your own, and it stays with you until you find your way back.

Stories containing grief sharks aren’t the only ones that take you into yourself like this. Manchester by the Sea doesn’t contain a grief shark, but it got under my skin more than any other story I’ve experienced. After a few weeks of sombre reflection I think I might even have worked out why, but the reason has nothing to do with sharks so I won’t go into it here.

Obviously, people respond to different stories in different ways. You may be invulnerable to grief sharks, because you’re not insane in the exact way that I’m insane, but you might be insane in a different way and susceptible to another kind of storytelling device. However, I would counsel against crowbarring this device into an animal metaphor and writing a blog post about it, because, as you have just discovered, that would be weird.

On realising that Morph is a person of colour


A few months ago, my daughter bought ten episodes of Morph using an Amazon Fire tablet on which I had neglected to apply parental controls. I punished her by forcing her to watch Morph, even when she wanted to watch something else. It was while supervising one of these punitive viewings that I first realised: Morph is a person of colour.

As soon as I saw it, I couldn’t understand how I’d never seen it before. The only colour-related impression I had absorbed from watching Morph as a child was that Chas, Morph’s antagonistic friend, had a sort of sickly pallor.

Which is to say, Chas looks like me, whereas Morph is a rich, orangey brown colour, like Denzel Washington – and so are his grandfather and his friend Delilah. It’s obvious once you see it. They are a predominantly non-white group, with one incorrigible white member who incessantly misbehaves – a dynamic that appeals to me because I’m a white metropolitan self-loathing leftie.

I immediately Googled, “Morph is a person of colour” to see whether Morph’s non-whiteness was common knowledge, but there were no relevant results on the internet, suggesting that I might actually be the first person to notice. 

When my wife got home from work I told her that Morph is a person of colour. She wasn’t convinced. “He’s just clay,” she said, only hesitating when I showed her a picture of Morph standing next to Chas.

I pointed out that Morph isn’t made of clay. He’s made of plasticine, which comes in every colour, meaning that his hue represents a choice made by a person. “Still,” she said, which is code for, “you’re wrong but I can’t be bothered to explain why.”

Resigned to investigating the Morph question alone, I tried to remember how I perceived the character when I was nine. Perhaps I didn’t detect the superficial tonal differences between Morph and Chas because, as a child, I hadn’t been exposed to the wider connotations associated with race in society.

I don’t remember knowing a single non-white child at my primary school in suburban Kent, but according to my Morph thesis it’s perfectly possible that I actually grew up in a vibrant multicultural melting pot and have no memory of this because race is – quite rightly – not worth registering for a child in the way that, say, the ability to draw sharks is (hello Grant Hughes.)

So that’s the explanation for my erstwhile colour-blindness concerning Morph: I watched it before cultural conditioning forced me to perceive race.

Even though noticing that Morph is a person of colour was a clear sign of lost innocence, I was pleased that I had. It made me see the program in a new light. Suddenly Morph was a gently progressive project, depicting characters of all races and types without making their inclusion about race, paradoxically emphasising the irrelevance of skin colour by making it almost impossible to notice, which is how it should be.

Unfortunately, my thesis started to fall apart as soon as I realised that Morph also features a blue character (Gillespie), a character made of tinfoil (Folly), and a dog which is actually a nailbrush. There are no blue or tinfoil humans, allowing for the distinct possibility that the creatures in Morph aren’t supposed to represent real humans at all, even though they are humanoid in appearance.

alienThis would explain why I found Chas mildly nauseating as a child. Morph is the colour of the clay we played with in school, and the clay I dug up at the bottom of my garden. He’s not actually made of clay, but he belongs to a class of mouldable, malleable things of which clay is the archetype. The colour suits him. Chas, on the other hand, is a weird, insipid alien colour that signifies nothing, and alien things are bad (unless, like Gobbledegook – left – they are supposed to be aliens).

Unfortunately, this explanation paints me in rather a bad light. It suggests that as a child I was suspicious of deviation from norms within a category. Just as I spent ten years refusing to eat sausages because I once ate a sausage that tasted slightly different from the other sausages that I had eaten, I unconsciously recoiled from Chas on the grounds that he didn’t look like the idea I had formed in my mind of what a clay person should look like. In other words, I thought like a racist – albeit, in my defence, never about people.

All of which leaves me none the wiser on the question of why I suddenly came to perceive Morph as a person of colour in my late 30s, or why I am evidently the only person to see him this way, though I expect I am unconsciously obeying a tacit instruction by my beloved liberal media to be more mindful about race and diversity.

When I realised that Morph is a person of colour, I interpreted his unacknowledged non-whiteness as a sort of collective racist delusion. People expected a character devised by a white man, appearing on a show in which only white people appear, on a channel overwhelmingly populated by white people, to also be white, and so they assumed he was white in defiance of the visible evidence. I congratulated myself for not falling prey to this delusion.

But you could side with my wife and argue that nobody thought Morph is a person of colour for the same reason that nobody thought Chas is white: because they are both imaginary and made of plasticine.


Saving Private Ryan: the only WWII film in which the Nazis are the good guys

sprSaving Private Ryan is a weird, contradiction-riddled film.

It throws gritty, gut-wrenching realism in its battle sequences together with preposterous Hollywood whimsy in its dialogue and in the psychology of its characters. It shows us how awful war is, but then expects us to believe that Private James Francis Ryan of Iowa would rather continue fighting in one than go home to his bereaved mother.

And, more generally, the whole thing makes no sense. I’m not a military man, but I’ve seen Band of Brothers so I’m pretty much up to speed on most matters of military strategy, and I find it extremely unlikely that somebody as important as a company commander (i.e. the equivalent of Winters in BoB) would be risked on a weird commando mission. Nor do I accept that the army would actually have misplaced Private Ryan so completely. There are radios.

Even Tom Hanks is all wrong in the film. The way the rest of the characters talk about him makes it clear that he’s supposed to be some gruff, forbidding, awesome figure. He’s a super soldier, assembled from GI parts. His background is such a closely guarded secret that his men place bets behind his back on what his civilian job might be.

But also he’s Tom Hanks. Lovely, avuncular, wisecracking Tom Hanks. Not the grim Tom Hanks of Road to Perdition, but the nice Tom Hanks of everything else. His soldiers could just ask him what he used to do for a living – at no point in the film does he come across in a way that suggests he would take offence or withhold the answer.

That’s the weird double-ness of Saving Private Ryan. It’s uncompromisingly gritty and truthful in some respects, but utterly unconvincing and flimsy in others. The overall effect is like watching an episode of Sesame Street filmed in the bad bit of Aleppo.

But the most interesting thing about Saving Private Ryan is that it may be the only film set during the Second World War in which the Germans are incontrovertibly the good guys and the Americans (no other allied nationality is depicted) are the baddies.

This may seem like a surprising assertion, but it is completely correct. Just look at the evidence.

The Germans

There are a number of moments in Saving Private Ryan when you might find yourself getting cross with the Germans. Here are a few of the most obvious ones.

1 – When they subject the Allies to an unrelenting barrage of machine gun, sniper, and mortar fire on Omaha beach.

2 – When a German soldier who was spared execution by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) then goes on to possibly kill Captain Miller during the final battle.

3 – When a German machine gunner kills Private Wade (Giovanni Ribisi).

4 – When a German SS soldier beats Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg) in a fight and stabs him in the heart with his own knife.

5 – When a German sniper shoots Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel) while he’s holding a little girl and trying to help a family.

6 – When a German machine gunner keeps shooting the runner in the French village even though he’s obviously dead.

And here is why you are wrong to get annoyed with the Germans in each of those cases.

1 – That was their job.

2 – That was his job.

3 – That was his job.

4 – Not only was that his job, but he tried to console Mellish by whispering, “Gib’ auf, du hast keine Chance! Lass’ es uns beenden! Es ist einfacher für dich, viel einfacher. Du wirst sehen, es ist gleich vorbei,” which roughly means, “Give up, let it happen, it will be simpler, you’ll see, it’s nearly over.”

5 – That was his job, and it’s significant that the girl and her family were unharmed.

6 – As Miller himself points out, the shooter must ensure that the messenger is unable to deliver his message. That is his job.

Of course, you can make a sort of overarching argument that ALL of the things done by German soldiers in Saving Private Ryan are evil, since the Germans were fighting for Hitler, but I think this is an unfair generalisation. While many German soldiers, and particularly SS soldiers, must have shared Hitler’s suspicions of the Jews, it would be unreasonable to simply assume that every soldier felt this way. In fact, the only reference to anti-semitism in the entire film is made by an American, Private Mellish (see below.)

I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt – even German soldiers in the Second World War – but if you like you can chalk ‘being a German soldier’ up as a tally on the ‘evil’ side of the ledger. Even so, that’s 6-1 in favour of ‘not evil’.

The Allies/Americans

Now let’s look at the Allies/Americans. If you watched Saving Private Ryan from the starting assumption that the Germans are the baddies and the Allies are the goodies in the Second World War then it’s possible that you didn’t really register the many war crimes and unspeakable acts committed by the Americans in the film, because you were too busy cheering them on. Here are a few you might have missed:

1 – During the battle at Omaha beach, American soldiers storm the German bunkers at the top of the cliff and clear them with flamethrowers. As the flaming German soldiers hurl themselves over the side and down the cliff, one American soldier says to another, “don’t shoot. Let them burn.”

2 – Shortly afterwards, two American soldiers shoot two Axis soldiers as they desperately try to surrender with their hands up. While rifling through the pockets of the dead soldiers, one American soldier asks the other what the enemy soldiers were saying, and his friend makes a callous joke. In fact, the unfortunate soldiers were trying to tell the Americans that they were Czech conscripts.

3 – In the Normandy village, Sergeant Hill (Paul Giamatti) knocks over a beam, which in turn knocks over a brick wall, revealing a small party of German soldiers who had been hiding. A standoff ensues, during which both sides frantically attempt to negotiate a peaceful outcome. Then Captain Hamill (Ted Danson) appears and simply shoots all of the Germans.

4 – After an assault on a German machine gun post during which Wade is killed, several American soldiers attempt to execute the last surviving German soldier extrajudicially, and are only deterred from this course of action by Miller’s revelation that he usually works as a teacher and doesn’t particularly enjoy being at war.

5 – Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) shoots the German soldier whose execution he previously helped to avert after taking him prisoner on the bridge at the end of the film. And then he lets the other prisoners go. WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON UPHAM?

6 – Upham fails to intervene during the fight between Mellish and his killer. The German soldier who wins the fight passes the cowering Upham on the stairs, peers shiftily around the corner, and runs off in the direction of the fighting. In the moment it’s natural to attribute the German’s apparent shiftiness to the fact that he has just murdered somebody, but a sober examination of the facts shows that he was simply doing his duty by killing Mellish. He only looks shifty because he should have killed Upham too, and would face a court martial if his clemency were to be discovered.

7 – Mellish taunts German prisoners of war by brandishing his Star of David and saying, “Jude, Jude.” Now, this is a difficult point. There’s no question whatsoever that the Nazi programme was unspeakably awful, but is it fair to just assume that all of the German prisoners were anti-semites? Many of them were probably unwilling conscripts, perhaps with Jewish friends. It’s even possible that the German soldiers themselves had one Jewish parent or grandparent, and it’s equally plausible to suppose that – like the unfortunate capitulaters on Omaha beach – they weren’t even German.

But these are all details. Just as there’s an overarching argument against the Germans because they are putatively fighting for Hitler and his unbelievably evil military aims, there’s a case to be made that the entire mission in Saving Private Ryan is immoral. After all, it’s a story about six people – Miller, Wade, Caparzo, Mellish, Horvath, and Jackson – dying to rescue one person – Private Ryan.

This travesty doesn’t escape the film-makers, who have the central group of characters complain frequently and at length about their predicament. And, for good measure, the moral mathematics of the situation are explored elsewhere, such as when Miller meets a pilot whose plane crashed, killing several, because it was weighed down with a sheet of metal installed to protect a single high ranking officer.

Basically, as depicted in Saving Private Ryan, the American military high command are arseholes.


Whatever way you look at it, the German soldiers are the heroes of Saving Private Ryan. They behave themselves impeccably throughout, only kill when the situation calls for it, rarely fire the first shot, and even show mercy when an enemy soldier is exhibiting signs of emotional distress.

The Americans, conversely, behave like psychopaths. They beat and shoot prisoners of war, cruelly decline to put men who are burning alive out of their misery, make crude generalisations about the racial beliefs of captured German soldiers, and sacrifice several lives for the sake of one for no other reason than crass sentimentality.

The irony is, the Germans actually were the bad guys of the Second World War. Not only was their overall goal deeply iniquitous, but their conduct in Normandy was far more likely to be cruel and barbaric than that of the Allies, who tended on the whole to behave themselves. Saving Private Ryan isn’t even a balanced account, like Band of Brothers was, depicting good and bad behaviour on both sides.

It’s basically a film about Americans being stupid, cowardly, and cruel to a German army that deserves much better. I’m not sure this is intentional.

You are wrong about: The US Office (and company)

carrellPeople seem to enjoy shows like Parks and Recreation, the US Office, and Modern Family, and it’s quite possible that you enjoy these shows too. But you are very wrong to feel that way. Let me explain.

The DVD extras for the film This is Spinal Tap – which begat The Office which begat The US Office, Modern Family, Life is Short, and any number of similarly presented sitcoms that you are probably wrong about – include a sort of parallel dimension movie made up of scenes from the cutting room floor. It lasts over an hour, and it’s as funny as the actual film.

These scenes were left out of This is Spinal Tap not because they aren’t funny, but because they’re not authentic. Similarly, there are deleted scenes from The Office which Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais omitted expressly because they were too obvious, too joke-like, to fit tonally with a show purporting to be a documentary (it’s a shame the pair didn’t maintain this standard for Life is Short).

Conversely, every other mockumentary sitcom you can think of doesn’t even pretend to appear to try and be even vaguely authentic, often supplying questionable pretexts for the fictional film crews to be present and producing characters that behave in conspicuously unrealistic, broadly comic fashion, and conveniently explain their motivations, intentions, and references to camera in a way that it would be quite wrong of you to enjoy.

These explanations to camera are dirty shortcuts, just as pretty much every device arising from the choice to make a sitcom in the documentary style is a cheat, existing purely to make exposition easier to impart, dramatic irony easier to create, and to set up an endless succession of cheap gags that follow a single not-very-funny template.

Exposition: in the normal rules of drama, the story needs to be explained in the situation, by characters in conversation and events on the screen. When a writer has a character provide story information in an unnatural way they are rightly ridiculed for it. The Austin Powers movies feature a character – Basil Exposition – who exists specifically to send up this kind of narrative shortcut (while cunningly also allowing the writers to take it).

But now, somehow, we’ve allowed a breakaway faction of slovely hacks to circumvent the rules entirely and have their characters look you right in the fricking eyes, whenever they want, and tell you exactly what’s happening and/or exactly how they feel about it. You should deplore this practice, even though you probably don’t.

Modern mockumentaries are also stuffed with a certain kind of gag that works like this:

a) Character makes a claim.

b) Footage contradicts the claim.

For example:

a) John (to camera): “I’m very dignified.”

b) John is upside down in a dustbin.

Or they can work the other way around, e.g.:

a) John (to his wife): “Yes, honey, I got the rollerskates!”

b) John (being interviewed): “I did not get the rollerskates.”

This is the cheapest kind of joke imaginable, relying on a simple collision of statements in every case, and each moment of airtime a show like Modern Family or The US Office pads out with pulpy gags like these is a deplorable waste of your time. The fact that you think you’re enjoying them makes them all the more insidious.

But wait a minute, you might say (perhaps out of a misplaced desire to defend your taste), all of the shortcuts and cheats described above might just as easily appear in a well-made mockumentary like The Office and This is Spinal Tap. That’s true, but the difference is that, by scrupulously adhering to the restrictions they impose on themselves in making a show that purports to be a documentary, their writers also earn the right to enjoy the perks – the easy exposition, the flatpack dramatic irony, the easy gags. The writers of The Office and This is Spinal Tap respect you.

The writers of Modern Family et al, on the other hand, despise you, because they know that you are letting them get away with inferior workmanship.

Like drug addicts or compulsive gamblers, they secretly want to be confronted and put on a better path, and they hate you for blindly enabling their depraved, corrupting rampage.

They of all people know that you are utterly wrong to enjoy the absurd proposition they are presenting, and you owe it to them – and to yourself – to admit that you are wrong.

The scene that nearly ruined Cast Away


Cast Away (2000) is a film about a relatively fat, engaged man who ends up stranded on a remote tropical island, makes friends with a volleyball, loses a lot of weight, and finally makes his way home on a raft only to discover that he’s no longer engaged, and in addition is no longer friends with a volleyball.

In some ways it’s a miracle that Cast Away manages to be entertaining and moving despite featuring only one actor (Tom Hanks) for most of its running time. At one point the character Tom Hanks is portraying (Chuck Nolan) suffers a total mental breakdown because a ball is too far away, and the scene in which this happens is devastating, rather than, as you might expect based on that description alone, funny and confusing. Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis know how to tell a story.

However, even though it’s great, Cast Away is almost undone by its three-minute long penultimate scene.

Before we get to that, let’s recap the main points of the film.

Chuck has been right through the shit, surviving a plane crash, a self-administered dental extraction, a suicide attempt, and then four years of solitude before setting out on a flimsy raft to face almost certain death on the Pacific. Somehow, despite his raft taking such a severe battering that an astonished whale actually surfaces to gawk at his predicament, he ends up being rescued by the crew of a liner and taken home.

Unfortunately, when he arrives home he discovers that his fiancee Kelly has left him for a dentist, having assumed that he was dead, or at least indefinitely unavailable. In the third to last scene he visits her at home to retrieve his old car. As he’s driving away she follows him out into the rain, calls him back, kisses him, tells him he’s the love of her life, gets into the passenger seat. But then she remembers that she has a kid with the dentist. Bummer. She gets out of the car. Bad luck Chuck.

The film begins and ends with a shot of the same crossroads. Down one road lives a sculptor, whose unopened parcel Chuck has been protecting for four years as an identity-sustaining symbol of his link to his old life of quotidian dependability. At the end of the film Chuck could take one of two roads – he could go to the sculptor’s house (romance) or he could carry on ahead (adventure). We don’t know which way he’s going to choose when the end credits arrive, and this is how it should be. An ambiguous ending is like a narrative party bag for the audience to take away and enjoy. It’s the storyteller entrusting the audience with end of the story.

But this pleasingly open-ended conclusion just makes the preceding, second to last scene all the more perplexing.

Immediately after Kelly steps out of Chuck’s car and goes back into her house, we find him at his friend Stan’s house by the fire, wrapped in a towel and nursing a stiff drink, looking more like an ordeal survivor than at any point so far. This is a nice enough touch that conveys the impact of his loss.

But every line that comes out of Chuck’s mouth for the next three minutes is utter garbage of one kind or another.

Here’s a clip (I can’t include the whole thing for copyright reasons, but you can see in this excerpt that even Tom Hanks struggles to deliver his lines like a human):

Full transcript: We both had done the math (sic). Kelly added it all up, knew she had to let me go. I added it up, knew that I had lost her, because I was never going to get off that island. I was going to die there. Totally alone. Maybe I was going to get sick, or injured.

The only choice I had, the only control, was when and how and where it was going to happen. So I made a rope, and I went up to the summit to hang myself. I had to test it, you know. Of course. You know me. And the weight of the log snapped the limb of the tree. I couldn’t even kill myself the way I wanted to. I had power over nothing.

That’s when this feeling came over me like a warm blanket. I knew, somehow, that I had to stay alive. Somehow. I had to keep breathing, even though there was no reason to hope, and all my logic said that I would never see this place again.

So that’s what I did. I stayed alive, I kept breathing, and one day that logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in, gave me a sail. And now here I am. I’m back, in Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass. And I’ve lost her all over again.

I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly, but I’m so grateful that she was with me on that island.

And I know what I have to do now. Keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?

The first maxim you are likely to hear when you take even the remotest interest in creative writing is “show, don’t tell.” Storytelling guru Robert Mckee elaborated colourfully on this maxim when he urged writers to use subtext. “If the story you’re telling, is the story you’re telling, you’re in deep shit.”

Though Chuck’s monologue contains a corny metaphor about tides, it’s completely without subtext. He’s simply telling his friend how he feels about the things that have happened to him, describing to the audience in the process events that they’ve already witnessed, and feelings that they are perfectly capable of inferring for themselves. He even describes – in detail – what’s happening in real time: “And now here I am. I’m back, in Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass.”.

Yes Chuck, we know.

“I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly.”



It’s a conspicuously awful bit of dialogue that presumably exists as a sort of recap, to make sure the stupid, stupid audience fully understands what has taken place before the film ends. Stan doesn’t even have a line – he sits dumbly, only present so that Chuck isn’t delivering the monologue to himself or, worse, thinking it in his head, like Captain Picard.

So could the scene have been cut? I’ve done a quick edit to see how it would look.

The change in mood is quite jarring, so here it is again with a long blackout.

Not perfect, but better.

I expect the ending does need a scene there to smooth the transition between rainy night-time heartbreak and sun-drenched hope. Maybe something neutral and functional, about his employment or financial status, or the trip he’s about to embark on. Whatever you might come up with, it would be an improvement on the three minutes of absolute dross that currently threaten to sabotage Cast Away in its final moments.