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How Not to Make an Antihero Sympathetic

Antiheroes are the protagonists de jour in Hollywood.

This awards season alone two of the top contenders are about con artists: American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street.

There are traditionally two ways in which filmmaker get us to root for bad guys: obfuscating the consequences of their crimes so they appear victimless, and attacking the institutions that protect us from bad guys to build sympathy for the bad guys.

Wolf has been criticized extensively for the former to the point that it will probably cost it awards. On the other hand, Hustle relies on the latter hackneyed trope that is far more deserving of our ire.

Now I liked Hustle, but it uses a fairly old playbook of turning law enforcement into the villain so that the antihero is more sympathetic. Bradley Cooper’s character, the central law enforcement presence in the movie, cares more about advancing his own career than catching criminals; he uses his power as a cop to get people to do things they don’t want to do; and he ruins the lives of people who may be doing some wrongdoing, but are also doing a lot of good. And then there is also the general depiction of the FBI being inept and mismanaged (Cooper’s boss, Louis CK being a real life comedian is a bit of a meta joke).

Like I said, Hustle is hardly the first film to do this. From only several years ago, consider The Town where Jon Hamm, playing an FBI agent who opposes a group of bank robbers led by Ben Affleck, is practically chewing the scenery while Affleck is Mr. Sensitive. And when Hamm threatens Affleck’s ex-girlfriend in order to find Affleck’s whereabouts, he’s depicted as the most despicable person in the world even though he’s trying to stop an armed robbery.

Another recent film that does the same thing is Arbitrage, where the willingness of the cop played by Tim Roth to falsify evidence and destroy the life of someone he knows to be innocent deflects criticism away from Richard Gere (who is another con-artist of sorts).

We have a situation in these films were there is no clear good guy, but somehow the antihero is actually more honorable than the main law enforcement character. The person and/or institution that is worse than them is the one that’s supposed to uphold our laws. 

Now compare this to the primary police presents in Wolf, the FBI agents played by Kyle Chandler.

His pursuit of Jordan Belfort is not for the purpose of furthering his career; he does not break the law; does not harm innocent people; is not boastful about the powers he has as a police officer.

There’s a lot to be said about the fact that the most honorable person in Wolf is a cop, and in Hustle it’s a con artist.

My point is not to be a mouthpiece for the Fraternal Officer of Police, but that smearing our civil servants to soften the image of an antihero is a lot less cynical than glossing over their victims.

And in the grand scheme of things, if we’re going to obsess with the lessons people are taking away from Hollywood movies, having a contemptuous view of our government institutions and its employees is a lot more dangerous than a crime appearing victimless.

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