Hunting Oscars: Matt Damon, Part II; Hollywood Comes Late to Sarajevo

Gus Van Sant Jr.’s Good Will Hunting , from a screenplay by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, has had more favorable “buzz” than possibly any other film this season outside of James Cameron’s The Titanic . Happily, both films live up to the buzz, at least to my ears and eyes. But after all, what is “buzz” other than the reactions of people who have caught a movie before you have. The danger to ecstatically buzzed films and actors is that excessive expectations invite a publicity-jaded backlash.

I am not yet in a position to ascertain if Good Will Hunting will do for actor and co-screenwriter Matt Damon what William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953) did for Audrey Hepburn or what Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955) did for James Dean. I know I must have seen Mr. Damon in pictures I have seen, but I can’t say I remember whether he was bad, good, great or indifferent. He happens to be very good in his star-making part in Good Will Hunting , a title which is a peculiar pun on the name of the character he is playing: Will Hunting.

We are asked to imagine that this Will Hunting is a phenomenal math genius on the level of Albert Einstein, but that he hides his light under the bushel of South Boston’s Irish-American bastion of brawling working-class youths. In fact, Hunting has done jail time on assault charges, as we learn later, along with his being an orphan. He divides his time between hanging out with his “Southie” buddies and his job as a janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

One night while mopping the halls at M.I.T., he notices a complicated math problem on a blackboard and effortlessly solves it. The next day, Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgärd), an eminent prize-winning mathematician, marvels at the solution and assembles his class to discover the identity of the prodigy. When none of his students comes forward, Lambeau is perplexed until he accidentally catches Hunting solving another problem. After Hunting runs off in a stream of profanities, Lambeau, undaunted, tracks him down to his seedy apartment in South Boston, and thus begins what is eventually to become a four-way struggle to determine Hunting’s destiny.

The situation is clearly contrived and not a little fantastic. Yet the film works as a character-driven narrative because Mr. Van Sant and his co-screenwriters are not afraid to unlock the psychological mysteries of their five major characters with clear and concise dialogue. Unlike many contemporary “independent” films, which pride themselves on keeping the audience guessing at motivations even beyond the final fade-out, Good Will Hunting tells you not only what happens, but also why . This was also one of the signal virtues of Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy earlier this year, with characters who eloquently articulated why, in the final analysis, they were not meant for each other. Talk, talk, talk; there is nothing like it when it is cogent and coherent, and when the actors can deliver it with flair and feeling.

Mr. Damon’s Will Hunting finds himself in a series of relationships full of cross-purposes. Mr. Skarsgärd’s Professor Lambeau sees in Hunting a natural genius that makes the prof, for all his professional honors and achievements, seem like a plodding pedant. Yet he is not at all jealous of Hunting, as Antonio Salieri was of Mozart, but, rather, fanatically determined to consecrate Hunting’s genius at the shrine of Mathematics. A series of psychiatrists fails to break through Hunting’s resistance to anything smacking of success and fame. Finally, in desperation, Lambeau calls upon an old, apparently underachieving but nonetheless gifted classmate, Sean McGuire, (Robin Williams), a community college psychology professor and therapist with much the same South Boston background as Hunting. The highly unorthodox McGuire-Hunting therapy sessions provide the emotional core of the movie, and end in both closure and catharsis.

Indeed, McGuire and Lambeau constitute the yin and yang of Hunting’s painfully acquired karma. As much as Hunting is repelled by Lambeau’s monomaniacal careerism, he is drawn to the emotionally ravaged McGuire, forever mourning the death of his beloved wife and soul mate. Also involved in the Herculean task of redirecting Hunting toward his proper place in the world are Ben Affleck’s Chuckie, a construction worker and Hunting’s best and oldest friend, and Minnie Driver’s Skylar, a Harvard medical student and an heiress with a mind of her own.

A more narcissistic actor than Mr. Damon would have made the massively indulged Hunting character insufferably smug and complacent. Even so, the quantity and intensity of male bonding in the movie made me a little uneasy about other possible subtexts. Still, one must take one’s exquisite craftsmanship where one can find it in these days of rampant mediocrity masquerading as “independent” cinema. Mr. Williams gives his strongest and most skillfully modulated performance in years, most notably in several scenes that would have been unbearably sticky without a modicum of humor and restraint. Ms. Driver’s task in keeping Skylar on an even keel is even harder, given the humiliating rejections she must endure before Hunting comes to his senses. She really had a less demeaning part in a lesser film, George Armitage’s Grosse Pointe Blank , earlier this year.

Mr. Affleck’s Chuckie is in some ways the noblest and most fully realized character in the film. Even more than McGuire and Skylar, it is Chuckie who finally dispels the confusion in Hunting’s mind between who he thinks he is and what everyone else insists he become. It shouldn’t be as hard as it seems in Good Will Hunting for someone to accept greatness when it is so freely and easily offered. Therein lies the fantasy and the contrivance. To overcome the obstacles to a successful and credible narrative, the synergized talents of a director, two screenwriters and five performers have meshed together magically to make Good Will Hunting one of the best pictures of the year.

Artists for Sarajevo(11)After the Story Lost Its Legs

Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo , from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce, based on the book Natasha’s Story , by Michael Nicholson, is less a movie with a dramatic narrative than a manifesto with a simple message: Nuke the Serbs ! We don’t hear much about Bosnia and the Serbs, Croats and Muslims these days. The media’s attention is fitfully focused on the alleged Butcher of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein, and all his terrible weapons of destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological. But when Sarajevo was big news five years ago, I recall attending a cocktail party where a man I knew very slightly asked me angrily what I intended to do about all the carnage in Bosnia. I couldn’t think of anything to say. Even back then, I was too old to enlist in an Abraham Lincoln Brigade to relieve the siege of Sarajevo by the evil Serbs. Unlike the Holocaust, which was never covered by CNN while it was happening, Sarajevo was on our television screens every night. And yet all the NATO allies seemed paralyzed by indecision. The United Nations was a feeble joke. But what was the excuse this time? The media were doing their job. Why weren’t “we” doing ours?

Mr. Winterbottom and his scenarist have patched together a combination story-film and newsreel from old footage, some of which was shown at the time, and some of which wasn’t. But looking today at the faces of frightened and bewildered children from that time not too long ago, I feel more helpless than when my angry acquaintance accosted me at the cocktail party. What to do? We still don’t seem to know. Where is Tito now that we need him? Where did all this ethnic hatred come from in what was once a comparatively peaceful Communist dictatorship?

As a movie, Welcome to Sarajevo seems to be caught in a time warp, and only seems to confirm the fact that the small screen of television is infinitely more influential in world politics than the big screen of the motion picture. The lead role of BBC correspondent Michael Henderson is played by an obscure British actor named Stephen Dillane. More familiar “names” such as Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei, Kerry Fox and Emily Lloyd appear in the film seemingly more to provide moral support to the project than to add complexity to the story line. Even Mr. Dillane tends to be submerged in the simulated chaos of an urban nightmare.

No one talks about the underlying causes and background of the conflict. The only issues in the film can be reduced to slogans: Stop the killing. Save the children. One child is saved by Henderson and then adopted into his family. The same problem arises here as it does in Schindler’s List . What about all the other children? What about all the other Jews? Welcome to Sarajevo is not an offensive movie. Its heart is in the right place, but through no fault of its own, it has come out at the wrong time.