The hero of “A Hero”, Asghar Farhadi’s new film, is a sign painter and calligrapher named Rahim (Amir Jadidi). At the start of the story, he gets out of prison and is pushed up the wall. To be precise, on top of a pale rock cliff, rich in elaborate carvings, northeast of the Iranian city of Shiraz. The cliff houses a necropolis, Naqsh-e Rostam, and Rahim finds it covered with scaffolding; Climbing high, he greets his brother-in-law, the round and brilliant Hossein (Alireza Jahandideh), who works on the site. The wind whistles softly around them, and Hossein is brewing tea, near the tomb of Xerxes the Great, a Persian king who died nearly 2,500 years ago. Rahim, on the other hand, is on leave for two days, after which, much like Eddie Murphy in “48 Hours.” (1982) —he must return to prison. While observing the scene, one is dizzy in front of the doubling of time. It expands and contracts, either stretching far or closing with a snap.
But another thing that doesn’t make you less uncomfortable is Rahim’s smile. He looks friendly and generous, but he’s also strangely weak, and he can fade like the breath of a mirror. It’s a smart casting on Farhadi’s part; we warm up to Rahim’s dispirited charm and instinctively feel he’s unlucky, but we don’t fully trust him, and the film continues to support our original intuition. What led to his incarceration was unpaid debt. His creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), is grave, austere and reluctant to forgive, although he is related to Rahim by marriage. (Just to thicken the mood, Bahram is a lookalike for Mandy Patinkin’s character, Saul, in “Homeland.”) Help you ask: Could the dog be cheating on us too?
Anyone who has seen Farhadi’s earlier films, such as “About Elly” (2009) and “A Separation” (2011), will know how cleverly he distributes information, piece by piece. So, in the new film, we gradually realize that Rahim has an ex-wife; that she will soon be married to someone else; that while he is locked up, his sister Mali (Maryam Shahdaei) looks after her son, a shy kid with a stutter; that Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), a beloved young woman of Rahim, is the boy’s speech therapist; etc. These things are true, but it’s hard to hang on to them, as they are loaded with things that aren’t necessarily true – secrets and lies, which Rahim is far too quick to nod. And the regrouping is only getting worse.
The highlight in “A Hero” occurs before the start of the action. Farkhondeh, we learn, came across a bag of gold coins next to a bus stop. Gold! The answer to the prayers of the wretched! As in the necropolis, and in the Dickensian idea of being imprisoned for debt, the modern merges with the past. The film is full of cell phones and social media posts, but we are solemnly asked to believe in a rare find, shining with temptation, that would not be out of place in “Thousand and One Nights.” Such is the skill of Farhadi, it goes without saying that we To do to believe. And Rahim’s flexibility is such that we gladly accept his next move. Desperate to sell the coins for enough money, he manages to track down their rightful owner and return them, as if it was he, and not Farkhondeh, who had found the treasure. This dishonestly honest tactic made the news and, his leave ended, he found himself on television as a model of transparency and probity. According to the prison authorities, Rahim “proved with this act that one can privilege good actions to personal interest”. There you go, fresh out of the oven: a hero.
Revealing what happens after that would spoil the bitter pleasures of a difficult story. Much of the film takes place in tight spaces: offices, cars, hallways, and the living room of the Mali house, where food is laid out to welcome Rahim on his brief outing. The smallest of all is the copy and print shop where Bahram works, and where a brawl breaks out between him and Rahim – a rambling and humiliating brawl that is filmed. Will the images go viral, with dire consequences for Rahim’s cause? Doesn’t he learn, the hard way, that any attempt to abuse public opinion is doomed to backfire, and would the lesson be different for his counterpart in an American drama?
If I had to choose a running mate for “A Hero” it would be Preston Sturges’ “Hail the Conquering Hero” (1944), in which a well-meaning weakling is (a) acclaimed for her military courage, although she has no not served in war, and (b) too complacent, and perhaps too tickled with pride, to set the record straight. Tonally, the two films couldn’t be further apart; Sturges slips into anarchy, as Farhadi patiently raises the moral suspense until we can barely breathe. What the two directors make clear, however, is that their heroes are not alone in their madness, and that if they wobble unhappily on their pedestals, it is because we – ordinary citizens, bloated officials or loving relatives. – are reckless enough, and emotionally greedy enough, to plant them there. Take the charity organizers who put Rahim on a platform, in front of a cheering audience: are they really moved by his predicament, or are they just polishing their own credentials?
By a useful coincidence, “A Hero” hits theaters (for viewers brave enough to visit) in the wake of Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth”. Look one after the other and you might, like me, decide that “A Hero” is the more Shakespearean of the two. Coen’s film is powerful but airtight, enclosed within its stylized designs, as Farhadi goes back to “The Merchant of Venice” and pulls the play’s passionate arguments into the here-and-now fray. To be sure, the here means Iran, and instead of a hideous clash between Jewish and Christian jurisdictions, the legal and theological backdrop is exclusively Islamic; but listen to the tenor of the speech. “I don’t want to slander him, but I warn you,” Bahram says of his debtor, “if he doesn’t pay me, I will report him.” Here is a story about bonds, broken promises, and false witness; just as Shylock takes center stage, often abandoning Antonio – the title dealer – behind the scenes, so Bahram becomes more and more steadfast in his grievances, and the hapless Rahim deserves our sympathy ever less. Even her son is drawn into the tangle of his deception. “A Hero” makes fun of the heroic.
The windows of theaters these days don’t stay open for long. Before you know it, they’re closed and banned, and even respectable movies are pushed, with indecent haste, through the streaming door. One example: Little attention was paid to George Clooney’s “The Tender Bar” when it hit theaters before Christmas. Now, already, it’s arrived online, the right time, I would say, to right an injustice and give the film, with its beautifully rubbed mixture of roughness and delicacy, the chance it deserves.
The hero is JR. He is played as an eleven-year-old boy by Daniel Ranieri and later, as a Yale student and aspiring writer, by Tye Sheridan. Everyone asks what JR stands for; everyone, that is to say, except the guy at the Time who takes him as an intern, and who tells him to change his name to JR, with a few points nailed down, if he wants a signature. Under these bickering hides the first wound in JR’s life: the absence of his father (Max Martini), a radio host he barely sees, although he hears his whiskey-varnished voice on the airwaves. In one of their rare meetings, JR says, “A doctor at the school says I have no identity. “Jesus. Get one,” his old man replies. Martini only has a few scenes, but each of them burns a hole in the movie like he’s crushing a butt.
Needing stability, JR and her mother (Lily Rabe) find her in the Long Island house of her grandfather (Christopher Lloyd), who is – you guessed it – cranky but kind. Charlie (Ben Affleck) is also in residence, who is JR’s uncle, de facto father, and – another good guess – a bit of wisdom, pouring out instruction on what he calls “male science.” He’s self-taught to boot, and there’s a wonderful photo of young JR sitting on a bed, facing a closet full of books. “What you do is read all of this,” Charlie said.
The gist of the critical response has been that “The Tender Bar” follows a well worn path. That’s fine, but is it such a sin? (You should try the new movie “The Matrix.” Now, it is Worn out.) What matters is the firmness of the tread, and Clooney sets a cautious but non-sagging pace. Together with his editor, Tanya Swerling, and screenwriter, William Monahan, he makes sure that the warmth of the tale — adapted from a memoir by JR Moehringer — does not become blurry in the narrative, and that, as in any honest recollection of youth, what is funny is the flip side of the pain. Hence the advice that JR receives from a friend: “When you suck at writing, you become a journalist.” No comment. ??