Summer Movies

It’s a Wonderful List

Inspiring movies and what to do about them.

Click here to read more from Slate’s Summer Movies.

Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

What inspires Hollywood? Before we reel off the obvious (money, power, Scarlett Johansson), check out the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 “most inspiring” movies. It’s quite an exhilarating collection. Only a true pleasure-seeker—a man who sits in dark rooms and waits for inspiration to pour forth from the screen—could bear all this goodness, beginning with It’s a Wonderful Life, and surging through the reassurances of Gandhi, Forrest Gump, and Silkwood, before crossing the finish line, as it were, with Chariots of Fire. A cock-eyed optimist having not been located, I will offer some enthusiastically cynical pronouncements.

First, let’s clarify what exactly Hollywood means by inspiration. To judge by the AFI list, we can define it three ways: Frank Capra, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks. All three make numerous appearances on the list, beginning with Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life in the top spot. Capra, of course, belongs at the head of the inspirational pack. Whatever you may think of his movies (also here are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), he was monstrously effective, and he was cagey in how he whipped up sentiment. When comparing the feel-good methodology of Wonderful Life to Mr. Smith, for example, you might note that both star Jimmy Stewart as a stammering idealist who discovers, in his own indefatigable way, the inner menschood of humanity. Or you might note, on a much simpler level, that both films include choruses of “Auld Lang Syne.”

Having never made it all the way through It’s a Wonderful Life, I popped in the DVD and prepared to be inspired. From the opening scenes, in which angels talk to each other in heaven, you can feel Capra’s light, unmenacing humor, his glad-you’re-here-with-us-tonight style. We learn that Stewart’s George Bailey has had each of his dreams—world travel, college, leaving his hometown— deterred by a series of obstacles, one of whom happens to be Donna Reed. All of this is folksy and conventional, and it’s not until the movie’s final section, in which Bailey goes broke and contemplates suicide, that the movie achieves its cable-ready power. For me, that final section is neither revelatory nor darkly funny enough. But, even so, who can watch the closing image—the town gathered in the Baileys’ living room singing Christmas carols; Bailey’s faith in himself restored—without being inspired to do, well, something? Capra’s lesson is simple: Be a nice guy and hope the rest of humanity catches up with you.

That’s textbook movie inspiration—also represented here by The Pride of the Yankees (No. 22), Fiddler on the Roof (No. 82), and other testaments to the indomitable human spirit. But apparently the AFI feels that there’s more to movie inspiration than the heartwarming. For example, what’s Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (No. 47) doing on the list? Its prescient vision and special effects might inspire awe, I guess.That might be the reason the AFI was inspired by Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (No. 58), a movie in which a man abandons his wife and children to commune with aliens. In fact, the more you peruse the list, the more elastic AFI’s definition becomes. Inspiring also means “rousing” (Gunga Din, No. 74), “religious” (The Ten Commandments, No. 79), or simply “well-acted” (The African Queen, No. 48).

Perhaps the most efficient delivery vehicle for inspiration is the sports movie: Hoosiers, Rudy, etc. Leading the pack here, in the No. 4 spot, is Rocky. After another viewing, I decided that I just don’t get Rocky. It’s appealingly dopey, I guess, and you’ve got to admire the way Sylvester Stallone, who wrote the script, manages to use “yo” as every part of speech. But as David Thomson once put it, Rocky is a “fairy tale that fakes everything down to its own naivete.” The working-class love story, the endless shots of Philadelphia slums—it’s cold calculation posing as documentary flourish, similar to when politicians show up for “tours” of auto factories. Rocky feels like it has no ambitions other than to be inspiring and, as such, it feels completely phony.

Which is, I think, a nice way to divvy up the inspirational movies. There are really two kinds: There are movies that happen to be inspiring, and there are movies that have no reason for being other than to inspire. We can guess that David Lean might have had some larger ambitions when he made Lawrence of Arabia (No. 30); we might wonder about Robin Williams when he made Dead Poets Society (No. 52).

As to that second category—the pure inspirers—what exactly do the filmmakers think their movies will inspire a person to do? Read more Whitman? Call your mom and tell her you love her? It’s just a hunch, but what I think inspiring movies do more than anything is inspire more inspirational movies. George Bailey begets Norma Rae who begets Forrest Gump who begets—well, whomever Russell Crowe is playing in the next Ron Howard film. It’s a vicious cycle of inspiration, spanning decades. And it’s enough to make anyone a cynic.