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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

Gone Baby Gone (Baby Gone)

Sunday, March 09, 2008

This week's writing experiment was a review: a personal response to some artwork.

I chose to write a reflection on "Gone Baby Gone," which I saw a few weeks ago (thanks to Redbox) and haven't stopped thinking about.

“You’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything,” has been uttered by more than a few country singers, grandparents, and candidates for elected office. The saying is true, as far as it goes, but there is a shortsightedness in it that is often concealed by its popularity, and the masses seemed to have gone to great lengths to fall for it.

The aphorisms great defect is not that it wildly untrue, but, worse, that it is almost true. What is true is that some of the greatest human tragedies have been orchestrated by people standing for something. Abolitionists may have stood for the inherent equality of people, but slavery’s apologists also stood for something; they stood for states’ rights. And despite what history wishes to be true about them, the Nazis were not motivated by a lack of principle. They trampled an entire race with hardly a look because they were making such a show of standing for things, namely tribe and tradition.

If we were to tweak the line so as to make it more true, we might say that you’ve got to stand not for something but for the right things, else you might fall not for anything but for the wrong things.

“Gone Baby Gone,” the 2007 film written by Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard, and based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, tells the story of a young private detective struggling to stand for the right things. Investigating the case of a disappeared little girl, he discovers the brutal difficulty of that struggle. For while he would fight for right, others would just as passionately fight for wrong; and you often can’t tell who’s fighting for what.

The movie is engrossing, with its cast balanced between the Ed Harris’s and Morgan Freeman’s of the dramatic establishment alongside vital new talents Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan. The actors work within a compelling range of expression and restraint to bring to life a screenplay that depends heavily on an economy of dialogue. Add to that the textured soundtrack and gritty cinematography, and the story’s Boston streets come alive as one of “Gone Baby Gone”’s most important characters.

But back to our aphorism. The world of “Gone Baby Gone” is one where the struggle between what is right and what is wrong courses through every move. But the plot is deepened by these little revelations along the way that “right” and “wrong” are somewhat simplistic ideas, and that to lean too heavily on them as clear-cut polar opposites is to put the people one seeks to protect is mortal danger.

In the end, the conflict at the heart of the film is not between right and wrong, but between right and less right. It is a struggle to discern between a menu of potential goods: family, security, innocence, and the rule of law. In the story, as in life, all the goods don’t go together, and to act in favor of one of them is to imperil the rest of them. And the great value of “Gone Baby Gone” is the ambivalence it inspires towards its characters’ decisions. The good guys may very well be getting it wrong, and the bad guys are not trying to be bad at all but good, which makes everyone either a hero or a criminal.

It’s a picture of everyone standing for something and the ongoing human confusion over what is good and what is less good. And to the victor go no spoils, only second guesses.
posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 9:59 PM


I had the chance to see this movie last weekend. It was very engrossing, as you said. One of the better movies of 2007, I thought.

Affleck and Harris were especially good, and I think Ryan deserved her Oscar nod. Good on Ben for the direction as well.

The good guys may very well be getting it wrong, and the bad guys are not trying to be bad at all but good, which makes everyone either a hero or a criminal.

Excellent summation.
commented by Blogger stephanie, 9:35 PM  

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