There were several compelling Power of Conscience character who figured prominently in the 2013 crop of Oscar films. Power of Conscience characters typically wrestle with a specific set of key issues in a story. These include:
How much bad am I willing to do in the cause of good?
In Lincoln, written by Tony Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg, President Lincoln so firmly believes in the necessity of Emancipation that he is willing to authorize all manner of arm-twising, dirty deals, and political bribery to get the bill passed. At the time, Thaddeus Stevens, played in the movie by Tommy Lee Jones, said, “”The greatest measure in the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
In Zero Dark Thirty, written by Mark Boal and directed by Katherine Bigelow, a young CIA operative called Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, is obsessed with finding and killing Osama Bin Ladin. She is involved in morally reprehensible torture in order to help track down her quarry. She is driven and relentless, so much so that when she is successful she has no idea what to do next.
Bigelow explains in an interview, “I think what’s so interesting and so poignant for Jessica, myself, for all of us, is this idea that this woman (Maya) has spent the last ten years exclusively in the pursuit of one man and yes, at the end of the day, she triumphed, but it’s not a victory because finally, at the end of the day, you’re left with much larger questions like, where does she go from here? Where do we go from here? Now what?” Chastain adds, “I find that to end the film on that question is far more interesting than providing an answer.”
Can I find the flexibility, the forgiveness, or the mercy to make reasonable compromises?
In Lincoln, the person that has a real protagonist’s journey is Tommy Lee Jones in the role of Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens spent his political life advocating for total Negro emancipation, including the right to vote and own property. He was adamant and uncompromising. In the final, down-to-the-wire vote-taking, Stevens must turn his back on everything he has always stood for in order to assure that Lincoln’s lesser bill passes. Steven’s struggles mightily with his conscience but finally allows practicality to win.
At the time Stevens said: “Believing then, that this is the best proposition that can be made effectual, I accept it. I shall not be driven by clamor or denunciation to throw away a great good because it is not perfect. I will take all I can get in the cause of humanity and leave it to be perfected by better men in better times.”
Steven’s leap of faith was being flexible enough to allow an imperfect bill to pass because that served the greater good.
In the film, Les Miserables, written by William Nicholson and directed by Tom Hopper, prison guard Javert, played by Russell Crowe, cannot compromise his strict moral standards. He finds it impossible to have mercy and not enforce the strict letter of the law. What is legal is not always just. And what is just is not always legal. This is a great dilemma for Power of Conscience characters. Javert is in such conflict that he would rather kill himself rather than compromise his precise and rigid sense of duty in favor of what is just and merciful.
In the animated film, Brave, written by Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, and Irene Mecchi, and directed by Andrews and Chapman and co-directed by Purcell, Queen Elinor is a Power of Conscience character. She is a strict and demanding taskmaster, a perfectionist, and is driven by a strong sense of tradition and royal responsibility. Over the course of the story she finds the flexibility to recognize her daughter’s uniqueness and she learns to fully appreciate Merida for who she is.
What is the higher duty?
Power of Conscience character universally wrestle with the question of what their inherent morality and sense of duty asks of them. These characters fear not living up to their own internal standards or sense of propriety and decency. They are afraid of being or becoming unworthy and must continually prove their own “goodness” or “righteousness”. These characters don’t fear failure in the eyes of the world; they fear not living up to their own (often impossibly high) moral or ethical standards.
As I said before: What is just is not always legal or proper. And what is legal or proper is not always just. What is more important? Is the spirit of the law or the letter of the law more important? When is it right to be pragmatic and flexible rather than unbending and unyielding in your standards? When is being flexible and pragmatic being lax and immoral? Power of Conscience characters provide a fascinating glimpse into one set of humanity’s great dilemmas.