I was watching Magnum Force the other day. For you youngsters out there, it was the second Dirty Harry movie featuring Clint Eastwood as the titular character. Dirty Harry, for those who aren't familiar with the character, was the pioneer of the MAVERICK COP WHO PLAYS BY HIS OWN RULES cliche that we are now all accustomed to. In Magnum Force, there’s a scene in which Dirty Harry stops by the airport for lunch and notices some commotion. He flashes his badge to the officials who proceed to inform him that an airline has been hijacked and they’ve called the F.B.I.. Dirty Harry scowls and, in the next scene, he’s boarding the plane dressed like a pilot. After driving the plane around the runway he stomps on the brakes and wrestles the gun away from the unsteady terrorist. He beats him unconscious and uses the gun to shoot the second terrorist while everyone cowers in their seats. It’s a good scene, but I couldn’t help but think: total bullshit.
Dirty Harry kicked off a whole slew of maverick cops who play by their own rules movies. The 1980’s turned up the volume with Beverly Hills Cop, Cobra, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and an avalanche of copycats and B-listers. By 1993, the maverick cop trope had become worn out with the parody release of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero.
The overt elements of the maverick cop trope faded away, but the basic nature of the characters began to become internalized among heroes in different genres. For example, James Bond has always played by his own rules, but in the 1970’s and 1980’s, he was still mostly an on-the-clock secret agent working for the man. Compare that with the Daniel Craig series of Bond films in which he goes rogue routinely and is either seeking revenge or working outside or around the system in order to get things done. These character traits inherited from the maverick cop model are found in almost every motion picture now, regardless of genre. There’s always a wild card that plays by his own rules. Often it’s the lead protagonist. Often the message of the movie is that THIS is how things get done and, if only we could all be a little more maverick, the world would be a less dysfunctional place.
This is where Hollywood really misleads and here are three reasons why.
#1. People like this in real life are always fuck-ups.
#2. History shows that teamwork and cooperation get things done.
#3. Systems are in place for a reason and they do more good than harm.
#1. Ever work with someone who knows it all and takes matters into their own hands? Has this ever been a good experience? People in the real world that think of themselves as take-charge leaders are often punching above their weight and making a fool of themselves. Think about Dwight Schrute from The Office. This is the real world application of the Hollywood Hero.
It’s even worse when applied to situations like real world cops. Typically, when cops try to go “Dirty Harry” they end up getting caught on camera looking like maniacs. Suspensions and terminations follow Dirty Harry actions in real life. Why? Because the type of people that display these characteristics in the real world are usually horrible, misguided and incompetent. When things go wrong, there’s always an excuse. When things go right they’ll always take the credit. They aren’t mavericks, they’re just shitty A-types that arrogantly think they know better than everybody else. In other words…
#2. They can’t work as a team.
Teamwork and organization building is truly what gets things done in the real world. You know why the police tend to maintain law and order? It’s not because their ranks are filled with mavericks who play by their own rules, it’s because they’ve professionalized and compartmentalized a system of communication, transportation and legally organized action. There are hundreds of moving parts to a police force that no one criminal can overcome.
This goes for all successful organizations, from corporations to the family unit. Teamwork is what gets things done. Things are not always done effectively or efficiently, but they tend to function much better when a multitude of people are contributing and communicating. One random guy using his limited knowledge to try to solve everything only leads to greater problems later.
#3. One of the greatest things about the original Die Hard was the narrative criticism of bureaucracy. The references are impossible to miss. The preening Chief that’s more interested in managing the event than solving problems. The arrogant FBI that unknowingly plays into the terrorists' hands. The over-prepared SWAT team that comes to the rescue only to end up as a liability. The 9-1-1 operator that is more concerned with radio channels than emergencies. The over zealous television reporter that jeopardizes the people in the story he’s covering.
We can all relate to the grind of bureaucracy. Who among us wouldn’t like to jump the que or cut the crap? Filling out papers and slowing things to a halt is a big part of the modern world’s problems. It’s getting hard to simply get things done without some regulation or inspection slowing things down. However…
The older I get, the more I understand where this bureaucracy comes from and why it’s needed. The wild west approach to getting things done is dangerous and chaotic. As annoying as process can be, it’s usually there for a reason and the end result is often never felt until the process is broken. Rules and regulations are a necessary part of life and, while they can be overbearing, they are better than the alternative. Movie heroes that circumvent the rules in order to save the day would often fail miserably for not knowing what they don’t know in real life. Real life is complicated and it requires complicated solutions that often don’t make sense to individual team players.
So why does Hollywood keep purporting the lone hero myth? Why do audiences keep lapping it up? The reason is simple…
We all crave significance in our lives and the desire to overcome our circumstances with some self reliance, and moxie is an irresistible attraction. We want to feel special and we like to think that, if given the opportunity, we would shine.
Instead, real life typically presents us with the mundane. Taking orders we don’t like and doing tasks that seem futile. Annoyances and inconvenience tend to be our daily first-world challenges. We like to think there’s a better way of meeting challenges head-on and Hollywood plays into that fantasy by illustrating those dreams for us. When the credits roll, it’s back to the grind of reality.
The good news…
It’s not so bad. Less thrilling of course. Less decisive victories. Less dramatic situations. To be a real life hero doesn’t require being a maverick and playing by your own rules. It typically requires the opposite. So when it’s time for some cathartic steam blowing, pop in that Dirty Harry Blu-ray or go see the latest Dwayne Johnson flick. Just remember that in real life, these guys would be total fuck-ups.