By John H. Foote
Been a rough week.
My mom and dad, both in their eighties, were rushed by ambulance to the hospital last Monday morning with symptoms of pneumonia. Each was diagnosed with pneumonia, but Dad’s had taken hold literally overnight and was causing his heart distress. They sent Mom home with me, and we left Dad awake, alert and talking at the hospital. The next morning, he was OK, not great but OK. At noon I received a call that his condition has worsened rapidly, and they were going to intubate him and transfer him to a hospital better equipped to deal with patients on life support.
Life support was all I heard.
Long story short he went from bad to dire, they were preparing to code him when my brothers and I arrived. We spent the night with him, anxiously watching the machines around him for clues as to how he was doing. The machines were breathing for him, his blood pressure was dangerously low, and his heart rate was low. The enormity of the situation hit each of us, we were waiting for my father to pass.
But he hung on. Incredibly, as fast as it had gone bad, Thursday morning he was taken off life support, improving rapidly, enough to be transferred to the cardiac unit from ICU on Saturday. Later that day he was taken to a private room, which is where he is now, confused as to where three days went, wondering why we all look exhausted and relieved.
There was no doubt in my mind my father was going to die Tuesday night. I could see in my brothers eyes they felt the same, the room was thick with fear.
The relief I have felt the last 48 hours has me near giddy. My dad is alive, my dad will be around a while longer.
I am fortunate to have a loving, strong connection to my father, to both my parents, but I know many who do not. So great was my father’s capacity for love, Dann is our brother, my father’s son, though he is not a blood relative. He was a neighbourhood boy who shared my dad’s love of birds and they have forged a lifelong bond. Dann was with us in the room the night we held vigil over dad. No questions asked, he is one of us, one of the sons.
In honour of my father please indulge me as I explore the 10 best film about the father-son dynamic. It is not always a good relationship as I have had, in fact, often it can be abusive and haunt the son long after the father dies. I am blessed my father is my best friend, the man I most admire even when he makes me crazy.
For you Dad.
10. ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)
In this powerful drama, a father (Donald Sutherland) grapples with the death of his oldest son, his younger son’s suicide attempt as he reels with guilt, and his wife, portrayed with icy brilliance by Mary Tyler Moore, unable to show her surviving son she loves him. Timothy Hutton won an Oscar for Supporting Actor as a teenager unable to forgive himself for surviving the boat accident that killed his brother. Calvin (Sutherland) watches his son try, work hard but knows he needs more. He soon finds himself in the chair of the psychiatrist treating his boy, trying to come to terms with his anguish. The final scene between father and son on the back porch is shattering, a stunning declaration of love, each knowing they can always count on the other. The film won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director for Robert Redford, an extraordinary directorial debut. Career best work from a superb ensemble cast.
9. ROAD TO PERDITION (2002)
A powerful crime epic set in the twenties, about fathers and sons and what men will do to protect them, despite their flaws. When mob enforcer Michael Sullivan’s family is slaughtered, Sullivan (Tom Hanks) hits the road with his surviving son to find the killer. He knows the son of his beloved boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) murdered his wife and youngest son, but Rooney is protecting his boy, despite his love for Sullivan who he also considers a son. But in the mob, blood really is thicker than water. Rooney knows his boy is wrong, has cost him his most loyal executioner, but it is his son. On the road, the Sullivan son comes to learn who and what his father is, but also knows the man is doing everything he can to protect his boy. Hanks and Newman are superb in the film, each exploring regret at their situation, each knowing the other will do what they have to do, including kill the other. The manner in which Rooney meets his doom is both lyrically beautiful and horribly tragic that he knows his killer, that he loves his executioner like a son. Directed by Sam Mendes, this film has come to be regarded as his finest work, surpassing even his Oscar winning American Beauty (1999).
8. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002)
Steven Spielberg has often drawn on the father-son relationship in his films, using his own childhood as inspiration. I think it was best explored in this biographical film about the crime spree of young Frank Abagnale. For years this bold young man wrote bad cheques across the United States, convincing people, bankers and professionals he was a pilot, lawyer, doctor, salesman, he even convinced an FBI agent he was Secret Service. Leonardo Di Caprio is superb as the young man devastated by the breakdown of his parent’s marriage, and who seeks his father’s approval. Christopher Walken is outstanding as his father, who knows his son is on the lamb from the law but loves him too much to tell him. Oddly a surrogate father comes into the picture when FBI agent Carl Henratty (Tom Hanks) forges a special connection with young Frank as he tracks him down. Amusing, moving ultimately deeply tragic, the boy chases something gone, a stable home life and father.
7. AT CLOSE RANGE (1986)
Here the father is a monster, a psychopathic killer, a sociopath who sees no right or wrong. Based on a true story, Christopher Walken is Big Brad, Sean Penn is his son Little Brad. At first impressed with the fast cars and money his father flashes around, luring his sons into working with his gang of thieves stealing farm equipment, Little Brad begins to see his father does not love him, he is using him for personal gain. When he witnesses his father kill someone, he knows he has to get out. But a grand jury is going at Brad Sr., so he begins killing off the young members of his gang including his son Tommy. When Little Brad turns on his father and tries with his girlfriend to escape town, Brad Sr. orders them shot. But Little Brad survives the massacre, and lives to testify against this deadly father. Walken and Penn are electrifying together, Walken the personification of evil. The father from hell, the father of nightmares. One of the most stunning, under appreciated films of the eighties.
6. THE GREAT SANTINI (1980)
What do you do if your father is an ultra competitive, macho Marine bully at war with his oldest son to ensure he is a man ready for the world? You fight back. Without a war to fight, Bull starts wars within his home to quench his thirst for combat. Pat Conroy’s superb book came to life onscreen with raging Robert Duvall as Bull Meechum, who refers to himself as the Great Santini. He runs his family like he runs the Marines in his command, expecting nothing less than perfection. Ben (Michael O’Keefe) is the target of Bull, because the older man feels and sees the gap closing between father and son. There is no doubt Meechum loves his son, we see it in his eyes when he gives him his flight jacket for Ben’s 18th Birthday, but the older man lacks the tools to say he loves the boy. Duvall is brilliant as the bullying Meechum and O’Keefe matches him step for step. Some of conflicts between father and son are ugly affairs, which Ben takes because he loves his father. The worst is after a game of 21 in which Ben beats his father for the first time. Refusing to accept defeat, Meechum follows Ben, antagonizing him, bouncing the basketball off his head, insulting him. Despite this humiliating treatment, Ben loves his father.
5. FIELD OF DREAMS (1989)
Grown men wept in theatres across North America during the last 20 minutes of this fine film about baseball, fathers and sons. What is it that bind fathers to their sons? For me it was Movies, my dad introduced me to the Universal monster movies and films he loved as a child. We share that love to this day and I think it delighted him I made a living writing or talking about film. Baseball was the glue in this film, a near religion, for a grieving son who longs to apologize to his dead father for their quarrels before the older man died. Voices tell Ray (Kevin Costner) to build a baseball diamond on his farm, and he does. Emerging from the past are Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) and other greats long dead, anxious to play on Ray’s pristine diamond. “If you build it, he will come” the voice told Ray, and he does indeed come. Dropping his catchers mask, turning, Ray is face to face with his father, younger before life beat everything out of him. Tears flowed as the two men caught up and forgave each other with a game of catch. Oh, that all wounds could be healed with such ease. Beautifully acted by Costner, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster, Amy Madigan and Liotta the film was a major hit, resonating with fathers and sons deeply.
4. THE ROAD (2009)
A nuclear holocaust has decimated earth and all around it is a dying planet. The skies are grey, the seas are dead, trees fall barren of leaves to the ground, all life is dying. A man walks the road with his young son avoiding the gangs who have resorted to cannibalism for food, the father willing to die to protect his son. Flashbacks show the life he had and loved, a life now a bitter memory long gone, replaced by a gut-wrenching reality. The father, never named but portrayed with haunting force by Viggo Mortensen, wants to get the boy to Florida, where warmer weather at least offers them a chance to survive. He is completely devoted to his boy, willing to kill him rather than allow him to be taken by cannibals. They stay on the road, finding food in underground tornado shelters, encounter an ancient man portrayed by Robert Duvall, even find the man’s childhood home. Mortensen should have won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his powerful, searing performance. The relationship between father and son is deeply moving, forged by love in every possible way. John Hillcoat directed the film, it is dark, depressing, but brilliant.
3. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)
One of the greatest films ever made, one of the great adaptations of a book to the screen. Lovingly directed by Robert Mulligan, the book springs to vivid life in this lovely film. Atticus Finch might be the screen’s greatest father, a noble, honest man who despises racism yet exists in a time and world where the colour of skin mattered. Set in the Deep South during the depression, a young woman has accused a black man of rape and Finch (Gregory Peck) is his lawyer. But where the film truly shines is the relationship between Finch, a widower and his young children, who have their eyes opened to racist cruelty in the town, recognizing their father is an admirable man. To Scout and Jem, his daughter and son, he is a father, but he grows in stature to them throughout the film with his generous acts of kindness and courage. Peck won an Oscar for Best Actor in the role he seemed borne to portray, he was never better, before or after. A touchstone film for so many.
2. THE GODFATHER (1972)
Often forgotten when discussing The Godfather, is that it is a great study of a father and his sons, specifically his connection to his youngest boy Michael (Al Pacino). Mafia chieftain Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) presides over his criminal empire, ruling with fair minded moves, but expecting no retaliations. The son least expected to move into the family business, war hero Michael, makes the decision to get involved when his father is shot. Michael lashes back, killing the men responsible, now forever part of the business. When his older brother Sonny (James Caan) is murdered, Vito begins to groom Michael to take over the family. The older man sees something in his younger son, a cold cruelty that he will need going forward. Michael proves to be a most worthy Don, massacring the other crime chiefs in a single night, consolidating his power after his father dies. The scenes between Michael and Vito are the film’s best written and acted, tender, gentle scenes between two men who know and understand that murder is their business. What is fascinating is we know, as does Michael, that Vito is a murderer, and orders the death of many men. To society he is a monster, which Michael too will become, but to the sons, they are loving fathers.
1. KRAMER VS KRAMER (1979)
When his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) suddenly leaves him, Ted (Dustin Hoffman) is forced to find a relationship with his five-year old son. Really, workaholic Ted has been so busy making money, climbing the ladder of success, he has ignored his boy until he is forced into being both mother and father. The evolving relationship between Ted and Billy (Justin Henry) is beautiful to watch unfold, as they rage at one other, depend on each other, trust each other, and come to love one another very deeply. When Joanna returns wanting her son back, 18 months later, Ted is reeling in shock that the court will take his son away from him. The court battle is ugly, with cheap shots taken by both lawyers, but the judge ultimately goes for motherhood. As Ted prepares to give the boy to his mother, Joanna proves her love for her son by doing what is best for him, leaving Ted stunned. Hoffman won his first Oscar for Best Actor for his riveting performance while the film landed Streep her first Oscar. The movie also won awards for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay Adaptation. Watch both Hoffman and Henry, they are truly magic together as we watch a father learn to understand his son, and love him unconditionally, and a little boy gets to know his daddy.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”