We gave it a B-
At first glance, Hero looks like the quintessential crowd pleaser — a triumph-of-the-little-guy comedy right out of Frank Capra or Preston Sturges. Bernie LaPlante (Dustin Hoffman) is a two-bit Chicago thief, the sort of scrounging, dim-witted hustler who picks the wallet of his own defense lawyer during a bail hearing. He’s a schnook, a loser, a nobody. Then fate intervenes. During a thunderstorm, a commercial jetliner crashes into a bridge directly in front of Bernie. He saves the day — but virtually by accident. Without really thinking about it (Bernie isn’t big on thinking), he bumps open the door, allowing most of the plane’s 54 passengers to escape. Then he goes on board in search of a Mr. Fletcher, whose little boy, standing outside, reminds Bernie of his own son. Bernie hasn’t suddenly turned into Mother Teresa: He comes close to ignoring any wounded person who isn’t Mr. Fletcher. Finally, he drags several of the passengers to safety and disappears into the rain-swept night, accidentally leaving behind a shoe, like Cinderella.
Among the passengers he saves, ripping off her credit cards in the process, is Gale Gayley (Geena Davis), an award-winning TV reporter on the lookout for an inspirational story. She turns the crash into a juicy tabloid event — a public search for her savior, who is dubbed ”the Angel of Flight 104.” The Channel 4 executives offer $1 million to anyone who can prove (by producing the other shoe) that he’s the Angel. Before long, hundreds of impostors line up. But only one possesses the key piece of footwear: John Bubber (Andy Garcia), a homeless comrade of Bernie’s. Overnight, Bubber becomes a media star, a national hero. And Bernie? He’s still a nobody.
If Capra had spun this tale, its feel-good trajectory would have been clear: The movie would have ended with Bernie the schlub-saint getting his due. The makers of Hero have something else in mind. Working from a script by David Webb Peoples (Unforgiven), the acerbic British director Stephen Frears (The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons) turns the crowd-pleasing premise on its head; he offers a cheeky subversion of Capra’s corn-pone populism. The dark joke at the heart of Hero isn’t that Bernie LaPlante’s heroism has been usurped by a deceiver. It’s that Bernie himself is barely a hero. He’s a bum, a disreputable scuzz who happened to stumble into a good deed. Who’s the real hero? There is none — at least no one who can measure up to the melodramatic image of selfless heroism whipped up by the media wizards at Channel 4. True heroism, it seems, is a plainer, more everyday thing — the small, selfless actions performed by all of us.
It’s a witty idea for a movie, and Frears, an ace craftsman with a richly sardonic view of human nature, would seem to be the perfect director for it. So why does Hero, for all its ingenuity and humor, feel a little bloodless? In part, it’s because the movie seems too aware of its own conceit. Peoples’ script has a schematic, academic quality. It’s like a meticulously worked-out theorem, an attempt to prove that you can make an upbeat commercial movie without a speck of sentimental phoniness.
More disappointing, Hoffman’s busy performance never quite gels. Much of the time he seems to be doing a variation on his nattering, autistic Raymond from Rain Man. Bernie LaPlante has a similar self-involvement. He’s constantly mumbling under his breath like Popeye, and Hoffman gives him a gawky, birdlike stare and the sort of low-life nerd voice — the words coming out in hoarse, whiny spasms — he has been using on and off ever since Ratso Rizzo. This time, though, the performance seems flattened out; it lacks the inspired sense of comedy that made Rain Man so magical. Everything about Bernie is sour and grudging. There’s nothing to him — he’s all grumbly tics and mannerisms. It’s fine that we can’t admire the guy (that’s the joke), but we at least have to enjoy his company.
For all its limitations, Hero is easy to like; it has a soft, wan charm. Frears shows a keen satirical eye for the way that contemporary news is packaged, the raw events buffed and streamlined into a kind of cinema-vérité fiction. As the impostor who isn’t really a bad guy, Garcia is at his soft-spoken best here, and Davis has the most compelling moment in the movie, when she realizes who her true savior is. You certainly couldn’t accuse Frears and Peoples of excessive manipulation: Their view is so cool and evenhanded that Hero sometimes seems like a Hollywood fairy tale made by Marxists. Then again, how much point is there to a film like this if it won’t allow you to feel something? In theory, there’s nothing wrong with a hip Frank Capra fable, but Hero left me wishing it were a bit more square. B-