As the Toronto International Film Festival draws to a close, it is striking how many films featured heroes with glasses furiously thinking through problems — brains-over-brawn scenarios that definitively mark the end of summer blockbuster territory.
“Guardians of the Galaxy,” you can go home now.
In at least three major films at the festival, the film’s drama is created by the life of the mind, rather than might, morals or spiritual strength. A brainiac of one kind or another is the hero of the narrative.
>> In “The Theory of Everything ” from Focus Features, Eddie Redmayne plays the physicist Stephen Hawking, focused on creating a single unifying theory to the universe while his motor neuron ALS disease reduces his physical life to a wheelchair and a voice synthesizer.
>> In “The Imitation Game” from The Weinstein Company, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician with piss-poor people skills (and ohbytheway he’s homosexual), cracking an uncrackable Nazi code with a machine that is an early version of the computer.
>> In “Pawn Sacrifice,” which was bought by the new distribution company Bleecker Street, Tobey Maguire plays the chess genius Bobby Fischer, with the drama centered on the Cold War-era showdown between him and Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber).
And “Pawn Sacrifice” is only one of two TIFF movies about chess masters — New Zealand’s “The Dark Horse” is about that country’s Genesis Pontini.
Even “The Forger,” a relatively conventional thriller about an ex-con who has to pull one last job to settle debts and free himself from the criminal life, casts John Travolta not as a run-of-the-mill bankrobber or stickup man, but as an art forger recruited to duplicate a Monet — a far more cerebral undertaking than you usually find in films of this sort.
Placing the emphasis on brain power rather than physical action can make for a serious challenge from the narrative point of view. It’s hard to depict the furious activity going on in the mind of Stephen Hawking, or the strategies being mentally tested at a rapid pace by Bobby Fischer.
There are scenes of Hawking writing sums on a whiteboard that we don’t understand in the least, and of Turing staring at the clicking and whirring dials on his new code-breaking machine. Fischer and Spassky stare hard at the board, and each other.
But the drama is inherent in each of the stories, and the choice of hero a sign of our times.
You can call it the age of the geek, or the Steve Jobs effect. (Good timing, considering that TIFF coincided with Apple’s unveiling of the new iPhone and iWatch, and the attendant questions about whether the company is adrift without its late leader.)
Either way it seems that movies have absorbed the cultural message that what drives change and solves conflict comes from between the ears. Maguire has been “Spider-Man,” now he’s choosing — in a movie that he spent a decade trying to get made — to play a chess wizard. The Turing story, financed by Teddy Schwartzmann and produced by two novice twenty-somethings, Nora Grossman and Ido Ostrowsky, is driven mainly by a desire to recognize a man who helped end World War II early but instead of recognition was persecuted for his homosexuality. And the Stephen Hawking story is based on the memoir of his ex-wife Jane, played in the film by Felicity Jones.
As is always the case, each film has its own journey, and it may seem pure coincidence that they arrive at this festival at the same time.
And it’s not as if films have never gone down this road before: Ron Howard‘s 2001 Oscar winner “A Beautiful Mind” was about the life of economics genius John Nash, though the film focused more on his mental illness than his brilliance. And David Fincher‘s “The Social Network” told the story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
But still, as a culture we like to glorify the lone warrior saving society: think of Mel Gibson in “Mad Max” or “Braveheart.” And we’ve glorified and vilified the anti-hero in a vigilante mode: Clint Eastwood as “Dirty Harry” and Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver” in one era, Michael Douglas in “Falling Down” in another. More typical protagonists demand action: Sandra Bullock in “Gravity,” Ben Affleck in “Argo.”
The Steve Jobs movies never found their audience. But the spirit of glorifying, idiosyncratic genius is still defining our time.
Watch interviews with the cast of “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Pawn Sacrifice”: