We must admit it’s not too often that an editorial is, in a sense, a movie review. But the issues raised by the Oscar-touted new film One True Thing are just too important to be left unaddressed. And those issues are profoundly relevant to our particular quest to build a culture of life.
The film stars Meryl Streep as Kate Gulden, a radiantly loving and unfailingly faithful wife and mother, who has happily devoted her life to her family as a homemaker. William Hurt is her sometimes-philandering husband George, a minor academic celebrity, who, while he is self-centred and proud, does love his wife and children in his heart of hearts. Renee Zellwegger is their driven, cynical daughter Ellen, an up-and-coming New York journalist who longs for the approval of the father she idolizes, while dismissing her mother as a superficial relic of the pre-feminist Dark Ages.
When Kate is diagnosed as having an incurable and fatal cancer, George asks Ellen to come home to look after her. Reluctant and sullen, she puts her job on hold to oblige her father. Gradually, however, Ellen discovers both her father’s flaws and her mother’s hidden strengths. The unfolding and maturing of the family’s relationships in the face of Kate’s impending death is thus the dramatic heart of the film.
And what a film it is! We could go on at length about its artistic merits, but in addition to that, One True Thing is remarkably edifying in some of the moral values it presents. Whether or not they intended it, for example, the filmmakers have given us a rare sympathetic, realistic portrait of a homemaker, whose love of her vocation and tolerance of her husband would be seen as despicable by most feminists.
They’ve also presented us with some profound reflections on suffering and compassion. One of the most moving moments in the film comes after Kate and Ellen drop off a friend of Kate’s after a day of shopping, lunching, and just enjoying life. The friend has been depressed since her husband abandoned her, but is greatly uplifted by the end of the day. Alone in the car with Kate, Ellen grumbles about how she’s got errands to run, and how they’ve “done nothing” all day. Kate lists the “nothing” things they did, and sums it up by saying they had helped a woman in pain to enjoy herself for a little while, and to know she’s loved. “That’s what we did today,” Kate says quietly.
So One True Thing is a wonderful film. But now we’re going to do to our readers what the film did to us: after building you up, we’re going to deliver a rather shocking disappointment. (Warning: Stop reading now if you’re planning to see the movie.)
After bravely suffering months of terrible pain, in the last few days when her death is clearly imminent, Kate commits suicide. The day before, she begged her daughter to give her an overdose of morphine, but Ellen finds she’s unable to go through with it. Independently, George feels he ought to “help” Kate to die, but also can’t bring himself to do it. After Kate’s death, George and Ellen each think the other was responsible, until they compare notes and realize Kate must somehow have done it herself. George and Ellen are ashamed at not having had the “strength” to euthanize Kate, whose suicide is depicted as a noble act of great heroism.
We were outraged by this “resolution” to what is otherwise a magnificent film. First, the manner of Kate’s death is completely out of place from an artistic point of view. Apart from the fact that it doesn’t fit with Kate’s character, the dramatic heart of the film—what the film is all about—is how the Guldens mature in the face of Kate’s illness and death. Had Kate died naturally, none of that would have changed. What the film has to say would still have been said—much more effectively, in fact—without a gratuitous nod to the “death-with-dignity” zeitgeist. Ironically, dignity is above all what characterized Kate’s life and illness, until that final act of despair.
More important than these artistic considerations are the moral and cultural questions the film itself confronts us with. How is it that our culture is capable of such greatness and such baseness at the same time, such beauty and such ugliness simultaneously? How can we admire Kate’s genuinely admirable virtues of strength, courage, patience, and resignation, and at the same time admire the negation of those same virtues in the act of suicide? How has it come to pass that we cherish human rights and abhor oppression, while insisting that one of the “fundamental human rights” (as the United Nations would have it) is the right to tear babies from their mothers’ wombs?
To be charitable, we might ask whether we shouldn’t view the glass as being half-full in the case of One True Thing, since, apart from the objectionable ending, the film does achieve some very great things. We might say, “Let’s be grateful for the truths Hollywood has managed to convey here, and let’s try to affirm that and build on it, and work for even more positive messages.”
The trouble is, half-glasses and half-truths are two different things. Half-glasses are often something we should be satisfied with. Half-truths, on the other hand, are usually even more dangerous than out-and-out lies, precisely because they can seem so close to the mark. In the case of One True Thing, the truly moral elements of the film can lead us to ignore or excuse its truly immoral elements, and thus gradually to become de-sensitized to euthanasia.
So how do we respond when confronted with this kind of profound contradiction in our culture today? We believe somehow it has something to do with what The Interim’s own Steve Jalsevac says at the end of his column this month on how to avoid pornography on the Internet. Referring to the great potential of the Internet, Steve writes, “Let’s claim the Internet for God and life and family, and send the pornographers packing.” When we’re confronted by the culture of death in any form, especially when it comes in morally-attractive packaging, let’s refuse to compromise, and insist on the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The mission we’re on—to build a new culture of life—is simply too important to jeopardize with even one half-true thing.