Reel Dad: An Ordinary Man examines loneliness

The movie camera loves to follow people on the run.

Something about someone all alone in an unfriendly world fascinates movie makers who construct complex plots around people who resist connecting with others and confronting their own uncertainties. Sometimes these loners succeed; sometimes not. Regardless of the outcome, at the movies, those who go it alone against any world can have a tough time acknowledging what they need. Even when they need so much.

The fascinating, if frustrating drama An Ordinary Man neatly fits into this niche of films that explore the lonely person on the run. Ben Kingsley plays a high-ranking military official who constantly hides from people who would like to kill him. As the film opens he is, actually, rather casual about this existence, refusing to follow the instructions of those assigned to protect him, preferring, instead, to treat his life as a type of game, casting himself as a mouse who can outmaneuver any cat. This man cynically views the state of his life, realizing how little he experiences as he hides from the world and himself.

As often happens in movies about lonely people on the run, the opportunity for connection comes with a surprising source and happens by accident. Or so it seems. For Kingsley’s character, simply called the General, that spontaneous intersection occurs with a lady named Tanja who happens to be the maid where Kingsley stays. They begin an unconventional association given the difference in age and life experience, looking beyond what may separate them to what they could have in common. As they start to get to know each other, each begins to learn what can be experienced when lonely people reach out even though, as with any film about a person on the run, there is always more to the story and the characters than initially revealed.

While the set-up is interesting, and the performers bring their best intentions to their portrayals, the film ultimately feels somewhat empty, as if writer/director Brad Silberling never fully trusts the relationship he carefully introduces. Silberling draws his characters, at the start, to establish the essential gaps they must bridge. The film works when it examines these differences but becomes less effective when Silberling tries to expand his scope to encompass elements of a traditional thriller. We have seen enough chases on screen to get the idea of what happens when someone is on the run. We then see less of people learning to reveal themselves and more of traditional chases, dark alleys and hiding gunmen. How people react gives such a film its appeal. Not people who chase and shoot.

For anyone who admires Ben Kingsley’s work, An Ordinary Man reminds us what a skilled actor he can be, regardless of the weakness of the material. In the final third of the film, as Silberling tries to make the movie into something it can’t reach, Kingsley remains grounded in his portrayal of a solitary man. He makes us believe in everything this character wants, feels and let go many years ago. Even when the movie tries to take him somewhere else.

Film Nutritional Value: An Ordinary Man

  • Content: Medium. While the film begins with an interesting premise, writer/director Brad Silberling fails to trust the potential of a central relationship that ultimately feels unresolved.
  • Entertainment: Medium. While Ben Kingsley commands the screen, as always, the impact of his performance is diluted by Silberling’s approach to the film’s resolution.
  • Message: Medium. While this is not a message film, and doesn’t intend to be, it does offer thoughtful views of how lonely people can connect if they willingly reveal.
  • Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to watch a movie can be enjoyable. This one, though, may frustrate a bit.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. You and your older children can likely find other things to talk about.

An Ordinary Man runs 1 hour and 30 minutes. It is rated R for language, some nudity, and brief violence. It is available in theaters in New York City as well as iTunes, Prime Video and On Demand. 3 1/2 Popcorn buckets. 

The Fugitive: A classic story of a lonely man on the run

Some lonely men become reluctant heroes.

If Ben Kingsley — in An Ordinary Man — struggles to survive in a cruel world, Dr. Richard Kimble — in The Fugitive — has no intention to define his life with heroic actions. He does his job, takes care of his responsibilities, enjoys time with his wife. Little does he know, one night when making a routine trip to the hospital, his life will so dramatically change.

While he is out of the house, someone breaks in and kills his wife, and the doctor gets home too late to save his life partner. But he does get there in time to leave some incriminating evidence that, incorrectly, points to him as the killer. When he is convicted of murder — a crime he did not commit — he has no choice but to take his life into his own hands. This man knows he is innocent — and has a good idea about who committed the crime — but no one will believe him. So when a train carrying him and other prisoners to death row is in an accident, Kimble takes his chance to escape, and begins the long road to reclaim his life and innocence.

This story began as a television show in the 1960s where, every week, Kimble would go to a different town, make up a different name, and search for the same “one armed man” he believed killed his wife. When the story came to the big screen, director Andrew Davis wisely expanded its plot and potential beyond what the original series portrayed. No longer is The Fugitive about a man seeking revenge; this Richard Kimble seeks redemption.

Still, as a man trapped by the facts others create, Kimble has to be very creative to try to free himself. Davis brilliantly takes us through a series of his larger-than-life choices, from jumping of a dam to escape capture, to saving a boy in a hospital while risking discovery, to marching in a parade through downtown Chicago. In the film, Kimble’s mission to escape from a sentence he does not deserve drives every step he takes. The film asks us to consider how we would cope if accused, and convicted, of a crime we did not commit; if, despite our claims of innocence, a judge or jury issued a sentence for what they believe we did. And, if we had the chance to escape, would we take it? If we found ourselves in the same situation, could we be as resourceful and persistent? Would our freedom matter as much?

As a film, The Fugitive can get families talking in several levels. While it is, of course a thrill ride of the first order, with an amazing collection of action sequences, its development of Kimble as a man, trying to accomplish something that should be very simple, justifies the action. The film reminds us that every person should stand up for what they believe to be truth.

The Fugitive offers a highly entertaining escape from the day-to-day routine, the chance to get involved in someone else’s challenges, and the opportunity to sit back, munch popcorn and have a whopping good time.

And that’s more than I can say about An Ordinary Man.

The Fugitive, from 1993, runs 2 hours and 10 minutes. It is rated PG-13 for a murder and other action sequences in an adventure setting. The film is available streaming online, On Demand, and on DVD.

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