Not all choices are easy, but when your dearly beloved asks if you have any interest in seeing one of your favorite animated movies on the big screen at one of your favorite movie houses, it’s really no choice at all. Thus, on Friday morning, Noah and I found ourselves on the ever-screechy 2 train, plummeting towards Brooklyn and its recently-opened Alamo Drafthouse. We were going to see The Iron Giant, Brad Bird’s hand-drawn, Cold War-era fairy tale about the power of choice.
The movie has been a favorite of mine since I was very small, and recent viewings have only served to further endear it to me. In the wake of this year, watching it is a comfort – an essential reminder of hope and peace.
The film is set in small, coastal Rockwell, Maine in 1957. It’s the height of the Cold War, and the climate is sticky with fear and paranoia. The film opens in outer space with a close-up of Sputnik and the Soviet coat of arms. A nod to the politics of the time, the conflict between Russia and the US serves as a backdrop, a parallel, to the film’s central struggle between good and bad. Moments after Sputnik orbits across the screen, a fiery mass shoots past the satellite and crash-lands off Rockwell’s shore.
The next day, the town kook, whose boat crashed into the Iron Giant, excitedly tells a table of disbelievers that he saw “an invader from Mars.” None of the locals believes him, but young and imaginative Hogarth Hughes overhears the story with excitement.
That night, when he notices that the fence is broken and there’s an enormous gash cutting through the trees, Hogarth plunges into the house and dons his army boots and helmet, snatches up his BB gun, and salutes himself in the mirror before dashing out the door to confront the Martian. When the little soldier finally sets eyes on the Iron Giant, it’s only moments before the metal man takes hold of an electrified generator and stumbles into a power line. Hogarth begins to flee the scene, but the Giant’s screams touch him. Instead of running, he chooses to turn back and flip the power plant’s switch.
The next day, free of his helmet, boots, and BB gun, Hogarth returns to the forest with a piece of metal for the giant to eat. That afternoon, a friendship blooms as Hogarth discovers that the giant can understand him, mimic him – he’s practically human. The scene gives credence to the peaceful notion that if you just sit down and try to understand someone, you may discover that you’re not so different after all. But Hogarth isn’t naïve; he knows that most adults would “wig out” (read: shoot) if they so much as set eyes on the hundred-foot-tall metal man. When the Giant mimics Hogarth’s tongue-out, waggly-fingered expression of what “wig out” means, Hogarth immediately stops him: “No, no, no, no! Don’t do that. That’s the kind of stuff that makes ‘em shoot atcha.”
Guns and trigger happiness weave throughout the movie’s narrative, cropping up again in a throat-tightening hunting scene in which the Giant learns about – and is heartbroken by – death. That evening under the stars, Hogarth comforts him: “It’s bad to kill, but it’s not bad to die.” He explains the concept of souls to the Giant, reasoning that since the Giant has feelings, he has a soul. “Souls don’t die,” he says, stretching his hands to the clouds.
This scene isn’t the first in the movie that makes a statement about morality and the choice between good and bad. Earlier, when Hogarth shares his comic books with the Giant, the Giant notices a comic covered by Atomo the Metal Menace, a large metal robot not unlike himself, shooting up a town. His brow furrows with concern, but Hogarth waves it off: “He’s not like you. You’re a good guy. Like Superman!”
Eventually, the audience learns that the Giant is in fact a fully-loaded gun, programmed to attack defensively. The Giant himself isn’t aware of this: When his gun programming activates and shoots in response to Hogarth brandishing a toy gun at him, he wakens blinking and shaking his head – he has no memory of his reaction. (The Giant’s disbelief upon learning that there is a gun inside him is similar to the reaction government official Kent Mansley has after he launches the nuclear missile: “We’re all going to d…?”)
Significantly, there is no single, central bad guy in this film. Instead, the opposing forces are the two sides of choice. The enemy is the decision to be paranoid, defensive, and disinterested in understanding. The good guy is peace and open-mindedness, kindness and understanding. And the Iron Giant – a literal gun – becomes the hero when he chooses peace and self-sacrifice to save the town and troops who tried to destroy him.
The duality within us all and our power of choice is an important theme to explore any time, but its significance is heightened in times of paranoia and fear, when alienating and defense are the first reactions to anyone different. This year, especially this November, a month of choice, this movie’s message felt especially pointed.
Moments before the film’s climax, Hogarth’s voice echoes its central message: “You are who you choose to be.”
In this movie and in this world, some people will choose nuclear missiles. But there is hope: somewhere (perhaps off the coast of Iceland) we can rebuild.