What is Behind the Popularity of this Summer’s Hottest Blockbuster?
By Robert Nolte
ORLANDO, FL – Not since Chariots of Fire rumbled out of Hollywood have we seen such blatant heroism as Dick Tracy shows us in Disney’s recent hit movie.
Tracy is so heroic that an obviously impressed audience rose to its feet and gave the movie a standing ovation last month in Orlando, Florida, during a world premiere screening. I haven’t seen such obvious affection for a movie in years.
Why? Has Tracy touched a deep chord in us that strums when men act with integrity instead of compromise?
Having mused over the Tracy epic for several days, I have come to some conclusions:
- When Tracy refuses a bribe, the gangsters are incredulous. So is the audience. Perhaps we are jaded by past movie “heroes” who violate the law (re: “the end justifies the means” philosophy). At any rate, when Tracy comes along and in a masculine way turns aside temptation, something deep within us responds.
- Even Madonna cannot bring down the high moraled detective. Fidelity has fallen on hard times these days but Dick Tracy is not of their generation. Instead, he leaves us with a message that commitment to Tess Trueheart has its own rewards.
- And the gangsters offer insight by their refusal to be manipulated by “Big Boy,” a visionary gang leader who seeks to rule over a cabal of hooligans. Like the citizens of Iron Curtain nations, the mobsters seek to throw off the yoke of the despot.
Should we really analyze a movie that probably was designed just to entertain us? Does a comic book character have anything to say to such a distinguished generation as ours?
I don’t know, but if you study an audience as they watch Dick Tracy, you will probably get some insights into what people long for: simpler times, honest cops, good triumphing over evil and men of character who can overcome temptation.
There was a hunger in that theater audience to see a man of virtue, troubled yet triumphant over life issues that all of us face. Tracy was tempted by the lustful beauty of Madonna but he had his eyes on a higher prize than momentary gratification.
Movie goers that sat around me were stunned when Tracy spurned the bold advances of a scantily-clad Madonna playing Breathless Mahoney. Such purity in men is seldom seen on the silver screen.
When Tracy asks Mahoney whose side she is on, the temptress replies, “The side I am always on. Mine.” As the plot unravels, a scriptural principle unfolds that not even the most obtuse movie fans can miss. In trying to save her life, Mahoney (Madonna) loses it when she is shot to death at the end of the drama.
Tess Trueheart, on the other hand, is willing to give up Tracy whom she has loved for years. She leaves town thinking she will start a new life without Tracy but through a series of plot twists, is reunited with Tracy. Willing to lose her own life, she embodies one of Jesus’ most dramatic teachings: “Whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it.”
Aside from the moral messages and possible Christian extrapolations, there is something much more powerful going on in Dick Tracy that should encourage every Christian. The movie offers hope and a possibility that external evil can be conquered as well as the beast who lives within every man.
Movies these days are looking for messiahs and Dick Tracy is no exception. “Only Dick Tracy can save us,” is a stanza from one of the musical numbers. Tracy, in fact, does save the city from a powerful crime syndicate and in that, I suppose, he represents a type of messiah-figure.
And, oh, how the movie theater audience I was sitting with wanted a savior! For those few, brief movie moments, a wave of desire for salvation swept across the auditorium. Normally tough urban citizens became vulnerable and dared to believe that men could live virtuous lives.
In that pristine moment, I longed to roll another film that told of Jesus and the redemption He offered all men.
But it was not to be. Theater patrons filed out of AMC 6 smiling, clapping and talking about the Great Tracy. I wanted to preach but took solace in the fact that this crowd was ripe for revival. These people were looking for a hope they had only caught a glimpse of in the life of a big city detective.
They had seen a man who lived with a clear conscience and now they were ready to meet the God who cleanses every man’s conscience. A God who can even use a Disney picture.
Robert Nolte is a former pastor, television newsman and newspaper reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He is presently managing editor for the Orlando Sun newspaper group, a company that publishes 18 newspapers serving over 500,000 readers in Central Florida.