My dad cries every time he watches “Remember the Titans.” Every time. Something about Denzel Washington preaching harmony in segregated Virginia just gets to him. After a decade-plus of watching and sniffling, he gets misty whenever he hears the words “Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye,” whether the movie is on or not. And when a paralyzed Gerry Bertier calls Julius Campbell his brother, there’s nothing he can do to hold back the tears.
But “Remember the Titans” is far from the only film that chokes him up. If a given movie does a halfway decent job of tugging at the heartstrings, there’s a solid chance my dad will be wiping his eyes at the end. When I was a teenager, I would poke fun at this emotional outpouring, coming like clockwork from an otherwise very composed individual.
Sure, I’d been in his place before; I cried big, nostalgic tears when I saw “Toy Story 3,” as anyone with a soul might. That film came out when Woody and the gang and I were all simultaneously coping with the transition to college and a new chapter in life. I watched Andy pass on his childhood friends to a small child and I bawled in solidarity.
But that level of vulnerability was exceptional. I adored TV shows and movies and gave them my emotional investment; my response remained internal nonetheless. They would leave me just as vulnerable as my dad would be, but my eyes would remain dry as I glanced over at him and smirked.
I don’t do that anymore. Because now I cannot stop crying.
At this point in my life, my empathy for dramatized characters is off the damn scale, and I can’t even say for sure how it got to be this way. I know these movies and shows are manipulating me emotionally, but I can’t help it. Screens hardly abstract me from the people on them anymore. I sit back and develop deep, layered relationships with the people before me, and I weep for their misfortunes and their joys; whatever makes them cry makes me cry, basically without exception, and I grow closer to them because of that connection.
No longer does something have to hit me in a hyper-specific, personal place to elicit an outward response. On one July evening, I sat inconsolably through the tragic final act of “Fruitvale Station,” equally crushed by Octavia Spencer’s stoicism and the sorrow that inevitably forced its way past the surface. As a pick-me-up, I pulled up season five of “Parks and Recreation” and blubbered with giddiness as Leslie and Ben finally tied the knot.
In the past, “Fruitvale” would have left me drained, and maybe a tear or two would have slipped out as I commiserated with Oscar Grant’s loved ones on the screen. I would have watched “Parks and Rec” with the goofiest, most blissful smile, but I would not have even welled up. Instead I wallowed in despair and shepped such nachas and sobbed. My emotional response took on a physical component, which was exhausting but also grounded my memory of that night. I’m not sure I would have otherwise remembered watching that particular “Parks” episode right after “Fruitvale.”
Just this week I have cried twice: once in a darkened movie theater on a Tuesday afternoon; once staring shocked at my laptop early Thursday morning.
“Captain Phillips” takes a while before it becomes anything special, but the last 30 minutes or so hit you with wave after wave of tension. Director Paul Greengrass is a seasoned veteran when it comes to crafting thrillers, but “Captain Phillips” exceeded anything he had done in “United 93” or his Bourne movies.
But after two hours of build-up, the audience is left with something more than awe, and that’s because Tom Hanks breaks down. Even if he submitted only his performance after the film’s climax for Oscar consideration, he would have a Best Actor nomination locked up. He is primal and nuanced and confused and overwhelming in the best possible ways. There’s a certain class of actors that forces audiences to match them emotion for emotion, and Hanks might be chief among them. When he interweaves exultation and desperation and devastation, it’s as impressive as anything Greengrass did behind the camera. It’s classic Tom Hanks.
I did not expect Parker Posey to sucker punch me in the last two lines of a “Louie” episode; she’s been working consistently for 20 years, and it’s nothing against her, but I just don’t love her like I love Hanks. In “Daddy’s Girlfriend: Part 2,” she plays the titular character as Louis C.K.’s very own Manic Pixie, but her version is more unhinged than the archetype calls for. The action fits the show’s darkly comic sensibility as a nameless Posey lures Louie through New York first with her abundant cuteness, then with furious demands that he follow her, bringing them all the way up to overlook the city from the edge of a skyscraper. Posey sits on the edge and dismisses Louie’s fear of heights as a fear he’ll want to jump, a compulsion she claims not to feel.
“I’m having too good of a time,” she says with her most adorable smile, and as she processes her own words, she changes. Her eyes flutter. Her lips fall. Her face wrinkles and ages as she looks away, and she is frail as she stands. She tells him her name is Liz, and he holds the door as they descend from the rooftop.
The danger inherent in that transformation—that she would act on her urge with her façade down—happened in slow, calculated steps, but it was still too quick for me to process. As a black-and-white close-up of Posey played over the credits, I broke down; her smiles are lies, and I was terrified for her well-being. Then again, she is a lie, too. She is an outsize fiction, an extrapolation of real traits into someone who doesn’t actually exist. Nonetheless, my emotions for her are real.
That’s the power drama can wield if you let it. It can make you identify with representations of triumph and tragedy, and in doing so, make you feel the ecstasy and the agony as if they were your own. They’re not and you know it, but you don’t acknowledge it while you’re watching if your emotions are restrained. Let them flow, and your bond with the drama and its characters will be that much more meaningful.
Cohen is a member of the class of 2014.