Walter Mitty isn’t a manly man. He works in the basement of Life Magazine’s corporate office, processing film negatives in what appears to be a massive, windowless, and well-organized darkroom. If we didn’t have the ability to experience his fantasy filled “zoning out” spells along with him, he would seem to be a pretty dull guy. And, that is exactly how most everyone else sees him.
When The Secret Life of Walter Mitty came out at the theatre it had pretty mixed reviews. (This is usually a good indicator for a movie by the way. Generally this means there wasn’t enough action, sex, cursing, etc. and that the story required some investment of emotion and thought.) When I finally had the chance to watch it at home I wasn’t expecting much. Perhaps that is one of the reasons it impacted me the way it did; it caught me off guard. Not only is the movie fun to watch, the story is chocked full of subtle but deep sub-stories that leave you thinking about its meaning, both for yourself and the characters, long after you’ve watched it.
– Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the movie yet, go watch it and then come back and read the article. OK, you’ve been warned. –
“Have Fun – Dad”
As mentioned earlier, Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a bit of an odd person. Like many men, he seems to be struggling with the inner desire to be something or do something significant with his life and fantasizes about himself as a hero or lover. However, he doesn’t just have those thoughts while mowing the grass or on a quiet weekend when he is alone, he has them all the time, mentally and physically checking out in the middle of conversation. But, as we find out early on, he wasn’t always this way. While helping his mom move into a new place his sister finds an unused backpack of his with an equally unused travel journal. Written inside is a note from his father, “Have Fun – Dad”. That moment is so brief, but so significant and sets the stage for much of the story. Prior to his father’s death when he was 17, life was normal. We get the impression that his dad was pretty awesome; taking him to skateboarding competitions and giving him a mohawk. After that he did what any good young man would do: he became “responsible”.
Walter is the rock that steadies his family. We see this in his interactions with his sister and mother. However, for himself, he left behind the dreams of that skateboarding kid, and worse, felt a wound from his father’s death that he didn’t know how to deal with. There is a part of him that is still trying to live out the life that his dad would have wanted. Instead of living that life like Sean O’Connell (the adventurous photographer played by Sean Penn), he lives it in his imagination.
Imagine for a second working at Life magazine, where the greatest events in history are recorded in the most vivid detail, and you are the guy that meticulously handles every image as they come in from the field. Each workday, for 16 years, you see and hear from the heroes in the field, with their dirt and blood stained film crossing your hands before the world sees the cleaned-up version; most of which they will never see. I believe we can begin to see how Walter’s imagination could get away from him, but more importantly, I think it is something many men can relate to, though to a lesser degree.
“Life is about courage and going into the unknown.” – Cheryl Melhoff
When Walter can’t find film negative 25 from Sean O’Connell, the one that is to be the quintessence of all his photos and the final one for Life Magazine, he is encouraged to go on an adventure and find it by his love interest, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig). When he comes back to the office he sees Sean’s picture and imagines Sean slowly summoning him to come into the adventurous world. Walter grabs his jacket and takes off.
Walter and Sean O’Connell have never met in person, yet they share a close friendship, working together for 16 years. I like to think that to Walter, O’Connell is something of a father figure rather than just a legend of a man living the life that Walter wished he lived. To me that summoning is a call saying, “You have what it takes. What are you waiting for? Come and live!” or rather like his father saying “Have Fun”. In a sense, he is deciding it’s time to fulfill the wishes his father had for him.
On a side note, the scene with Walter in Greenland and the drunk helicopter pilot is so good! Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (yeah I don’t know how to pronounce his name either) plays the pilot and does such an excellent job. I look forward to seeing him again.
“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” – Sean O’Connell
Probably one of the most memorable scenes in the movie is when Walter finally catches up with Sean O’Connell. He’s parked out on a ridge in the Himalayas waiting for the sight of the elusive snow leopard, known locally as the “Ghost Cat”. Sean asks Walter to come sit beside him and look through his telescoping camera lens. O’Connell says, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” How true. Then another thing happens, which is just such good writing: O’Connell doesn’t take the picture. He says that when the moment is just right he wants to stay in it without the distraction of the camera. He gets that some moments are for him to share, and some are just for him only. In an age where everything is shared in an instant, those personal moments can become fewer and fewer. I believe it’s a good lesson for us.
When Walter asks O’Connell about negative 25 and finds out he had it but may have accidentally thrown it away, O’Connell doesn’t blow up at him like you would expect. When Walter asks what it was I think O’Connell has already decided to keep it as one of those “in the moment” pictures. He knows he can never describe just how great it was so he doesn’t try. “Let’s just say it was a ghost cat.” he says.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know how it ends. Like so many great stories there is more to it than what is on the surface. Walter Mitty is a guy that lost himself when he lost his dad and his adventures are a way for him to find himself and deal with the death of his father. We see this as he winds up in Papa John’s and records his adventures in the travel journal his dad gave him.
As stated earlier, Sean O’Connell is more of a father figure than a peer to Walter. Negative 25 being a picture of Walter, doing his ordinary job, being “beautiful” without seeking attention, is very significant. In a way it’s like his dad saying, “Here is how I see you. Taking responsibility and doing what is right is a beautiful thing, son.”
I know some of the great quotes in the movie come directly from James Thurber’s original short story. I can’t wait to read it and then watch the movie again.