When Donald Rumsfeld said, “Stuff happens” what he meant was: “I don’t make mistakes”. That’s why everyone got so pissed at Rummy. It’s the arrogance of power that provokes violence in the powerless. Hubris wouldn’t be a flaw if not for other people getting screwed. But it’s tough. Power secludes. If you’re a person who commands respect, how much empathy can you have with those humiliated by your decisions? The new drama, Forgiven, shows us two hells: one caused by not admitting a mistake, and the other caused by revenge. It’s the same hell for both men. They’re each fired by pride.
In North Carolina, District Attorney Peter Miles (Paul Fitzgerald) is about to run for Senate. He’s a straight-backed, family-values guy, full of quiet certainty. In the past he’s had fun with drink and drugs, but now he’s all about public service. Only – there’s a thorn in his side. A man he put on Death Row for murder six years ago (Russell Hornsby) has been reprieved. The press say: Miles erred. Feet of clay threaten to stomp on the intended Senator’s campaign. Miles is adamant: he did the right thing, given the information he had at hand. He speaks of how: “this is not a time for self-criticism”. And everyone agrees – at least, everyone in Peter Miles’ orbit.
Writer/director Paul Fitzgerald plays Miles like a rolled-up flag. There’s a stiff, patriotic, do-right attitude to his performance. He looks like the captain of the debate club, or a wedding-cake groom. You get the feeling he’s stopped asking risky questions about life. It’s not that he lacks intelligence, but he’s happy not to know things. When a black strategist on his campaign tells him he’s prejudiced, he responds like she’d insulted his mother. There’s a self-protecting guileless quality in Miles, excusing him of wrongs he’s blind to. He doesn’t think of himself as a racist, therefore he’s not a racist.
Russell Hornsby is tasked with educating Miles. He looks easily pained, so his task is made more difficult. Hornsby has a Terrence Howard, kiss-you physicality. His eyes look hurt but his mouth is lithe. Ronald Bradler (the man he plays) is a man who knows his own worth, made to plead. And though he’s good with words, there are admissions he can’t make. Prison is like a match-head in him. Every time he thinks of it, he spits flame. Bradler’s tragedy is that he can’t be who he was before prison. In every job interview, every intimate moment, he’s an ex-con. Worse than that – he’s been made a child. When Miles tells him, “You’ve got a lot of anger and that’s understandable…” the whole movie seems to stop for Hornsby’s reply: “Is it understandable or do you understand it?” Spoken like a healer.
What happens when it’s clear Miles does not understand is terrible. What Bradler does next, no-one can excuse. But his actions are central to why Forgiven works, not because they switch who is wronged and who is guilty, but because they show us the effect of Miles’ hubris. The man he sent to prison for six years is wrecked because of Miles’ mistake. One mother has already lost a son. Miles’ decision – quiet and detached as it was – destroyed somebody. He could only justify his actions because he couldn’t imagine he might be wrong. The movie isn’t about erasing sin through forgiveness; it’s about asking forgiveness as a way to confess.
When President Obama spoke of white police officers behaving “stupidly” in the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., he outraged a lot of powerful people. It seemed as if Obama wasn’t aware of the golden rule of politics: preserve your own interest first. By saying, in effect, that: “yes, racism exists in America” and “non-white people are worse off for it”, Obama cast the objectivity of the law into doubt. In Forgiven, Paul Fitzgerald plays a man who would have starred dumbfounded as Obama (seemingly) called him the bad guy. Like most people without prejudice, he’s good at lying to himself.