Rebirth of Reason


The Emperor's Club: A Review
by Kernon Gibes

This is not a great movie, but it is a good one. It's one of those rare movies about values, character, and honor. From an Objectivist standpoint, it has a number of flaws, but let us look at the whole glass and not just the half-empty portion. 

The movie starts out fully at odds with the Objectivist ethics. It pays lip service to the idea that what is important in life is what you contribute to your fellow man. This is merely claimed by the main character, William Hundert (played by Kevin Kline). He also suggests that it is important to be "remembered (in this regard, I can do little better than to quote from Woody Allen: "I don't want to be immortal through my work. I want to be immortal through not dying")." But an entirely different side is demonstrated by the actions of the players. Towards the end of the movie, Hundert tells a former student that the reason why character matters is --- essentially --- a matter of self-esteem (being able to look at yourself in the mirror). In addition, what proves decisive in his life is how well he has taught history and shaped the character of the vast majority of his students. In other words, how well he has accomplished the things he values most --- teaching --- and not what others value most (e.g., fund-raising or writing a pivotal book). 

The key conflict in the movie is the clash between Hundert and his (if you will) nemesis: an incorrigible student, Sedgewick Bell, played by Emile Hirsch. Bell doesn't buy Hundert's morality, and is the perfect Nietzsche hedonist. One might easily take the view that Hundert loses the battle of ideas with Bell, as Bell prospers while Hundert apparently does not. But the movie veers away from the path that the good must inevitably triumph over every instance of evil. Hundert realizes that his inability to influence Bell does not detract from his other accomplishments. That Bell exists and holds opposing beliefs is no longer important (in the vein of Atlas Shrugged, he doesn't have to take him seriously anymore). Hundert is profoundly happy with the values that he has achieved and has no desire for Bell's sort of "success" and its costs. He turns his back on Bell and a failed attempt at writing, and returns to teaching. 

Bell's world is really a cold one, where the truth is your enemy and success depends upon your ability to maintain a flawless facade. Bell's son gets to peek past this veneer, and clearly doesn't like what he sees. If Bell is so proud and sure and unapologetic for his approach to life, why then doesn't he welcome his son finding out how to work the system? 

There are a number of weaknesses in the execution of the plot, but the movie must be given its due for tackling head-on something ignored in many movies these days: values and their importance to human life.

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