The lessons of the recently deceased screenwriter Frank Pierson's classics Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon ring profoundly after the shootings in Aurora.
Renowned screenwriter Frank Pierson—a three-time Oscar nominee who died in Los Angeles earlier this month—is best known for two films, Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), that present us with anti-heroes on opposite sides of what might be called the celebrity spectrum. At one end, we have a prisoner who fights the system (and fate) for the sake of his freedom and integrity. At the other, we have a hostage-taking bank robber who risks lives because he craves admiration. Taken together, these two films, made nearly a decade apart, say a lot about whom society and the media pay attention to—and about how they're happy to pay attention to the dangerous or reprehensible.
Both Paul Newman as Luke and Al Pacino as the stick-up artist treat us to exceptional performances. But it's Newman who's in the more enduring film. Quite possibly the best prison drama ever made, Cool Hand Luke follows a man, incarcerated for drunken petty vandalism, who has so much fight in him that he continuously finds a way to beat the odds. That tenacity is dramatized in an early scene during which Luke manages to win a poker game despite having been dealt some terrible cards. ("Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand," Luke says, thereby giving the character his nickname and the movie its title.) Luke triumphs, often, because he perseveres. Even in the corrupt place where he's imprisoned, he carries himself with dignity. Sure, he engages in the not-especially-dignified stunt of eating 50 eggs to win a bet—but more significant than that, he refuses to ingratiate himself with either the guards or the intimidating kapo, Dragline, who calls the shots among the prisoners. In the process, Luke becomes something of a spiritual beacon for the other inmates. At various points in the movie, it's even hinted that he's a Christ-like figure.