Heroes Then, Heroes Now

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JoJo Rabbit is an early contender for movie of the year for me. It’s a rictus grin of horror and rage and grief, a deliberately insidious, troubling look at one of the worst events in human history. I suspect it’s entirely too weird to win the Best Picture Oscar category, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t.

The final scene (spoilers, sweetie) sees Jojo and Elsa step out into the newly quiet blank slate of their liberated town. Jojo has lied to Elsa that the Germans won, Elsa has lied to Jojo about her boyfriend still being alive. She slaps him, and then this happens:

This is Helden, the German language version of Heroes by David Bowie. The track itself is a piece of architecture, a tunnel of sound through time between two different places. Uncle Warren covers it pretty well here, with his usual enthusiasm for the architecture of sound and the super-positioning of creativity with itself. Trust me, read it, it’s good.

Helden, especially here, has a few more levels of meaning. The first is that this is the first time we see these kids being kids. They both agree they want to dance once the war is over and that’s exactly what they do. Jojo’s mother is dead, Elsa’s family are gone, neither of them have any idea of what’s going to happen next in their wreck of a town in the center of their wreck of a country on a continent that will still feel the scars of this war where I’m sitting seven decades later. Everything is reset to zero. The page is blank, once the rubble is cleared away.

Why not dance?

But then there’s the exact way the song appears, how Elsa conjures it into being. Elsa, who has constantly been victimized and lost everything. Elsa, who somehow finds it in herself to dance. To literally summon the future, to move it into existence. It’s especially interesting that she starts the music and Jojo pushes it up a gear, an active participant in dragging a future of, if not hope, then less horror into their quiet little corner of hell.

Because that’s what this is: the future. Bowie — gender and genre transcendent — howling through a time tunnel from the future telling us there are still heroes and now they’re us. Co-opting Jojo’s preferred language, telling him that his country’s long night really is ending, even if the world’s is not. A frightened young former Nazi, a furious young Jewish refugee, a brave new world and the chance to do something with it. I can’t thing of anything better to score this scene and Jojo’s final, cautious smile.

Not we could be heroes. We will be. We are.

The final Short Treks for the season, ‘Children of Mars’, uses the same piece of music from entirely the other end of a conflict. Written by Kirsten Beyer, Alex Kurtzman, and Jenny Lumet and directed by Mark Pellington, it follows Kima (Iiamaria Ebrahim) and Lil (Sadie Monroe). One is alien, one is human. Both have parents working in the Utopia Planitia shipyards above Mars.

Both are school children. Both hate each other.

As the short unfolds we see them clash, fight and get detention, all scored by the aching strings and vocals of Peter Gabriel’s cover of Heroes. The joyous defiance of Bowie’s original is here but it’s tempered by a sense of space and scale and awe that Gabriel’s orchestral approach uses as its foundation.

For comparison, take a listen to this trailer for Lone Survivor and the way it uses the music. Berg’s sincere desire to honor the men of Operation: Red Wings — especially the use of the song over home movies of the dead men in the end credits —  is a discussion all by itself. The use of the song here, the way the massive expansion of strings is used to mirror both the human fragility of the scene it scores and the imminent danger facing the SEALS, is both easier to talk about and witness.

Pellington uses the song in a similar way in the Short Trek, scoring the girls’ day and the parade of casual cruelties Lil inflicts on Kima. Tripping her, making her miss the bus shuttle, bullying her and letting her take the blame. It all culminates in a fist fight as brutal as it is untidy and the pair of them being sent to detention.

And then their worlds end.

An attack devastates every Starfleet facility on Mars. The world, to quote Hamilton, turns upside down, and so do their priorities. The two girls bond over their shared horror, their shared near-certain losses, and the final image of the episode is the pair of them holding hands.

Heroes is used again as a call to arms but it’s from the opposite perspective, the opposite end of the arc. The same song, covered by a different artist, pointing a different direction but being no less urgent or vital. Whatever the war may be, for these characters, it’s started. Unlike JoJo and Elsa these two children aren’t being called to greatness in the wake of tragedy, they’re being called to greatness on the crest of it. It’s especially poignant given how much the producers have talked about Picard being a show about the Federation losing it’s idea of itself (I love that phrase). Turning inward when they should be exploring brave worlds. Protecting their own interests instead of boldly going. Eschewing diversity and the challenges inherent within it for limited, calcified safety. Now, what could that possibly resonate with?

The Federation needs Kima and Lil. Europe needs Jojo and Elsa. So do we. Because heroes survive and show us we can and should survive too, and sometimes that’s the message we most desperately need to hear.