It’s pretty easy to make a movie where the hero saves the Earth from asteroids or blasts the bad guys into smithereens, because those kinds of battles give us lots of very cool stuff to look at. It’s a lot harder to make a movie like this one, holding our attention with heroism in small moments and unlikely places. Teens, who often feel that the problems of the world are too overwhelming to address, can learn from this movie that a small courtesy can have an enormous impact.
Paul Edgecombe (Tom Hanks) is a Depression-era Louisiana prison guard. His responsibility is the prisoners on Death Row, called “The Green Mile” because of the color of the floor between the cells and the electric chair. New prisoner John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) is a huge black man convicted of raping and murdering two little girls. He is a gentle man with a mysterious power to heal.
Edgecombe treats the prisoners with kindness, partly because it is the best way to maintain order, but also because he is a fair and compassionate man. In sharp contrast, another guard is petty and cruel, and a far more evil man than any of the prisoners. The plot veers into melodrama at times, with at least one coincidence that is overly convenient, but the humanity of the guards keeps the movie on track most of the time.
Talk to teens about the circumstances and views of the world that lead people to these different approaches and the way that the movie helps us to understand each of them. What do we learn from the way each character sees the mouse? What does Coffey’s character symbolize? (Note his initials.) Edgecombe is confronted with a real dilemma because he believes that Coffey is innocent, but is unable to save him. What facts led to his decision? What else could he have done? Does he become a sort of prisoner, too?
This is a thoughtful, intelligent movie with outstanding direction. Hanks is, as always, the American ideal, just, kind, capable, decent. Bonnie Hunt, for once is relieved of her usual Eve Arden-style role, and her performance as Edgecombe’s loyal, wise, patient, and very loving wife is a pleasure to watch. Doug Hutchison is terrific as Percy, the nephew of the governor’s wife who is assigned to work for Edgecome, and whose combined arrogance and insecurity lead to disaster. And Michael Clarke Duncan, one of the highlights of “Armageddon,” is deeply moving, showing us both Coffey’s innocence and his dignity.
Families will want to talk about the idea that a person might have an extraordinary talent to heal, where that power might come from, and what the responsibilities and burdens might be. Must that ability be accompanied, as it is in John Coffey, with the agonizing experience of “feeling the pain of the world?” Can a person be a healer without experiencing the pain he relieves in others? Must a person whose entire existence is about healing be willing to destroy? What can be healed, and what can not? And why set this story on Death Row? The characters tell us that “What happens on the Mile stays on the Mile. Always has.” What rules are different in these direst of circumstances, and why?
Parents should know that the movie has a horrifyingly graphic execution scene, when the wicked guard has his revenge on a prisoner who taunted him. And they should talk to teens who see the movie about Coffey’s wish to be put out of his misery, which could be seen by sensitive kids as an argument in favor of suicide.