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By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Rating: PG-13 Grade: A

Every so often, a film comes along that gives me serious critical pause, sending me back to a favorite philosophical mentor to reboot my sensibilities. “The Cornel West Reader,” as regular readers know, serves as a touchstone for me. The good professor acknowledges being driven, in his philosophical and academic endeavors, to define three ideas – what it means to be human, modern and American – and the intellectual exercise, from the time I first read about it in his comprehensive collection of essays, has inspired me on my own path as a writer and critic.

Occasionally, a film seems to brush up against one of these ideas, enough for me to call upon the reference as part of my efforts to express the impact that the film had on me during and/or following the screening. But rarely, has a film been able to extend its narrative and thematic tendrils enough to all three ideas. JC Chandor’s “All Is Lost,” starring Robert Redford, earns the unique distinction of triggering analysis across each notion.

Humanity, as defined by Professor West, encompasses suffering, shuddering and struggling “courageously in the face of inevitable death. To think deeply and live wisely as a human being is to meditate on and prepare for death.” Our Man (Redford) wakes alone, a twilight warrior, with water overtaking his yacht and no help on the horizon. His end is nigh, indeed.

The Westian conception of what it means “to be modern is to have the courage to use one’s critical intelligence to question and challenge the prevailing authorities, powers and hierarchies of the world.” Our Man, adrift at sea, has issued his challenge by turning his back on the world. He has chosen solitude and to rely on his own judgment and intelligence. We have no idea how long he’s been out there on his yacht or how long he planned to remain alone. When life and nature throw everything at him, he rebels by attacking each problem, seeking a solution based on only what he has available. He pushes the limits of the technology at his disposal, boldly charting a course for himself into the undefined future.

What does it mean to be American? Redford, as a presence, presents the most intriguing response. He has become, through sheer longevity and steadfast presence, the epitome of a complex exemplar of a certain type of “American” maleness. He is not of the old model, familiar to us in the forms of, say, John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart. Initially, Redford rode into our sensibilities on a horse (our Sundance Kid), but he, even then, was brash and handsome, curious and a bit of a question mark moreso than an answer or an ideal.

Thus, Redford was, as West would say, American, in that he was “part of a dialogical and democratic operation that grapples with the challenge of being human in an open-ended and experimental manner.” Going further down this intellectual rabbit hole, Redford was the product of a notion of being American that yielded “forms of modern self-making and self-creating.”

Our Man, all alone at sea, is American in the most elemental sense. Forget the political definition of today – the world policeman protecting the globe – because if we could, it could be argued that we might set off for a little quiet wandering and reflection during which we, as Our Man did, would be forced to admit that we have been less than perfect and ideal. We have tried, struggled valiantly, possibly even admirably at times, but we have failed to live up to our own expectations.

It is all too rare for a film to challenge audiences so comprehensively, so philosophically. And better still, what matters more, is how we rise to the challenge. That is all the proof I need to believe that all – thankfully, in fact – is not lost.