"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"
a film by Ben Stiller
Beautiful things don't ask for attention. This is the one line of Ben Stiller's dive into the human psyche known as "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" that jumps out at me when I see it. There are so many parallels that can be drawn between the elusive creature known as the Ghost Cat that we see at the end of the movie through the lens of Sean Penn's character, Sean O'Connell. Beautiful things don't ask for attention, he says to Walter Mitty, the awkward loner and introvert with the strange ability to whisk himself away to amazing dream-scapes in order to escape the monotony of society. But where Walter Mitty's true beauty lies is in the change from a corporate drone into the beautiful ghost cat that finds a way to hide from society and be the beautiful being he was always meant to be. That is the message that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty ultimately delivers.
Walter's appearance in the film gives us a glimpse into the life of a man who dreams (literally) of a world where he can be part of amazing adventures. He wishes to be daring, bold, fearless and more. But it is nothing more than dreams as he can barely find the courage to speak to the woman he loves. He signs up for a dating site and yet can't find anything to put under the "been there-done that" category. This sets up the overarching dilemma of Walter's character: he is not just boring, because that is a superficial and objective decision to make, but he himself feels as if he has become blended into the world, someone without a voice, which is made apparent in his everyday goings with his coworkers and bosses.
With a single letter and a wallet as a gift from a lifelong pen-pal and prestigious photographer Sean O'Connell, we receive the catalyst of the entire film: Sean has asked for negative 25 of the roll of film he sent to be used as the cover for the last print of LIFE Magazine which is now switching to online, and Walter can't find it. His final goal for the company? Find the lost film still by the famed photographer and submit it as intended for the final printed cover of LIFE Magazine. This is a task that proves to change him forever. He finds himself on a journey not only for a lost film still, but more importantly, discovering the part of him that he lost long ago to corporate America.
The picturesque landscapes of Greenland and Iceland make for a beautiful backdrop to this film and can stir the feelings of Wanderlust in even the most seasoned of travelers and backpackers, but where the movie shines is in the slow shedding of Walter's shell. As the film progresses, he slowly loses the briefcase and tie, and more becoming to Walter, he loses the daydreams: this being a direct sign of Walter's own metamorphosis. The more the film goes on, the less of the "other" world we see and the more of the real Walter we see. As a character, Walter takes the leap of faith after refusing the call to action to take a helicopter ride. But it's his own inner thoughts in the form of his love interest that drive him to take the chance and get on the helicopter ride that would change his life. We even get a rendition of Major Tom in this part of the film which further enhances the message getting across when you listen to what the song is about. As Cheryl puts it, "That song is about courage and going into the unknown. It's a cool song." The cinematography of the movie paints a NatGeo documentary that somehow melds with the quirky humor and photography style of the film. It masterfully shows us perfectly composed shots that mimic Walter's emotional states with the wide landscapes mirroring his release and newfound freedom. Walter becomes closer to who he is meant to be when he is fighting off sharks and leaping into fishing boats. One of the most touching moments of the film is when, in Iceland, he places a call to his coworker Cheryl and in a moment of sincerity we discover that after his father's death, the first job he got was at a Papa Johns pizza. This was the first step he took away from the mohawk wearing and wild skater and into the "invisible" man that we first met. The death of his father, the cups at Papa Johns, the weight of the responsibility of his mother and sister weighed on him until soon he no longer recognized himself.
In the end of the movie, after that iconic skateboard ride down the lush hills in Iceland, a truly freeing and cathartic moment for Walter, he narrowly escapes a volcanic eruption and finds the man he's been tracking for the entire film, Sean, riding on the top of a biplane into the eruption. This is where we see Walter's true change. After angrily tossing the wallet in the garbage that he was given after being so close to Sean but still so far from his goal, he gets a clue. The Himalayas. Walter leaves behind his job, his feelings for Cheryl, and even his family, and makes a trek through dangerous lands in Yemen and Afghanistan and follows in the footsteps of the one man that started the entire film: Sean O'Connell. When he finds Sean he sees a man content in his silence, staring in wonder through a lens at the Himalayan mountainside with one message to deliver to not just Walter, but to the viewers, to not let life distract you. He puts this across when he finds the Snow Leopard he's been looking for but doesn't snap the photo. When Walter asks him why he hasn't taken the photo he simply says "Sometimes I don't. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.” Sean tells him he can find the missing film still in the wallet he was given, and after Walter informs him he lost the wallet (which hurt Sean's feelings) they simply leave it to fate that Walter may never know what the final shot for the cover was intended to be. Walter Mitty asks him what the image on negative 25 was, curiosity taking him. Sean, smiling, tells him simply, "let's just call it a Ghost Cat, Walter Mitty".
The distraction of the world can keep us from the truest adventures and Sean is one person living in a way that many of us wish we had the courage to do. And while Walter ultimately finds his way back home and in search of a new job (with a bad ass resume), the movie teaches us another lesson: We don't need to forget the world and disappear in order to feel we have had a fulfilling life. Sometimes all we need is the courage to act. And act he does, when Walter finally opens up to Cheryl and discovers a budding relationship. And the final cover for LIFE Magazine? Walter finds the wallet thanks to his mother who fished it out of the trash, turned it in, and didn't look back. When the cover was finally printed, he finds himself on the cover, an emotional reveal that takes your breath away. Here is one man, seemingly invisible, let go from a job that he gave almost 2 decades of his life to, and Sean found a way to give back all those years in one image, an image that Sean considers not only his best work but the "quintessence of life". You never know what will happen or how your life can change if you take one simple moment to say "yes". One moment to believe in yourself.
The movie leaves us with the fleeting emotions of joy, wonder, and a sense of adventure that digs into your skin no matter how much you try to shake it. The indie-style composition of the shots and the music choices for the movie play on the nostalgia and primal longing of the viewer: to experience life. Walter Mitty, the shy and hidden person proves to himself that even something quiet can be beautiful as he is reminded by Sean that, "Beautiful things don't ask for attention." And ultimately the film's true message comes out in the one, simple phrase, the LIFE Magazine motto: "To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life".
By Christopher Alexander
If your're interested, you can rent the movie