what dads can learn from movies

Cinematic Lessons in Fatherhood: Great Movie Dads

Mary BethEveryday Dads Leave a Comment

TV and movie fathers may be (generally) fictional, but they can still teach us a lot about what it means to be a parent. There are great movie dads you admire, those you use as examples of what not to do, and others you respect for their ability to grow.

There are classic examples of the nuclear family, like Ward Cleaver in Leave It to Beaver. You have funny, over-the-top dads, like Clark Griswold in the Vacation movies. Darker examples, like Liam Neeson in the Taken films, demonstrate the great lengths parents are willing to go to for their children.

The question, “What does fatherhood look like?” has no single answer. The myriad depictions in movies and on TV illustrate this fact.

John Matrix – Commando

Great movie dad and retired Delta Force operator, John Matrix frequently packs a rocket launcher, a tactical vest covered with grenades, and enough firepower to invade the small, fictional nation of Val Verde. He’s not necessarily the guy who first springs to mind when you think father-of-the-year. But this is precisely what we get in director Mark L. Lester’s 1985 film, Commando.

Starring the future governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Commando is a quintessential ‘80s action flick. Matrix is a prototypical Schwarzenegger character from this stage of his career. Still sporting his massive, bodybuilder physique (seriously, he carries a tree), he’s former military, a woodsman, and basically an all-around manly man.

Matrix As A Father

But Matrix is also something we don’t often see from Arnold Schwarzenegger, he’s a father. We’ve seen him as an action-centric dad in movies like True Lies, but usually, it’s in more comedic fare like Junior or Jingle All the Way where the Austrian actor gets the opportunity to portray a family man. (He does play a caregiver, though a reluctant one, in Kindergarten Cop, and as the Terminator franchise goes along, he becomes a de facto father figure, explicitly so in Terminator: Genisys.)

And Matrix isn’t just a father, he’s an awesome father. In many respects, he’s everything a father should be. A single dad (there’s no mention of what became of the mother), he dotes on his young daughter, Jenny (Alyssa Milano, fresh off of filming the first season of Who’s the Boss?).

Putting her needs ahead of his own, when we first meet him, he’s set his own legendary military career to the side in order to raise Jenny, make sure she comes up right, and give her a normal life away from the mayhem and danger of his previous occupation.

That’s Dad 101 right there. The father and daughter have a sweet if at times a wee bit too-wholesome-to-be-believable relationship. They frolic in the pool at their secluded mountain home, they eat ice cream and laugh, they feed deer together.

Matrix even teaches Jenny useful life skills, like how to throw a proper elbow and escape capture by bad guys. You know, normal, practical kid stuff.

Going to Great Lengths

Sure, he does go on a kill-crazy rampage for much of the film. He cuts a bloody swath through the criminal underworld of Southern California, the ranks of mercenaries-for-hire, and even Central American politics. And yes, he may take it upon himself to invade the sovereign foreign nation. (Val Verde also pops up in other movies of this ilk and era, like Die Hard 2 and Predator).

Those are drastic measures to be sure. But the only reason he undertakes such endeavors in the first place is that a nefarious former dictator kidnaps Jenny. This villain and his mercenary goons attempt to use her as leverage to get Matrix to put his particular set of skills to use for their own gains. Unfortunately for this cadre of rogues, he employs his talents against his enemies and the result is, well, explosive.

Matrix doesn’t want to do all of this, to resort to violence. At the start of the movie, he’s not actively looking to blow up anything. This is a case where he’s dragged kicking and screaming back to his old life, one he thought he left behind, because he has no other choice.

Commando may be macho escapist junk food cinema, but damn if it isn’t a total blast, which is a big reason why it’s become a cult classic. Just because it’s empty movie calories doesn’t mean there’s not something substantial buried beneath all that butter, fat, and salt.

In this particular instance, that just so happens to be an affectionate father-daughter relationship, and a tactically trained, ex-military badass who’s also a devoted, loving parent we could learn a few things from.

Chris Gardner – The Pursuit of Happiness

Played by Will Smith in the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner is an amazing movie dad. And his trials, troubles, and sacrifice can teach us a few things about fatherhood.

movie stillSmith plays Chris, a real-life businessman and motivational speaker. In the 1980s, he was homeless while also raising his young son. Out of work and out of money, he had nothing but grit and determination on his side when it came to providing for his son.

In 1981, Gardner, then a salesman, sank his entire life savings into an investment opportunity. He thought it was going to be the big break that led his family to financial stability. Instead, it tanked, and they wound up even worse off than before.

While struggling to crawl out from under the bad investment, Gardner met and impressed a businessman named Jay Twistle. This run-in led to an unpaid, six-month internship with a brokerage company. Gardner found himself competing with 20 other much-younger interns for a single job waiting at the end. While a big opportunity, the pressure broke Gardner’s already strained marriage.

Choosing to Be A Single Father

As Gardner’s wife threatened to leave, his one request was that Christopher, their son, stay with him. Even struggling as he was, he knew that he could provide more stability and a better future. He told his wife, “Christopher is staying with me… You know you can’t take care of him.” 

Though a painful separation, he recognized that uprooting the child and relocating him to New York with his mother wasn’t in the child’s best interests.

Even though he knew it would be difficult, Chris chose to stay and be a father. This offers a lesson for all parents. Being a parent is much more than just sharing DNA, it’s also a conscious, active decision. It’s a choice you make every day. You choose to show up, do your best, and provide for your children. The Pursuit of Happyness demonstrates this point perfectly.

Doing Whatever It Takes

One of the main takeaways from The Pursuit of Happyness is that no matter his circumstances, Gardner always strived to care for his son. They were evicted with $21.33 to their name, they bounced from shelter to shelter, and when they were full, they spent the night in a BART station bathroom. Despite the near-insurmountable obstacles, Gardner never let that deter him from being the best possible parent. No matter what, his son remained his number one priority.

At his internship, Gardner faced major disadvantages compared to the others. He had to maintain the illusion he wasn’t homeless and took risks to prove he was the best person for the job. From working at a multimillion-dollar company during the day, he had to sprint to secure a spot at the homeless shelter so he and his son would have a place to sleep that night.

Out of necessity, Gardner used his cleverness to remain competitive. Just being a single dad or working a rigorous internship on their own is tough, combining the two only makes things harder. But he also had additional motivation. As he says in the film, “They [his coworkers] would stay until seven but I had Christopher, so I had to do in six hours what they would do in nine.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were two million single fathers in 2016. This covers a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels. Gardner’s story is certainly extraordinary, that’s why Hollywood made it into a movie with a huge star. Still, all of these fathers have one thing in common, they’re raising their children on their own. The Pursuit of Happyness stands as a testament to the level of dedication to their children that all fathers should strive for, regardless of their situation.

Setting A Good Example

After a grueling six months of hustling every moment of every day, all Gardner’s hard work paid off. On the last day of his internship, his boss called him into the office and offered him the job.

From these humble beginnings, Gardner went on to great success. He started his own lucrative brokerage firm, became a philanthropist, and even published his memoir, The Pursuit of Happyness, on which the film is based.

With all of Gardner’s hard work and dedication, his main goal was to set a good example for his son. He hoped to teach him to never give up on his dreams, saying, “You got a dream, you got to protect it. People can’t do something themselves, they want to tell you, you can’t do it. If you want something, go get it. Period.”

Marlin – Finding Nemo

Even facing off against stiff competition, Pixar’s Finding Dory ruled the box office when it was released in 2016, winning plenty of critical acclaim in the process. As much love as the film received, it’s easy to forget the fact that it’s a long-gestating spin-off of 2003’s Finding Nemo. The earlier film became a modern classic and also happens to feature one of our all-time favorite movie fathers.

Voiced by the perfectly cast Albert Brooks, Marlin is not the father you expect to embark on a heroic, epic, transoceanic adventure. First off, he’s a fish. An ocellaris clownfish to be precise. Not someone you immediately expect to save the day. Or, you know, even get married and start a family for that matter. However, clownfish are apparently monogamous.

Marlin isn’t a badass. Clownfish are not known for being particularly feisty, robust, or brave. This species is, after all, also known as the common clownfish. Basically, they’re not known for toughness, though they can be territorial. Overall, he’s just a normal guy, raising his son, the titular Nemo, on his own after losing his wife.

This is something many people out there can relate to. Except for the part about his wife being eaten by a barracuda. Having firsthand experience with that seems rather unlikely, but hey, we don’t know your story.

He’s just a father trying to do his best, but not always nailing it. Like when he embarrasses his son on a school trip by giving into his overprotective instincts. Who amongst us is perfect? Most of us are feeling our way through fatherhood, also trying not to screw up too spectacularly.

The Mission

When Nemo goes missing, captured by scuba divers only to wind up in the fish tank of a dentist’s office, the situation compels Marlin into action. He’s an everyman, or an everyfish as the case may be. A normal father, with all of the strengths and failings inherent in that position, extreme circumstances push him to great lengths.

It’s a simple formula really, one we’ve seen play out in countless movies over the years. Marlin isn’t exceptional in any way, really. And that’s the point. Wrapped up in Pixar’s spectacular digital wizardry are humor and heart like few other recent movies, animated or otherwise. Finding Nemo is a story that many fathers can see themselves in.

We’d move heaven and Earth if our kids were in trouble. Though not every situation is as dramatic as traversing an ocean to rescue our children from giant abductors who keep them in glass cases for public display.

Still, we regularly leave our comfort zones, abandon the cozy little corners of the world we’ve carved out for ourselves, and even put ourselves in harm’s way without a second thought when it comes to our offspring. This is precisely what Marlin does when he heads out into the unknown dangers of the open ocean.

Finding Nemo proves not every cinematic father has to be a heavily armed former military specialist with the means and training to pull off an explosive rescue mission.

Most of us are nothing like that after all. But we still go to extraordinary lengths to protect and care for those we love. It’s nice to be reminded that average, everyday fathers like us can still be heroic from time to time when the need arises. And being a hero means different things in different circumstances.

Jake Adler – It’s Complicated

Giving us the dynamic duo we never knew we needed,  It’s Complicated stars the incomparable Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin. Stealing the screen with their chemistry, they play Jane and Jake Adler. A former married couple, they find themselves entangled in a messy affair with each other ten years after their divorce.

Writer/director Nancy Meyers offers a fun, charming comedic romance. In addition, the film offers a glimpse at divorce, relationships, and post-divorce life. It especially focuses on the challenges and issues of older couples. With the rise of gray divorce, we see quite a bit of this sort of thing.

Jane and Jake were married for 20 years. They had three children together before Jake cheated and left Jane for Agness (Lake Bell), a younger woman whom he marries.

Dynamics of Divorce Couples

In the beginning, like a lot of newly divorced couples navigating their relationship, Jane and Jake could barely stand to be in the same room together. Over time, however, the two come to a place where they can be friends and keep things civil. Much of this is for the sake of their children. Something many parents try to do after a split.

In the years following their divorce, things go well for each of them. Jane owns a successful restaurant, which she loves, and works on a home expansion. Jake, a well-known attorney and loving dad, raises Agness’ son as his own as they attempt to have another baby. It’s Complicated shows them living life as best they can.

The couple has long moved on from their divorce. Or so they thought.

Jane and Jake reunite at their son’s graduation party in New York. Agness’ son falls ill, so she misses the family getaway to take care of him, leaving Jake flying solo. During this trip, everything changes.

Everything Changes

While staying at the same hotel, Jake and Jane have a chance encounter at the bar. When one thing leads to another, well, one thing leads to another. Ultimately, they wind up having an affair.

Once they return home, the guilt sets in. At least for Jane. She dodges Jake’s calls and texts, focusing instead on her home renovation and an architect named Adam (Steve Martin), himself recently divorced.

Jake feels differently about the whole situation. He’s alive and invigorated and sees things with a new perspective. He can’t stay away from Jane and after his calls go unanswered, he makes a surprise visit to her home.

Jake tells her, “Something real and honest happened.” What happens is they, and many couples, should have done much earlier. They have a long-overdue conversation about their marriage and their issues.

While married, they both felt rejected, unappreciated, and unheard. Jane admits that, although he cheated, Jake never stopped trying in their marriage and she had given up long before adultery came into the picture. But things have changed. Jake feels that their problems have subsided and they have both grown. Both into the people they wanted each other to be and the people they each wanted to become.

Unfortunately, a lot of couples face this problem. Instead of openly discussing their problems and actively trying to find solutions, they suffer in silence, unsure of how to make it better.

Marriage is complicated at any age. It’s important to be clear about your expectations and needs in the relationship. Partners aren’t mind readers and we can’t expect them to know our thoughts.

This is especially important for older couples and those in long marriages. We continually grow and evolve as people. You’re not the same person you were when you got married. People change, situations change, what you need out of a relationship changes. Open communication can help the relationship grow along with both spouses.

Though Jake and Jane continue their affair for a time, real-life and old issues interrupt. Jake stands her up on date night, only to apologize after the fact. Their respective relationships continue to develop and get in the way.

When it All Blows Up

Things come to a head when Jane invites Adam to her daughter’s wedding. Jake is hurt and jealous and can’t look away, a fact not lost on his wife. Agness confronts him and he winds up leaving.

jake adler living room kidsIt’s Complicated comes to a climax when the entire family is together; Jake, Jane, and the kids. The kids are confused, feelings get hurt, and no one is entirely sure what to make of the situation.

This also often happens often in cases of divorce. It’s a complicated, emotional event. Just because it’s been years, doesn’t mean there aren’t still deep, messy feelings. Especially when a couple has children, you can’t simply cut the other person out entirely, there’s bound to be some level of contact.

Without meaning to, we often drag the closest people to us into our messes. They then have to deal with the fallout.

It’s Complicated and Moving Forward

Ultimately, Jake and Jane don’t get back together. As she says, they, “Needed to see if there was anything left before she let go. They had something extraordinary, but they no longer fit together.”

Many couples do something similar, they make one final try to make things work before calling it a day. It makes things complicated when it’s so far after the fact. Especially now that Jake has a new wife and family.

Cal Weaver – Crazy, Stupid, Love

When romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love was released in 2011, the A-list cast alone was enough to get audiences to theaters. Best known for his hilarious role in the TV comedy The Office, Steve Carrell plays Cal Weaver, a well-off, middle-aged father of three who married his beautiful high school sweetheart, Emily, played by the great Julianne Moore.

learning from Cal After Emily makes the startling confession that she not only had an affair but wants a divorce, it forces Cal to rebuild his life. He does so when he meets the handsome ladies’ man, Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling), who takes Cal under his wing.

This blindsided Cal early in the movie and turns his picture-perfect life upside down. Having met and fallen in love at 15, Cal feels lost as he navigates moving forward. In this area, many newly divorced men and women relate to Crazy, Stupid, Love.

He moves out of the family home and into a small apartment. When he informs colleagues and friends of the divorce, like in real life, they pick sides. Perhaps the biggest change of all, however, comes with being thrown back into the dating scene. That’s a shock many people face after ending a marriage.

Having a rough time adjusting, Cal begins to frequent a local bar. Night after night he spills his guts to anyone close enough to listen. Having heard enough of his pity,  one night Jacob decides to mentor Cal and transform him from a nice-guy family man into the ultimate player.

This includes revamping Cal’s entire wardrobe, making him work out, and teaching him how to pick up women. And it’s a success, though a hollow one.

The initial change distracts Cal, but only for a time. When he reassesses his new lifestyle, he finds it empty and lacking substance. It’s a temporary fix. He can’t ignore the fact that he still loves and misses his wife. When they meet for dinner one night, they have their first real, honest discussion about their marriage in a long time.

The couple experiences what a lot of long-term couples go through. Over time, they became complacent in their relationship and stopped trying. Work, the kids, life, and everything else came before each other.

As Cal says:

“I got boring, lazy. I’m mad at what you did, but I’m mad at myself too. I should’ve fought for you, you fight for your soulmates.”

Instead of having that conversation when it could have helped and trying to fix what was wrong before it was too late, Cal and Emily walked away from their marriage. Both recognize this was a mistake and accept their own share of the blame.

After their dinner, things become more positive for the couple. Reconciliation even seems to be on the horizon. Cal plans an elaborate surprise for his wife in hopes of winning her back. The kids help as well; they desperately want their parents back together. Things go well until secrets emerge and threaten to tear apart their relationship for good.

Cal’s attempt at reconciliation is a disaster. He learns that the womanizing Jacob is dating his daughter and the man Emily has been seeing shows up. It also turns out their 17-year-old babysitter, the daughter of a family friend, is in love with Cal, which devastates his son, who’s in love with the babysitter.

It’s a mess. Like so many people in this situation, Cal feels his life spinning out of control. Everything he knew is gone, his marriage, his best friend, his relationship with his kids. With everything strained and stretched, a broken Cal pulls away from everyone.

Surprisingly, it’s Jacob who brings him back. He makes Cal see that there are people who need him, especially his kids. Divorce has a trickle-down effect on everyone in your life. Too often, however, we lose that in the pain.

Cal finally realizes that there are people who care about him and that he needs to work on fixing what he can before it’s too late. This includes working on himself, repairing the rift with his children, and even mending fences with Emily.

While everything works out in typical Hollywood, happily-ever-after fashion at the end of Crazy, Stupid, Love, we know that’s not always reality. Still, it illustrates a variety of important things about marriage and divorce. It talks about not getting complacent in your relationship and ignoring signs of trouble, the need to have a support system around you in a tough time, and taking care to maintain your most important relationships.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is a complicated, layered web of connections and emotions. Family is chaotic and messy. So is divorce. Perhaps most importantly, Cal learns to let go of resentment. When he does this, he finally sees things for what they are, recognizes what’s most important, and moves forward. It’s a journey everyone has to take in divorce.

Related Reading: Awesome Dad Movies

Other Great Movie Dads

Gil Buckman—Parenthood

Fatherhood is a chaotic juggling act where you’re an entertainer, a disciplinarian, a therapist, a hotel concierge, and wear a thousand other hats as the situation demands. Few accomplish this with the dedication and energy of Steve Martin’s Gil Buckman in Parenthood.

And few movies better capture the terror, heartache, and sheer joy of being a father as Gil deals with an unexpected pregnancy, financial issues, his son’s emotional problems, a troubled relationship with his own father, and his daughter dating Keanu Reeves.

John McClane—Die Hard

Sure, Bruce Willis’ John McClane doesn’t get a ton of face time with his kids. That happens when they live on one coast and you live on the other. He doesn’t even see them all that much during Die Hard. But the whole premise of the movie is that he just wants to spend Christmas with his family.

Only his plans get derailed when a crew of international thieves shows up and he has to save the day. Everything he does, from swinging off the top of Nakatomi Plaza to walking across broken glass, he does because he wants to see his family. That’s dedication.

Henry Jones—Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Your dad may be pretty cool, but odds are he’s not cooler than Indiana Jones’s father. Not only does James Bond himself, Sean Connery, play Henry Jones Sr., but he gets to hang out with Indy, go on adventures, fight Nazis, travel the world, and find the Holy Grail.

Sure, he wasn’t always the greatest dad and wasn’t always there for Junior in his younger days, but as far as epic stories go, this one is hard to top. With his charm, charisma, and roguish sense of humor, it’s easy to see that Indy and his dad aren’t so different.

Bryan Mills—Taken

Admittedly, Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills hasn’t always been the best father to his daughter, Kim, in Taken. Work took him all around the world for long stretches and he’s not super involved with her life. He tries to make amends and be a presence as she hits her teens, but when Kim gets kidnapped on a trip to Paris, he does have that particular set of skills that comes in handy.

This primarily includes tracking kidnapping victims and pummeling bad guys. In this situation, however, those are important talents for a father to have. Does it make up for all of their father-daughter problems? No, but at least they have starting place, and two subsequent movies to work on their issues.

father's dayFurious Styles—Boyz n the Hood

Laurence Fishburne’s Furious Styles not only has one of the all-time coolest movie names, but the Boyz n the Hood supporting player is also one of the great movie dads.

This no-nonsense father is one of the few male role models in their Compton neighborhood. And while he can be stern, his overriding concerns are to keep his son safe, teach him to grow up and be a good man, and impart wisdom about sex, drugs, violence, community, and other important topics.

father's dayClark Griswold—National Lampoon’s Vacation

Most fathers are flawed, whether we’re talking about our own fathers or ourselves as fathers. But few are as flawed as Chevy Chase’s Clark W. Griswold in National Lampoon’s Vacation. On the other side of that coin, however, few are as steadfast or devoted to his family as Clark.

Nothing will stand in the way of his family getting the vacation they deserve; not security guards, not a cross-country road trip, not even a sandwich soaked in dog pee. He’s the kind of father who spends Christmas Eve battling hordes of angry shoppers, fighting for the last toy just to make his kids smile. (And Christmas Vacation also happens to be one of our favorite holiday movies.)

father's dayMr. Incredible—The Incredibles

At some point or another, many of us look at our father like he’s a superhero. Especially when we’re little, they’re these huge, invincible figures. Sometimes, like in the case of Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles, they are actual superheroes.

And he’s not just super strong and nigh-invulnerable, he’s a dedicated husband and family man, willing to go to great lengths to protect and support his family. While he makes mistakes, he ultimately realizes that being a father his kids look up to is more important than acclaim and glory.

father's dayJor-El—Superman

Many fathers will sacrifice anything and everything if it means ensuring that their children are safe and protected. One prime movie example of this is Jor-El, the Man of Steel’s father in Superman.

He gave his life to protect the infant Kal-El from their dying planet, sending him away before Krypton exploded. Beyond that, he took measures to ensure that his son would never be alone, even after his own death. And if Marlon Brando plays your father, that’s also pretty cool.

father's dayNoah Levinson—American Pie

Parents are embarrassing. That’s just a fact of life, especially for teenagers. No matter what they do, it’s mortifying. And few movie dads are as awkward and uncomfortable as Eugene Levy’s Noah Levinson in American Pie. No teenage boy wants to talk pornography with his dad, or get caught, you know, inappropriately using baked goods.

But underneath all of this mortification and humiliation, Noah is earnest and supportive and really just wants to help his son Jim through that emotional, anxiety-ridden time that is adolescence. He’s the kind of father that makes you cringe as a kid but you start to appreciate later in life.

father's dayAtticus Finch—To Kill a Mockingbird

Author Harper Lee reportedly based Atticus Finch, the lead character in her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, on her own father. As played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation, the character gives dads a lot to live up to. (He is Gregory Peck, after all.) The fact that he’s a lawyer fighting the good fight also definitely endears him around these parts.

Maybe not the warmest, most affectionate father, his integrity and willingness to stand up for what’s right presents a strong example to his kids. And though he’s reserved, he’s never cold.

He’s sensitive to his children’s needs and willing to take the time to sit with them and make sure they understand everything from the social upheaval around them to why school is important. Leading by example, he imparts lessons about courage and morality, but also gives his children information and empowers them to make their own decisions. That’s some great dad work right there.

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