Story Pile: Good Will Hunting

I don’t really like chess.

I mean I don’t play it. I never have. Not really. Played a few games, sat down to try and learn it, pushed pieces around, failed to identify a way to win, lost a lot, never really got into it. Chess isn’t very fun. Being good at chess is, from what I can tell, pretty great. As an actual game though it’s really basic and there’s this huge investment of research to be good at it and the people who play it tend to include some really tiresome people.

It’s not that chess is a bad game really, I just find it really boring.

Gotta know the basics of chess, though.

That’s what smart people do.

Good Will Hunting is a frustrating movie in that it seems to be made with a lot of really good intention by some people I think fondly of, like Robin Williams, who is dead and therefore can’t be tarnished by everything else that goes into the utter garbage fire of a production side of this movie. It’s also about education, and choice, and it’s about assumptions we make about people. I wouldn’t call insincere or even bad.

The thing about Good Will Hunting that frustrates me is that it’s not really about smart people, or smartness, or things that make you smart, or any of that stuff.

When you break the story down into its smallest pieces, when you brush away the weight and importance of the signifiers that make up this story, I like the story at the heart of it. You have this talented boy, damaged by an abusive carer, who doesn’t know what to do with himself, and his relationship to the people around him as they learn about him and he learns about them. That is the core story. That, I can appreciate! Heck, cooked down that deep, that’s almost the core of Daredevil and I like Daredevil!

What makes Good Will Hunting a serious story, a serious story is the scope of the importance of what Will could be doing, is all the details, which are details we use to signify seriousness. Will was beaten by his dad. Robin Williams’ psychologist is sad because of a dead spouse; his friend a Fields medal recipient; Will gets in trouble with the law, memorises important sounding books and the girl he’s interested in, who is smart, but not, you know, that smart is into organic chemistry. There’s the NSA involved and the whole story takes that simple structure, and ramps it up to be about very important things and the struggle of trying to deal with these important things.

The human drama of Will Hunting isn’t artificial. There’s a lot of very well represented, serious and excellently rendered emotional tension between characters who feel exceptionally real. The cinematography, the locations, the sunsets and the nighttimes, they all play together to feel very real.

It feels serious-feeling.

And that’s the problem.

There’s this math problem that Will solves in the movie. It’s left on a chalkboard and he wanders up and solves it.

What’s hard about this puzzle is nothing. It’s a puzzle you can brute force. There are two challenges in this puzzle. The first is trusting your answer when you get to it. The second is understanding the question in the first place. Here’s a Numberphile video that breaks down what the actual puzzle was:

The problem in Good Will Hunting - Numberphile

If you watch the video, you might find the biggest challenge isn’t the puzzle, but is instead understanding the question being asked. If you have the expertise to understand what the short number of words mean, the puzzle represents a pretty basic bit of brute-forceable information. I feel that if I laid out two of these symbols out with a few black spaces next to them, like a Myst puzzle, most of my friends would be able to deduce the actual graphs.

I wouldn’t know this,  but the problem is when I watched this movie the first time, I saw that problem whizz on by, didn’t get a handle on it, and paused the movie to look it up. I was curious about the puzzle. I was curious about the context. This is not, I know, how most people watch movies.

And thus we get to the interesting challenge of Good Will Hunting: How do you convey that a character is smart?

I mean, smartness is fake and all, and show don’t tell. Does this movie show smartness? Or does it tell smartness? And how does it tell that smartness?

Throughout the whole movie I never saw a moment that made me believe Matt Damon’s character was smart. He couldn’t verbalise his intelligence; couldn’t demonstrate it. He had a large amount of information available, he had good recall, but I’m only a few seconds away from almost everything he could have read in his whole life, and I don’t come across as that smart except when I’m dealing with people who are completely unaware of the things I talk about. It is impressive to store text, but it’s also not a sign that you have grasped it, or that you know how to apply it. There’s no small irony in that one of the passages Damon’s character cites to win a fight doesn’t exist.

It doesn’t actually change anything in the conversation, by the way – the point is that his opponent doesn’t know the thing, and if he’s making it up, all he has to do is be convincing. He’s convincing in-universe.

He convinces the people around him he’s smart.

When we talk about education these days, we’re not talking about recall, or retention. We live in an era where now, the level of sheer available information is an order beyond what it was when you had to memorise whole books of text. Most of what you see Will do is demonstrate that recall, rather than synthesise information. What makes it worse is that he’s got to drop that information on people who are his peers, and have reason to be impressed that he knows all this stuff ahead of time.

That means that while yes, the movie treats Will like he’s extremely smart, he’s just a kind of smart, and it presents the idea that retention and instant recall is smartness. It also presents the idea that things like the Fields medal are inherent hallmarks of smartness – and don’t get me wrong, people who can’t do math aren’t going to win Fields medals! The whole tragedy of the story, though, seems to be that Harvard is likely to have janitors who are ding-dongs and not say, students or even just people educated to do a job.

There are all these assumptions about your expectations. This guy gets in fights and is emotionally troubled, and that’s tragic and deserves correction because he’s so smart and we know that’s important, because The NSA are interested in his smartness. This guy can solve this super complicated puzzle that’s only complicated seeming, and that’s impressive because he’s a janitor, because why would a janitor read books or study math? Hell, there’s this whole question of what smart even means or why should one study anything?

Good Will Hunting isn’t really about that. Heck, it’s about what if you didn’t have to study. What if the work of study and education was just there for you and the only thing stopping you from partaking in the great conversation of human research was a matter of whether or not you personally found it emotionally satisfying.

One final point: There’s this idea from Dilbert creator Scott Adams, who I will say, I think is a total ding-dong. He has this character in his series, Dilbert, who is a garbage man, and smarter than everyone else. The question he’s meant to ask is if the smartest person in the world chooses to do something that doesn’t make sense to me, why do I think I know better? The whole question of who knows what’s best for The Smart Boy in this story is itself kind of weird. The way that Robin Williams’ character spends his time teaching in a community college, but he’s very smart. Why is he there doing that? Is he less smart than his accomplished friend? Is he less smart than Mamon Datton’s character?

If a movie wants to show you a character is smart, it’ll show you with a very limited vocabulary of ways. Chess is one. Rubik’s cubes are another. This movie, to make its questions about a damaged sad boy’s feelings worth telling, had to make it about a boy so smart that his sadness would matter to the world. And it didn’t really do a great job of it, at least, to me.

And that’s kind of sad and weird all at once.

While researching this, double-checking what I had to say, making sure I wasn’t lying about it, I found this take on Good Will Hunting from someone who loved it, twenty years ago, and doesn’t think he loves it any more. I think it’s an interesting take.


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