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On the Waterfront
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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
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What's the story?
ON THE WATERFRONT is the story of the men who had the courage to stand up to the corrupt longshoreman's union, which is controlled by Johnny (Lee J. Cobb). One of Johnny's top aides is Charley (Rod Steiger), whose brother Terry (Marlon Brando), a former prize-fighter, is treated almost like a mascot by Johnny -- he makes sure that Terry gets the best work assignments. After Terry unwittingly contributes to the death of a man named Joey, who dared to speak out about union corruption, Joey's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) goes to local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) for help. Father Barry sets up a meeting to talk about what's going on, but everyone is too scared to speak up. Finally a man named Dugan (Pat Henning) agrees to talk, but tragedy strikes again. Meanwhile, Terry and Edie fall in love -- but Terry's troubles are just beginning.
Is it any good?
This excellent, thoughtful drama contrasts two conflicting ways of looking at the world and especially at responsibility. Edie and Father Berry see a world in which people have an obligation to protect and support each other. Johnny sees the world as a place where what matters is taking as much as you can. Terry is somewhere in the middle, with his kindness to the Golden Warriors and his pigeons on one side and his willingness to take what Johnny's way of life has to offer on the other. In part, Terry falls in love not just with Edie, but with the vision of another life that Edie represents. Like Edie, Terry is inspired to fight back by a tragic death.
This movie also raises some important issues about the nature of power. At the beginning, Johnny seems very powerful, and power matters more to him than money. But it is clear that the choices he makes to protect that power, more than any action taken by anyone else, are the beginning of the end. As he orders people killed, even close associates, he begins to appear desperate. The men who will kick back a few dollars and stay "D&D" about corruption won't stand for that level of violence and uncertainty.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Joey's jacket is worn by three different characters. What do you think that means? What do you think of Edie's ideas about what makes people "mean and difficult?" Do you think that applies to Johnny? How does Johnny get power? How does he lose it?
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