There’s a moment in Bradley Cooper’s Maestro when Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein is hit with the weight of his choices. As he walks beside a park with an ex-lover, the distance between his former affections and the constraints of his current life tears him in two. He slows to a stop on the sidewalk until his friend realizes Bernstein’s pain and walks back to him, kissing him on the forehead. 

Cooper’s biopic of the legendary American composer and conductor weaves around his musical triumphs and focuses instead on his relationships.

It would seem that Bernstein is mourning this lost love—a love that must be kept private, both for the fact that Bernstein is a famous man and a married one, and for the controversy that would erupt if Bernstein’s homosexuality became widely known. As the wistful embrace occurs, Bernstein notes that others are looking at them. He wonders if they recognize him. Again, it seems that he fears the fallout of this desiring expression. There’s a brief pause of sorrow and empathy. Then Bernstein continues to imagine what is going through the minds of passersby: wait, is that really him?; he looks so old now; he doesn’t resemble what he looks like on television. Bernstein’s not apprehensive of public affairs or controversy—he’s concerned solely about how people perceive him. Any empathy drains to reservation.

This is Cooper’s Bernstein: a man of “contradictory answers.” Cooper’s biopic of the legendary American composer and conductor weaves around his musical triumphs and focuses instead on his relationships. Youthful flings with other men are eventually supplanted by his marriage to Felicia (Carrie Mulligan), another artistic and willful soul. Their marriage slowly sours as Bernstein’s affairs continue and are conducted more boldly. The fracturing of that marriage also deteriorates his relationships with his children, particularly his oldest (played by Maya Hawke).

Maestro has been nominated for a range of Academy Awards, and it’s not unexpected. Cooper takes a huge swing by playing Bernstein and reportedly studied attentively for the role, and it shows. The physicality of Leonard Bernstein is striking in Cooper’s performance, especially in the scenes where Cooper conducts. Still, he’s outshone by Mulligan, who takes an underwritten character and forces life to pierce through. 

Beyond the performances, though, Maestro is a potholed film. Cooper’s performance is strong enough to warrant admiration, but it far outstrips his screenwriting and his direction. He’s clearly learned many filmmaking tricks to add visual thrills, and he makes frequent use of them—surprising match cuts, evocative lighting, fast-paced tracking shots—but they are rendered ineffective by their slipshod placing. As a directorial effort it’s skillful, but it lacks a coherent vision. Often these moments are merely indulgent, but they become harder to ignore as Cooper draws more attention to them. The black-and-white cinematography is hazy and ill-defined; the match cuts are as garish as they are superfluous; the score is didactic and mistuned; oh, and Cooper employs the most unwieldy R.E.M. needle drop imaginable.

Maestro is unsatisfying for the way it heralds such a heroism that is contradictory not only to the Christian life but also to the broader project of human flourishing.

The deeper problem with Maestro is that the misguided vision extends beyond the technique into the DNA of the movie itself. Maestro ultimately tends toward the narcissism of its central character. Consistently the movie tells us that the real heart of the film is Felicia: her jealousy, her rage, her independence, her creativity, her suffering—the title even fades on her face before the credits roll. But Maestro’s Felicia is confined to the narrow roles of the bitter, wronged wife and the woman wasting away from illness. Any impression of her as a distinct person is due to Mulligan’s fervor, not Cooper’s script. In moments that should center her experience, the camera orbits Cooper’s face. Even in her deepest struggle, Felicia is made ancillary to Bernstein’s genius.

Unintentionally, Cooper’s film is reflective of its characterization of Bernstein. There is a heroic quality in both form and focus that demands appreciation, but it is a collapsing heroism. In the glow of this creative power, everyone around him—his wife, his children, his lovers—is called to genuflect. If this is heroism, it is in a Nietzchean sense. 

The world’s heroes are often seen to be those who can transcend the moral laws of men to achieve greater heights in the realm of power or knowledge or art. This sort of heroism is undeniably attractive in this world, but it clashes with the call of Christ. In Philippians 2:1-11, Paul gives us a contrast of how Jesus acted in the world: “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant.” 

The ways we seek to live well among others—the command to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God—the call to love and sacrifice for others—these are anathema to this form of heroism. Instead of breaking relationships to others, Jesus renewed them. Instead of transcending moral laws, Jesus willfully emptied himself. This emptying of Jesus is a startling display, a pouring out of status for the sake of those lesser, for the purpose of drawing others nearer to him. 

Jesus’s example reveals the shoddiness of superhuman heroics wherever they are found, even in the realm of art. I don’t expect every movie to reflect Christ’s humility and compassion; I don’t even really want that. But Maestro is unsatisfying for the way it heralds such a heroism that is contradictory not only to the Christian life but also to the broader project of human flourishing. Bernstein never seeks to excuse the ways he hurts others, and Cooper doesn’t really challenge Bernstein’s willful blindness. This world—the church included—so readily worships this kind of heroism and turns aside from its cost. I’m convinced we would benefit from fewer heroics and more humility.

Cooper isn’t out to reconcile the contradictory facets of his creative hero. But he doesn’t convincingly juxtapose them or interrogate them, either. Bernstein’s music is offered as a cure-all for his failings, and Cooper’s immersion into his character seems designed to offer the same sort of panacea for his weak script and scattershot direction. As Bernstein is being lauded after a breakthrough performance, he interjects that he did it “without rehearsal.” Here is a man knowingly adding to his own legacy as it begins to form. One wonders if Cooper isn’t doing the same.