Do not be a hero.
If you agree that the goal of life is to achieve peace and happiness, heroism is the most important thing to avoid. Trying to change the world will almost certainly lead to disappointment and will not lead to enlightenment.
If I had a child who dreamt of growing up to be a hero, I would teach her about Buddhism and Daoism and hope that she chose one of those paths instead.
Even the greatest heroes aren’t happy. Martin Luther King Jr. – perhaps the most admirable and successful hero of all – did not live a happy life. Dr. King had a challenging marriage, he was hated by people who supported segregation, and he was harassed for years by the FBI.
If heroism couldn’t bring Dr. King happiness, what hope is there for the rest of us?
“Serpico” tells the true story of a very successful, utterly miserable hero.
Frank Serpico had always wanted to be a police officer. His dream came true when he joined the NYPD in the 1960s.
Serpico (Al Pacino) quickly learns that the guys in his precinct are taking bribes. It isn’t even a secret. Gambling is illegal but tolerated. The police let the bookies operate as long as they consistently hand an officer some cash, and the cops divvy it up amongst themselves.
Frank Serpico is a rebel by nature. His fellow officers are suspicious of his long hair, his thick mustache, and his decision not to take bribe money. But it’s no big deal. Serpico is a happy young man. There’s a wonderful scene where he goes to a wild counterculture party with his artist girlfriend and gets along with everyone.
Eventually, Serpico asks to be transferred to a precinct that he hears is as “clean as a hound’s tooth.” It isn’t. There is an epidemic of corruption. Police are taking protection money from bookmakers all over the city. Serpico learns that there is little difference between the NYPD and the Mafia. It’s The Copia. And he wants no part of it.
This is when Frank Serpico decides to become a hero, and the film gets stressful.
Serpico shines a spotlight on the corruption. He tells the commissioner’s office, the mayor’s office, and the New York Times. To his surprise, Serpico doesn’t get a lot of support. What he does get is hatred.
Many police officers weren’t fans of the bribe money. But almost all of them were disdainful of a rougue cop who would rat on his fellow officers.
The young carefree Serpico who we met in the first act becomes angry, isolated, and scared. His girlfriend is incredibly loving and supportive, but Serpico pushes her away.
In the end, the real Frank Serpico helped clean up the NYPD. And the legalization of gambling in the 21st Century makes it unlikely that this Copia protection scheme will ever rear its ugly head again.
But heroic triumph did not bring Serpico happiness. He was a broken man, spiritually and physically.
“Serpico” tells the truth: heroism is a dark, lonely path. Frank Serpico would have been better off taking the payoff cash and going to more fun parties.