If you believe the news media hype, celebrating Oscar week has become an almost religious observance. It’s the week when actors, directors and technicians are feted like modern-day saints.
In interview after interview on the infamous red carpet even their most inane comments are played and replayed as if dripping with holy wisdom. In the midst of all the hype this year, one movie serves as a timely reminder of what real-life heroism looks like.
Invictus traces the lead up to the rugby World Cup in 1995, treating us along the way to a behind-the-scenes look at the early days of Nelson Mandela’s remarkable presidency.
Having visited the Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela spent years breaking rocks in a limestone quarry, I found myself watching the movie with tears in my eyes just thinking about the remarkable character of the man.
François Pienaar, the captain of the South Africa rugby team is played by Matt Damon. The night before the Cup final, his girlfriend remarks on how amazing it is that the team has come this far against seemingly impossible odds.
No, says the captain, what is amazing is that a man can spend almost 30 years in a tiny cell and then, when he’s released, show forgiveness for those who put him there.
We've always needed heroes. They are reference points for our values and behaviour. We particularly need them in times of rapid change, because they act as landmarks amidst a storm of shifting values and opportunities.
We’ve perhaps never need them more than today, yet public heroes are in short supply.
Mandela is an icon the world over partly because we find so few other role models in the political classes. In Britain, MPs expenses and a Chilcot Inquiry loaded with political evasion and rationalisation leave us wondering why we voted for these people in the first place.
On the sporting field, too, heroism has taken some heavy blows of late. The manager of the English football team, Fabio Capello this week blamed huge salaries for the irresponsible behaviour of some of his leading players.
"It's always the same," he said. "Young players, young boys, rich boys, this is the problem."
"They have to be an example to the children, for all the fans. For that reason they have to stay careful and sacrifice something in their lives."
Capello met with his senior charges to remind them in no uncertain terms that they have responsibilities on and off the pitch.
If only there was a no-nonsense Capello to speak sternly to our politicos. Or into the world of celebrity, which also took a wrap over the knuckles this week.
New figures from the British Crime Survey show a rapid rise in the use of cocaine over the past year. Among 16 to 24-year-olds, the number of users rose fivefold between 1996 and 2009, with 438,000 users last year and almost a million adults admitted using cocaine over the past 12 months.
The authorities blame the falling cost of a line of coke – now down to as little as £2 – and the fact that some celebrities openly use cocaine and seem to get away with it, giving it a "champagne" image.
Politicians, celebrities, sports people, they’ve all felt the heat of public ire lately. But the falling standards of public life are linked to a change in the way we see morality generally. In a sense, we’re getting the behaviour we deserve.
Lord Sacks, the UK’s Chief Rabbi, wrote in The Times last week that we have moved away from the religious ethic of Judeo-Christianity toward the political ethic of the Ancient Greeks.
For the Greeks, he writes, politics was all and what you did in your private life was up to you. As a result, he adds, "the Athens of Socrates and Plato was glorious, but extraordinarily short lived."
We’ve not become less concerned about morality; we’ve just shifted our focus. What moves people today, says Lord Sacks, is the noble cause: the environment, Third World hunger, disease and poverty.
Yes, we have widened out moral horizons, we are driven by a globally-conscious altruism. Yet like the Greeks we've taken to issues that can ultimately only be solved on the macro-scale by governments and international treaties.
For Rabbi Sacks, these issues are important but they "have little to do with the kind of behaviour that was once the primary concern of morality: the way we relate to others, how we form a bond of loyalty and love, how we consecrate marriage and the family, and how we fulfil our responsibilities as parents, employees, neighbours and citizens."
"Morality was about private life. It said that without personal virtue we cannot create a society of grace.”
"Morality,” he concludes, “is more than individual choices. Like language it is the result of social practice, honed and refined over many centuries."
In a TV debate on BBC World News in 2008, I was challenged by a respected newspaper journalist on the subject of the Max Mosley prostitution case. He said that a key tenet of liberalism is that a person can behave in private however they wish, provided they don't hurt anybody or break any laws.
He was right: this is a standard rallying cry for ultra-liberals. Yet as a community we still demand high standards of personal propriety from people who live in the public eye.
We do so for two reasons; first because we recognize that their behaviour reflects on all of us and reinforces or degrades the values we hold most dear.
Secondly, because we know that none of us can leave our private values in the car park at work. They follow us into the office – even if our office is a sporting field or concert hall. They impact all of our choices, including those that affect the wider community.
Whether we care to admit it or not, in our rush to seem tolerant of all lifestyles, morality is still as much about private life as it is about public persona.
Individual freedom can only really work in the context of a clearly defined set of socially accepted, but historically well-proven parameters. These boundaries for behaviour impinge on our individual “freedoms” to guarantee the health and longevity of the community.
More than ever, we need public figures who’re heroic in their private choices as much as in their public deeds. We need leaders who don't just talk the talk, but walk the walk. We need them because those we celebrate eventually become those we emulate.
Mandela’s heroism consisted not so much in being a figurehead for the overthrow of apartheid, but in the choices he made after coming to power. Away from the public spotlight, he consistently set aside any short-term, emotion-driven or self-interested agenda to do what was best for his nation, his 43 million-member “family”.
Mandela saw the big picture and aligned his public and private behaviour with it -- that's what real heroes do.