Ace in the Hole is as ruthless as Chuck Tatum, its stiff-necked lead. The camera neglects all else in its fascination with Tatum, and only begins to take note of those around him when he himself does. He enters a newspaper office and introduces himself to us by introducing himself to the newspaper man, Mr. Boot, but in Tatum’s early interactions we seldom even see the faces of those he speaks to unless he himself is dominating the screen. He doesn’t care about them, and they are not given the courtesy of having their reactions noted by him, or us. But although the camera is as absorbed in Tatum as he is in himself, we are not sympathetic; the very egotism of the presentation is off-putting, and we are at once aware that Tatum’s appeal comes not from his charisma, which is undoubtedly there, but from the uneasy restlessness which the presence of such an impetuous man imbues. We know he is going, going… going where? It is the fascination of the will—the will heedlessly acting.
Chuck Tatum knows where he is going, where he came from, why he is where he is. He offhandedly incriminates himself to anyone who will listen without a thought for how he is seen, although it seems, perhaps, he wants to be seen as uncaring and self-made. He unhesitatingly proclaims his belief that those around him are to be used, and cynically assumes that he must market himself as someone to be used if he is going to fill the role he is determined to assume. He wishes to act on a cynical, simplified basis with those around him, and yet is forced to confront his conscience and the knowledge that his desires do not determine what is good.
You do not have to act upon what you know is true, salvation lies in the will not the intellect—as does damnation. There is another path to damnation, and one more frequently traveled: you can accept what you know is true and align yourself imperfectly with it, walking two paths simultaneously, pretending that you stride confidently down both. You do your will not God’s, keeping them distinct in your mind, and thinking that since both are good, God will not permit them to truly separate. Where they deviate you take your desired path and delude yourself into thinking they conveniently intercept just around the corner.
I have found it impossible to desire God’s will while holding on to self-will: I cannot turn my worry into prayer, asking God for the grace to do His will while fundamentally demanding that He order His will to mine, that He act as I want. I have thought only of my happiness and thought to disguise this as an act of love, but must learn to give Him His due glory by loving Him for Himself and for the favors I have received or expect to receive from Him—then I can think of my own happiness, and see it is nothing else than the effect of this love.
Discovering this, there is a further step; I have found I must not only submit myself to God’s will, but let Him carry it out. I am not a soldier awaiting a command from the armchair strategist who demands I carry out the mission while he sits by. Nor is he even an Alexander the Great doing his part while I do mine. I must permit God to fully act in me so that, as Newman said, everyone will look up and see no longer me—but only Jesus.
Ace in the Hole is this story. Tatum desires his own end and considers everything and everyone else as a means toward this end, as indeed he must if he is to be consistent. When he must acknowledge another standard, he rejects it. When he accepts it, he must direct everything and see to everything still, unwilling and unable to give up control even as he begins to spiral into helplessness. And it is only in his helplessness that he is finally able to freely choose between despair and total surrender, unhindered by pride or self-love.