03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

2009's Headline Dads: A Year in the Garden of Good and Evil

Balloon Boy dad and Brazil Boy dad were year-end brackets for our ongoing Walt Disney public narrative. There's good and there's bad; if you're not sure where the lines are, the media will generally draw them for you in very clear and melodramatic colors.

How much more heroic can you get than a father fighting for his son in what the Associated Press called a "David vs. Goliath match up" between a lone New Jersey fishing boat owner and the dark, mighty, and mysterious force of Brazilian political/judicial corruption? A somber Meredith Vieira told fighting dad David Goldman in an interview on the Today Show, "I know one thing about you. You will never give up."

Someone else called it a "Christmas miracle."

Cue pregnant pause, then music, tears, and roll credits.

I don't mean to denigrate this inspirational tale at all, particularly given that I have a personal interest in the issue of fathers' custody rights. I just like a little dose of reality with my Snow White. And I don't mean "reality" as in "show."

After all, Mr. Goldman was ultimately joined in his epic fight by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil and a host of legislators, including his Congressman from New Jersey. And at least one first class trip to Rio paid for by NBC. Oh, and a Jersey senator held a trade bill hostage to get young Sean Goldman back with his father.

That's some decent heavyweight help.

Courts here and there generally agreed the boy should come back. But they rule on law, not necessarily on facts and shading.

In Rio, well, it's a little unclear in most of the stories we saw here what was up, exactly. We know that the well-heeled step family was from, as AP put it, "a nation where the wealthy are used to coming out on top." Oh. Unlike, say, the U.S.

Why did David Goldman's wife take their son back to Brazil five years ago, however illegal it was? Were all the Brazilians wearing the black hats in this high noon stand-off? Is the step-dad just a tom cat tough with big political connections, or is there some back story that's more nuanced?

There almost always is. The simplified version is much more emotionally striking but we're best served, ultimately, by knowing some facts so we don't always drown ourselves in the feel-good waves of fairy tale. Even as we've moved on to the more jarring leg-bomb news, there's usually more to all these events than the cortisol curtain of torrential cable coverage.

When Roy Disney died a few weeks ago, we lost the last recognizable connection to the man who institutionalized our cultural obsession with a black-and-white world. Walt's empire, meshed with our own imaginations, was built on a simple equation of good vs. evil. It's a vastly seductive concept for a country driven by dreamers and risk.

We're tilted toward that way as a default position, like the shopping cart with a bad wheel.

Just go see Avatar (do the 3-D thing and sit in the second row), the latest mass-market fairy tale. Even though it's really about sex and nature, and infused with environmentalist and native culture messages, all that hundreds of millions in new film technology and sensual luminescence is still designed to tell a simple, cartoon version of the same story: sturdy representatives of righteousness kicking some scowling malefactor's butt.

When I was covering the Philippines in the '80s, it drove me nuts how many colleagues succumbed to the easy temptation of painting the Disney version of Ferdinand Marcos and his rival, Corazon Aquino. Have you ever actually met anyone who is pure good, or pure evil? Those are handy tales for Hollywood, lazy reporters and religious conviction.

I'm not saying Richard Heene, father of the sadly stigmatized Balloon Boy -- with his weird, Jimmy Hoffa hairdo and personal aspirations -- deserves any applause.

But, in Disney fashion he did, along with David Goldman, help us all maintain our cultural teeter-totter of villains and heroes in 2009 (whereas the Tiger saga actually was told with stereotype-shattering complexity and confusion; our minds were not made up for us on that one.)

Not to desert the holiday spirit, but here's to a more nuanced, realistic 2010, full of robust skepticism and humanity without the edges sanded off and tucked neatly into a one-minute elevator pitch.