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The Post ••••1/2

Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: December 27, 2017




Is this a film about a President’s online posts?

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

More like The Washington Post, Greg. Let’s recap.

It’s 1971 and Rand Corporation contractor Daniel Ellsberg has been working on a study for the Pentagon under direction of Secretary of State Robert McNamara. The study reviews the relative failure of the United States’ war in Viet Nam. Ellsberg realizes that the office of the President has been lying to the public and congress for the entire 30 years of the US involvement and proceeds to copy some 4,000 pages of the report. He delivers it to the New York Times who publish a headlining story proclaiming that every administration for 30 years has kept the war going – just to save face.

The Times is ordered by the higher courts to refrain from publishing any more of the pentagon papers. So the Washington Post’s Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) hunts down Ellsberg himself and delivers the incriminating documents to the Post’s editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Bradlee asks Post owner Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) for permission to publish. She is pressured by attorneys and the board of directors to avoid publishing but ultimately gives Bradlee the green light to expose the pentagon papers.

Scott, The Post is a superbly well-crafted film by a director and lead actors who are at the peak of their craft. The story is so perfectly told with subtle acting and attention to detail that it almost escaped my attention that this is a cautionary tale for modern-day events.

The Nixon administration had waged war against the press – attempting to silence first the New York Times, and then The Washington Post. The principals at the Post pushed back against first amendment attacks by Nixon – that changed the relationship between the media and the White House forever. And, it solidified the right of the people to have an independent and free press. Given the attacks on the media from the current administration, this story is more than topical.

Greg, I’m in complete agreement. The Post is a powerful movie that shows a dramatic moment in history, and it hammers home how (given today’s current events) history is repeating itself. Nixon was Trump-like in wanting to censor the press, and it took true heroism for Katherine Graham to risk everything to do the right thing. This film is also timely in demonstrating the importance of the #MeToo movement. Graham is rarely taken seriously by the patriarchal world in which she operates, and yet she grows in her confidence and ultimately takes a bold position while defying the male members of the newspaper’s board.

There aren’t many movies that better illustrate how heroes must fight off strong pressures to take the wrong action. It would have been so easy for Bradlee and Graham to avoid publishing the incriminating papers, or simply delay publishing them. Their attorneys, friends, and colleagues were begging them to be “prudent”, sensible, and sensitive to the newspaper’s profits — and perhaps even its very existence. It would have been easy to take the “safe” action, but our heroes took a big risk and made potentially life-altering self-sacrifices. This is truly the stuff of great heroism.

Meryl Streep plays Graham superbly. Graham starts out as an unwilling leader having inherited the Washington Post from her husband after his untimely death. We see her in opening scenes rehearsing for a pitch to investors as she takes the business public. She’s uncertain — letting the men in the room do the heavy lifting.

But by the end of the film she is secure in her position as the custodian of her husband’s legacy. Streep doesn’t make this transition suddenly with an epiphany. Instead, she comes to this position gradually, with a series of revelations that lead her naturally to the conclusion that she must make the Pentagon papers public. She understands that the media has a responsibility to the people to keep the government in check. And then she risks everything to take a moral stand at a time when the Nixon administration is attacking the fourth estate with impunity.

You’re right about Katherine Graham’s transformation. It’s the kind of transformation that women in general have been compelled to undertake over the past couple of generations in our society. She is mentored by both men and women, but like all heroes, she must traverse the journey on her own, summoning up the strength and wisdom to do what must be done even at great personal and professional risk. The men in this story do not change as much, although Bagdikian and Bradlee (along with Graham) can be seen as change-agents whose actions have an important transformative effect on society.

The Post is seamless in its presentation. While it hits all the turning points of the hero’s journey – you hardly notice because of the skill and artistry of the director, actors, and crafts-men and -women who created this movie. I award The Post 5 out of 5 Reels because I can’t see how it could have been improved.

While Tom Hanks shares headlining credit, it is Streep’s Graham who owns this story. We love stories of transformation and Graham changes in ways both profound and subtle. I give Katherine Graham 5 out of 5 Heroes and 5 out of 5 Deltas.

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Greg, The Post was very good but falls short of landing in the “great movie” category. I’m reminded of the 2015 film Spotlight, which also depicted a newspaper’s fierce campaign to unveil a painful and vehemently denied truth. Both these movies drive home the important role that a free and aggressive press plays in a society rife with bureaucratic deceit. I award The Post 4 Reels out of 5.

This is an ensemble cast of heroic characters headed by Katherine Graham, a woman who makes the courageous call to print the truth at great potential cost to herself and others. Bradlee and Bagdikian get their hands dirty doing their heroic work in the trenches and also deserve high marks for their heroic grit and perseverance. I award all these heroes 5 Hero points out of 5. And because of Graham’s bold transformation and transformative effect on others, she deserves 4 Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


Molly’s Game •••

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin, Molly Bloom
Biography/Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 140 minutes
Release Date: December 30, 2017



(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, if you like playing games, Molly was once the go-to person in New York and Hollywood.


And like poker, her success is not a matter of luck, but skill. Let’s recap.


We meet young Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a US Olympic hopeful as a skier. Her father (Kevin Costner) pushes her to the limit and beyond to become successful. But Molly suffers a horrible skiing accident and doesn’t make the team. Her plan was to attend law school but she puts those plans on hold to live in Los Angeles employed as Dean Keith’s (Jeremy Strong) personal assistant. One day Keith asks Molly to set up a high-stakes poker game involving some notable Hollywood celebrities.

She’s a quick study and soon learns all the details of high-stakes poker. When her boss threatens to fire her if she doesn’t take a pay cut, she folds her hand – only to start her own poker game – taking her boss’s friends with her. She becomes the toast of the town until one high-value player wants to cut in on her success and he kills the game when she refuses. Out of money and out of luck, she makes her way to the Big Apple to start all over again.

Greg, Molly’s Game caught me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting a story about high-stakes poker to contain such intrigue, depth, and nuance. Molly finds herself in an underground world of rich and powerful men who manipulate others and sometimes self-destruct. She’s drawn there by the allure of money and power, and soon she finds herself spinning out of control with drug addiction and legal problems. She lived on the edge of criminality and crossed the line, yet her intelligence, resilience, and integrity won the day.

Jessica Chastain shines in this film, and I hope she garners some accolades for her portrayal of a smart, complex woman. Her character of Molly Bloom is an ideal hero who possesses nearly all of the Great Eight characteristics of heroes: She is intelligent, strong, reliable, charismatic, caring, selfless, resilient, and inspiring. As in another film, The Post, this story centers on a talented woman trying to navigate her way through a man’s world. Being an attractive woman certainly helped her at times, but at other times she was disrespected and underestimated.

Scott, I’m an outlier in believing this is a rare miss by writer/director Aaron Sorkin. The heart of any story is a compelling hero with whom we sympathize. I found Molly Bloom completely unsympathetic. All of her problems were those she brought upon herself. Sorkin tries to get us to relate to her by showing her uncommon strength in overcoming a debilitating back injury. It’s a good try.

But she knows she’s skirting the law when she runs this game of chance (although she insists it’s a game of skill). She knows the Russian Mafia is involved in the games and anticipates their arrival. Then she gets attacked when she doesn’t play along. Finally, she knows that she cannot skim the pot legally and decides to dip – accumulating $2M illegally. When the FBI commonderes the funds, we’re supposed to feel sorry for her. But I don’t feel sorry for her in any way. She’s responsible for all her problems and I can’t muster any sympathy for her – or for Sorkin’s story.

Greg, no hero is ever perfect, and in fact the basis of the hero’s journey resides in the hero’s ability to achieve redemption by overcoming their inherent flaws. Let’s keep in mind that Molly’s most striking attribute is her integrity, which wins over her initially skeptical attorney (Idris Elba). The best evidence of her integrity is seen in her willingness to serve time in prison rather than disclose information that would harm the families of her poker players. For the most part, she runs her poker business on the up-and-up, boldly navigating her way through a man’s world.

Only toward the end does she succumb to the temptations of drugs and skimming the pot. She atones for these mistakes by becoming drug-free and taking full legal responsibility for her actions. Molly is truly an admirable character whose journey matches the template of Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth, and she undergoes transformations toward darkness and then back into the light of goodness.

I don’t think she ever redeems herself. Her self-ascribed motive for not naming-names is that she doesn’t want the families of the bad guys to be hurt. Still she created the environment where they squandered millions of dollars. She seems very selective in her morality. So I don’t see much in the way of transformation here.

Molly’s Game is a convoluted, poorly written, and amateurishly directed film by an artist who has done better work – and very like will do better work in the future. Sorkin did not waste one of his good screenplays on his directorial debut, treating this very much like practice for features to come. Fine performances by Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain (and occasional bright spots with Kevin Costner) cannot save this dull piece of work. The ending where all our hero’s problems are attributed to “daddy issues” falls flat. I give Molly’s Game 2 out of 5 Reels.

Molly is a failed hero who, as far as I can tell, has not redeemed herself. All of her problems are her own making, and she is saved only by the kindness of men – Elba’s lawyer takes pity on her to take her case, and the judge ignores the prosecution’s sentencing recommendations and gives her the lightest possible sentence. I don’t see any redemption in her and in my book she is an anti-hero. I give her just 2 Heroes out of 5.

Finally, I cannot find evidence of transformation for anyone in this story. Molly doesn’t seem repentant for her ill-gotten-goods nor does she turn over evidence that would put bad guys away for decades. I saw that Kevin Costner’s character came back at the last moment to psychoanalyze his daughter – so I give him just 1 Delta out of 5.

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Greg, it’s as if you and I saw a completely different movie. Molly’s Game impressed me with its riveting portrayal of a brave and resilient woman who goes down a hazardous career path, pays the price, and then ultimately redeems herself with a noble act of integrity. Jessica Chastain delivers the best performance of her career here, portraying a flawed hero whose fierce determination, strength, and intelligence serve her very well. This is a smart film that deserves an audience that appreciates tough women operating successfully in a man’s world. I give Molly’s Game 4 Reels out of 5.

Molly’s hero’s journey is highly inspiring. She overcomes a severe injury, and then works hard to evolve from a penniless young woman living far from home into a multi-millionaire. Molly then succumbs to a drug addiction and illegally skimming the pots of her high stakes poker games, and she pays the legal price. Like all good heroes, she receives help from a mentor (her attorney), cleans up her act, and makes choices that reveal her honorable nature — even at great potential cost to her well-being. I award her heroism 4 Hero rating points out of 5.

Molly undergoes several important transformations. First, as a young athlete she undergoes an emotional metamorphosis by growing in her emotional strength and resilience. As a poker entrepreneur, she later learns how the world of big money and celebrity dynamics work. This mental transformation was then followed by a negative physical transformation in the form of drug addiction. Finally, in her legal battles, we witness a moral transformation toward doing the right thing with regard to information that could ruin her former clients’ families. All these transformations earn Molly 4 transformative Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Darkest Hour •••1/2

Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas
Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Anthony McCarten
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 125 minutes
Release Date: December 22, 2017




(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, we just saw film that sheds light on a darkest hour.

It’s the second film this year about the Dunkirk rescue. Let’s recap.

In mid-May of 1940. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s (Ronald Pickup) appeasement policy with Hitler has proven unsuccessful, with German forces now streaming into Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) has just been appointed the new Prime Minister. He is impatient with his new secretary, Miss Layton (Lily James) and he must have weekly lunches with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), who is skeptical of Churchill’s policies.

Churchill is sure that Hitler will not honor any terms of surrender that Brittain may offer. He assembles a cabinet of men who are not entirely friendly to Chamberlain because he wants honest opinions – not yes men. In particular Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) is pushing for an agreement with Hitler. The totality of Britain’s army – some 300,000 men are stuck on the shore of Dunkirk, France – with the German army closing in fast. Chamberlain has to come up with a plan to rescue his men and convert the minds of Parliament before Hitler slaughters his army.

Greg, Darkest Hour is reminiscent of that extraordinary 2012 movie Lincoln that garnered multiple Best Picture awards. Both films focus on remarkable leadership during times of national crisis, and both offer heavy emphasis on dialogue, negotiation, and inner struggle. While I wouldn’t place Darkest Hour in the same stratosphere of excellence as Lincoln, it is an extremely worthy micro-biopic that showcases the talent of its star, Gary Oldman, whose depiction of Churchill’s eccentricity and volatility are right on the mark.

I use the term ‘micro-biopic’ because we are only given a glimpse of a three-week window in the life of Winston Churchill. During these crucial weeks, Chamberlain has been ousted as Prime Minister, Churchill has been appointed, and advancing German armies in Europe must be dealt with. It is a pivotal moment in European history and this film centers of Churchill’s transformative resolve to fight the Nazis in lieu of negotiating with them. As the audience, we know the right way to proceed but only with our 20-20 hindsight. This movie teaches us that peace at all costs can be a risky ideology.

Darkest Hour is a wonderful film with a very endearing performance by Gary Oldman. While historical images of Churchill present a bulldog of a man, the character we see here is humble, uncertain, and deeply pained by his loss at Gallipoli. He starts the film with virtually no one in his corner – least of all the king. He event doubts himself at his “Darkest Hour” and gains strength from commoners on a subway train. Then he rouses himself and orchestrates one the greatest rescues in human history. Finally, he wins the hearts of Parliament and sets Britain on a difficult but ultimately victorious path. Regardless of the historical accuracy of the film, it is a compelling hero’s journey.

That’s my main complaint about the film, namely, that Churchill’s unorthodox decision to meet with the commoners on the London Underground never really happened. This turns out to be the critical moment when Churchill recognizes that the public has a steely resolve to defeat Hitler rather than appease him. It’s a transformative incident, as the Prime Minister now know what he must do. Too bad it never happened that way. While including this fictitious scene makes for a better drama, I would have preferred a more veridical account of history.

So in this micro-slice of Churchill’s hero’s journey, we’re privy to his transformation along with his transformative effect on others. The latter is illustrated in Churchill’s famous “We will fight them on the beaches” speech. His words were so rousing that even Churchill’s detractors (such as Chamberlain) were silenced and forever rendered irrelevant. Churchill’s heroism proves that heroes do not have to be tall, handsome, and conventionally charismatic to be effective. They can find their heroic voice in their own idiosyncratic way, much like Lincoln did in the US nearly a century earlier.

Darkest Hour is a well-produced slice of the life of Winston Churchill during the darkest hours of Britain’s history. Gary Oldman’s performance is Oscar-worthy. As is typical of such biopics, Churchill changes the hearts and minds of others more than he himself changes. As the audience we know what the historical events will be – but what we don’t know is the behind-the-scenes story. I give Darkest Hour 3 out of 5 Reels for an average movie-going experience. Winston Churchill gets a full 5 Heroes out of 5 for standing in the face of villainy and doing what had to be done to save his country and ultimately the world. And finally, the Parliament gets 3 out of 5 Deltas for their transformation due to Winston’s steadfast leadership.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

I agree that Darkest Hour does an exemplary job of chronicling how an iconic leader met the challenges of a pivotal moment in world history. As with another recent movie, Lady Bird, this story offers but a tiny slice of our hero’s life, yet it still manages to show us the hero’s ability to transformatively rise above severe challenges. Gary Oldman did the near-impossible by portraying Churchill’s eccentricity and boldness so effectively. I award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

Churchill’s heroism is impressive in that he did what the best heroes among us manage to do, namely, find a way to do the right thing despite significant social pressures to do the wrong thing. His transformation can best be described as a metamorphosis from uncertainty to certainty, from hesitation to resolve, from thoughts of condoning evil to fighting it aggressively. As such I award him 4 Heroes out of 5 and 4 transformative Deltas out of 5, too.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Marshall •••

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson
Director: Reginald Hudlin
Screenplay: Jacob Koskoff, Michael Koskoff
Biography/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: October 13, 2017



Scott, can you marshall enough interest to review Chadwick Boseman’s latest film?

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

I’m glad the law is on our side with the Marshall in town. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) in 1941. He’s the head lawyer with the NAACP and his boss has a new job for him. In a small town in the deep south a black man has been wrongly accused of the rape and attempted murder of a well-to-do white woman. Insurance fraud lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) has been tapped for the defense, but he’s never defended such a case before. And the court has ruled that Marshall cannot defend the defendant because he’s from out of state. So it’s up to Marshall to coach Friedman in the ways of criminal defense to save the life of an innocent man.

Marshall takes steps to give the defendant, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown, fair and proper representation. But the deck is stacked against him. The judge (James Cromwell) is a personal friend of the prosecuting attorney’s father. Moreover, Friedman is less than thrilled to be involved in the case, as it could ruin his career and endanger his family. Slowly but surely, Marshall and Friedman uncover enough facts to undermine to case against Spell — but not without cost to themselves.

Scott, this film reminds me of Red Tails (2011) in that it tells a historical/biographical story worth telling, but with a lackluster script. Still, Marshall succeeds in relating a story of a black American who does not transform (as in 42) but instead transforms those around him. There are plot elements that don’t really go anywhere (Marshall’s wife is left alone to cope with a miscarriage) – but serve to show his devotion to his mission. I was very worried at the start of this film that the low-budget approach would not do the story justice. But performances by both Boseman and Gad save Marshall from being a campy period piece and instead deliver a powerful story of how far we’ve come in race relations and how far we yet have to go.

I agree, Greg. The hero of our story, Thurgood Marshall, serves as a transforming agent for others. His job is to change attitudes and win hearts, but most importantly, he’s there to win legal cases in the service of delivering racial justice. In this film, Marshall transforms two people specifically: his prosecuting attorney partner Sam Friedman, and the defendant Joseph Spell, whom he convinces to speak the truth and fight back. This movie drives home the point that many oppressed African-Americans feel utterly defeated and rarely fight a system that is rigged against them. Marshall empowers them in meaningful ways.

And speaking of ‘meaning’, perhaps my favorite line of dialogue in the movie occurs near the film’s conclusion, when Marshall is asked how he finds meaning while working on so many individual cases of racial injustice. His reply: “My job isn’t to put out fires. It’s to get rid of fire altogether.” This nice metaphor for racial prejudice underscores Marshall’s vision of the bigger picture. So we see that Marshall’s goal is not simply to transform Friedman and Spell, nor is it to merely exonerate Spell. His mission is to transform those of us in the audience at the theater thereby eliminating prejudice altogether.

Marshall is a flawed but well-thought-out biopic. Rather than trying to tell Marshall’s life story, they exemplify his accomplishments by focusing on one specific event. It’s enough to show us who Marshall was. One of the problems with the film is the overly dramatic nature of it. Many of the scenes seem right out of a 1940s gangster film. Likewise with the dialog. But I am glad the film was made and I found it enlightening. I give Marshall 3 out of 5 Reels.

Heroes don’t come better than Thurgood Marshall. He was fighting an uphill battle against all odds. His is called a ‘flat’ character arc in that he doesn’t change much in the telling of the story. But he changes those around him. I give Thurgood Marshall 5 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, the transformations of those around Marshall are dramatic. Marshall converts an uninterested insurance fraud lawyer into a civil rights activist. He converts the opinions of the people of the town. He transforms Spell from a man with no hope to a man with honor. I give the transformations in Marshall 4 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

You’ve summed it up well, Greg. Marshall is unlikely to win any awards but it does effectively convey the daunting obstacles facing the NAACP and other pre-Civil Rights activists. Thurgood Marshall’s story inspires us to do the right thing and to work for justice event when laws and social forces seem hopelessly conspired against us. I agree that this film deserves a rating of 3 Reels out of 5.

Marshall only gives us a thin slice of Marshall’s overall hero’s journey, but within this slice we do see him in a dangerous world through which he is able to navigate successfully. The journey isn’t easy, but our hero is able to win hearts and influence minds in the direction of racial justice. Marshall doesn’t transform but he sure does trigger a metamorphosis in two key characters and in society as a whole. I’ll give his hero’s journey a rating of 4 out of 5 and his transformative effect on others a rating of 4 Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Hidden Figures •••••

the_official_poster_for_the_film_hidden_figures_2016Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
Director: Theodore Melfi
Screenplay: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: PG
Running Time: 127 minutes
Release Date: January 6, 2017


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We’re introduced to three African American women stranded on the road in 1960’s Virginia. They are “computers” – women who perform computations for NASA’s space program. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) performs computations for the Mercury program. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) works as an engineer in the wind tunnels for the Mercury. And Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) acts as a supervisor for the other computing women, all of whom are Black.

Goble has been reassigned to work on the trajectories for the upcoming manned-flights of the Mercury program. She is dismissed by the other mathematicians because she is a woman, and a Black woman at that. Among her many challenges is the fact that the restrooms in the facility are segregated. And the only “colored” rest room for women is across the campus. She frequently has to run a half mile to use the ladies’ room – taking her work with her.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Meanwhile, Mary diagnoses a problem in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields, inspiring her to pursue an engineering degree. She convinces a judge to grant her permission to attend night classes at an all-white school. Dorothy learns that a huge new IBM computer will replace her co-workers. She sneaks into the computer room and successfully operates the machine. At the library she is scolded for visiting the whites-only section on computer programming. She teaches herself Fortran and is promoted to supervise the programming department, arranging for her women co-workers to be transferred there.

There aren’t many movies featuring women in technology, let alone women of color. Most of our images of engineers and scientists are of young men (see The Social Network). What is marvelous about this film is that it features three such women. They not only have to face gender stereotypes, but also battle racial divides.

The common trope in films dealing with race is that there is a white benefactor who lifts the African American up to where they belong. We see this in such films as The Blind Side, 42, and Race. But in Hidden Figures we’re witness to women who deal with their stereotyped roles head on and fend for themselves. It’s a refreshing change.

I was moved to tears watching Mary stand before a judge and plead her case to be allowed into an all-white community college. I know people who have had to fight for what they have earned. But they deal with a level playing field. Mary has the deck stacked against her. She not only has to change the mind of the white judge who blocks her way into school, but that of her militant husband who believes that violence is the only answer. Hidden Figures delivers three powerful examples of women overcoming prejudice on their own terms.

You’re absolutely right, Greg. Hidden Figures shows the shattering of two barriers, gender and race, in the early 1960s. I had never heard this true story of these three remarkable women, and I’m ashamed of either myself, or the system in which I was raised that suppressed this story, or both. These three heroes won my heart and earned my deepest respect. Like Jackie Robinson in 42, they knew that breaking barriers required them to take the high road when encountering inevitable prejudice and pushback. Their lives and careers were complex, difficult, way-paving and inspiring to say the least.

There may not have been any overt White helpers per se, but one cannot overlook the open-mindedness of people who assisted or supported these women’s efforts. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) deserves kudos in his supervisory role, helping Katherine Goble adjust to her new position and even taking a sledgehammer to the “whites only” restroom sign. The judge who bends an existing exclusionary rule also helps Mary get the education she seeks. There almost have to be people in the majority race who step up to do the right thing in the service of our heroes. Having said that, I agree that this film more than most others we’ve seen emphasizes the independent nature of our heroes’ quest to break their barriers.

We see some good mentoring and leadership in Dorothy’s character. She recognizes that the world is changing and that computing machines are the next big thing. So she learns the FORTRAN computing language and teaches it to her staff. So, when the machine finally work, and the management is looking for programmers, Dorothy is ready with 30 women trained to go.

I liked Hidden Figures very much. I often look for the ‘seams’ in a movie where the structure shows through. But I was so engrossed in the story that the seams fell away. We have three different and connected hero’s journeys – and each got ample screen time. The movie is inspirational to women and people of color, but it also shines a bright light on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Women and minorities are often left behind in the STEM world, and I think Hidden Figures will inspire a new generation of engineers. I give Hidden Figures 5 out of 5 Reels.

Scott, we often look for transformation in our heroes, but sometimes the heroes transform others instead. Katherine showed that she could do a job as well as any white man. In so doing she changed the culture of NASA to be more inclusive. Dorothy broke barriers by becoming the first black woman to be a supervisor at NASA. And Mary changed the educational system to allow blacks into their community college. In each case the transformation was on society as a whole, rather than in the heroes. I give these three women 5 out of 5 Heroes.

It’s hard to find good mentors, and Hidden FIgures is no different. Each of these women had to forge onward using their own skills and intelligence. But they did it essentially alone. When you’re the first to arrive in the “special world” there often isn’t someone there to act as a mentor. We did witness some good mentoring in Dorothy and her team of ‘computers.’ So I can only muster 2 Mentor points.

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All your praise directed at Hidden Figures is right on the mark, Greg. These brave, remarkable women did what society’s best heroes do, namely, set out on a journey that will bring them pain and resistance from others, defying social conventions that need defying. This movie deserves strong consideration for Best Picture in 2016. I also give it 5 Reels out of 5.

As with other way-pavers and barrier-breakers, these Hidden Figures are both transformed and transforming. We talk about heroes being both the source and the target of transformation in our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains. These women grow in their courage and resilience, and they have no doubt (and will no doubt) inspire generations of historically oppressed individuals to reach for the stars, both literally and figuratively. I give our heroes 5 Hero points out of 5.

There is mentoring going on in this movie but as we’ve pointed out, this film emphasizes the fierce independence of these women. Yes, they got help of course, but their success derived mostly from their own innate talent and indomitable spirit. I’ll award 3 mentor points out of 5 for the subtle ways that our Hidden Figures received little nudges of help behind the scenes.

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Snowden •••1/2

snowden_film_posterStarring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo
Director: Oliver Stone
Screenplay: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone
Action/Biography/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: September 16, 2016


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, are you ready to review Oliver Stone’s latest foray into controversial American political issues?

I was hoping I would be “snowed in” and not able to see it. But, alas, it’s the peak of summer. Let’s recap:

The year is 2013, and Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is in a Hong Kong high rise hotel, arranging to meet journalists from the US and UK. He has information to give them that he illegally downloaded from US intelligence services’ computers. We then flashback to nine years earlier when a young fresh-faced Snowden first applied to join the military special forces.

Snowden wants nothing more than to serve his country. But he is physically unable to get through basic training. He chooses instead to join the CIA as an analyst and study the world of internet hacking. He shows his value immediately as he solves difficult hacking problems in minutes not hours. This endears him to the CIA director, Corbin O’Brien (Rhys Ifans) and leads Snowden into the world of CIA operatives.

Greg, Snowden presents the true story, or at least Oliver Stone’s version of the true story, of a controversial man who leaked classified government information, and then paid the price by being disowned by his country. Among hero activists around the world, Snowden is considered a hero, a whistleblower who sacrificed his career to do the right thing. Many others view him as a traitor who endangered lives. In this film, Oliver Stone clearly takes the heroic interpretation, portraying Snowden as a genius who starts out loyal to the US but slowly transforms into a person who cannot condone the mountain of evidence pointing to his country’s illegal activities.

Stone doesn’t miss an opportunity to paint Snowden in a good light. He’s at once idealist, genius-level intelligent, patriotic, and honest to a fault. In writing we call this a “Mary Sue” – someone so perfect as to be impossible. It’s too bad, because it makes the character on-screen seem unbelievable, and that makes for a bad story.

Snowden starts out believing in America. He is a staunch conservative. When he meets his ultra-liberal girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), they clash over the role of government in American lives. But slowly, as the relationship matures and endures both positive and negative growth, Snowden comes to question his government’s actions. This is an interesting transformation for Snowden – one of ideology.

Right, Greg. So once again we see women having an important transformative effect on men (see also The Light Between Oceans). Lindsay “mentors” Snowden by coaching him to adopt more liberal viewpoints about America and the world. Lindsay’s influence gives Snowden a different lens through which he sees his country’s spying activities. Eventually, Snowden can no longer turn a blind eye to all the rule-breaking that he sees going on within our intelligence communities.

In storytelling, it’s not unusual for a young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hero to have a lot of learning to do. Snowden arrives at the CIA full of naive idealism. One of the first people he encounters is Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), a CIA operative who has been banished from the front lines for curious reasons. Forrester plants the first seeds of doubt in Snowden regarding the purity of the CIA’s motives in the world. “You can disagree with your government and still be a patriot,” he tells Snowden — an obvious foreshadowing of what is to come.

Snowden is a one-sided view of Edward Snowden’s decision to become a whistleblower on a government that apparently has overreached its bounds. It’s now a particularly engaging movie. There are long stretches of Snowden doing “coding” tasks. This is not an inspired film. A lot of the technology issues are simplified for the average movie-goer. Certainly, the subtleties of the line between whistleblower and traitor are never explored. I give Snowden just 3 out of 5 Reels.

As a hero, Snowden is painted quite favorably. He is shown as a bright young man with promise. He is also displayed as a patriot who becomes disillusioned with what he deems is unpatriotic behavior. He’s given few if any negative traits. I can only muster 3 out of 5 Heroes for him.

There are a number of good mentors in Snowden. Corbin O’Brien becomes the dark mentor as he leads young Snowden deeper and deeper into the world of the CIA. Hank Forrester is the “cautionary tale” mentor – showing Snowden what happens to an operative who goes too far in the world of international internet espionage. And finally, the “light” mentor, Lindsay Mills, shows Snowden an alternative path. I liked the variety of mentors and influences in Snowden – I give its mentors 4 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Greg, we went into Snowden thinking that Oliver Stone might present a mixed picture of the man, thereby allowing audiences to decide for themselves. We were wrong in a big way. Stone clearly views Snowden as a noble and heroic whistleblower, a genius with a big heart and the perfect girlfriend. Although I would have liked to have seen the other side to the story told, I have to admit that Stone has crafted a compelling film that deserves to be watched. I give Snowden 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey here is an interesting one. Snowden is pulled into the dark world of espionage, and he can choose to thrive in this dark world or he can choose to expose it to the greater world. Doing the latter means being pulled into the even more dangerous lifestyle of a fugitive. His decision to spend his life hiding from the US government is the kind of self-sacrifice that we see only in our greatest heroes. Snowden’s journey merits a hero rating of 4 out of 5.

As we’ve mentioned, Snowden receives all the mentoring he needs to transform from a conservative pawn of the government into a liberal activist. He comes to recognize O’Brien as a dark force of influence, and he ends up heeding Forrester’s dictum that true patriots are willing to take a stand against their government. The ever-present Lindsay guides him toward the ideology needed to blow the whistle. Overall, it’s a very strong mentor story, earning the film 4 Mentor points out of 5.

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Sully •••1/2

sully_xxlgStarring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Todd Komarnicki, Chesley Sullenberger
Biography/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Date: September 9, 2016


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it looks like someone wants to avoid a sullied reputation.

Sully rabbit, tricks are for kids. Let’s take a look at the latest movie from Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood:

We meet Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), a veteran US Airways pilot. He’s recovering from the aftermath of an emergency landing he had to make on the Hudson River shortly after Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport. His co-pilot that day was Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart).

But instead of being treated like a hero, the National Transportation Safety Board wants to prove that he made a huge mistake. Instead of landing in the Hudson, they think he should have landed at either LaGuardia or Teterboro. This leads Sully to question his own decision making. The rest of the film answers the question: Is Sully a hero, or incompetent.

Greg, this movie taps into the powerful archetype of the hero who is wrongly accused of villainy and must spend the entire storyline trying to establish his innocence. As such, this is a movie that deliberately makes you feel uncomfortable. You’re uncomfortable with the idea of a sinking plane maneuvering through Manhattan skyscrapers. You feel the discomfort of a man who is tortured with the burden of the ‘hero’ label. You’re frustrated with an NTSB board that seems hellbent on proving that Sully made a reckless choice to land in the Hudson.

This movie, along with Tom Hanks, deserve Oscar consideration. Even though we know the story’s ending, we’re never really sure how we’ll get there. The hero’s journey is extremely unconventional, with much of the film devoted to flashbacks of the hero’s descent (literally) into the dangerous, unfamiliar world of double-engine failure on the jet plane. But even more so it is a film about the hero’s subsequent descent into the dangerous, unfamiliar worlds of unwanted fame, family turmoil, accusations of wrongdoing, and courtroom drama. It’s a movie that really shouldn’t work but somehow does, with the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts.

Scott, I was less enthusiastic about this movie than you. The fact is, Sullenberger is an unqualified hero. Sadly, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a great story. Sully is the most boring of heroes – he simply did his job extremely well and saved 155 lives. But to create a story around this, you have to have a goal and you have to have a villain to thwart that goal. Director Clint Eastwood creates a goal of surviving the NTSB inquisition, which makes the NTSB the villains. It’s clumsily executed. The movie ends in an unrealistic courtroom scene that left me feeling the whole movie was a made up story.

From where I was sitting in the audience, the plot was more suited to a made-for-tv movie than a big-screen extravaganza. It sounds like it would be great as it has a true-to-life hero in Sully, big-time director Eastwood, and America’s favorite leading man, Tom Hanks. But scene after scene seemed stilted and put on.

As a case in point, let’s look at what they did to Sully’s poor wife. She’s portrayed as a harried homemaker who was more concerned about whether they were going to lose their summer home than the fact that her husband survived a near-fatal crash. She keeps asking when he’ll be home when she knows he is fighting for his professional life. Now, this is not done to show how unsupportive the real Mrs. Sullenberger was. But rather, to expose to the audience what was at stake for Sully. It’s handled clumsily and throws poor Mrs. Sully under the bus in exchange for exposition. And that’s straight out of the Hallmark Home Movie tradition.

My only quibble is that the movie glossed over the skill it took to land a plane successfully on water. At the time (in 2009), there were numerous stories, all fascinating, of the specific technique needed to bring the plane down on the water’s surface without it plunging immediately to the river bottom. Apparently, Sully had to maneuver the jet to emulate a bird landing on the water, an image and skill that the vast majority of people are unfamiliar with. This achievement should have been highlighted as a major reason behind Sully’s heroism. In addition, it is also true that Sully was saving his own life in landing that plane safely, so to say that he was completely selfless is untrue.

Still, the accomplishment was remarkable and Clint Eastwood deserves kudos for putting together a movie that serves as a worthy tribute to this truly humble hero who wanted no part of the hero label. The handling of the bumbling NTSB and the histrionic wife didn’t particularly bother me that much, except for the apparent fact that these two elements of the story departed from reality quite a bit. In typical Clint style, this movie is about a man who sticks it to “the man”. Sully is a kinder, gentler Dirty Harry.

As far as mentorship goes, Sully’s mentor is hard to identify but I think we have hinted at the type of indirect mentor at work in this hero’s life. We’ve seen movies like The Martian in which there is an “implicit mentor” whose training of the hero helped him survive an ordeal. We’ve also seen films like London Has Fallen where the hero is not an actual person but a code of ethics or behavior that the hero lives by. With Sully we see hints of these two types of mentorship at work in Sully’s life. His 42 years of aviation experience were instrumental (pardon the pun), as was mentorship from his father which is hinted at in a brief flashback scene.

Sully is a flawed biopic about a true American hero. They don’t make heroes better than Captain Sullenberger. I enjoyed the film but I can’t get past the unskilled use of the NTSB and Sully’s wife as foils. Compare to the excellent Eye in the Sky which we reviewed earlier this year. In that film both sides of an argument were presented without bias. There was no need to make the NTSB the villains – except to further the narrative that Sully was a persecuted hero. I give Sully just 3 out of 5 Reels.

There’s not doubt that Sully is a hero. By just about any measure one has to appreciate the fact that it was Sully’s devotion to his craft and trade that allowed him to be the right man in the right place at the right time. Then he went further by being so humble about his heroism. I give Sully 5 out of 5 Heroes.

As you point out, Scott, Sully doesn’t expose his mentors directly. It is his training that gives him the strength to pull off the impossible feat of saving 155 souls on a flight that should have crashed. I give Sully’s mentorship 3 out of 5 Mentors.

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Sully is yet another triumph for ageless director Clint Eastwood. This movie relies on the time-honored archetype of the hero who is falsely accused of villainy, and much of the successful use of this formula can be attributed to the acting genius of Tom Hanks. No actor could better capture Sullenberger’s earnest humility, moral caring, and quiet competence better than Hanks. This film is a winner and easily earns 4 Reels out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the hero’s journey takes a nontraditional route by first giving us flashbacks of Sully’s recent hero journey involving double-engine failure and a river landing. Then we witness Sully’s subsequent hero’s journey that is less physically dangerous yet more emotionally distressing, in which he must deal with antagonists such as the media, his wife, and the NTSB. Clint Eastwood weaves these two hero’s tales together with great flair and effectiveness. I give our hero Sullenberger a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship here is subtle, complex, yet pivotal for our hero’s success. Sullenberger’s past training and experience were his strongest allies in the cockpit that day in the air. His father also guided him capably. Later, on the ground and in the unwelcome limelight, Sullenberger flounders about with little mentoring to help him other than his own personal integrity and steadfast confidence that he made all the right moves on that airplane. The mentoring in this movie is present yet elusive. As such, I’ll bump the rating down a bit to 3 Mentors out of 5.

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Eddie The Eagle ••••

Eddie_the_Eagle_posterStarring: Taron Egerton,  Hugh Jackman,  Tom Costello Jr.
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Screenplay: Sean Macaulay, Simon Kelton
Biography/Comedy/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: February 26, 2016


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Scott, it’s time to take off on another movie.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, I’m ready for Eddie. Let’s do this.

It’s 1988 and we’re introduced to Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) – an awkward man who has grown from a child wanting nothing more than to participate on the British Olympic Team. He has overcome a disability that kept him from running and playing with other children. Now, in his early twenties, Eddie has become an above-average skier with the British team. But they decide they simply don’t want him – he’s not British enough. Not letting anything deter him, he sets his sites on ski jumping. Since Britain hasn’t launched a ski jumping team since the 1920s, the requirements for qualifying are still very low – just a 70-meter jump. He relocates to Germany and self-trains, but nearly kills himself. That’s when he attracts the attention of drunken snow-groomer Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman).

We learn that Bronson was once an American ski jumping star who squandered his talent and under-achieved. Eddie asks Bronson to coach him but Bronson declines, observing that Eddie lacks the experience and talent necessary to become a world-class ski jumper. Eventually, Bronson is won over by Eddie’s tenacity and work ethic. Bronson begins to train Eddie, who edges closer to his goal of competing in the Calgary Winter Games.

Scott, Eddie the Eagle Is a classic sports success movie with the added bonus that it is based on a true story. We meet the underdog athlete who desires to be the best in his field. In this case, the underdog has already overcome a physical challenge, so we admire his tenacity. But then he raises the stakes on himself to compete in one of the toughest of winter sports.

We’ve seen this kind of pluck in other stories – like The Karate Kid and Creed. In these stories, the hero character is not ready for the challenge of their selected sport. They have to train hard to overcome their underdog status and realize their goal. What’s interesting about Eddie, and the thing I like most, is that Eddie doesn’t play to win – he plays to be the best he can be.

There’s a touching scene where Eddie is riding the elevator to the top of the highest jump and he’s talking with the world record holder, Matti “The Flying Finn” Nykänen. Nykänen says they are alike in that they aren’t competing against each other, but against themselves – to make their personal best. This message is what makes Eddie the Eagle stand alone among sports hero movies.

Yes, this movie is the prototypical underdog story that showcases a lovable guy who doesn’t let any of his many disadvantages deter him from pursuing his dream. Eddie is sweet and innocent, yet also fearless and determined. It is this fearlessness and unwavering resolve that help Eddie attract a primary mentor figure that he needs to accomplish his dream of competing in the Olympics. Bronson is that mentor.

Speaking of which, this movie has more layers of mentoring than I’ve ever seen in a movie. Eddie’s parents are his first mentors, with his mom being the positive nurturer who encourages his dream and his dad serving as a dark, discouraging mentor who belittles the dream. Next, Eddie befriends a woman at the ski jump facility who gives him basic tips about where to go and whom to see on his quest to gain experience. Then there is Bronson, the main mentor, who has his own mentor, whom we’ll call The Grand Mentor. Eddie is also discouraged from competing by rival skiers and coaches, and he is counseled to abandon his dream by his own country’s Olympic committee. And before his final jump, Eddie gets advice from Matti Nykänen. I can’t recall a hero who has to navigate through so many good and bad elders, advisors, and mentors.

You’re right, Scott, In the classic hero’s journey the hero is approached by a mentor who lays down the call to adventure. Almost invariably, the hero refuses the call before ultimately going on his adventure.However here, (and with the other films I mentioned) we see a mentor character who is approached by the hero who asks for help. It is the mentor who initially refuses the call to adventure. I wonder if this is typical of just sports movies, or if there are examples in other genres as well. I think this makes Bronson a Reluctant Mentor.

As with other mentors we’ve reviewed this year, Bronson is a former hero turned mentor. But Bronson is a fallen hero as he was kicked off the ski team due to his drinking, womanizing, and generally bad attitude. Throughout the movie we get glimpses of Bronson’s old coach Warren Sharp (Christopher Walken). Both Eddie and Bronson look to Sharp as an example of good coaching. In the end Sharp gives Bronson his blessing, making Bronson a kind of Redeemed Mentor.

All these layers of mentoring are fascinating. One thing we learn is that while a mentor is given great respect, a grand mentor is revered like a god. When Warren Sharp enters the room, he attracts a kind of solemn silence usually reserved for royalty. If a mentor is like a hero to our hero, then a grand mentor is the hero to the hero’s hero — a multigenerational multiplicative effect that we just don’t see much of in storytelling. I liked it.

One more thing to add about our hero, Eddie: He definitely transforms, as any good hero must if we are to care about him. You could argue that with all these mentors, he should transform, right? But let’s not forget all the dark mentoring in Eddie’s way. This is a hero who believes in himself and clings to his dream no matter what kind of feedback he is given. It’s a great lesson for us all. And he transform in terms of courage, resilience, and physical ability.

Eddie the Eagle Is a surprisingly fun sports drama with a message we don’t often see. I enjoyed watching Eddie grow from a handicapped child to his own champion. We got some wonderful performances from both Taron Egerton and Hugh Jackman. (BTW: How does Hugh Jackman, a big star, end up in these little films?). It’s a period piece that took us back to the eighties in style. I happily reward Eddie the Eagle 4 out of 5 Reels.

Eddie stacks up as a great hero. He’s likable due to his unrelenting enthusiasm, as well as his ability to overcome obstacles. He is a dreamer and idealist. There’s a lot to like about Eddie. In fact, he is such a great guy, that his transformation is a little lackluster. He starts out great and ends up great, too. While he does undergo a physical transformation (one of the five types we mention in our book Reel Heroes and Villains), the internal transformation is lacking. Still, I give Eddie 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Scott, you point out correctly that there are mentors a-plenty in this movie. Although I think identifying the parents as mentors is a bit of a stretch. Generally, you look to mentors who give advice and gifts. While his mother is encouraging, she doesn’t give him advice that will help him be a great ski jumper. She’s more of an ally than a classic mentor. Bronson is interesting for the redeemed mentor character – overcoming his deficiencies as a hero by contributing to the advancement of a new hero. And I award bonus points for introducing us to the Grand Mentor character in Warren Sharp as well. I’m happy to award a full 5 Mentors out of 5.

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You’ve nailed these ratings, Greg. This is a movie that’s almost impossible to dislike, unless you’re a total misanthrope. Eddie teaches us to embrace our dreams and pursue them, no matter what the cost and no matter who, or how many, oppose us. What better message is there about how we should all live our lives? I, too, give Eddie the Eagle 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey follows the classic pattern and gives us a hero who is willing and able to transform himself from a crippled child to a Olympic ski jumper. Eddie not only transforms himself, his story inspires us all to transform ourselves. Best of all, this movie allows us to sink our teeth into a multi-layered mentor cake. It seems that every secondary character is a mentor of some sort, and our main mentor Bronson even experiences “an atonement with the father” — a reconciliation that is usually reserved only for the main hero. Like you, Greg, I also award Eddie 4 solid Heroes out of 5.

With more mentors than you can shake a stick at, how can one not award the maximum rating of 5 Mentors out of 5? This gaggle of mentors is a fascinating and variegated collection that illuminates the importance of social support in the hero’s journey. In developing our model of mentoring in the movies this year, we’ll be referring to Eddie the Eagle quite a bit. And deservedly so.

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Race •••1/2

Race_2016_film_posterStarring: Stephan James,  Jason Sudeikis,  Eli Goree
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Screenplay: Joe Shrapnel,  Anna Waterhouse
Biography/Drama/Sports, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: February 19, 2016


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Hey, I’ll race you to the end of this review, Scott.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Let’s take our time and do it right. This film deserves it.  Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to young Jesse Owens (Stephan James). He’s rushing to the bus stop to take him to Ohio State University where he will be on the track and field team. His mother has made him a new jacket. He leaves his father with two dollars. He stops at the beauty shop where his girlfriend works. He kisses his two-year-old daughter goodbye. And then he’s on his way to the world of higher education, low wages, and collegiate athletics.

Jesse arrives at Ohio State University where he meets the track coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Snyder is a good coach but hasn’t had much luck fielding a successful team yet. He sees Jessie running some practice heats and is blown away by Owens’ speed. Snyder tells Jessie that with hard work an Olympic gold medal at the 1936 Berlin games is within reach. Meanwhile Jessie meets another woman Ruth (Shanice Banton) who seduces him after reminding him that it’s best to love the one you’re with.

Race is a movie title with a double meaning. Not only are we witness to the emergence of perhaps the finest athlete who ever lived. But also an examination of one of the most significant events in race relations in world history. Jesse Owens was under great pressure to boycott the 1936 Olympic games because Hitler and the Nazi party were victimizing Jews and people of color. At the same time, he had the opportunity to show that Hitler’s racist ideology was false. This film builds to that moment and plays it to its fullest. Race is a very satisfying depiction of the events that made Jesse Owens a hero.

Greg, I’d say not just very satisfying but extremely so. Race is far from perfect — it’s a bit bloated, with several scenes needing to have been left on the cutting room floor. Still, the movie is an effective biopic about one of the greatest athletes in American history. Owens exposed Germany’s brutal regime of hypocrisy, racism, and hate. His journey was gritty, complex, and courageous.

In many ways, this film is reminiscent of the 2013 film 42 which told the story of Jackie Robinson. Just as Robinson needed help from Branch Rickey, Jesse Owens needed help from Larry Snyder. Greg, I know that nothing drives you crazy more than seeing a movie about a Black man who needs help from a White man. But the historical context of Race and 42 positioned Blacks in a state of powerlessness over the rampant institution of bigotry all around them. Our heroes needed a hand from someone with the power to give it to them.

It’s true, Scott. I would like to see more stories of Black empowerment without a side dish of White altruism. However, in the case of Race I was happy to see that Snyder wasn’t working out of White guilt or charity. Rather, he simply wanted to acquire the best athletes he could find. As Owens himself states in the film – Snyder only saw fast or slow. And there is a poignant scene in the film where Snyder tries to convince Owens that race doesn’t matter. And Owens shouts back: “You’re White Larry!” A reminder both to Snyder and the audience that it’s easy to be colorblind when you don’t have to live with the effects of racism every day.

Owens stacks up very well on the Hero scale. When we first meet Owens, we’re witness to his strength of character when he slips his father money as he leaves. He is good to his daughter and his girlfriend. He wears the ridiculous jacket his mother made for him. And he demonstrates that he is a superior athlete, although rough around the edges. He won’t look Snyder in the eye. He won’t stand up to the white men who hassle him in the locker room. And he keeps very much to himself. So he has room to grow.

Snyder walks a fine line here between being the co-hero of this story in addition to being the mentor to our main hero in Jesse Owens. While we do sense bits and pieces of Snyder’s own hero’s journey, he is first and foremost a mentor figure to Owens. The most impressive quality of his heroism resides in the fact that he walks the walk as much as he talks the talk. Snyder has been world-class runner himself and has made many of the sacrifices that Owens has made — minus the huge racial burden, of course.

There is is also a very telling scene in the locker room involving the Black members of the track team being confronted by the bullying White members of the Ohio State football team. The White bullies assert their White privilege, demanding that the track athletes leave the locker room. Snyder steps in to remind Owens and his teammates that to succeed they must ignore all distractions. The football players and coach are screaming in the ear of Snyder, who blocks out their racial rants completely to make his point to the tracksters. It’s show-not-tell — the most powerful way to mentor people.

A good mentor gives advice and gifts so that the hero can survive in the special world. As you already mentioned, Scott, Snyder gives advice. But when Owens is missing practices due to his after hours part-time job, Snyder swings a cushy job where Owens basically collects a paycheck without having to work. This allows Owens to focus on his athletics.

As we’ve noticed in other films (like last year’s Creed), there is a Mentor’s Journey. It usually focuses on a character who is a former hero. Having completing his Hero’s Journey, the former hero now takes what he’s learned and delivers it to an up-and-coming hero. Snyder is a “willing” mentor in that he looks to support the hero. In movies such as Creed and even The Karate Kid the mentor must be convinced to aid the hero. But Snyder is actively seeking young mentees.

Race is an entertaining and informative portrayal of the life of Jesse Owens, one of America’s greatest athletes of the 20th century. Stephan James delivers a terrific performance as Owens, and Jason Sudeikis does more than hold his own playing Owens’ track coach. This movie accurately exposes America’s racist and intolerant Jim Crow laws, and it also depicts the even greater horrors of Nazi Germany’s growing implementation of its Final Solution. I enjoyed seeing this slice of American history and heroism. This film deserves 4 Reels out of 5.

Jesse Owens follows the hero’s journey to the letter. He enters a dangerous world and encounters innocuous villains on the track and nefarious ones outside the track. He is mentored by Snyder and is loved by a woman (or two). One could argue that he undergoes two different transformations. He is humbled in his mishandling of his romantic life, and he gains self-confidence and maturity in his great handling of his athletic life. Owens also upgrades his mission in midstream — he competes in the Olympics, not just to excel personally, but also to puncture Hitler’s prized Aryan race. Owens deserves 5 Heroes out of 5.

The mentor of the story, Larry Snyder, is a terrific character whose own hero’s journey is told in a much more skeletal way than that of Jesse Owens. Snyder is the coach and ally that Owens needs to triumph on his journey. In a very large sense, Owens helps Snyder transform as much or more than Owens himself transforms. Thanks to Owens, Snyder gains stature as a coaching force in the world of track and field. I give Snyder 4 Mentors out of 5.

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Race is a good movie worthy of a better time slot than the February doldrums of the Hollywood release schedule, although just in time for Black History Month. The period costumes, especially the recreation of the Berlin Olympics, were spot on. I felt transported back in time. As with many biopics, sometimes the story seemed hemmed-in by the actual events. But overall, it was an entertaining movie, if not exceptional. I give Race 3 out of 5 Reels.

Jesse Owens is a true historical hero. He was the best athlete of his time. This movie did a good job of depicting the struggles Jesse had to overcome to race at the top of his game. The apex of his challenges comes when he wrestles with the decision to boycott the Olympics in solidarity with the NAACP. Instead he chooses to represent not only America, but Black Americans and brings home four gold medals. I did think that his transformation from an inexperienced, though talented, runner into an Olympian was delivered a bit too easily. So, I am awarding this presentation of Jesse Owens 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Larry Snyder, as played by Jason Sudeikis, is a classic sports mentor. He was once a great athletic hero who must channel his experience and knowledge into an up-and-coming new hero. I liked Sudeikis in this role. He’s better known for his comedic roles, but he played this dramatic character very well. Snyder comes off a little too stereotypical of sports coaches. I prefer a bit more backstory and imperfection to my mentors. So I give Snyder 3 out of 5 Mentors.

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Spotlight ••••

Spotlight_(film)_posterStarring: Mark Ruffalo,  Michael Keaton,  Rachel McAdams
Director: Tom McCarthy
Screenplay: Josh Singer,  Tom McCarthy
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: R
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2015


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Scott, it’s time to shine a little light on our latest review.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

I pray that we get this review right, Greg. Let’s recap.

It’s the year 2001 in Boston and the Boston Globe has a new editor. Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) has just read an article about how the Boston Archbishop Cardinal Law was accused of protecting a priest who was sexually abusing children. He directs Robby Robertson (Michael Keaton) to take his crack investigative team, Spotlight, and dig deeper and see how far the accusations go.

One member of the Spotlight team, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), is assigned the task of interviewing Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), an attorney who represents a number of victims of priest molestations. Garabedian leaks information to Rezendes that the extent of the abuse scandal is far greater than it appears. The team shows resourcefulness in uncovering the names of 87 priests whose crimes were covered up by the church.

Scott, Spotlight is a great story of team problem solving. At first the Spotlight team believes they are trying to uncover a coverup of a single priest gone bad, they soon discover there are as many as 87 pedophile priests in the Boston archdiocese. As Robertson and his team work to learn as much as they can, they are thwarted at every turn by Bostonians who don’t want the secret out. It seems everyone wants to believe they live in a good town, and to let the truth out would make Boston look very bad. It’s Nationalism at the city level.

Spotlight is a movie cut from the same cloth as The Big Short. Both these movies expose the corruptive elements of our society and how leadership (if you can call it that) often turns a blind eye to malfeasance. For me, Spotlight works better than Big Short. In Spotlight, we enjoy nice continuity in following one team of heroes throughout the story whereas Big Short presents a scattered approach that is dissatisfying. We discuss the team as an important unit of heroic protagonist in our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains. Spotlight showcases the workings of a heroic team in wonderful detail.

The heroes in this story are what we call catalyst heroes. They don’t transform themselves as a result of their journey (which is typical of the hero’s journey). Instead, catalyst heroes transform society. We’ve encountered catalytic heroes in other movies we’ve reviewed, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma. These Boston Globe journalists truly do shake things up in the Catholic Church, right some terrible wrongs, and better society as a result.

One could also argue that these heroes occupy a category of heroes called protectors. These are heroes who look out for the underdog. They help and protect the weak, the disadvantaged, and those who cannot protect themselves. So we have a team of catalytic protector heroes who do what needs to be done to correct injustices, protect others, and reform a corrupt system. In a sense, they are a team of superheroes.

You’re right, Scott. I call such movies “cause” films because they expose some cause the filmmakers think the public should know about. Often they resemble documentaries because the cause becomes more important than the story.

Spotlight overcomes this problem to a very large degree because it focuses on the people in the story. Not only the victims, but on the reporters and how the revelations affect them personally. You mention that the main characters don’t transform. But I did see a transformation in Robby Robertson. The pedophile story had been brought to his attention years earlier but he buried it in the Metro section of the paper. He overcame his guilt and shame to lead his team to a compelling story and discovery of a nationwide conspiracy within the church to hide widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic church.

When I look for mentors, I look for a character who gives guidance and support to the heroes. Marty Baron, the new editor of the Boston Globe, performs this role. He lays down the “call to adventure” when he challenges Robby Robertson and his team to investigate Cardinal Law. Robertson first “refuses the call” – because nobody challenges the church. But Baron persists and pushes the Spotlight team to dig ever deeper.

Good call about Marty Baron, Greg. This movie drives home the important point that it often takes exotic outsiders to effect change in people and in organizations. Baron is a Jew in a city dominated by Catholics. He’s also new in town, having moved to Boston from Florida. He couldn’t be more different from the status quo, and as such he brings fresh perspectives that challenge standard practices. The hero’s journey in classic mythology is rife with examples of exotic creatures from far away lands who magically appear before the hero to help him or her resolve whatever conflict the hero faces. Yoda from Star Wars is a striking modern example.

Baron represents the mentor who arrives on the scene, unsought by the Spotlight team and perhaps even unwelcome. Yet his impact is unmistakable and positive, as they grow to discover. Another type of mentor is the one who is actively sought out by the hero. During their investigation, the team seeks the guidance of a researcher in Baltimore who enlightens the team about the huge extent of the problem. Again, it is an outsider who helps the heroic team accomplish its mission.

One last point. As we’ve seen in other movies, Greg, heroes must often overcome the influence of dark mentors. There is an older male character named Pete Conley (Paul Guilfoyle) who represents the church and whose job is to fix problems for the church such as this one. He counsels Robby, or rather tries to counsel Robby, to ignore the problem because the city needs the church, etc. Robby will not drop the case and the dark mentoring attempt fails.

Spotlight is a surprisingly good “cause” movie – mainly because it focuses on the impact the story has on the principle characters. I was also impressed that such a star-studded ensemble cast shared the “spotlight” so well. Although, the personal lives of each character got little attention, so characterization was a bit thin. But I was entertained while I was educated, which is the goal of such a cause film, afterall. I give Spotlight 4 out of 5 Reels.

The main character in this story is Robby Robertson and he has a mild transformation. But it is the city of Boston that undergoes the transformation due to the efforts of the ensemble cast. This makes them a sort of “catalytic” team hero which I give 3 Heroes to.

The secondary characters also take on mentorship roles. There’s the dark mentor Conley that Scott mentioned. As well as the newcomer Marty Baron who can see things with eyes. Their mentorship isn’t as profound as it might have been. I give them just 3 out of 5 Cast Points.

Movie: reel-4Cast: cast-3 Hero: h-logo-3

I think you pretty much nailed it, Greg. Spotlight shines a light on the dark workings of a religious organization that participated in a shameful cover-up of countless unspeakable crimes. This film is effective in portraying how a team of journalists finds its moral core so that it can shed light on a church that has lost its moral core. The acting, the pacing, and the storytelling are all exemplary. I also award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

The team of heroes at the Boston Globe are fun to watch as they unravel the mystery confronting them. They bring about transformative change to their community and to the Catholic church, and they deliver justice to hundreds of victims whose tragic stories never saw the light of day. Watching these heroes do their heroic work was gratifying. I give them 4 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting cast was strong and provided exactly what our team of heroes needed to do their job (or to make their heroic job harder). The work here is more than perfunctory but not quite exemplary. A rating of 3 out of 5 cast points seems reasonable here.

 Movie: reel-4Cast: cast-3 Hero: h-logo-4