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The 15:17 to Paris •1/2

Starring: Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Dorothy Blyskal, Anthony Sadler
Drama/History/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Date: February 9, 2018

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

Greg, we just saw another movie about a train. This one’s a true story, however.


Well, at least we’ll always have Paris. Let’s recap:


We meet three young men from Sacramento, California, who are all obviously close friends. They are Spencer Stone (Spencer Stone), Anthony Sadler (Anthony Sadler), and Alek Skarlatos (Alek Skarlatos). We flashback to their middle-school years when they made regular trips to the principal’s office. Their parents are single mothers who are doing their best to raise these three boys who are energetic and show a strong interest in the military.


The boys grow up and at 25 years old, Spencer reflects on his life. He’s tried football, basketball, and pizza delivery – and failed at all them. He resolves to get into shape and apply for the Air Force Paratroopers. He gets in, but his lack of depth perception tanks his hopes. Ultimately, he is trained as a medic. To celebrate, he arranges for a European tour with his old friends. That leads to an encounter that will make them famous.


Greg, The 15:17 to Paris tells a great story, but it is not a great movie. In a rare misfire, director Clint Eastwood shows us how three young men evolve from schoolboy goof-ups to noble heroes. The problem with this film is that Eastwood also shows us much more. He shows us what ice cream our heroes enjoy, what kinds of selfies they take, and what cities they like to visit. There’s more than a lot of dispensable fluff, which is a shame because this story needed to be told. A running time of 50 minutes would have been about right in lieu of the 90 minutes we’re forced to endure.

The coolest aspect of this film, of course, is that our three real-world heroes portray themselves in the movie. They do a semi-respectable acting job and the decision to cast them in these roles delivers a great payoff when we’re treated to actual footage of them receiving medals of honor from the French president. The message of the movie is also important in emphasizing how all of us are potential heroes, and how it is imperative that we stand up and take action when action is required.


We could probably end the review here – because you have hit all the points I would have made. Truly half the film follows two of our heroes on a trip through Europe. It’s worse than a series of home movies. Every five minutes the pair would stop for a beer and muse out loud: “Should we go to Paris? It sounds so boring…” Literally 5 or 6 times they go through this dialog. I guess the screenwriter was attempting to create tension. But it was the worst dialog ever written.

And even master director Clint Eastwood couldn’t fix this story. The bits at the beginning with the heroes as kids are nice. But again the dialog is so on the nose. In one scene a dowdy school marm informs the mothers that their rambunctious boys need Ritalin. The women storm out saying “My God is stronger than your medicine!It’s all kinds of confusing. We never find out if the boys get medicated or if they actually have ADD. It’s just left hanging there like some Floridian chad.


You’re right, Greg, we should just get to our ratings while also commenting on the archetypes that come alive in this movie.

Rating the overall quality of this movie is difficult for me, as I love the story but dislike the manner in which it is told here. We’ve already described the general problem — there simply isn’t enough meat on this cinematic bone to warrant a full-feature film, and as such we’re subjected to enough padding (and inane dialogue) to fill the grand canyon. The only thing preventing me from giving a rating of 1 Reel out of 5 is that this story is pure and beautiful heroic non-fiction. Thus I’ll bump the rating up to 2 Reels out of 5.

The heroism here is fabulous. We’re witness to the transformative journey that enabled these men to perform their heroic act on the train. Alek Skarlatos is the main hero who never seemed to find his way in life as a boy nor as a young man. He transforms himself and hits his stride in the military, but his lack of depth perception seems to derail him. Rather than let this setback define him, he trains as an EMT and now has the heroic potential to deal with a dangerous, life-threatening situation. I give these heroes 5 Hero points out of 5.

Several archetypes jump out at me, Greg. The underdog archetype is prominent, as our three heroes are at first dismissed as hopeless goofballs who will never amount to anything. We also see the military warrior archetype. What makes our heroes’ heroism possible is the villainous terrorist, who is portrayed as pure evil here. Carl Jung raised the idea of a demon archetype, a powerful force in our collective unconscious as well as a powerful force on this French train. Overall these archetypes earn 4 archetypes Arc points out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:


I agree with you on the quality of this movie. It’s a real disappointment. Unlike you, however, I have no problem rating it 1 Reel out of 5. There’s no way I can recommend anyone watch this movie for any reason other than its historical value. It’s just truly bad.

However, I compensate the low quality rating with a perfect hero score of 5 Heroes out of 5. This story emphasizes the importance of realizing that we all have the element of heroism in us. Here, we see Alek work exceptionally hard to become the person he wants to be. He fails over and over and never gives up. And when the moment calls for him to act in the service of others, he does not fail. He steps up and saves the lives of dozens of people. This is what we look for in heroes – and we all have it in us.

I know we have both struggled with our definition of “archetype.” Sometimes I feel like we are looking at tropes or even stereotypes. All three terms are valuable and subtly different. We do see the VILLAIN archetype played out by the terrorist on the train. Sadly, it is the stereotype that is presented in this movie. We get no backstory to this man. We only see his brown skin and dark features and the stereotype of the middle eastern or Muslim terrorist fills in the blanks. While it makes for economical storytelling, it is a dangerous stereotype as there are plenty who look like this villain who are good people. I give the HERO archetypes high marks. So, I’ll award 3 out of 5 Arcs for the archetypes.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

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

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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


scott
(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.

Movie:   Transformations: Heroes:


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:

 

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

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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scott
(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:

Dunkirk •••••

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Action/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: July 21, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!


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

Greg, we just witnessed a brilliant cinematic depiction of war heroism at its finest.


Dunkirk is an amazing achievement for Christopher Nolan. Let’s recap.


We meet a young British soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who narrowly escapes with his life while being shot at by German soldiers on the streets of Dunkirk. Tommy flees to the beach where thousands of British and French soldiers are waiting to be evacuated. He meets another soldier named Gibson who apparently has buried a friend on the beach. The two men encounter a wounded man and carry him to an evacuation ship. Meanwhile back in Britain, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his sons Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan) take their private boat through the English channel to help with the evacuation.


We’re treated to four points of view (POV): young soldier Tommy trying to escape, Mr. Dawson coming to the rescue, flying ace Farrier (Tom Hardy) guarding the shore, and Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) supervising the evacuation. It’s a great structure that tells one of the lesser-known stories of WWII, at least for Americans.


You’re right, Greg. I was woefully ignorant of the story behind this heroic evacuation. Apparently Hitler made a huge mistake by not aggressively attacking the evacuees, and we can all be grateful for his blunder.

Dunkirk is an extremely well-crafted film. It skillfully weaves together three stories about different characters whose lives converge at the end. This is a war movie and so there is plenty of death, but director Christopher Nolan wisely chooses not to make gore the star of this film. The star is valor, and it is on full display from minute-one until the closing credits. Nolan also makes great use of the “less is more” principle in filmmaking. There are long and excruciatingly tense scenes with little or no dialogue. The fear is palpable. But so is the heroic drive in these characters to act in spite of the fear.


LIke many of our readers, I’ve seen a lot of war movies. But I’ve never watched a movie that made me feel the emotion of desperation that Dunkirk evokes. I never understood just how personal the war was. Britons of all ages felt that their way of life and their very lives were at stake.

There are different levels of heroism in this film. There’s the heroism of the young men just trying to survive long enough to get on a boat. Then there’s the heroism of the commander overseeing the evacuation, then volunteering to stay behind to oversee the evacuation of the French. And we see the heroism of civilians going to sea to rescue the soldiers. And finally, the heroism of a pilot who lets his tanks run dry protecting the men trying to get away. He martyrs himself in the service of others.


Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is only on partial display here, but in no way does this limitation detract from this film’s excellence. Campbell discusses the low-point, the nadir of the hero’s journey, as the “belly of the whale” – the point in the journey when all appears to be lost for the hero and death seems imminent. Dunkirk is a film that shows in vivid detail what the belly of the whale is like for the hero, and it is hell indeed. This is the epicenter of the hero’s transformation – either the hero musters up the courage and grit to thwart death, or the hero succumbs.

Dunkirk shows us both these polar opposite outcomes. Young George is one of our heroes who dies in the process of saving British soldiers. In no way is he any less of a hero for dying; in fact, by making this ultimate sacrifice he solidifies his heroism to an extreme, thus illustrating that heroes need not complete the Campbellian journey to secure their status of hero. Tommy, our main hero, does survive the whale’s belly. Will he become as “shell-shocked” as the soldier that Mr. Dawson rescued at sea? We don’t know. But the post-heroic transformation toward PTSD is a tragic one that sadly afflicts millions of people.


One of the things that this movie (and another the comes to mind, Warhorse) exemplifies is that not every compelling story is a Hero’s Journey. Surely each of these POV characters is heroic. But the story structure doesn’t follow the classic rise and fall we’ve come to expect from our movies. There are elements of the Hero’s Journey (Tommy returning to the ordinary world of England, eg). But the transformation of the hero or those around him is not necessary for a compelling story. This is one of those rare occasions where the enormity of the event is enough to move the viewer into an emotional state that makes the event memorable.

 


Dunkirk is a superb film that brilliantly captures the agonizing unacceptability of war. Yet it does so in a tasteful and aesthetically dexterous way. Christopher Nolan deserves Oscar consideration for weaving together three disparate stories of stellar heroism. I daresay that Dunkirk is one of the best films of 2017, showcasing the best of human virtue and valor. I have been torn between awarding 4 versus 5 Reels, but after some consideration, I’m going with the full 5 Reels out of 5 here.

The heroism, as we’ve said, is unparalleled and hyper-inspirational. I was struck by the heroism of civilians who took action when it was not required of them as it was of the soldiers. Ordinary people like Mr. Dawson who step up to do the right thing are especially admirable and elevating. Most of the heroism on display here occurs during a tiny sliver of the hero’s journey, the belly of the whale, and this is indeed where the heroic rubber meets the road. Director Christopher Nolan deserves huge kudos for portraying the whale’s belly in riveting, exemplary fashion. The heroism here merits the full 5 Hero points out of 5.

Regarding transformation, we are witness to instantaneous transformations “in the moment” of severe crisis, as when heroes must respond immediately to U-boat bombs pummeling ships and bullets piercing a boat’s hull. These spontaneous transformative heroic acts are marvelous to behold. Much less marvelous is the post-heroic transformation toward PTSD that we witness from Mr. Dawson’s first evacuee. We can’t overlook the unsavory aftermath of an especially punishing hero’s journey. Overall, I award this film 4 transformative Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:


Few films have displayed heroism as well as Dunkirk. The story is told with amazing technical acuity. I didn’t know the story of Dunkirk before entering the theater, but it is forever etched in my mind. The very purpose of storytelling is to share our values and history with each other – to deliver the messages of our past to those of the future. Dunkirk does this with surprising power. I give it a full 5 out of 5 Reels.

Heroism comes in many forms. We’re witness to heroism in great sacrifice (as in the case of the Spitfire pilot) down to small acts of kindness (as when the young man lies to the shell-shocked soldier as to the death of young George.) I give 5 out of 5 Heroes to Dunkirk.

I don’t think this movie was about transformation as much as it was about sacrifice. We do see some transformations – but they are incidental to the story. Everyone in the movie was already giving all they had to give. I would say that they all had already undergone their transformations to get to the point of desperation they experienced on the shores of Dunkirk. While I award only 3 out of 5 Deltas, it in no way diminishes the power of Nolan’s work.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

The Promise •1/2

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale
Director: Terry George
Screenplay: Terry George, Robin Swicord
Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Date: April 21, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

Greg, do you promise to review this next movie with me?


OK. But I don’t see much promise in a 5-Reel review. Let’s recap:


The story begins in 1914 with a young apothecary named Mikael (Oscar Isaac) leaving his small town of Sirun in Turkey to attend medical school in Constantinople. Mikael promises to marry a young woman in Sirun and uses her dowry to finance his schooling. At med school, Mikael meets Emri (Marwan Kenzari), the nephew of a high ranking Turkish government official. Mikael also meets Chris (Christian Bale), an American AP reporter, and Chris’s lovely girlfriend Ana (Charlotte Le Bon).


It’s not long before Mikael falls in love with Ana. But their stars are crossed because just as they realize their love, the Turks attack the Armenians. Emri is drafted into the army and Mikael is captured as a slave to lay train tracks for the Turkish army. Chris goes undercover to report on the atrocities the Turkish army commits against the Armenian people while Ana works with churches to save orphans. Mikael escapes from the Turkish army and returns to his village where he marries his betrothed and goes into hiding.


Greg, The Promise is a decent movie that could have been, perhaps should have been, a grand, sweeping, memorable epic. The story of the genocide of the Armenian people deserved Oscar-worthy treatment. There is the tremendous suffering of an entire people, death on an unimaginable scale, incredible heroism, the worst kind of villainy, treachery, bravery, romance, and more. Yet we’re only left with a semi-decent movie. That’s really a shame.

What went wrong exactly? Greg, I’m sure you have your opinions and I’m eager to hear them. My own feeling is that this film is a near-miss. The filmmakers’ treatment of the genocide is done well, but the romantic triangle involving Mikael, Ana, and Chris has all the depth and complexity of a slice of white bread. These three lovers are all brave, selfless heroes who show no reaction to the triangle except show acceptance of it and tolerance for the other parties involved. That’s commendable, I suppose, but it’s hardly the stuff of good drama. By the end of the movie I was left wondering why they bothered to include so much material about a love triangle that goes nowhere.


Scott, we’ve seen a lot of “cause” movies in the last 5 years – and we’re going to see more soon, I guarantee. The problem with “cause” films is that they serve more to educate the audience about the cause than to deliver a compelling story. The Promise breaks its promise because it doesn’t let us know it is a cause film. It draws us in with the promise of a story about love in a distant land. Instead, it delivers a one-sided view of the Armenian genocide. The would have done better to create a documentary.

You’re right, Scott. The Promise is a lackluster story of three people we don’t really care about. We never spend enough time with these people to “bind” with them and develop an affinity towards them that would make us care when something bad happens. When we see a village of Armenians left for dead in a river, they are a nameless, faceless mass and it is hard to get worked up over their demise. To make this even more difficult to get invested in this film, this is an event that happened in a foreign land, to a foreign people, over one hundred years ago. It’s just not compelling enough to make a difference in our everyday lives. In addition, there’s no “call to action.” What do we do with this new information? We can’t bring these poor people back from the dead. We are left with a “so what” feeling since we don’t know these people, they have been dead over 100 years, and the story we were promised was a ruse to give us a history lesson. It’s just not engaging.


Well, in this film’s defense, there are plenty of compelling historical movies showing the atrocities of human evil. I’m thinking of Schindler’s List, for example. If done well, these movies tell an important story that can be riveting and must never be forgotten. The Promise just isn’t in the same league as Schindler’s List, for reasons that we’ve both mentioned.

All three major characters in The Promise are put to the test multiple times throughout the film, and all three show gallantry and courage to the extreme. The severe situations confronting them brought our steely resolve and inspiring selflessness. My main complaint is that the characters are a bit too perfect. Effective characters, even heroes, have flaws, and in fact a hero’s flaws make her even more heroic, or at least give her more heroic potential. The only flaw we see among Mikael, Anna, and Chris is perhaps Chris’s occasional heaving drinking. We need more depth from our heroes for them to come alive on the screen and for us to relate to them.


Actually, I had little sympathy for Mikael and Ana because they were adulterers. Mikael had taken a woman’s dowry with the promise to become a doctor and return to marry her and raise a family in their village. Ana is attached to Chris but takes up with Mikael. Mikael falls in love with Ana and begins to make plans to leave his betrothed. This is not a situation where he was left with no other options. He simply preferred Ana over his fiance. He’s a bit of a jerk and I didn’t have any sympathy for his plight.  When war breaks out, Mikael is imprisoned and Ana returns to Chris expecting him to take her back. And when Mikael turns up alive, she runs back into his arms. These are not the actions of noble individuals.

As for transformations, it’s hard to see who transforms in this story. By the end of the movie, Chris is still the brave American journalist. Anna is still the adorable and charming ingenue. And Mikael is the bereaved adulterer. The lack of transformation in this story is another reason the whole story falls flat.


The Promise had promise but squandered it by juxtaposing a romance alongside the genocidal murder of almost 2 million people. If you were going to make a movie about a genocide, would you name the movie after the largely irrelevant romance that transpires during the atrocity? This miscalculation neuters the movie, leaving us unsatisfied by characters whose love lives don’t really move us in any meaningful way. I give this movie 2 Reels out of 5.

Our three heroes have all the qualities of good heroes but are rather one-dimensional. They certainly go on the hero’s journey, encounter obstacles, collide with enemies and receive help from friends. Some aspects of these hero journeys are worth viewing but they aren’t terribly memorable. Moreover, there isn’t the all-essential hero’s transformation to be seen anywhere, except perhaps with the character of Emri, who faints during a surgical operation, has the courage to inform the US Ambassador about Chris’s imprisonment, and is then executed by the Turks. These hero journeys earn 3 Heroes out of 5, and the transformations (or lack thereof) deserve a rating of 1 transformation Delta out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


The Promise is a lackluster story of a genocide that occurred to people we don’t know over 100 years ago. It’s hard to get worked up over the events without becoming attached to the people in the story – and the filmmakers never gave us that chance. I give The Promise 1 out of 5 Reels.

The lead characters in this story aren’t very heroic. Mikael and Ana are cheaters. Only Chris and Emri display heroic qualities that we admire. I give them 2 out of 5 Heroes.

And there are no transformations of note. Everyone ends up pretty much as they started. I give this movie 1 Delta 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

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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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.


scott
(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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Hacksaw Ridge ••••1/2

hacksaw_ridge_posterStarring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey
Director: Mel Gibson
Screenplay: Robert Schenkkan, Andrew Knight
Drama/History/War, Rated: R
Running Time: 139 minutes
Release Date: November 4, 2016

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Let’s take a look at Mel Gibson’s latest offering – Hacksaw Ridge.


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

It’s a story about a great hero from our home state of Virginia. How cool is that? Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to young Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) who lives with his WWI veteran father, his mother, and older brother. Doss has fallen in love with a beautiful young nurse at the local hospital. When his brother joins the army to fight the Nazis, Doss decides to join too. But he’s a conscientious objector. As a child he often got into fights with his brother and nearly killed him once. That experience, and his Seventh-Day Adventist upbringing, caused him to vow never to touch a gun. Naturally, this belief engages him in some friction when he enlists.


Doss refuses to handle a gun during training, and as a result his commanding officer, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) makes Doss’s life miserable as a soldier. Howell also tries to have Doss discharged for psychiatric reasons. Doss, however, refuses to quit and is about to be court martialed until his father (Hugo Weaving) intervenes by pulling a favor with the Brigadier General. Doss is finally allowed to serve as a medic in the war, and is sent to fight in Okinawa without a gun.


Scott, I was surprised by this film. I had anticipated a Christian Inspirational. So many Christian films put the message ahead of the story and the film suffers as a result. Hacksaw puts story front and center. And in doing so, delivers its message in spectacular form.

On the other hand, I was surprised by the brutality and graphic nature of the film. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was well-known for its graphic portrayal of war. But director Mel Gibson has raised the bar to new heights – or perhaps lowered it to new lows – depending on your point of view. This view of war makes clear just how horrible war can be. There were images of dismembered bodies, entrails, and killing that were so graphic, the viewer can believe they were in a war.


I’m with you, Greg. Hero stories don’t come any better than this. Doss possesses most if not all of the Great Eight traits of heroes — he’s smart, strong, reliable, caring, selfless, resilient, and inspiring. You could even argue that he is quietly charismatic. His heroic power also derives from his ability to resist social pressure. Doss receives intense heat to conform to military standards, and he’s probably the only hero I know who sticks to his guns by eschewing them.

After watching almost seven seasons of The Walking Dead, I’ve become desensitized to graphic displays of violence and human innards. Like most modern movies, this film shows more gore than it has to, but I don’t blame Mel Gibson because audiences have come to expect it. One could also argue that Doss’s heroism is enhanced by his overcoming horrific violence, explosions, and flamethrower carnage.


Doss is an extraordinary hero. He went into battle without a weapon. Then, when all the other soldiers had left the battlefield, Doss went back and single-handedly, one-by-one lowered 75 wounded men from a cliff over 12 hours. He had to overcome his fears and ignore his fatigue. The men in his unit considered what he did a miracle. So much so, that they refused to go into battle again the next day unless he went with them. It’s a remarkable hero’s journey.

We see some mentors in Doss’s life, not all of them positive. His father is a very negative mentor. Scott, we often talk about dark mentors (people who lead a hero down the wrong path). But Doss’s father represents what we’ve come to know as the anti-mentor. This is a person who leads the hero down a path by showing the counter-example. Doss’s father was so abusive that it caused Doss to vow never to touch a gun. That was just as powerful a mentoring as any positive mentor.


Yes, but Doss’s father also redeems himself by using his connections to help Doss avoid court martial. We don’t see very many redeemed anti-mentors in the movies. But we do see many instances of parents who play a pivotal mentoring role in either a child’s heroism or villainy. This year’s The Accountant is a recent example.

It’s interesting that Doss is a great hero because he not only transforms himself, he transforms others. At the end of the movie, several soldiers approach him sheepishly, admitting to Doss that they were wrong about him and asking him for forgiveness. The men Doss served with are forever inspired by Doss and transformed by serving with him. The man who first identified the various stages of the hero’s journey, Joseph Campbell, argued that the hero’s positive influence on other is the ultimate culmination of the hero’s journey.


Hacksaw Ridges is a powerful tribute to a pacifist hero. While the film was grisly at times, it made the case for a conscientious objector who made a difference. The movie gets off to a slow start – giving us a lot of backstory of Doss’s early life. I was also thrown off by the frequent flashbacks. But the thrilling climax makes up for any problems in pacing. I was shocked at first by the gore, but I recovered enough to enjoy the story. I give Hacksaw Ridge 4 out of 5 Reels.

Doss is an unlikely hero. As a pacifist with a religious objection to carrying a gun, he has to show his devotion to his country and to his comrades in other ways. When he looks past his own safety and fatigue to rescue the men in his battalion, he exposes his true heroic nature. He is the epitome of the selfless hero. I give Desmond Doss 5 out of 5 Heroes.

Once again we are met with a number of lesser mentors. Doss’s father represents an anti-mentor who shows Doss a path by his counter example. And I consider his drill sergeant a dark mentor since he derides Doss and gives tacit permission for the other men to abuse Doss. I give these mentors just 3 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Greg, you nailed it. Hacksaw Ridge is a must-see movie. You just don’t encounter a better example of heroism than this, a form of heroism that is packed with off-the-charts selflessness and profound moral conviction. I prefer the term Doss uses to describe himself: A conscientious cooperator more than a conscientious objector. He wants to serve in the military, but only on his pacifistic terms. Heroes who stand up to social pressure to do the right thing, and who risk their lives to save others, are our most powerful heroes. I give Hacksaw Ridge 5 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey is also potent, and it is broken up into two separate journeys. The first half of the film details Doss’s ordeal at basic training, during which Doss is thrown into the dangerous world of the dissenter who dares to defy the military convention to use weaponry. In this hero’s journey, Doss’s only ally is his father, a broken man who redeems himself by helping Doss pass basic training and get shipped to Okinawa. At Okinawa, Doss’s second hero’s journey emerges, one that propels him into brutal combat while he saves 75 men with Japanese sharpshooters all around him. These are two powerful journeys, earning Doss 5 shining Hero points out of 5.

I see a bit more mentoring going on than you do, Greg. Besides the dark mentoring of his father and sergeant, let’s not forget the ultimate mentor, God, whose divine presence is repeatedly guiding and supporting Doss during his darkest moments. Whether you believe in God or not, there is no denying that Doss relied on Him to get him through all his travails. I give these mentors 4 Mentor points out of 5.

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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

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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


scott
(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.

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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.

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The Finest Hours ••

The_Finest_Hours_posterStarring: Chris Pine,  Casey Affleck,  Ben Foster
Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenplay: Scott Silver,  Paul Tamasy
Action/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Date: January 29, 2016

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

Well Greg, are you ready to write one of your finest reviews?


Yes, but the time spent watching this film was not quite The Finest Hours I’ve spent. Let’s recap…


We meet young Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), a crewman in the U.S. Coast Guard stationed near Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Bernie is shy around women but meets a young lady named Miriam (Holliday Grainger), who is far from shy. She proposes marriage to Bernie on the same night that a big snowstorm slams into the New England coast.


Webber’s incompetent exec sends him and three others over the “bar” to track down an oil freighter which has split in two. Webber apparently has a history with this bar. In a previous rescue mission, Webber went by-the-book and turned back, leaving a small fishing boat to its demise. The town’s people, and Webber, haven’t forgotten. So, when Webber is faced with the same problem, he goes beyond what is wise and pushes through the treacherous waters and embarks on what will be the Coast Guard’s greatest small-vessel rescue of all time.


The Finest Hours reminds me of a football team that, on paper, should win the league championship – but doesn’t. The film has all its ducks in a row, such as a terrific true story, a fine cast, and wonderful visual effects of the angry sea tossing people and ships with reckless abandon. On paper, everything appears great, but somehow the whole ends up being less than the sum of the parts.

Part of the problem, I must confess, lies in my expectations for modern movies to dazzle me with unique storytelling, saucy dialogue, and surprise endings. The Finest Hours has none of these things. This movie is old-school to an astonishing degree. Perhaps if you go into the theater expecting a 1950s treatment of the story, you’ll walk away a satisfied customer. My modern movie-watching sensibilities, however, were not impressed by heroes shouting, “Not on my watchandEither we’re all going to live or we’re all going to die”

Don’t get me wrong. If you enjoy true accounts of daring selflessness, this movie is for you. The CGI effects of the waves barreling through oil tankers and ravaging coast guard boats are spectacular. Just be ready to encounter simple characters cut from a bygone era.


I had the same impressions, Scott. Finest seems cut from the cloth of the 1950s sensibilities. It’s certainly not the finest hours I’ve spent in the theater. It’s acceptable that the film be set in the 1950s, but the dialog surely should be more modern.

There are two sets of heroes in this film. There’s our young hero Webber captaining his small rescue boat. And there is the reluctant hero Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) in the engine room of the S.S. Pendleton. Sybert doesn’t want to lead. He is more at home below decks, tending to the engines. But the hotheads on deck want to jump ship in the lifeboats. Sybert saves them all by launching an empty lifeboat which is instantly dashed to pieces along the side of the ship. It’s Sybert who comes up with a plan for grounding the Pendelton that ultimately saves the 32 men. He had to lead or they would all have been doomed.

The mentors in this film are hard to find. Webber is motivated to follow the rules at all times. The Coast Guard regulations as taught to him by his teachers are his mentor. Ultimately, as with any mentee, Bernie leaves his mentor behind when it is clear that he won’t be able to save the men of the Pendleton. Webber’s teachers are the “unseen mentors” in his head who tell him what is right and wrong.

There are also the fishermen who routinely fish the waters of Cape Cod. Like them, Bernie respects the law of the sea. There are things such men know and respect. These unwritten rules also govern Bernie.


Our two parallel heroes, Webber and Sybert, are both men who end up doing the right thing despite being under immense pressure from others to go the easy and cowardly route. They show strength, selflessness, and resilience — three of the Great Eight characteristics of heroes. We mention over and over again in our reviews that good heroes undergo a transformation during their hero journeys. In Webber’s case, he grows in his recognition that sometimes rules are not meant to be followed but need to be broken if lives are to be saved.

You’re right, Greg, that there are no clear mentors in this film who help our heroes on their journeys. Perhaps that’s another reason why this movie didn’t quite work for me. As you note, implicitly present are former Coast Guard instructors who prepared Webber for emergencies such as this one. We’re given no backstory about Sybert to infer any mentoring influence on him. Sybert is a loner who is more into transforming others by the example he sets than he is into transforming himself.

One could also argue that Webber’s commander — the man who foolishly sent our hero on a suicide mission — is what our latest book on heroes calls a dark mentor figure. Miriam tries to stand her ground against this inept leader, and Webber would have defied the leader in a heartbeat if he thought that doing so would save people’s lives. We’ve seen a number of movies where heroes must overcome dark mentors. Whiplash in 2014 comes to mind.


The Finest Hours was a throwback to the 1950s, both in terms of story and execution. Current leading man-candy Chris Pine gives a fine performance in an otherwise unforgettable film. While it’s not quite A Perfect Storm, it seems that it wants to be. I give this film just 2 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes do pretty well. Webber overcomes his naivete and his need to lean on the rules when things get tough. He learns that the rules are guidelines and when the time comes to act, we must use our best judgement. His parallel hero, Seybert, must step up to the plate. He is the only man on ship who has the knowledge to save his crewmates and he steps up to the challenge. Both men are courageous as they face their fears and act rather than turn tail and hide. I give them 4 out of 5 Heroes.

It’s hard to score an unseen mentor. Both men rely on their experience and knowledge to save the day. (Although there is the one midshipman who pushes Seybert to step up to the challenge.)  I don’t think it would have helped the film any if we had a flashback to Webber’s school days. But a physical person to advise either man would have made for a better mentor. I give the unseen mentor just 2 out of 5 Mentors.

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The Finest Hours is a movie full of terrific pieces that strangely add up to mediocrity. The film’s characters suffer from an acute case of over-simplicity, and many of the film’s details fall flat or just don’t ring true. For example, the terrible blizzard is shown to leave only a dusting of snow on the roads, and somehow people are able to speak softly to each other, and even sing songs, in the midst of hurricane-strength winds. Ultimately, The Finest Hours lacks the heft it deserved. I enjoyed this movie the way you might enjoy a twinkie when what you really desire is a juicy steak. I award this film 2 Reels out of 5.

Like the rest of the film, the two heroes of the story are old-school and deliver hackneyed phrases that my grandparents might have enjoyed hearing in the era of Humphrey Bogart. Another weakness is that our heroes don’t evolve in any significant way during the course of the movie, although it could be argued that Webber grew in his awareness of the necessity of defying rules when necessary. I do give our heroes credit for their resourcefulness in saving lives. I give them 3 Heroes out of 5.

The absence of positive mentor figures in this movie may explain the absence of much positive growth and change in our heroes. I suspect there is a strong correlation in storytelling between hero transformation and hero mentorship. There is a dark mentor for our hero Webber to overcome, and on board the oil tanker Sybert must also overcome strong dark pressures to do the wrong thing. Among other things, this movie did need more overt positive mentor figures from which our heroes can grow as people. The absence of mentoring in this movie means that I must slap it with a mentor rating of 1 out of 5.

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Bridge of Spies •••••

Bridge_of_Spies_posterStarring: Tom HanksMark RylanceAlan Alda
Director:Steven Spielberg
Screenplay:Matt CharmanEthan Coen
Birgrapy/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 141  mins
Release Date: October 16, 2015

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Like a bridge over troubled waters, there are spies like us.


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

Indeed. This is a movie about walls and bridges. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to James Donovan (Tom Hanks) a tax lawyer in 1957. He’s been recruited to defend a suspected Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel. Donovan takes this very seriously – he was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, after all. However, nobody around him thinks the spy deserves a trial – they’ve already convicted him in their minds. Donovan is also getting the evil eye from everyone in town, even to the point of death threats and shooting out his windows.


As expected, Donovan loses the case and Abel is convicted. However, Donovan succeeds in sparing Abel from the death penalty. He does this by persuading the judge that, hypothetically, keeping Abel alive allows for the possibility that a future hostage exchange could take place should the Soviets ever capture an American spy. As it turns out, Donovan is prescient.


Scott, you’d expect a movie by Steven Spielberg starring Tom Hanks would be excellent, and Bridge of Spies doesn’t disappoint. Every character in this film is acted out with a sort of precision that you don’t see every day. The spy, Abel, is a cool character. He seems worn out, but meticulous in his behavior and attention to his spy craft. Hanks delivers a very Jimmy Stewart sort of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” performance. He is truly cinema’s leading, leading man. From both a technical and storytelling point of view, there are no flaws with this film.


Absolutely right, Gregger. This movie shines in every way that a movie can shine. First and foremost, Donovan is a hero with moral courage. His character taps into an important hero archetype that describes a man who does the right thing even when it is very unpopular. Because he defends a suspect who is universally hated, Donovan receives menacing glares on the subway. His home is the target of gunfire, and his family pressures him to rethink his decision. Despite the risks and the danger, Donovan does what needs to be done.

Bridge of Spies features two separate hero’s journeys. The first journey is the unpopular legal defense of the Soviet spy. The second journey takes place later in East Germany after Donovan is assigned the task of negotiating the release of American soldier Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). As in the initial journey, Donovan once again takes on the unpopular fight. Under pressure from the CIA to focus only on Powers, Donovan insists on making sure that a 25-year-old American hostage is also released during the prisoner exchange. Once again, our hero does the right thing regardless of the cost to himself.


I’m glad you mentioned the double-hero’s-journey, Scott. While it did keep true to the events of the time, it slowed the movie down. There were two ordinary worlds, and two special worlds to become acclimated to. I can’t think of a fix (and I would never argue with the master, Spielberg). Still the characterizations and suspense pull this film along to it’s thrilling conclusion.

The supporting characters were superb. Of course we already mentioned Rudolf Abel, played exceedingly low-key by Mark Rylance. (My favorite line is when Donovan asks Abel: “Aren’t you worried?” and he replies, “Would it help?”). This is a combination anti-hero and villain character. Certainly not a villain as he is not trying to prevent Donovan from doing his job, but he’s a bad guy; a particularly easy-going bad guy. As such, he’s not so much even an anti-hero as much as a prop – he’s Donovan’s main goal (to give Abel a fair trial).

But it is the system represented by Judge Byers who is the villain in the first half of the film. Byers wants to get the trial over with and sentence Abel to death as soon as possible. He’s already passed his judgement. Donovan even says out loud that his role in this case is to prove that America does not have kangaroo courts. It is Byers who is attempting to thwart Donovan’s main goal. When the jury passes down a guilty verdict, Byers is in the position to sentence Abel to death. But Donovan convinces Byers that Abel may be a bargaining chip in the event an American spy is captured by the Russians. So, while Donovan loses the battle, he wins the war.


The fact that we have two hero’s journeys underscores this film’s mission of showcasing the depth of Donovan’s heroic integrity. A single hero’s journey isn’t enough for him. He’s a person who has no doubt been on many hero journeys, with Bridge of Spies giving us a glimpse of only two of them. This movie needed two interlinked hero’s journeys, if only to show that Donovan’s deft skill in sparing Abel’s life in the first journey allowed for the opportunity for him to spare the lives of two other men in the second.

I agree that the supporting cast more than holds its own in this film. Abel is a likeable Soviet villain, and some of the Americans are less than likeable in their dogmatic views and behaviors. You could argue that we have both institutional heroes and institutional villains, with Donovan serving as the face of the “West” and several characters serving as the various faces of the Soviet eastern bloc. These characters include Abel and several of the politicians that Donovan negotiates with to win the release of the two hostages.


Bridge of Spies is a wonderful work of art created by two masters of their craft. Spielberg directs this film in a way that shows off both the heroism of Donovan, and also the corrupt natures of the Soviet and American governments, alike. Hanks delivers again as the most likable guy in Hollywood. Together, the two paint a picture of a man of courage – or as Able calls him – “the standing man.” I can’t think of anything that could have made this film better. I award Bridge of Spies 5 out of 5 Reels.

Tom Hanks is great as the confident yet modest insurance lawyer called to the adventure of defending a villain. Donovan steps up to the challenge and delivers. He has no mentor in his journey, but he draws upon the values laid down by the Constitution. Just as the hero of the western lives by the code of the West, Donovan lives by the ideals set down by the founding fathers. There is also no “missing inner quality” to overcome. While Donovan is modest about his abilities, he is not unconfident. As you point out, Scott, it took two events in Donovan’s life to expose the depth of his character. In the epilog to the film, we’re informed that he also negotiated the release of 1,163 Bay of Pigs prisoners. It’s clear from this film that the heroic element of Donovan is the fact that he not only stands on his principles, but also goes above and beyond what is required. I’d like to give Donovan full honors, but his story lacks certain elements of the hero’s journey. So, I award Donovan 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast is excellent. Spielberg suffers no fools, and every supporting character in this story delivers. We’ve already talked about the villainous judge, and the quiet spy. But there was also the (apparently) naive pilot shot down over Russia (Francis Gary Powers), the supportive but worried wife and children, the corrupt CIA officials, the corrupt and devious KGB officials, the youthful college student, and the young people shot down while trying to jump the Berlin wall. All of these characters represent some element of the story, nothing is wasted. I give the supporting cast 5 out of 5 Cast points.

Movie: reel-5  Cast: cast-5 Hero: h-logo-4


I agree, Greg, that Bridge of Spies is a winner. When you combine a fabulous screenplay with arguably the best male actor of our times (Tom Hanks), you are destined to produce something magical. Having grown up in Los Angeles where I listened to Francis Gary Powers broadcast traffic conditions from his helicopter, I knew his story. But what I didn’t know was the backstory involving the heroic James Donovan working behind the scenes to do the right thing, over and over again, at great risk to himself. I also award this film 5 Reels out of 5.

The dual hero journey is deftly linked and reinforces Donovan’s intelligence, character, and integrity. Like you, Greg, I note the absence of a transformation and a mentor figure who is there to help him transform. In a sense, Donovan is a superhero who is supremely virtuous from start to finish. It’s not a bad hero’s journey, just not the classic journey as described by Joseph Campbell. I’ll give Donovan’s heroism 3 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters, as you point out, are excellent and deserve credit for either assisting Donovan on his journey or for throwing obstacles in his way. I particularly enjoyed Mark Rylance’s wry humor and overall performance as the captured spy who had no chance of acquittal. Overall, these supporting characters deserve a rating of 4 out of 5.

Movie: reel-5 Cast: cast-4Hero: h-logo-3