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Movie Review: Thank You for Your Service

Writer and director Jason Hall, who wrote Clint Eastwood‘s searing American war drama, American Sniper, debuts his feature directing skills in Universal’s Thank You for Your Service. With commitment to his script, based on the book by David Finkel, Hall largely succeeds. I found myself wanting a wider scope for much of the movie. The intense war veteran drama sub-genre comes from this long, endless, asinine non-war in the Middle East, which Sen. John McCain once let slip might become a hundred-year war. They’re piling up, from Jarhead, Green Zone, Rendition, Stop-Loss and The Lucky Ones, which this picture most closely resembles, to The Hurt Locker, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi and the sterling American Sniper. And the cluster of post-2001 war movies deserve rapt attention from today’s American moviegoer. Most are mediocre to bad. They all merit praise for daring to dramatize what Americans ignore and evade.

Thank You for Your Service is good, and by good I mean it is moving, sad, horrifying — which every war movie if it is a war movie ought to be — tense, confused and heartbreaking. Thank You for Your Service is also absorbing. You watch the men in agony, you want to know if they make it, you care about the characters, who, incidentally, are based on real American soldiers, a fact the movie thankfully doesn’t inflate and lord over the audience. The title is both biting and unbowed. And that faraway look in the movie poster’s Army sergeant (Miles Teller, Whiplash) is earned.

The vacancy this ‘war on terror’, as George W. Bush described it when he was president after Islamic terrorists attacked America in 2001, marks three war vets’ faces when they at last come home from Iraq. There’s husband, father and explosives expert Sgt. Schumann (Teller, as sharp as ever) and his grunts Solo (Beulah Koale) and Heller (Joe Cole). They jostle, tease and prep for the homefront on the plane and it’s already clear that they’re feeling restless about coming home to Kansas. One returns to a wife who dares him to test her strength. Another wants to father a baby with his missus. Another is engaged and he’s all about that right now.

They attempt to adjust. As they do, the complexity of the task and the complications of what constitutes the military service for which they volunteered become a moving tapestry of what’s now known two decades into this war for nothing in the Arab world (not to mention West Africa). Mental illness, trauma and suicide loom. But the men hold tight to one another. In an emotional bonding scene and set-up for what’s to come, they take a break from re-connecting at a local bar and hop around to a pop tune about love.

It’s one of the best scenes because Hall lets this initially humorous outlet for the men’s anger, pain and physical trauma unwind naturally, melding into a moment in silence with gripping and holding on. This transition is memorable. It could’ve pulled the camera back and gone on.

Thank You for Your Service does go on, with other manifestations of what today’s war veteran faces. Prosthetics, ignorance, trauma. Flashbacks, delusions, more trauma. Waiting for bureaucrats, accounting for the impact, trudging through the lowest moments of more trauma, which means melting down, and this part Thank You for Your Service gets down pat. As Sgt. Schumann’s wife, Haley Bennett is excellent. The whole cast shines, too, with Teller in the lead, Koale as the American Somoan soldier and Kerry Cahill as a dead soldier’s mom standing out.

Hall might have made more or less of certain details, such as the horseshoe in the Humvee or the flag-poled house as a symbol for the happiness pursuit. But he gets the emotional power just right, in scenes with them dancing through the rage, losing power during sex and embracing at a bus stop. Like American Sniper, Thank You for Your Service puts the audience smack into the soldier’s world. There, one sees the value of a fast car, the toxicity of a brainless video game and the importance of owning — and stitching — a dog. War cliches abound, it’s true, and surely someone’s going to find fault in this for that. It comes down to combat, roads not taken and men you may have left behind.

Thank You for Your Service dramatizes with skill and emotional impact the aching loss, void and aim of war in its last two words. It does this about a war which — still, outrageously, after 16 years!!! — is not allowed to be a war in any way that matches this sacred, highest goal. Whatever its flaws, Thank You for Your Service shows the unjust process, from deployment to Veterans Administration (VA) deathtrap, of Americans being soldiers in a deliberately forgotten war. It depicts an ongoing, in-your-face tragedy that’s more important and powerful in this sense than all the artsy films combined. Have a look at what becoming a soldier’s become and think about what it means that they’re coming undone. Everyone should thank Thank You for Your Service.

Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017)

Telescoping a major battle in the second world war, writer and director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) touches on major aspects of war in his harrowing epic, Dunkirk. This movie for Warner Bros. is sufficiently horrifying and powerful and it is also daring in certain respects. Dunkirk is also flawed.

Putting the action to three arenas—land, air and sea—permits Nolan, a talented storyteller and filmmaker, to fold his refined tales into each other neatly and with a strong, meaningful sense of purpose. This he accomplishes with economy, too, bringing Dunkirk in under two hours, keeping his top cast in a proper scale and cutting dialogue down to phrases and brief exchanges. Most of Dunkirk is told in pictures, many of which are riveting. The gray, droning disorientation of days at this coastal place called Dunkirk in the north of France as the Germans push the British to the sea, leaving hundreds of thousands—hundreds of thousands—as sitting ducks waiting to be shot, bombed or rescued. The aerial view of the coast, the tilting views of Spitfires and Messerschmidts, the rolling waves of the English Channel as it erupts in crashes, sinkings, gunfire, torpedoes and the flames of hell on water.

Much of Dunkirk is also told in audio, too, with a Hans Zimmer score which is both too obvious and too much. The droning begins the movie, pegging the film to a ticking clock, and never lets up. Not that any of that is necessary, however, and it’s often distracting, diminishing and detracting from what little’s being said among characters.

But Mr. Nolan knows the stories he wants to show and, to his eternal credit, he wants to show the audience what happened at Dunkirk. This remains his focus, not importing modern ideas into the past, thank goodness, or pictorial fancies and flourishes that have nothing to do with the battle, the war and the civilization desperately at stake. And this—civilization—is very much the point of Dunkirk, again to Christopher Nolan‘s credit. His characters, composited from those hundreds of thousands and those who came to get them out and the nearly 70,000 killed by National Socialist Germans, fight. They fight to live—not to die and not out of duty to the state, the volk or the tribe.

This is an important distinction and essential part of why Dunkirk is emotionally moving; in its two most powerful scenes, Dunkirk affirms the values and ideals of Western civilization.

Christopher Nolan‘s war history movie does so in other scenes, too, such as his shots of a sunny countryside to accentuate that which they’ve fought to preserve and protect. One gets the sense that the writer and director knows on some level that this grand story about soldier and civilian alike uniting to save civilization from barbarians applies centrally to today’s jihadist siege against the West. This is unmistakable if you think, reason and judge and it is lurking nevertheless if you don’t. A combat pilot (Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road) feels for his comrade Collins (Jack Lowden) when he goes after the Germans, for instance, and, because he gets the best view and sense of what this disastrous battle means, he alone knows the widest perspective; he sees the lines of British soldiers on the beaches and he sees the civilian boats racing to the rescue. It’s both wrenching and haunting and he knows what must be done.

“Dead, mate”, “home”, “for the French” are a sample of the sparse words used to punctuate the blistering, whistling battle in action, further underscoring that the Brits act to live, not to serve a fuhrer, and Dunkirk evokes Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan for its capture of the combat. One of the flaws, though, in this otherwise tightly drawn and focused war movie, is its failure to depict what the soldiers say. Half the dialogue, especially in battle scenes, is lost. Sensory immersion is a tradeoff. Subtitles might have helped, not that I’m proposing this as a serious solution, or toning down the self-important score, though I suspect there’s a deeper problem with Dunkirk: it’s hard to follow.

This is a common Christopher Nolan problem and it’s not the same as saying it’s too difficult, deep or abstract (Dunkirk is none of those in excess). Titles lack exposition; the audience that knows the history of this major turning point of world history will feel underserved and still want to know more. Those that do not know Dunkirk’s history—almost anyone born after history teachers replaced facts with agendas—are likely to be like, meh, whatevs (confirmed by the chat between smug Millennials overheard after the movie). Dunkirk‘s expository history feels tacked on. Dunkirk’s geography and significance (that Dunkirk led to Churchill’s great line to “Never surrender” is as parenthetical as this is) are too abbreviated.

Those waiting to go home, and those coming for them, keep eyes on the skies in what is primarily a visual motion picture and Dunkirk in this sense is balanced, integrated and framed perfectly for its revolving stories of individual men. Christopher Nolan lets Dunkirk’s men at war go completely to war—there are no opposite sex love stories, for instance—and this is a pointed and proper writing and directing choice because it never lets the audience forget that this is what happened in those days and moments. So, too, is Mr. Nolan’s decision to not show every gash, limb and drop of blood, none of which is needed to dramatize the horror of war. Without leading ladies, gore and, not incidentally, Nazis portrayed as characters—hardly a Nazi appears on screen—Dunkirk leaves its audience as stranded as the soldiers, civilians and pilots fighting to turn an epic loss into a reason to rally for man.

Whatever it’s missing, and it’s missing a lot, this is chiefly what Dunkirk does.

 

Book Review: Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty

Writing as “a historian who has devoted four decades to the study of Virginia” and an author striving to “do his best”, Richmond, Virginia scholar Jon Kukla—who has directed research and publishing at the Library of Virginia, authored history books and run Virginia’s Red Hill/Patrick Henry National Memorial—accounts for the one major American Revolutionary who “never held national office” in his biography Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty (published today by Simon & Schuster).

Presuming an audience with serious interest in the Virginia lawyer, planter and American radical who defiantly proclaimed “Give me liberty, or give me death!”, Kukla immerses the reader in a dense, detailed and exhaustively factual biography. Neither exactly a straight chronological narrative nor a predominantly political philosophical reckoning, Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty instead goes for completeness in providing the central facts of Patrick Henry’s career as an orator, thinker and founder of the American republic.

Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty is impressive. Do not, however, expect or look forward to a portrait of the whole man. Kukla emphasizes essential points of Patrick Henry’s remarkable life, career and achievements—most impressively, offering deeper or newer details on Henry’s thoughts, ideas and writings—and does not get into the personal life, such as children and marriage. Patches of Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty are dull, dry and laboriously overdone with non-essential facts, names and information. But if history, and, in particular, great mythical tales of American history, entices your intellect, most of the reading is page-turning.

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History earns my most intense​ readership and Jon Kukla’s meticulously researched volume, with over 100 pages of notes, acknowledgements and preface, brings newly disclosed documents and insights to this patriot’s role in the radical, grass-roots movement to break free from British statism, declare independence and create an American republic.

“[Patrick] Henry was of medium build and average height, with deep-set but piercing steel-blue eyes, a dark complexion, and strong features,” Kukla writes. “His face was described not as handsome but as ‘agreeable and full of intelligence and interest.” Henry once sported a bright red cape when elected to public office. Indeed, he became known for rampant individualism, which may explain why he does not typically get his historical due as an influential Founding Father. Absorbing and continuing threads include Patrick Henry’s abiding friendship with George Washington—Virginia’s first governor and America’s first president—despite the pair’s principled dispute over the Constitution.

Young Patrick Henry and his brothers had grown up hunting, fishing and exploring the countryside, Kukla notes, and his philosophy apparently formed relatively early in life. Virginian Henry, indulging himself in nature, studied and guided himself in contemplating books, arts and Western ideas. “After breaking his collarbone at the age of twelve,” the author writes, “Henry during his convalescence taught himself to play the flute, though only for his private enjoyment. He was also an excellent performer on the violin.” Henry, like Thomas Jefferson, “spent hours ‘lying with his back upon a bed’ reading Laurence Sterne’s popular and risque comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote or Daniel Defoe’s Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.” Friends described Patrick Henry’s disposition as “benevolent, humane, mild, quiet, and thoughtful.”

As an adult, Patrick Henry did own slaves even as he denounced slavery, which he believed was detrimental to everyone, causing white workers to “despise honest physical labor”, and Kukla seeds the volume with a running and carefully integrated account of slavery. He does so as it relates to his subject. So, the reader is more likely to come away with an objective grasp of why early advocates for slavery’s abolition, such as Patrick Henry, failed to follow through. Among complicating factors are Haiti’s violent slave rebellion, which set the cause of abolitionism back, an inter-colonial slave trade and, not insignificantly, the looming War for Independence, which appears to have all but derailed serious consideration for abolition.

Patrick Henry emerges as a compelling man of principle. Henry taught himself the law, seeking guidance from an attorney whom he considered honest, who “won [Patrick Henry’s] admiration for his strict refusal to defend clients he thought were wrong.” Soon, Henry built a profitable legal practice, increasing his caseload from 176 in 1760 to 493 in 1763, according to Patrick Henry’s ledgers.

Yet his ability to make money was inextricably tied to the issue of the British government’s control of nearly every aspect of colonial lives and Henry’s lifelong pursuit of happiness fuels his activism for creating a society based on individual rights. When the British crown rejected the Two-Penny Act of 1758, which Henry considered a perfectly logical law, Henry echoed political philosopher John Locke, denouncing the British king’s disallowance by noting that a king who fails to protect his people “forfeits all right to his subjects’ obedience.” After accounting for Henry’s formative three weeks in Williamsburg, where he witnessed Virginia’s first opposition, both public and private, to the government’s imposition of stamp duties on the colonies firsthand, Kukla takes on the facts and details of the Stamp Act of 1765, which, like ObamaCare, was concealed from the public and presented in the press as a fait accompli weeks after enactment, a tactic which would inform Patrick Henry’s later political methodology.

Henry’s blistering opposition to the Stamp Act forged his reputation as an American radical for liberty. In fact, Kukla reports that colonial newspapers reprinted versions of Patrick Henry’s Stamp Act resolutions during the summer of 1765, galvanizing resistance among the colonial population. The Massachusetts governor warned the British that Henry’s proposals were proving to be “an Alarm bell to the disaffected.”

And Henry, who celebrated Hugo Grotius and others as “illustrious writers” and benevolent spirits who “held up the torch of science to a benighted world,” took painstaking inventory of the toll each act of injustice took on himself and his fellow Virginians. Kukla writes that even Patrick Henry was shocked when the Stamp Act’s details came to light; Henry’s legal practice was subject to 40 government fees on every document, including wills, deeds, bills of sale, even college diplomas. The Stamp Act imposed taxes, too, on Virginia’s newspapers, almanacs, calendars, and pamphlets. A fellow attorney and Virginia burgess exclaimed: “Every kind of business transacted on paper is taxed!”

The Virginian fought the king’s tyranny with words, ideas—and oration. George Mason wrote that Henry was “the most powerful speaker I ever heard.” Mason attested that “[e]very word he says not only engages but commands the attention; and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them. But his eloquence is the smallest part of his merit. He is in my opinion the first man upon this continent, as well in abilities as public virtues.” Congressman Silas Deane gushed: “Patrick Henry is the compleatest Speaker I ever heard…but in a Letter I can give You no Idea of the Music of his voice, or the highwrought, yet Natural elegance of his stile.”

Patrick Henry’s oratorical style, like his savvy political, business and intellectual sense, was bred by thoughtful and methodical study of facts, context and analysis of what making a nation based on individual rights would necessitate, mean and entail. While visiting Philadelphia, Patrick Henry roamed bookstores, purchasing Thomas Leland’s edition of The Orations of Demosthenes on Occasions of Public Deliberation (London, 1763), one of many books about oratory Kukla writes that Henry used to improve his public speaking. The book bears Henry’s printed bookplate, signature, and his handwritten notation: Philadelphia 1774. But Kukla observes that Henry’s copy also contains a dog-eared corner of a page at this passage of particular interest to Virginia’s great orator: “When we take up arms against the Barbarian,” Demosthenes proclaimed about 354 BC, “we take them up for our country, for our lives, for our customs, for our liberty, and all such sacred rights.”

Henry “electrified the whole house”, Kukla writes, recapturing Henry’s legendary lines delivered on Tuesday, September 6, 1774, according to delegates’ notes of the congressional debates, that “The Distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.” Kukla adds that “Patrick Henry’s oratorical skills were impressive, of course, but the delegates placed greater weight on his ideas.” Years later, John Adams told Jefferson that, in that Congress of 1774, “there was not one member, except Patrick Henry, who appeared to me sensible of…the Pinnacle on which he stood, and had candour and courage enough to acknowledge it.”

With a chosen pen name Scipio—”a pseudonym honoring the Roman patriot and general praised by Cicero as an exemplary orator and leader”—Partick Henry railed against Britain’s “bloody massacre” at Boston, reminding the king that “the breath of a tyrant blasts and poisons every thing, changes blessings and plenty into curses and misery, great cities into gloomy solitudes, and their rich citizens into beggars and vagabonds.”

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Filling Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty with such stirring words, usually grounding the speeches, excerpts and moments in their proper context, Kukla lays Patrick Henry’s life and ascent bare, demonstrating that the brilliant agitator for an American revolution and nation based on man’s rights was often biting and brave. That he once “sneered” to appeasers: “Shall we try “humble supplication”? That he may have saved the Midwest from British rule during the American Revolution with a band of elite forces, battled malaria and wrote his will entirely in his own hand. That believer Patrick Henry had concerns about the growing influence of deism and was not strictly for separating religion and state. That President Washington twice considered appointing him to the Supreme Court and once to succeed James Monroe as ambassador to France. That he wrote that he “detests” paper money. That Henry had 17 children and nearly 80 slaves when he died of stomach cancer at the age of 63.

Or that the text of Patrick Henry’s 1765 resolutions against the Stamp Act were a starting point of the American Revolution.

But Kukla also recounts, sometimes too generally or, conversely, with too much detail, that Patrick Henry, who was also a military colonel in the Revolutionary War, was intensely interested in and had a decent understanding of military history and strategy. Col. Henry created Virginia’s navy and, Kukla notes: “By the end of the Revolution, the legacy of Patrick Henry’s navy comprised two major shipyards and a dozen smaller ones as well as scores of warships—brigs and brigantines, schooners and pilot boats, and cruisers and row galleys—all manned by seven hundred officers, sailors and marines.”

To this end, Henry was loved by his enlisted men, who at one point threatened to quit and refused to serve under any other commander. But what also comes through in Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty is that Patrick Henry was a deep and serious thinker, not merely a man of high ideals, inspiring speeches and decisive action, who was capable of life-affirming insight and introspection. For instance, Henry held that “[m]aturity grew not from “uninterrupted tranquility” but from hardships that “compel an exertion of mental power…Adversity toughens manhood—and the characteristic of the good or the great man is not that he has been exempted from the evils of life, but that he has surmounted them.”

Surmount them Patrick Henry apparently, did, too, as his wife Sarah, his “beloved companion”, “lost her reason” and showed signs of mental instability, dying in early 1775. Henry put his Scotchtown plantation up for sale in August of 1777. He sold it the following year for “eight times the purchase price, considerably advancing his fortune.”

Patrick Henry, whom Ayn Rand named a Midwestern university after in her epic novel of ideas, Atlas Shrugged, uttered his most famous line on March 20, 1775. Jon Kukla alludes to it in the title of his book’s Chapter 14: Liberty or Death: “When at last Henry took the floor, eyewitnesses describe him as starting “calmly,” as was his practice…Henry warned that his opinions were “very opposite to theirs.” …Henry wanted Virginians to face the whole truth, acknowledge the worst, and provide for it. Henry’s speech, as one distinguished historian observed, “transformed resistance into revolution.”

How exactly comes into sharp focus as Kukla recaptures Henry’s glorious American moment:

There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.” When Henry paused, murmurs of “Peace! Peace!” emanated from the pews where some of his timid colleagues sat, punctuating the dramatic moment and plodding one of history’s greatest orators toward the culmination of his most famous speech. “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace,” Henry answered. echoing the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, “but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field!” he exclaimed, affirming once again Virginia’s policy of steadfast unanimity with the other colonies. “Why stand we here idle?” “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” He paused again, lifted his eyes and hands toward heaven and prayed, “Forbid it, Almighty God!—I know not what course others may take, but as for me…give me liberty, or give me death!” Then as his voice echoed through the church and his audience watched in stunned silence, Henry raised an ivory letter opener as if it were a dagger and plunged it toward his chest in imitation of the Roman patriot Cato. The church fell silent. “Men looked beside themselves,” one listener recalled. Another listener, standing outside a window after failing to find a seat inside, felt overwhelmed by Henry’s oratory. “Let me be buried at this spot,” exclaimed Edward Carrington, the younger brother of a Charlotte County delegate.”

Kukla notes that the British redcoats moved to disarm colonists at Concord and Lexington three weeks later, in what Ralph Waldo Emerson termed the shot heard ’round the world, setting off the fireworks that sparked an American Revolution.

For his part, Patrick Henry, convinced that the Constitution would result in a consolidated government that, when it proved oppressive to Virginians, could not be altered, opposed ratifying the Constitution. He opposed We the People, which he held was presumptuous, insisting that We the states was the proper phrase. “The chief aim of government, he insisted, was neither the promotion of trade nor imperial visions of becoming “a great and powerful people” but the protection of personal liberties. “Liberty ought to be the direct end of your government.” But this does not mean that Henry was an advocate of states’ rights as that term is widely understood. He wrote that “the dissolution of the Union is most abhorrent to my mind. The first thing I have at heart is American liberty: the second thing is American union.”

Nearing conclusion, Kukla observes that Patrick Henry warned that “The Constitution squints toward monarchy” and that he cautioned that “Your president may easily become king,” asking: “What will then become of you and your rights?”

In the chapter Last Call, Kukla largely lets the great American hero Patrick Henry have the floor, recalling his words: “If I am asked what is to be done when a people feel themselves intolerably oppressed, my answer is ready—overturn the government. But … wait at least until some infringement is made upon your rights that cannot otherwise be redressed; for … you may bid adieu forever to representative government.”

Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty ​is an excellent and important biography of the patriot Patrick Henry—who inspired the American to rational action for individual rights in this land’s darkest hours—and wrote:

Reader! whoever thou art, remember this,

and in thy Sphere, practice Virtue thyself,

and encourage it in others.

P. HENRY

Movie Review: From Here to Eternity (1953)

From Here to Eternity (1953) taps America’s pre-World War 2 anxiety and mixes it with fatalism to produce a seminal movie about war, death and dying. The film, based on James Jones’ 1951 novel, depicts a nation mired in self-doubt.

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Embedding anti-heroism underneath anti-social and anti-war themes begins with a character named after a Confederate war general. Director Fred Zinnemann (Oklahoma!, High Noon) introduces Prewitt, indelibly played by Montgomery Clift (Red River), as he plays pool. Prewitt plays alone, however, and, lest the audience mistake his insolent individualism for a heroic trait, as it was in The Fountainhead, it becomes clear that here, in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1941, being a man of principles out for himself leads to nothing but trouble and worse.

“A man don’t go his own way, he’s nothing,” Prew, as he’s called by friends, says early in the black and white movie. Unlike Roark in The Fountainhead, Prew’s path to his own way seems doomed from the start. This is Pearl Harbor in 1941, after all. Army soldier Prew is the movie’s moral center.

On orders of his new captain (Philip Ober), who’s caught wind of Prew’s renowned boxing ability and wants him back in the boxing ring, Prew’s singled out for hazing. He still refuses to box, and with good reason. It’s Prew’s principled stand which contrasts civilized individualist with barbaric conformist and From Here to Eternity—which I recently saw through Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies’ Big Screen Classics series—makes this point over and over.

Watch what happens to Prew and his scrawny Army buddy, Maggio (Frank Sinatra, The Manchurian Candidate), who spend most of their time getting drunk and getting punished or cavorting with Honolulu’s quasi-prostitutes (Donna Reed, It’s a Wonderful Life). In an unforgettable role as a thug nicknamed Fatso, Ernest Borgnine makes a strong screen presence two years before he played a similar part in Bad Day at Black Rock and the rest of the cast, from supporting soldier types played by Jack Warden and Claude Akins to leading cast members such as Deborah Kerr (The King and I) and Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry, Separate Tables, Seven Days in May) as illicit lovers, also shine. All of them, except for Sinatra’s character, the weakest link, form a cohesive company.

In fast cuts, sharp lines and subtle hints, twists and clues, From Here to Eternity lazily leads up to the Japanese sneak attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and, briefly, its bleak and harrowing aftermath. As it does, with Lancaster and Kerr famously falling on the sands of Kuhio Beach, director Zinnemann plants the dark, cynical marks of postwar American insecurity in Donna Reed’s line about putting herself up for grabs: “I don’t like it, but I don’t mind it.” With drunken, violent outbursts and messy displays of repressed desire, From Here to Eternity manages to dramatize its theme that the good is not possible.

America is not exceptional; it’s as panicked, fake and afraid as everywhere else in the world, From Here to Eternity insists. The sound of bugles is always on guard in this compelling and watchable classic movie with its cast of movie stars—including Clift as the Fifties’ brooding, sensitive and tortured male, which made way for other mumbling, unsettled anti-heroes such as Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford—but, seriously, what good does being American do? Even Burt Lancaster’s imposing physical superiority is useless to protect anyone from Fatso, though his scene confronting Borgnine’s meaty beast in the bar is among the most intense showdowns in cinema.

“I play the bugle well,” mutters the principled individualist whose rogue, solo pool game—Prew takes one more shot after being told to stop—begins From Here to Eternity. That he adds that he’d played taps at Arlington Cemetery for the president on Armistice Day only underscores the fact that, now, he’s powerless. By the end of this bleak exercise in striking down the strong and defiant, he, too, will be reduced to playing another round of soulful taps. As Kerr’s bitter wife tussles with Lancaster’s diminished if determined sergeant, Army, company and paradise get lost.

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This is the real, moral theme of From Here to Eternity; that, no matter what you do—especially if you stand alone, in particular if you do so on principle—there exists something more powerful than yourself, to invoke a common bromide, and it controls you and could easily shoot you down. In 1953, From Here to Eternity, which won Oscar’s Best Picture, might have seemed new, bold and different with its realism and frank sexuality. But it plays like a prelude to America’s predominant self-doubt and its byproduct: hard and begrudging pragmatism pushing everyone to go AWOL, get drunk or get in line to get snuffed out.


TCM Big Screen Classics: From Here to Eternity showed on Sunday, December 11 and Wednesday, December 14 with pre-recorded commentary from Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz.

I saw the screening at Hollywood & Highland’s Chinese Theater complex. Sound, projection, theater and audience were perfect. The winner of eight Academy Awards® in 1953, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Sinatra) and Best Supporting Actress (Reed), was written by Daniel Taradash (Hawaii, Golden Boy, Picnic). The movie’s title, From Here to Eternity, is taken from a line from an 1892 Rudyard Kipling poem in which soldiers are damned “from here to eternity”.

TCM just announced its 2017 schedule to screen a slew of classic movies, so the wonderful and encouraging series, which is a unique opportunity to see the best movies as they were intended to be seen in movie theaters, will happily continue.

Movie Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

billy-lynn-movie-1Director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain) makes interesting movies and this one is no exception. I found it oddly moving, if hollow and flat. This is not Lee’s best picture.

Aside from the striking, new visual technology, he shows and tells the audience something important about today’s American soldier.

Opening with the sound of rapid fire, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk builds a tale within a tale around an appearance on Thanksgiving 2004 at a pro football game. Those appearing include the title character and his fellow Iraq War soldiers.

The Dallas, Texas-set film, made in cooperation with Communist China, follows the wandering unit in two places: Texas and Iraq. So it predictably includes digs at oil, money and hydraulic fracturing and a biting line at the expense of the facts and history of the Alamo. However, the sense of alienation that pervades all of Ang Lee’s films works with these unfortunate bits, adding to the emptiness and aimlessness of being a soldier in the non-war which Americans fight in Iraq, where they’re basically like targets that have been deployed to no end.

As one soldier in the movie puts it, they build schools for students without textbooks.

Flashbacks frame the plot and knowing in advance what will happen, in particular how it impacts blue-eyed Texan William “Billy” Lynn (Joe Alwyn), smuggles an emotional punch into Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. A flat script and agnostic theme trap the movie, which dramatizes in its mid-section the contrast between America’s lifelessness—through its vapid obsession with pro football, pseudo-patriotism and traditionalism—and the soldiers’ passion in battle.

For long stretches, nothing much happens onscreen, until you realize that this may be the movie’s point. The band of young men, perfectly cast ordinary youths who look, sound and talk like typical Americans enlisted in the Army, are forsaken by their countrymen. They are alternately emasculated and overromanticized. The band of men are left, as in Clint Eastwood’s Sully and American Sniper, to drop dead by a nation too busy obsessing about football, Beyonce and other mediocrities and spectacles (Trump drifts into one’s mind). It’s a fact that, for 15 years, the bravest men have been systematically slaughtered, maimed and deeply, horribly damaged by the aimless deployment by the U.S. government with not much success in terms of America’s defense. The vivid picture’s middle alone is worth seeing for the sake of thousands of U.S. veterans of an asinine, badly conceived and waged war in Iraq.

Like today’s vets, who are left to die, mistreated, neglected and forgotten in the horror chambers of government-run health care known as the VA, the men who Billy Lynn helps to lead are both admired under false pretenses and abandoned on passing whims. Billy Lynn doesn’t even get an Advil he’s asked for until near the end of the movie. But, boy, do they ride like show ponies in gussied up Hummers with an agent (Chris Tucker) trying to cash in on their bloody battle in Iraq.

With Vin Diesel (the Fast and Furious movies) as an Army leader, Kristen Stewart (Twilight, The Runaways) as Billy’s soulmate who happens to also be his sister, Garrett Hedlund (Troy, Unbroken) as his superior and Steve Martin (The Jerk, Housesitter) as a conservative businessman, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, based on Ben Fountain’s book, falls short of the high expectations of its 3D/high resolution pedigree. At its best, however, and with great clarity in the middle of the picture, it depicts how vacuous America’s let itself become and the long-lasting harm such nothingness does to men that might have become its greatest defenders.

As an aside, I think I may have sat next to a war veteran during the screening of this film in Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome. During the usher’s movie introduction, the stranger made a sharp, bitter remark to me about starting the movie on time. When I turned, I noticed that he was heavily bearded and much younger than his comment made him seem. I also noticed during the movie that he was quieted as the picture wore on, less anxious, and he slowly slipped lower and lower and lower into his seat, like an abused child feeling smaller and more vulnerable by what’s happening around him. He was rapt. He was all alone and in that short time and exchange it seemed to me that he was alone in more ways than one. This is why I have a hunch, and it is only a hunch, that at some point he may have enlisted in the Armed Forces to fight for America. Whatever its flaws, and apart from my mixed estimate of its value, I think Billy Lynn, which debuted on Veterans Day, is made to depict and drive home the willfully unknown American soldier. If we are ever to get through this civil division and bring an end to the war engulfing us, he ought to be known, recognized and properly honored. And I think he ought to feel like he’s ten feet tall.