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Movie Review: The 15:17 to Paris

The newest movie directed by Clint Eastwood, The 15:17 to Paris, is as plain and perfunctory as its title. Screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal oversimplifies the heroes’ decency, mixing in clashing motivations (possibly taken from the heroes’ book upon which this film is based). Mr. Eastwood’s minimalist filmmaking and decision to cast the three American heroes whose story unfolds here puts 15:17 to Paris in a striking contrast to today’s overproduced movies, such as Marvel’s mangled Black Panther, though both movies have conflicted themes in common.

Similarities end there. For starters, unlike Marvel’s movies and like the heroic story of 12 Strong, the extraordinary events depicted in 15:17 to Paris happened. Three Americans chose to act upon their own judgment, tackling an Islamic terrorist rampaging with an arsenal through a train, capturing, detaining and hogtying the jihadist, securing the train and medically treating wounded passengers. The three Americans saying “Let’s go” recalls Flight 93’s American passengers saying “Let’s roll” on 9/11. In this case, saving everyone on board. 15:17 to Paris depicts the Islamic terrorist attack, which is unfortunately never branded as an Islamic terrorist attack, and what made three friends since childhood in California the type of men to shut it down.

That Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and, especially, Spencer Stone, who portray themselves, went from forgotten middle school students to European hostel heroes tracks back within each individual to mutually shared confidence in being a boy with the world as his to master. This exuberant boyhood is cultivated by the boys themselves, who play war with toy guns, study combat with maps and certain gaming scenarios and think of themselves as worthy in themselves, not as means to the ends of others. Raised by single mothers, except for Anthony, a charismatic black kid whose home life goes unseen, these boys struggle from 2005 to 2015 in today’s government-dominated educational system, which ignores or neglects boys. When switched to a religious school, problems persist and deepen. But Alek and Spencer also meet Anthony, who becomes their playmate and, in a way, mentor. Anthony, the least anxious of the trio, is the one who challenges Spencer, who’s the center of The 15:17 to Paris, which intersperses flashes leading up to the jihadist siege.

Anthony’s candor is his armor, as anyone who watched his breathtaking accounts of the attack knows. The white boys enlist in America’s military, Spencer seeking meaning in life and Alek, whose mother says she talks to God, driven by legacy. By the time they trek across Europe, they’ve been three decent, productive boys who seek to acquire knowledge, trade and play to live meaningful, enjoyable lives. Whatever fleeting notions and hunches anyone voices, and 15:17 to Paris sends mixed signals, these three move toward action with a sense of purpose. They expend effort. They practice. They fail. But, always, these boys prepare for life as men.

For instance, during an alert at Lackland Air Force Base, Spencer goes rogue. But, in doing so, Spencer shows strength and preparedness. Called out by his instructor, he knows exactly why he chose to disobey orders (and he has a point). Alek, deployed in Afghanistan, becomes the reason his fellow soldiers must divert from plans, endangering the team. But Alek, later visiting Germany, honors an ancestor’s military service, demonstrating a commitment to think, re-think, act and become his best. In a smaller way, brandishing a selfie stick while being a tourist with Spencer, Anthony, too, learns from his mistakes. Each superficially bounces like a rolling stone toward the unseen, the unknown, like many young Americans. But each acts like he knows that he’s taking charge of his life and that he likes and knows that he’ll earn it.

This may be Mr. Eastwood’s point, and movies he directs, such as Sully, American Sniper and Jersey Boys, reflect the idea that Western man is good, decent and honorable. Clint Eastwood is too journalistic and pragmatic to fully dramatize this theme but his movies tend to be good, sometimes excellent.

With the actors portraying themselves coming off as more self-conscious than natural, The 15:17 to Paris is less a docudrama than a stone-faced re-creation. It’s too scripted, stiff and staged. Yet 15:17 to Paris reconstructs their lives and re-creates their goodness, making the climactic terrorist attack by the religious fundamentalist (Roy Corasani) more tense and dramatic. Every encounter in Europe, especially boarding the Paris-bound train when they help an old man, is benevolent. Whether speaking in the foreign language of the land they visit, flirting with young women or trading while traveling, no one is the Ugly American, to use that hackneyed term. The men, as I previously wrote, represent the heroic American — each a kind of handsome, upright cowboy.

Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris contrasts these innocent, cheerful, peaceful Westerners, unashamed of their Americanism and wearing symbols of Adidas, Yosemite and Los Angeles basketball, with the barbaric religious terrorist, whose eye is evil and whose face is blank. The muffled sound of the siege on the train to Paris follows ramblings about God, destiny and determinism and Spencer, who more than anyone saved the 15:17 to Paris, says a prayer. But a French statesman calls these three men what they are: Americans (also a Brit) who “fight for liberty”…to “save humanity itself”. As with his movie about Mandela in Africa, Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s underproduced new movie is probably too muddled and plain to convey its theme that the essence of being American means reverence for life — and that it’s usually the American who achieves peace and harmony and fights to preserve both.

Movie Review: Sully

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Depicting one man’s competence and confidence with psychological depth, director Clint Eastwood (Jersey Boys, American Sniper, Gran Torino, Invictus) made another little character masterpiece with Sully, starring Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley Sullenberger.

Mr. Hanks has never been better and neither has his co-star, Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight, Thank You for Smoking, Love Happens) as the commercial airline pilot’s loyal first officer. Their camaraderie in and out of the cockpit seals a bond in this simple, powerful movie about the January 15, 2009, US Airways water landing that became known as “the miracle on the Hudson”.

That the Hudson River touchdown, which spared all lives on board, is an act of rational man, not a miracle, stabilizes the newest film by Warner Bros. and Mr. Eastwood. The movie’s real conflict is also manmade—it’s a galling aftermath initiated by the U.S. government. Captain Sullenberger, known as “Sully”, faces an outrageous inquisition in the hours that follow the harrowing, historic aviation disaster.

“Clear for takeoff” in voiceover is how the movie begins and the visceral, shocking story is depicted without gratuitousness, trivialization or triumphalism, all of which could be deadly to this delicate undertaking, which, at its core, is a badly needed shot of post-9/11 heroism.

The Islamic terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, hangs over New York City throughout the movie. The sight of a plunging, screaming commercial jet about to crash in New York City after 9/11 was not unprecedented—look up the mysterious and forgotten Nov. 12, 2001, American Airlines flight 587 crash in Queens—and Sully’s skillful actions briefly but solidly united the fracturing nation, which had tumbled in an economic collapse and elected a new president.

That context figures deftly into Sully, which folds the fundamental change including economic hardship into its leading character. But what’s distinctive about Sully—based on the airline captain’s own memoir—is its capacity to show that man at his best is both rational and whole.

By this I mean that, as usual in Clint Eastwood‘s recent pictures, the hero is a work in progress, neither one with feet of clay nor one with abs of steel and this is a key part of Sully‘s point, as the audience discovers in a quietly climactic scene. The culmination comes after a steady, solid buildup in the 95-minute movie, which does contain disturbing images which may be too harsh for some viewers. I think those scenes, which cannot be discussed without spoiling the plot, are utterly merited. They’re integral, especially given Sully‘s point that to be heroic is human. These scenes are part of a progression in one introverted man’s introspection as he tries to navigate the new American cultural landscape of celebrity, if not necessarily hero, worship, a downward economic trajectory and the fetishization of fame.

Famous and accomplished Tom Hanks (Bridge of Spies, Philadelphia, Apollo 13, Larry Crowne, The Da Vinci Code, Toy Story 3) portrays Chesley Sullenberger with poise and command. The role requires that he show a man in full, to paraphrase Tom Wolfe, who goes from a haunted self-examination in a steamy mirror, self-doubt and fear of being found out as a fraud to supreme confidence in his knowledge of reality and his own judgment. He’s a detective on his own case, putting New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his proper place and stressing to Katie Couric the fact of his “whole life”, as against merely this particular part of his life, until he integrates the facts of his extraordinary, slow-handed, guided mastery in the cockpit of an Airbus crippled by a flock of birds.

This transformation occurs between the spine-chilling voices of stewardesses commanding passengers in unison like a chant or a prayer as the plane goes down and the familiarly soothing voice of NBC’s Brian Williams reporting on the incident. All of this is depicted in steps out of sequence while in order of Captain Sullenberger’s coming-to in a mind-numbing time in his life. Yet Mr. Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki never let the audience forget that it happens while this man is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder with not a single human from the airline or government offering to help. That no one takes care of strong, heroic men—including Eckhart’s character and a devastated air traffic controller—is an unmistakable aspect of this unforgettable film.

As he was in Spotlight and Stephen King’s The Stand, actor Jamey Sheridan as what amounts to the main villain, an evasive government bureaucrat that won’t look Sully in the eye when it counts, delivers a slippery contrast to the hero. Laura Linney (Mr. Holmes, Kinsey, Frasier) as the wife at home fits the role that drives Sully‘s subtext that the hero in today’s world is cast out by dominant forces on his own. The rest of the actors are fine, too, with Molly Hagan (Shootdown, The Lucky Ones, Some Kind of Wonderful) especially good as stewardess Doreen and Anna Gunn (TV’s Portlandia, Breaking Bad) shining as a government worker with a conscience.

Like next week’s opener, Oliver Stone’s Snowden, Clint Eastwood’s Sully focuses on the much-maligned lone, true life white male as a hero in Obama’s America; a sensitive, intelligent individual of ability breaking rules to trust instead his own judgment even when it means going against the state, in particular the Obama administration.

Sully fills out Sully’s cinematic, arresting story with multiple heroes—New York City policemen who follow baseball, rescue divers and the sure-handed captain of a boat named after Thomas Jefferson—including the sterling flight 1549 crew of Eckhart’s Jeff Skiles and a band of heroic stewardesses and it welds the cold, hard facts of Sully’s story to the unspoken pain over unavenged mass murder on 9/11 with an image of a jet screaming across Manhattan’s skies.

“A pilot never stops acquiring knowledge,” Sully’s father tells the boy in a flashback with a biplane in a piece of advice that the youth carries into a fighter jet. The power of this top virtue, rationality, leads the wounded, self-searching Chesley Sullenberger—with his partner at his side—to recover the power of his productiveness and pride. In letting Sully be seen this way on screen, thanks to Tom Hanks, in his most challenging role since Philadelphia, Mr. Eastwood puts a 21st century hero in a clarifying and rational context.

Remembering Patty Duke

In the beginning of the 1960s, a child actress took the stage, screen and television ratings with remarkable creative and commercial success. Her name was Patty Duke. Sadly, the Academy Award-winning actress, pop singer and TV star of her own show died this week, apparently of sepsis. She was 69.

Courtesy of UPI

Patty Duke as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker/Courtesy of UPI

The life she lived before her unforgettable and groundbreaking performance as Helen Keller in the stage and film versions of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker was one of turbulence, alcoholism, depression, sexual assault and despair, a stream of child abuse which was a secret until the 1980s. The life she lived after her initial popularity and success carried a high price, too.

I think I first saw Patty Duke on a television game show. It was a 1970s CBS afternoon series titled Tattletales, a forerunner to today’s sordid and self-contradictory reality TV genre (in which nothing, in fact, is as it seems) and she would appear with other so-called celebrity couples with her then-husband, actor John Astin (The Addams Family). In retrospect, it was a flawed premise—it was maudlin—which was often uncomfortable and there is a sense in which Patty Duke, who was born as Anna Marie Duke and constantly struggled with her identity and self-esteem, became somewhat of an early reality TV star.

In fact, in a relevant prelude, Patty Duke had already been implicated in a TV scandal. She had admitted that, as a child star, she’d been given the answers in advance on a popular quiz show when quiz shows were the dominant non-fictional television genre. The genre never recovered from the scandal. But the quiz show scandal became a lesson in America’s cultural history from which Americans, many of whom currently keep up with TV sluts, nudes and bachelors and raise and pound fists at rallies for a TV fascist presidential candidate, have not learned.

Damage became part of Patty Duke’s brand as an actress and celebrity. From portraying Helen Keller in 1962 to playing a part based on Judy Garland in the 1967 adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls (as doomed stage and movie star Neely O’Hara), with hit songs and her own hit sitcom—she was the youngest person to get her own show—in between, Patty Duke’s talent and success aligned with the turbulent times. What happened before and between playing larger than life opposites Keller and O’Hara was happening in the culture, too; from her portrayal of an American heroine in what Ayn Rand called her favorite epistemological play to starring as a hedonistic star, Patty Duke’s career matched America’s descent into the gutter. Her personal life was marred by semi-public instances of an extramarital affair, unwed pregnancy, addiction and suicide.

Patty Duke as Annie Sullivan in 1979.

Patty Duke as Annie Sullivan in 1979.

That Patty Duke endured is an integral part of her heroism. The daughter of a manic depressive mother and an alcoholic father who was taken in by a couple who managed and, by her account, robbed and abused her triumphed over the era’s terrible secrets to continue to work and shine in an exceptional life. Patty Duke went on to write her memoirs (Call Me Anna), play the first woman president (Hail to the Chief), portray Martha Washington, and, memorably and powerfully, as Helen Keller’s teacher Annie Sullivan in an excellent TV version of The Miracle Worker with Melissa Gilbert as Helen Keller. She had three sons and eventually fell in love with Michael Pearce, a sergeant she met while playing a woman in the military, marrying him and moving to an Idaho ranch.

Her son, Sean Astin, a fine actor himself, wrote this week that “Anna ‘Patty Duke’ Pearce passed away this morning March 29, 2016 at 1:20 a.m…She was a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a friend, a mental health advocate and a cultural icon. She will be missed.”

For being an individual of ability and mastering her own damaged life—for choosing to take personal responsibility instead of hiding in fear, shame and repression—I know that I will miss Patty Duke, whom I had hoped to interview. Describing the petite actress as “fragile, tender and pained” when she auditioned for the role of Helen Keller, Arthur Penn, who directed Patty Duke both on stage and screen in The Miracle Worker, added that what distinguished Patty Duke was her “spark of liveliness.” What distinguishes her now, besides her talent, is that she chose to reignite it, protect it and never let it go out. May Anna rest in peace.

Movie Review: Steve Jobs

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Another contender for best movie in this year of fine movies is Universal’s version of Walter Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs. As a dramatic portrait of the creator who radically changed the world, it is magnificent. At last, writer Aaron Sorkin’s (Moneyball, The West Wing, The Social Network) breathless dialogue style is filtered and tethered by director Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire), or by Sorkin. The outcome is a poetic depiction of a true American fountainhead. (Read my thoughts on Steve Jobs and my thoughts on Apple).

With an electronic score to match the time frame, which runs from the mid-1980s to the final months of the 20th century, Steve Jobs moves in talking pictures, marking the creative life of a genius in three acts of grand halls filled with crowds, featuring singularly distinctive machines made possible by Apple, the Silicon Valley, California company Steve Jobs founded with Steve Wozniak—arguably the world’s greatest, richest company—and the people in Jobs’s life.

A brilliantly visionary producer talking with people about making products starts the movie. The opening scene displays his insistence upon perfection in a new product, the Mac, at Apple’s Flint Center introduction of the Macintosh personal computer following the revolutionary Super Bowl advertisement based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The film’s conflict pits Steve Jobs against the world. But it also purports to put Steve Jobs against the audience because it is apparent that the audience is supposed to detest, rather than try to understand, what Jobs says and does. In fact, modern society pushes the audience away from what Jobs wanted, sought and achieved: perfection in integrating form and function in each aspect of life through fostering man’s autonomy. Apple’s ethos is individualism.

Steve Jobs is the individualist.

However, Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs wants, gets and trades more, as Apple does, with a measured achievement in addition to perfection in one’s work—a meaningful, happy life as one’s proper purpose. The ethics of egoism is embedded here if you know how to look for it, though I don’t know if today’s audiences will expend the effort. The tale this simple and magical movie shows and tells, and it’s extremely verbal though not in that irritatingly smug Sorkin tone, is an elegantly rendered tale of a life lived large yet always in the moment. Michael Fassbender’s Steve Jobs is sharp and arrogant, not flip and smug, and he strives to be balanced and whole.

“Artists lead,” Jobs tells a colleague with whom he’s at odds, and one of the things I like about this movie is how skillfully it dramatizes that the greatest minds are usually in conflict with the whole world, “hacks ask for a show of hands.”

Jobs is not a martyr, as depicted here, and it’s worth noting that this is based on a book by the author chosen by Jobs after he read the writer’s biography of Albert Einstein. Jobs is not portrayed as tortured or monstrous. In dealings with people in his company and life—Apple CEO and mentor John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, The Martian), confidante Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, Little Children), an ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston)—he is, like Walt Disney, driven, difficult and daring. Steve Jobs covers the essentials, in thinly drawn, clean and meaningful lines, winks, nods and links to the logo, the machines, the designs, and how Jobs lived; how he ate, listened, relaxed, celebrated, controlled and conducted—mostly, how he thought.

This is not a documentary of Jobs’s business history. There’s no Cube, eWorld or Pixar. Instead, it portrays life in certain, selective products and those moments which align with the launch of those products. So, the impending failure of NeXT at an opera house is placed in its proper context in the second act as lead-in to the iMac in the third and final act at Symphony Hall. Mac fans, Apple employees and evangelists and the press are never far from view, as is Lisa, his daughter, who represents the evidence of progression for a rebel who was adopted, defied laws and rules and dropped out of college. “It would be criminal not to enjoy this moment,” says a character who becomes a friend.

This is the theme of Steve Jobs.

His technology, accounted for and credited to proper sources, including the Apple II, exists merely to serve the moment, not the other way around. Think different, a screen with Apple’s motto says, in one of at least two crucial, dissolving transitions. Steve Jobs does, honoring truth even when it’s inappropriate, improper or hurtful. Among those affected include Wozniak (Seth Rogen, The Guilt Trip), who is as right as Jobs in a climactic encounter, Sculley and a longtime Apple principal (Michael Stuhlbarg) who demonstrates that those who most deserve to get close to the man of the mind are often driven the farthest away.

As Jobs, Fassbender (12 Years a Slave), who looks more like Sting from The Police than Steve Jobs, is as intense and engaging as ever. The actresses playing Lisa also shine and so do others in the cast, with Winslet getting the laugh lines. The audience is likely to be split, not between Mac faithful and those with contempt for Apple, but between those who revere both the perfect union of controlling one’s own life and work and the requisite for achieving it—absolute freedom—and those who seek to manage life and work or have it managed and controlled by others.

Steve Jobs is a passionate movie and not in a Hollywood way. The passion here comes from the art of thinking, the contemplation, the stretching, the using and the experimenting. Technology is not depicted as an end in itself to Steve Jobs—it is not his religion—it is a means of activating his best within and doing it here on earth. With inspiration from singer-songwriters, taking the audience and Jobs from imagination to full awareness of reality, the two-hour Steve Jobs—a rare Hollywood hymn to one Ayn Rand called the most persecuted minority, the individual, specifically the individual who creates to make money—zips by like childhood.

Like the life of Steve Jobs, it ends too soon and with genuine wonder at the world. (Go here to buy the DVD and here to buy the Blu-Ray edition).


Related posts

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011 (2011)

Why I Like Apple’s Logo (2011)

Taylor Swift’s Activism for Apple (2015)

The Great American Hero

Courtesy Reuters

Courtesy Reuters

Fourteen years ago on September 11, before the United States entered its longest war, before George W. Bush squandered an opportunity to rally Americans around a moral defense of the nation based on individual rights and Americans instead elected and re-elected Barack Obama and chose to sacrifice liberty for faith in government control predicated on a false sense of national security, one of the passengers on a plane hijacked by Islamic terrorists on 9/11 called an end to plans for self-defense and said: “Let’s roll.”

What the phrase means, then and now, is an Americanism: it’s a combination of the moral commitment to a united act of self-defense imbued with “can-do” optimism. That the men on United Flight 93 who acted on this call to action were the only Americans to succeed in self-defense on that black Tuesday, and that they were civilians as against the government and military personnel whose proper role is to defend the nation, should have made an enormous impact on the American public in terms of discerning military defense as the highest and most proper role of government.

It didn’t. Instead, most Americans chose to have faith in the state and support the omnipotent state, though some, such as Edward Snowden, choose to question the role of government. There are others, including activists, intellectuals and freethinkers across the political spectrum, who fight to varying degrees for individual rights. Last week, the world witnessed in one brave act of self-defense against another Islamic terrorist attack, the return of the American hero.

His name is Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos (pictured here from left to right). There are others, including an American whose struggle against the Moslem terrorist alerted the three young American heroes, and a British businessman. But it was these three who took the religious barbarian, who came charging down an aisle on a train bound for Paris intent on mass murder, down. They hogtied the Islamic radical, who had watched a YouTube video calling for jihad before boarding the train, according to officials in France. What prompted the men—three friends from suburban California—to act was when one of them, upon hearing gunfire, said: “Let’s go.” They charged toward the jihadist and took him down.

The story of this great American act of heroism reminds me of the heroic passengers on United 93. Their call to roll, as historian John David Lewis said while evoking phrases such as “Remember the Alamo!” in my 2011 interview, should have but never caught on. Even more obscure is the fact that, according to reporter Jere Longman, after United 93’s passengers broke into the cockpit and stood facing the enemy, in what may be the last recorded words of the final flight used in the worst attack against America, one lone passenger called out: “Let’s get them!” Then, there was a union of self-defense against the siege and the plane went down.

Last Friday, thanks to an act of self-interest, it was the siege that went down. In the American history of men fighting for life against a barbaric siege, the Alamo’s Davy Crockett once advised: “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” These three Americans, Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos, heading for Paris, acted on the call to go by reason. Come this year’s 9/11, instead of the meaningless, usual displays of grief, weakness and submission to faith, despair and statism, Americans ought to think of the American hero—Davy Crockett, United 93’s passengers, and the Paris-bound train’s defenders—and pledge to go by reason, get the enemy before it’s too late and roll over any and every threat to our lives and freedom.