Foxcatcher (2014), directed by Bennett Miller

foxcatcher posterInherited wealth can be good or bad. If it enables a person to do many good deeds that are beneficial to society, that is great. But if it isolates the possessor of such wealth and makes him immune to the intrusions of society, if it allows and encourages him to live in his bubble divorced from everyday realities, then it can very bad.

I have an acquaintance who is independently wealthy. He did not earn any of his wealth. His parents support him and his family totally. They bought his home for him and he does not work. He spends his day planning to begin an Internet business and he has been planning to do this for the past five years, all the years I have known him. I occasionally wonder what motivates him to get up every day.

The sinister side of possessing lots of money is depicted in Foxcatcher, the dark and brooding story about John E. du Pont, heir to the du Pont family fortune, who decides to sponsor Mark Schultz, an Olympic wresting champion for an appearance at the Seoul Olympics.

Mark and his older brother Dave were both gold medal winners, but Dave is married with kids and he has no plans to participate in the upcoming Olympics in Seoul. Mark, however, is single and, outside of wrestling, has little other interests. He is contacted by John E. du Pont, a well-known philanthropist and wresting aficionado, who would like Mark to train at his private wresting training facility, Foxcatcher Farm, built on the du Pont estate in a suburb of western Philadelphia. Mark moves there and a friendship of sorts develops between him and du Pont. Strangely, du Pont introduces Mark to the use of cocaine, downplaying its negative effects.

Another oddity. When Du Pont tells Mark that he regards him as a true friend, he tells him he can call him by his familiar name: “My friends call me Eagle. Or Golden Eagle. Either of those would work.” Clearly, du Pont has grandiose visions of himself, unlike Mark who is a humble, unprepossessing figure.

When Mark and his teammates take a morning off, du Pont is incensed and he verbally assaults Mark, devastating him emotionally. Du Pont then calls Dave Schultz , a proven winner and effective coach, and convinces him to join the team at Foxcatcher. Upon his arrival, Dave sees that his brother has lost his self-esteem, is emotionally distressed, and is out of shape. In spite of Mark’s lack of conditioning, Dave works with him to win a match that secures a berth on the Olympic team. However, in Seoul he loses his matches.

Mark ultimately leaves Foxcatcher, but Dave stays on as du Pont’s assistant coach working with new wrestling talent. Du Pont is jealous of Dave’s natural rapport with the new recruits and is unsettled by Dave’s independence. Du Pont’s isolation eventually leads him to behaviors that are not mollified by interactions with the real world. Du Pont is a loner and that ultimately leads to a tragic denouement.

The Ethics of the Fathers states that jealousy and the desire for fame drive a man out of the world. Moreover, the Sages tell us not to separate ourselves from the community. John du Pont fails to understand these basic truths. Lacking self-esteem, he lords over others, always desirous of demonstrating his superiority. In truth, others resent him, finding him out of touch with the real world and focused only on creating an image of himself as a leader of men. Indeed, no one regards him as a leader. They simply follow his wishes because he pays their salaries.

Furthermore, his inability to connect with the community-at-large in a genuinely friendly way isolates him. He has no companions to whom he can relate honestly; therefore, he essentially only converses with himself. Foxcatcher is a grim film expressing the perils of seeking fame and leading a lonely life. Much can be learned from John du Pont’s bad example.

Rudderless (2014), directed by William H. Macy

rudderless posterBeing a father is complicated. I sometimes wonder when I look at my kids to what extent I was a good parent, to what extent am I responsible for who they are today. There are no easy answers. I am sure I was influential; but at the end of the day, my kids, like all kids, have free will and they make their own choices. I cannot control them. I can only give them a perspective from which to view life. I cannot determine their future actions.

This topic is at the heart of Rudderless, a thoughtful film about parent-child relationships and the extent to which parents influence and are responsible for their children’s life choices.

The film begins innocently as Josh Manning is recording his own songs on his computer in his college dorm room. His father Sam calls him after closing a big deal at his advertising firm and wants to celebrate with him, even encouraging him to cut class to meet him. Josh acquiesces. As Sam waits for his son Josh at a restaurant, he sees scenes of a campus shooting in which six students are killed. The next scene reveals a memorial wake in Josh’s home in which friends try to console both Sam and Emily, Josh’s divorced parents, over the loss of their son.

Sam is inconsolable. He is unable to continue at work and succumbs to alcoholism. The story continues two years later with Sam living on a sailboat and working as a contractor’s assistant painting houses. When he meets his ex-wife to sign papers allowing her to sell their former home, she leaves him a stack of things that belonged to Josh. At first, he is reluctant to take them since there is no storage room on boat. However, he notices some notebooks and CDs that pique his curiosity and he begins pouring over the material. He discovers songs, words and lyrics, written by Josh. The melodies and words give him a new insight into his son, and Sam teaches himself his son’s songs. Sam even performs one of them at a local “open mic” venue, which catches the attention of Quentin, a young musician who is inspired by the emotional power of the songs. Thus begins a relationship between Sam and Quentin, which morphs into the creation of Rudderless, a band that features the songs of Josh Manning.

Both Sam and Quentin are evasive about their past and this eventually strains their relationship. In one sense, Quentin becomes a surrogate son to Sam, who sincerely wants to connect with Quentin both musically and emotionally. Quentin becomes the son that Sam no longer has, and Sam wants to help him.

The story then takes a sharp unexpected turn, which compels the viewer to reevaluate everything that has gone before, and I do not want to reveal such a critical plot turnaround. Suffice it to say that the relationship between Quentin and Sam undergoes a crisis, compelling Sam to rethink his performance of his son’s music and his involvement with the band, which is growing in popularity each day.

A key issue considered in the narrative is to what extent we are responsible for our children’s actions, especially when those actions are very bad. Jewish tradition is instructive in this regard. When a Jewish boy reaches the age of thirteen, he has a Bar Mitzvah, a ceremony that marks the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. At this celebration, the father utters a declaration known as baruch sheptarani, which in English means “Blessed is the One who has relieved me from the punishment due to this one.” The Sages tell us that a father has the obligation to educate his son from birth until the age of thirteen. Once he reaches that age, the father is not required to educate his son. The implication is that until that age, parents can influence their child. However, after that age the child becomes more independent and less receptive to the correction of the parent. Indeed, the parent can still coach and guide, but it is more difficult to teach a child in a direct way.

The implicit message of the blessing’s recital is that parents should spend lots of time with one’s children teaching and guiding them before they reach their teenage years. Once those years arrive, parents have less influence, so they need to build up a bank account of love and respect with their children. This will make it more likely for their children to follow parental suggestions. Rudderless reminds us that we are not in control of our older children; therefore, we need to be very involved with them in their early years in order to be influential in the rest of their lives.

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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), directed by Stanley Kubrick

two thousand one posterI first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. It was a landmark movie for me. Until then, I viewed movies primarily as entertainments that occasionally had a worthwhile message. 2001 was an intellectual, mind-expanding experience. I left the theatre fascinated and wondering what it was all about. The controversy over the film mushroomed over the years. Originally opening to mixed reviews, it became a cult favorite and thousands of people have written about it. I have my own view of the meaning of the film, which I will share with you; but in no way is my understanding of the film definitive. It just represents my thinking after viewing the film three times over the course of close to fifty years.

The movie is divided into three parts. Part One entitled “The Dawn of Man” depicts a serene African landscape populated mostly by apes who argue over rights to a waterhole. In the midst of their contention, a black rectangular monolith mysteriously emerges from the ground, and the apes view it with wonder. The next day one ape learns how to use a bone of a dead animal as a weapon, and he uses it to claim control over the waterhole. The sequence ends with the ape throwing the bone into the air and the bone morphing into a spaceship, which introduces the viewer to the second part of the film.

In this second part, we are introduced to Dr. Heywood Floyd, a scientist bound for Clavius, an outpost on the moon. Ostensibly traveling there to determine if there is an epidemic on the outpost, there is a veil of secrecy over the mission, suggesting another purpose for Dr. Floyd’s trip. Once on Clavius, Floyd and his team discover the same rectangular monolith that appeared before the apes in the previous sequence. The monolith seems to have emerged from the ground and been in existence for millions of years.

The third part of the film takes place eighteen months later as an American spaceship journeys to the planet Jupiter. Commanding the ship are mission pilots and scientists Drs. David Bowman and Frank Poole. Traveling with them are three other scientists in cryogenic hibernation, and the ship’s computer Hal 9000, who controls most of the ship’s operations. As they fly towards their destination, they discover that Hal is making errors and they struggle to determine the source of these apparent malfunctions.

They conclude that Hal is sabotaging the voyage and they attempt to deactivate him, which leads to a series of dire complications. In the process of disconnecting Hal, Bowman learns about the real purpose of the mission: to discover the origin and purpose of the monolith on the moon.

Bowman’s ship is then brought into a vortex of colored lights and designs, suggesting his transportation to an unknown location. When he arrives there, we find him in a tastefully furnished apartment in which he sees himself as an older man, and then as a dying man. As a man about to expire with his last breath, he sees the monolith at the end of his bed. He is then transformed to an embryo floating through space, which is the closing image of the film.

My summary of 2001 reflects the intellectual ambiguities embedded in the narrative. It is evident that the unexplained existence of the monolith is the image that unites the three sections of the film. In simple terms, the film glorifies science and technology, which enable the apes to become intelligent men and to harness technology in the service of man. The monolith, however, suggests the limitations of science. There are simply some things that cannot be known or understood.

Rabbi Nathan Cardozo does not talk about the monolith; but in a thought-provoking article on the intrinsic value of art, music, and natural beauty, he does comment on the limitations of science to explain the enigma of creation. He sees art as a vehicle to apprehend the unknowable, albeit in an intuitive way. He observes that science cannot give any insight into the mystery of existence, but natural beauty, the arts, and music can. He writes: “Real art does not reproduce the visible but rather reveals the invisible. Consequently, not even artists are able to explain the beauty that resides within their creations. In general, they cannot explain their art any more than a plant can explain horticulture. This failure of the rational mind to categorize and define puts man in direct confrontation with the ineffable, and warns him not to fall victim to the simplistic belief that science can give him any insight into the mystery of our existence.”

I do not think that 2001 has a religious agenda. However, hidden within the history of man from his origins as a half-man, half-ape, to a scientist probing the outer limits of the universe is the notion that man can never know the secrets of creation. The singular response to this cosmic mystery is to view the world with a sense of wonder. The closing image of the fetus in a sac observing the universe simultaneously reminds us of our limitations as human beings and of our ability to see the world anew each and every day just as a small child would view this amazing universe.

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A Most Violent Year (2014), directed by J.C. Chandor

most violent yearThere have been times in my life when I wanted to respond to a provocation, but I realized that any response of mine would not solve the problem. I thought of a passage in The Ethics of the Fathers that advised me to control my response: “Who is strong? He who controls his inclination.” That is the real definition of power, being in control of one’s own emotions. Moreover, the Sages tell us “He who increases his words increases sin.” The more you talk, the greater likelihood you will say things that you will regret. All these thoughts came into my mind as I watched A Most Violent Year, the story of Abel Morales, the owner of a New York heating oil company whose integrity and self-control are tested in the crucible of city-wide violence and corruption.

Abel Morales is under pressure. His oil trucks are being hijacked, causing him to lose thousands of dollars in heating oil revenue. His drivers are assaulted and intimidated by thugs working for unknown competitors. His wife Anna encourages him to fight violence with violence, but Abel refuses to do so. At this same time, he is being investigated by the local district attorney for price fixing, tax evasion, and other nefarious practices. Adding to the pressure is a deal he has been working on for years: buying a fuel oil terminal on the East River, which will enable him to import more oil from barges and to store oil in the summer when the cost of fuel is low. Abel gives a down payment of 40% on the property with an agreement that he must close the deal in 30 days. If he fails to meet the deadline, the seller will offer the property to Abel’s competitors and keep the down payment.

As the hijackings continue, a friend suggests that Abel’s drivers carry handguns and he will provide fake permits for the weapons. Abel rejects the suggestion, fearing that any illegalities by his company will jeopardize the bank financing for the fuel oil terminal. In spite of his desire to do things legally, events transpire that threaten his company’s existence and his purchase of the terminal. Moreover, his family is the target of hoodlums who want to ruin Abel’s business.

Watching Abel trying to save his company, buy the terminal, and protect his family at the same time is a study of man in control of his emotions, always keeping his eye on his end goal and understanding that the path to that goal may be circuitous and unpredictable. In explaining his approach to adversity, he observes: “You should know that I have always taken the path that is most right. The result is never in question for me. Just what path do you take to get there, and there is always one that is most right. And that is what this is.”

There is a specific moment that captures Abel’s studied approach to dealing with calamity. It happens in a dialogue between Abel and his wife, whom he loves. She acquires a gun to protect herself and her children, but does not have a permit for the gun. Abel tells her that possession of a gun without a permit can lead to her incarceration and separation from her children. He is appalled at her ignorance of consequences, yet he controls his temper in spite of his anger. His abiding love for her and his children keep him focused and prevents him from saying anything that will permanently damage their relationship.

A Most Violent Year is not the most violent gangster film. Instead, it depicts people operating outside the law who still want to demonstrate the accouterments of civility and good behavior. Controlling one’s emotions and one’s speech are alternate ways to demonstrate power, and at times they are more powerful than using a gun.

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The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), directed by Kevin Reynolds

count of mone cristo posterI had a recent conversation with a friend who told me about his mother’s six-year bout with cancer. He told me that once she had the cancer diagnosis, she led an incredibly productive life. Uncertain about the future, she lived each day to the max, accomplishing an entire range of worthwhile activities. Hearing the story reminded me that bad news or bad circumstances can be a spur to good outcomes. A lot depends on one’s perspective.

In The Count of Monte Cristo. Edmund Dantes, an unlearned sailor, is placed in prison unjustifiably for thirteen years. But it is in prison that he learns how to read and write, how to fight, and how to navigate the corridors of power. Were it not for his incarceration, his life would be blessed but unremarkable.

The story begins in 1815 when Edmond Dantès and his friend Fernand Mondego, travel to the isle of Elba to seek medical attention for their sick captain. Dantès and Mondego are chased by the British who assume that they are supporters of the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte, who is living on the island. Bonaparte comes to their rescue and gives them access to his physician. In return for his kindness, he asks Dantes to deliver a letter to a Monsieur Clarion in France, a request to which Dantes agrees.

The letter becomes the vehicle through which Dantes is betrayed by his friend Mondego, resulting in his being imprisoned and tortured in the Chateau d’If for thirteen years. While there, he surreptitiously meets another prisoner, Abbe Faria, a former priest and soldier in Napoleon’s army. Faria tutors him in literature, philosophy, economics, swordsmanship, and military strategy, eventually enabling him to blend into court society and plan an elaborate revenge.

At his death, Faria reveals the location of a vast treasure to Dantes. He encourages Dantes to use this newfound wealth for good things and not just for revenge. When Faria’s body is to be taken out of the prison for burial, Dantes creatively comes up with a clever ruse. He changes places with the corpse, which is wrapped up in a large sack and escapes from the prison. How he orchestrates his vengeance makes for a fascinating adventure, with a number of surprise plot twists along the way. The evolving perspective of Dantes shows a man bent on revenge but who, inwardly, is a religious man struggling to make sense of what has happened to him. In the end, the attitude of the priest Abbe Faria prevails in Dantes’ life.

The classic example in the Bible of someone who grows through a prison experience is Joseph. He is sold into slavery and put into prison for a crime he did not commit. He could easily have succumbed to a life focused only on revenge, but he did not because his abiding faith convinced him that a divine plan was in the making. Edmund Dantes does not see this immediately. Revenge is his primary motivation; and it is a motive that motivates him to survive, but it also poisons the way he perceives the future.

Dantes begins as a devout believer and goes through a period where he denies the presence of God in his life. His core values of faith are tested over a long period of incarceration. However, contact with Abbe Faria ultimately changes his destiny financially, emotionally, and religiously. The implicit message of Edmund Dantes’ ordeal is to overcome anger and revenge and devote your life to good. Doing good is redemptive and enables one to transcend the pain of the past.

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The Last of the Mohicans (1992), directed by Michael Mann

last of the mohicansFor many years, I was a fan of the motivational tapes of Zig Ziglar, a self-help guru who often gave me valuable insights about how to work with people who did not share your point of view, but who did care about the things you cared about. One of his wise aphorisms was “to sit on the same side of table” as the opposition to discuss thorny issues. In other words, see things from the perspective of your adversary and understand his perspective even if you don’t agree with it. Seek out compromise so that there is a win-win situation for both parties.

I was reminded of this as I watched The Last of the Mohicans, a passionate love story and a rousing and violent adventure about early America before it became a nation. A key plot point hinges on the ability to compromise and see things from the perspective of the other.

The narrative takes place in 1757 when the English colonies and the British are fighting the French for land on the American continent. Indians are fighting on both sides and the colonists are key players in the British effort to defeat the French. But there is a problem: the colonists have mixed feelings about the English. On the one hand, they are subjects of the King; but, on the other hand, they have their own dreams of independence and see the world differently. Many are prepared to fight for the British, but only if they can still defend their families at home who may come under attack. Without that assurance that their own concerns are addressed, they are unwilling to risk their lives for King and country, especially when the country is not fully supportive of their colonial initiative. They are willing to compromise if their personal needs are met, but the English are arrogant. The English see the colonists as servants of the Crown and they must do as the Crown dictates.

This dilemma presents itself at the beginning of the story as three men, Chingachgook, his son Uncas, and his adopted son Hawkeye visit their old friends, the Camerons. One of the colonists at the table informs everyone that he is recruiting men to fight for the British against the French, as long as the British agree to allow the men to return home in case their homes are attacked by the Huron war parties, loyal to the French. The British military leader, General Webb, agrees and the colonists then head to Fort William Henry to join the British forces.

Meanwhile, Cora Munroe and her younger sister Alice journey to visit their father, Colonel Edmund Munroe at Fort Henry. Upon arrival, their father is happy to see them but surprised to find them there at all. After all, it is a war zone, and their lives are in danger. Apparently, messages of the dire straits of the English never got through, and now Colonel Munroe is doubly burdened by both the fighting in front of him and insuring the safety of his daughters. Moreover, he demands that the colonists fight for the British and not return home to protect their families. For him, loyalty to England trumps all. Compounding the problem is Magua, a duplicitous Indian guide who leads the British into a trap.

Hawkeye saves Cora and her sister from the attack, and slowly Cora begins to understand the worldview of Hawkeye, a fiercely independent man who sees the British as foolish and narrow-minded, unwilling to compromise on principles that have no relation to the current reality in which they find themselves.

The inability to compromise creates an environment for catastrophe. Judaism, indeed, looks at compromise as a good thing. Gerald M. Steinberg, an expert in Jewish law, observes that mediation and conflict prevention are constructive ways to avoid dissension in the family and in the community. In finding compromise solutions, extremism is eschewed and moderation is valued.

Beneath the modus operandi of compromise is the fundamental assumption that peace among men is a quintessential value. Jews pray for peace three times a day and Jewish leaders are encouraged “to seek peace and pursue it.” For example, when Abraham and his nephew Lot had a difference of opinion about grazing areas for their sheep, to avoid further friction Abraham acted magnanimously. He said: “If you will go to the left, I will go to the right, and if you will to the right, then I will go to the left.”

The overall goal in Jewish litigation is to accept compromise in order to reduce conflict and increase peace. This perspective on conflict does not exist when the British relate to the colonials. In The Last of the Mohicans, we witness the tragic results of insisting on being right rather than being good.

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The Good Lie (2014), directed by Philippe Farlardeau

good lie posterIn the late 1970s and 1980s, Yeshiva High School of Atlanta, the school of which I was principal, had an influx of students from Iran, who fled after the Iranian Revolution. All of them were very well behaved, had a smile on their face, and very much wanted to please. Some came without their parents and had to live with local families. It was a trying time for them; but most made a productive transition to life in America and were remarkably successful in their careers.

I thought of my Iranian students as I watched The Good Lie. The Good Lie tells the story of four child refugees from the Second Sudanese Civil War. After their parents are murdered, they journey to Ethiopia in search of a safe haven where they can have food and shelter. Many years later, they are chosen to be part of a major resettlement initiative in the United States. They welcome this opportunity to begin life anew, and they travel to Kansas City to their new homes. Regrettably, the sister of one of the boys has to be relocated to Boston, where there is a welcoming family prepared to accept her into their home.

Their new environment is strange, but with the help of Carrie Davis, an employment counselor, they find jobs and slowly reconstruct their lives in this new land. Their work at first is menial labor, but gradually they learn skills that enable them to move upwards socially and financially.

Haunting them throughout their odyssey are old memory tapes of past traumas that at times make their adjustment problematic. The shock of seeing a loved one killed or mauled by a lion is not easily forgotten. Nor do they throw out food casually when they remember the days when they endured starvation on a daily basis. Thankfully, their caring hosts do not abandon them in their periods of self-doubt and adversity, thus enabling them to eventually make a successful transition to their new environment.

Jewish tradition is very sensitive to the predicament of the outsider, the stranger in one’s midst. It is a foundational concept rooted in the historic reality that Jews were strangers in the land of Egypt. There are numerous warnings in the Bible not to oppress the stranger financially or verbally. The Talmud reminds us that language can hurt or heal. It can make people feel welcome or it can estrange people; therefore, we have to be very sensitive when talking to the outsider, the stranger.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks perceptively writes: “a stranger, in particular, is sensitive to his or her status within society. He or she is an outsider. Strangers do not share with the native born a memory, a past, a sense of belonging. They are conscious of their vulnerability.”

Rabbi Sacks, quoting the great medieval sage Nachmanides, points out how powerless is the stranger in comparison to those who are native born. The stranger has no support network, no family, friends, or neighbors who are ready to help in times of crisis. Furthermore, the stranger is psychologically defenseless. Alone without family and friends, he feels isolated and unprotected. That is perhaps why God is the protector of the stranger since no one else is ready to step up and help them. Sacks further suggests that the Jew is the archetypal stranger with different beliefs and different customs; and, therefore, Jews should understand how important it is to integrate the outsider into the community. We need to make him feel safe and at home.

In the final analysis, we are all strangers at some time in our lives. The Good Lie reminds us to take care of the outsider and make him feel like an insider.

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