Big Miracle (2012), directed by Ken Kwapis

big miracle posterWhen I moved to Israel, I had trouble understanding the political system here. Unlike the United States, there are many, not just two, political parties jockeying for power. In the recent elections, I saw first hand the implications of this multi-party system. Every party has its own agenda and pushes it strongly. However, when there is a crisis and one issue dominates everyone’s thinking, then the smaller parties promote the larger party in order to insure that the issue driven by crisis is resolved for benefit of the entire nation. Crisis brings everyone together, even if in ordinary circumstances they would not agree on anything.

The notion that crisis brings people of different viewpoints together is at the heart of Big Miracle, a family film about the extraordinary rescue of whales who, as they make their 5000 mile annual migration, are trapped because of rapidly forming ice in the Artic that blocks their route to the open sea.

Adam Carlson, a TV newsman working in Barrow, Alaska, would like warmer climes and a broader marketplace for his talents, but destiny gives him an opportunity to pursue a great human interest story just when his commitment to being in Barrow is flagging. When he reports on the local news about the plight of the trapped whales, the story is picked up and featured on the national networks. His ex-girlfriend, Rachel Kramer, an avid environmentalist working for Greenpeace, encourages Adam to enlist the aid of everyone to save the whales both because it is the right thing to do and because it is good public relations to participate in the rescue effort. Representatives from oil companies who want to drill in wilderness areas and environmentalists, normally hostile enemies, join ranks to save the whales. Moreover, journalists of competing entities descend on Barrow to witness the rescue attempt and to write about a story that is mesmerizing people around the world.

Soon a working coalition forms between the local Alaskan whale hunters, environmental advocates, and the oil drilling companies. Even the American and Russian militaries join to free the trapped whales. Each employs a different strategy to rescue the whales, but all strategies are coordinated with one another.

The Midrash tells us that when the Jews first came to Egypt, they were twelve tribes who saw themselves possessing a common destiny as articulated by their father Jacob. Once there, however, factions developed over time; and as the slavery of the Jews progressed, there was more friction between the people. Only when the punitive decrees of Pharoah intensified did they become more unified. Adversity drove them together, until finally at Sinai, the unity of Israel was restored as they accepted the Torah as one, unified nation. A common goal took disparate elements of a nation and melded then into one people.

This reality of working for a common purpose is what underpins the miracle in Big Miracle. It is a familiar case of different interest groups leaving their personal baggage at home because of a desire to fulfill a larger purpose that transcends the individual.

This is an important insight to keep in mind when building bridges between people and institutions. A focus on the big issues that connect people enables one to accomplish a lot more than one individual could. An illustrative example is the requirement in Jewish law for the presence of ten men for communal Jewish prayer to take place. There is no requirement that the ten men think alike or practice their faith in identical ways. All they have to do to reach God is to stand together as one.

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Inside Man (2006), directed by Spike Lee

inside man posterWhen I was a school principal, one of my students was involved in a heist. It was not a bank heist but the heist of Cokes from a soda machine. To find out who was pilfering soda from the machine, one day I hid in the lunchroom after lunch was over. I soon caught the offending student with his hand in the machine pulling out a soda bottle. I expected to find a student from a poor family committing the deed, but it was the child of a wealthy family. I learned that when it comes to ferreting out people who steal, I can’t make easy assumptions about who did the deed. Moreover, I can never fully know what motivates people to act dishonestly or how the criminal mind works. This perspective on criminals came to mind as I watched Inside Man, a very clever heist movie.

I have seen many heist movies over the years, but Inside Man is perhaps the best. In truth, it is a movie about a bank robbery but no money is stolen. There are other matters afoot, and the robbery is the cover for a crime of a different sort; it a fascinating game of cat and mouse that leaves the viewer constantly wondering what is the real purpose of the heist.

The film begins innovatively. Dalton Russell speaks to the audience informing them he has just committed a bank robbery. He then explains the “who, the what, the where, the when, and the why” of it in very simplistic terms, and now all that all he has to do is describe how the robbery was done.

The robbery begins when a group dressed as painters enter a bank in the Wall Street neighborhood of Manhattan. They shut the bank’s doors and disable the bank’s security cameras before anyone realizes what is happening. Donning masks, they order the customers and employees to fall to the floor, threatening death to anyone who disobeys. They then herd the hostages into one room and tell them to undress and don painter’s suits and masks, thus making them indistinguishable from the robbers.

Detective Keith Frazier is assigned to negotiate with the robbers in a tense hostage situation. As he methodically analyzes the situation and communicates with the robbers, scenes of Frazier interviewing the hostages after the robbery intrude into the narrative. The goal of the interviews is to determine if any of the perpetrators are among the hostages.

As the robbery progresses, Dalton makes many demands of Frazier. He requests a bus, a plane, and he even asks for the answers to a riddle. It eventually becomes clear to Frazier that Dalton is merely stalling for time and is in no rush to exit the bank. When the siege of the bank finally ends and the police storm the building, the hostages run out of the bank dressed as the criminals, making it impossible for the authorities to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys.

The denouement follows the actions of Frazier as he tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together, ultimately figuring out what actually was stolen and why. It is a fascinating trip, in which Spike Lee, the director, finds ample opportunity to upend traditional stereotypes of blacks, Jews, and Muslims, subtly reminding us that what is on the surface is not always what is inside a man’s heart.

In this sense, the title Inside Man suggests a double entendre, which is very much a part of Jewish tradition. The Ethics of the Fathers notes that we should never judge a man by what is he appears to be on the outside. Rather, judge by what is on the inside. The “inside man” is the one who really counts.

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A Tale of Two Cities (1935), directed by Jack Conway

tale of two cities posterI recently had dinner with a friend who shared with me his disappointment that his son at age 37 was still unmarried and was leading a life contrary to the values with which he had been raised. I told him that his son is still on a journey. It is not yet complete and his son may yet fulfill his hopes and dreams. The important thing was never to give up for the future is unknown. Past mistakes don’t always predict tomorrow’s consequences.

A Tale of Two Cities is a story of one man’s personal redemption from sinner to saint. The Talmud tractate of Avodah Zarah (10b) observes that there are people who can earn their portion in Olam Haba, the world-to-come, in one hour, suggesting that an entire life of sin can be overcome by repenting in the final moments of one’s life. This basically is the narrative arc of the life of Sidney Carton, the hero of A Tale of Two Cities.

The film opens on the eve of the French Revolution when Lucy Manette travels to France from England to rescue her aging father, who has been a prisoner in the Bastille for many years. During the trip, she meets Charles Darney, a French aristocrat, who is sympathetic to the plight of the downtrodden French citizens.

Charles, however, is the nephew of the Marquis de St. Evremonde, an aristocrat with little regard for the wellbeing of the poor. Aware of Charles’ favorable view of the poor, the Marquis frames his nephew for treason, recognizing that Charles is a potential danger to the French aristocratic establishment because of his heretical views. The case against Darney fails, however, because of the clever defense of Sydney Carton, an attorney who drinks to excess and has led a dissolute life.

When Lucie thanks Carton for his efforts, he falls in love with her; however, he inwardly understands that her love for Darney transcends any emotional attachment to him. After Darney and Lucie marry, move to England, and have a daughter, Sydney continues to remain a loyal friend of the family.

A crisis arises when Darney is tricked into returning to France during the Reign of Terror in order to defend a friend who has been unjustly accused of sympathy for the now deposed aristocracy. In a trial full of passion and anger but bereft of logic, he is sentenced to death by guillotine because of his familial connection to the Evremondes, who are symbols of tyranny.

Carton understands the danger and devises a plan to save Darnay from the guillotine. The plan hinges on Carton switching places with Darnay, who is incarcerated in prison awaiting execution. It becomes clear that Carton is willing to sacrifice himself to save those he loves.

As the image of the guillotine fills the screen, we hear Carton uttering his last thoughts: “It’s a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It’s a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.”

Carton’s final words reflect his changed worldview. For him, life is no longer a journey, but rather a destination. He has said farewell to his wasted past and enters the next world personally redeemed.

In some ways, the last moments of his life parallel the story of Samson, the judge who, although basically a good man, led a licentious life. Recognizing his faults, Samson decides at the end of his life to sacrifice himself so that others can survive. Sidney Carton’s final moments follow this example of repentance.

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Friday Night Lights (2004), directed by Peter Berg

friday night lights posterMany years ago, I met a teacher from a prestigious private high school in Atlanta, who shared with me his approach to class management. He told me that he tells his students that he has only two rules: do your best and do not hurt other people. It was an “aha” moment for me, for it made me think about simplifying my teaching style. Perhaps instead of stressing compliance with rules, I would reasonably request that everyone do their best and that they not hurt other people. In specific terms, students should not prevent me from teaching or prevent other students from learning.

Once I adopted these rules, I informed my classes that the source of these rules was the Bible, which states that man is created in God’s image. If everybody is a reflection of the Divine, then everyone deserves respect. Practically speaking, this meant that students would have to listen to other students and not interrupt them, and that students would not disturb the lessons with conversation while I was teaching. Compliance with these basic rules would insure that I would have a “perfect” class. A variation of this kind of divinely-inspired discipline permeates the sports program at Permian High School in Odessa, Texas, in 1988, the setting of Friday Night Lights, the story of one tumultuous year in a high school football program.

The football season starts with promise as “Boobie” Miles, the star player runs through the opponent’s defenses with reckless abandon. But success is short-lived when Boobie sustains a season-ending injury. Coach Gary Gaines now has to rely on his quiet, less flamboyant players to win games. Chief among them are Mike Winchell, the quarterback who needs to play with consistency to win games, fullback Don Billingsley, who has a rocky relationship with his fault-finding father, third-string running back Chris Comer, who fears getting hurt, and safety Brian Chavez, who is brainy, but lacks natural football savvy.

After some initial losses, Permian begins to win regularly. The possibility of playing in the State Championship Final looms larger with each win. The team coalesces in spirit as the season progresses and makes it to the championship game facing a much more physical team from Dallas.

Down by over two touchdowns at the half, Coach Gaines gives a half-time speech for the ages, in which he defines “being perfect.” His coaching mantra has been “be perfect,” and now he explains what it means: “Being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It’s not about winning. It’s about you and your relationship with yourself, your family and your friends. Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn’t let them down because you told them the truth. And that truth is you did everything you could. There wasn’t one more thing you could’ve done. Can you live in that moment as best you can, with clear eyes, and love in your heart, with joy in your heart? If you can do that gentleman – you’re perfect.” He continues: “I want you to take a moment, and I want you to look each other in the eyes. I want you to put each other in your hearts forever because forever is about to happen here in just a few minutes. Boys, my heart is full. My heart is full.” It is a speech that brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it because of its emotional power and because it resonates to my Jewish soul.

Jewish tradition also encourages us to aim for perfection. How do we define it? There is a classic Chassidic story about Zusha, a great Sage, who was weeping on his deathbed. His students asked him why he was so sad, to which he responded that when he arrives at Heaven, God will not ask him why he did not achieve as much as Moses, but rather why he did not fulfill his potential as Zusha.

The Talmud encourages us to be as great as Moses, but the reality is that we cannot be as great as he. We cannot be perfect. But we do have a responsibility to be the best that we can be given our talents and unique circumstances. Friday Night Lights reminds us to do our absolute best. A supreme effort in this world may open up the gates to the next.

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Body of Lies (2008), directed by Ridley Scott

body of lies posterAs I write this review, the world is in chaos. There is civil war in Syria, ISIS is spreading terror throughout the world, the governments of Libya and Yemen are in a downward spiral, Iraq is fighting a war against jihadists, Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear threshold state, and the United States is no longer viewed by its historic allies as a nation that can be trusted.

A few years ago, I would never have dreamed of such a doomsday scenario. But, lo and behold, it is here and we are living the impossible dream. I share this with the reader because so much of what is happening today is alluded to in the opening minutes of the political thriller Body of Lies, a prescient story of men caught in the web of secret intelligence communities that will stop at nothing to achieve their aims.

I learned something new about the way terrorists operate from Body of Lies. Ed Hoffman, a CIA supervisor, observes that terrorists generally avoid taking advantage of technology. They do not use cell phones and computers to transmit information; they prefer to speak face to face with people and through written messages that can be destroyed easily. In the final analysis, what counts is intelligence provided by humans in the field, not necessarily computer generated information. Roger Ferris is Ed Hoffman’s man in the field, who provides him with all kinds of useful data about the bad guys. He sees things up close, subjectively, while Ed sees things from a distance, objectively.

The story opens as Ferris is searching for Al-Saleem, an Al Quaida terrorist who is orchestrating a series of suicide bombings across England and Europe. Ferris’ travels take him to a number of middle-eastern countries, including Jordan where he forms an uneasy alliance with Hani Salaam, the head of Jordanian intelligence.

Amidst many clandestine attacks and counterattacks, Ferris comes up with a plan to make contact with Al-Saleem, through staging a terrorist attack that will encourage Al-Saleem to be in touch with the terrorist entity that caused the attack. In order to do this, Ferris sets up a straw man, Omar Sadiki, an innocent architect, for whom he creates a computer profile that makes it appear as if Sadiki were the head of a terrorist cell.

The ruse works but with tragic consequences. The more Ferris labors to get valuable information that can save innocent lives, the more moral compromises he has to make in the short run; and many innocent people die in the service of the long term goal of eradicating terrorists. Ed Hoffman reminds Ferris more than once that in the world of terrorism and counterterrorism, no one is innocent. Located thousands of miles away from the morally abhorrent actions, he looks at the big picture, making decisions based only upon dispassionate calculations. For Ferris, however, every decision is personal.

Jewish tradition is mindful of the distinction between experiencing things first-hand and experiencing them from a distance. While viewing a situation from the balcony, we miss seeing the total picture. We need to be on the ground floor as well to see the complex reality.

The Sages who composed the text of the Hagadah, the text that is read at the Passover Seder, encouraged simulated first-hand experiences at the Seder table when Jews yearly recount the Egyptian slavery experience. The Seder meal is filled with tangible reminders of bondage. We are to eat simple unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The Hagadah explicitly tells us to experience the evening as if you personally went out of Egypt. It should not be a mere recital of words; rather the Seder should be a visceral reimagining of the Exodus experience.

Body of Lies reminds us that to understand the complexity of the fragmented world around us, we need to see events from two perspectives, that of the outsider and insider. Only then can we appreciate the wisdom it takes to make good decisions in a morally confusing universe.

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Lone Survivor (2013), directed by Peter Berg

lone survivor posterHospitality is a big deal in Jewish law and lore. Abraham is the model of the gracious host. In the midst of a painful recuperation from circumcision, he waited outside of his tent on a hot day to welcome any passing strangers to his home where he provided them with lodging and a sumptuous feast. The Midrash says that he even interrupted his prayer to God to take care of guests. Hospitality to strangers plays a key role in the intense and violent war film Lone Survivor.

In Afghanistan, a four-man cohort of Navy SEALS, consisting of Michael Murphy, Marcus Luttrell, Matthew Axelson, and Danny Dietz, is tasked with capturing or killing a Taliban leader responsible for the deaths of over twenty Marines. The SEALS are inserted into a mountainous region and proceed to their rendezvous point. But there is a problem. They are discovered by an elderly shepherd and two young goat herders.

The men evaluate their options, which include killing the shepherds and thus preserving their mission or releasing them and aborting the mission, knowing it has been compromised. A brief but heated discussion ensues. Luttrell argues to release them: “Under the rules of engagement, we can’t touch them,” to which Axelson responds: “I understand. And I don’t care. I care about you. I care about you. I care about you.” Finally, they decide to release them and abort the mission; but, soon after, Taliban forces ambush them with terrible consequences.

Although the SEALS inflict many casualties, they are outnumbered. Moreover, because of technical problems, they cannot contact their home base to arrange an extraction, making their situation even more desperate. One by one, they succumb to injuries, but Luttrell finds temporary refuge in a local Pashton village. One of the villagers, rejecting the brutality of the Taliban, takes Luttrell into his home and sends a messenger to a nearby American air base to report Luttrell’s location. In the interim, the Taliban arrive preparing to execute Luttrell; but the villagers intervene, preventing them from killing him. What saves Luttrell’s life is the moral code of the local Afghan population, which prides itself on protecting the stranger once he enters their home.

Jewish tradition has much to say about how we should treat the stranger and how we bear responsibility for his safety. The residents of Sodom were the polar opposites of Abraham. Instead of warmly welcoming the stranger, they did everything they could to take advantage of him. The Talmud states that if the guest bed was too short, they would cut off the stranger’s legs. If the bed was too long, they would stretch him so that his body would fit. This evil approach to hospitality led to the destruction of the Sodom.

Another Biblical source relating to our treatment of the stranger is the law of the eglah arufah, the decapitated calf, which was slaughtered when an unidentified corpse was discovered outside the city limits. If that happened, the elders of the city had to convene a meeting to determine whose responsibility it should have been to take care of this stranger. There is an element of communal guilt for permitting someone to go unprotected from the city. Therefore, an atoning ritual was performed on behalf of the closest city to which the body was found. Again, the recurrent theme is to take care of the vulnerable stranger.

Lone Survivor is a riveting movie about a group of courageous soldiers who made a decision to put their lives on the line to preserve morality in a war where the enemy had no such scruples. Thankfully, Marcus Luttrell survived to tell the story, which not only depicts the brutality of war, but portrays the uncommon kindness of people who, despite potential harm, stepped forward to help the defenseless stranger.

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The Miracle Worker (1962), directed by Arthur Penn

the miracle worker poster When I was in high school, I was a mediocre student. The only one who thought I was very bright was my mother. I had come from a junior high school of low achievers and was assigned to classes with mediocre students. These classes were taught by mediocre teachers and so we graduated as very average students.

Somehow I got accepted into a university with many bright students, and my fortunes changed. Hanging around smart kids made me smarter and I had an intellectual awakening. Moreover, for the first time in my life, I had many teachers who took an interest in my academic growth and who themselves were fascinating lecturers. I began to look forward to class, to learning. I began to be curious about the world. Caring teachers and a stimulating environment made all the difference.

One teacher makes all the difference in the life of Helen Keller, the subject of the moving drama, The Miracle Worker, which describes the student-teacher relationship of Helen Keller, blind and deaf, and Anne Sullivan, her teacher.

Helen is born in 1882 and by 1887 is healthy but impossible to discipline. Out of total frustration, her parents decide to hire Annie Sullivan, a recent graduate of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, to serve as both a teacher and companion for Helen. Annie, an exceptionally determined young lady, wants to create a new world for Helen in which her student can lead a productive and meaningful life; she does not want merely to make her minimally functional as a disabled person.

At first the relationship of student and teacher is stormy. However, over time Helen learns the alphabet and more from Annie. Simple actions like learning to fold a napkin or eating with a spoon are watershed moments that bring them closer together.

During the time she is working with Helen, disagreements surface between teacher and parent about what is best for her. The parents out of love indulge her; Annie, however, encourages tough love, not giving in to Helen’s every whim for fear it will make her perpetually dependent on the kindness of others.

Annie’s view finally prevails and Helen learns how to wash and dress herself and many other necessary skills to integrate her into both family and society. The real breakthrough, however, occurs when Helen grasps the connection between words and objects, the things the words represent. It is mesmerizing and inspirational to watch as the young student finally grasps the connection between the word water and the actual fluid it represents.

The special bond between student and teacher is at the core of The Miracle Worker. Jewish tradition celebrates this relationship by describing instances of extreme devotion of a teacher to a student. The Talmud observes that it was not uncommon for a teacher to review material 100 times with the student so that the student could retain and understand what he was learning. Moreover, there is a story in the Talmud of a student who only understood the lesson if the teacher retaught it 400 times. On one occasion, the student heard that the teacher might have to leave the lesson and so the student was distracted and did not grasp the material even after 400 times. The Talmud records that the teacher, Rabbi Preida, then reviewed it another 400 times. Granted that this may be an exaggeration, it still reinforces the notion that a teacher should be so committed to his students that he will undertake the near impossible if that is what it takes to insure that the student learns.

Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker is the model of a teacher who never gives up, who believes in the vast potential of her students, and who treasures the intellectual progress of her charges. All teachers can learn from her example.

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