Broken Arrow (1995), directed by John Woo

broken arrowI do not know how to play chess, but it seems to be a mentally engrossing game. One of my sons actually was a chess champion when he played competitively as a member of his high school chess team. From watching him and other students play, it seems clear that to be successful at the game, one must be able to envision the next moves of your adversary. You have to consider not just one move ahead, but many moves ahead to be victorious.

This kind of mental maneuvering takes place between Major Vic Deakins and Captain Riley Hale, two pilots in the United States Air Force who are tasked with transporting two nuclear bombs in a training exercise in the tense thriller, Broken Arrow.

Their flight begins calmly, but once airborne Deakins, on a mission of his own, attempts to kill Hale. The end result: Deakins ejects Hale from the plane and, using parachutes, steals the nuclear warheads with the goal of threatening to detonate them if a huge sum of money is not deposited in Deakin’s Swiss bank account. The title Broken Arrow refers to the code name for lost nuclear weapons.

Hale lands safely, and with the help of Forest Ranger Terry Carmichael, attempts to thwart Deakins’ plans. Deakins and Hale know one another well. As the action progresses, each tries to anticipate the other’s moves. Deakins leads them to red herrings, but Hale sees through the obfuscations. After all their chess-like moves, in which each tries to anticipate the next move of the other, there is a final physical confrontation between Deakins and Hale.

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo writes about the analogy between chess and life. By doing so, he sheds light on the respective strategies of Deakins and Hale and the exhilaration of combat experienced by both of them. Cardozo writes: “The chessboard becomes the world; the pieces are the phenomena of the universe; the rules of the game are the laws of nature; and man roams freely once he applies the rules to such an extent that a whole new world is revealed. But let us never forget: He who knows all the rules is not necessarily a great player. What makes him a formidable opponent is his ability to use these rules to unleash an outburst of creativity, which emerges only because of the game’s unbearable limitations. It is mental torture, but it is the height of beauty as well. It is poetry to the game, as melody is to music — like one gentle brushstroke of Rembrandt on a colorful canvas, making everything look radically different; or like the genius musician playing her Stradivarius, re-creating the whole of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5. It transports the chess player to heaven.”

This poetic description of chess suggests the satisfaction that both Deakins and Hale feel when they have figured out the next move of their adversary. Deakins and Hale engage in a war of the minds, and both savor the combat.

It is fascinating to observe how Deakins and Hale try to outguess the other. A case in point. Law enforcement has to determine where the bomb may be detonated. Deakins plants clues that indicate the location will be in Salt Lake City to the west. In fact, Deakins plans to obliterate Denver to the east. The authorities at first head west to surround Salt Lake City, but then, in an “aha” moment, Hale realizes that Deakins has planted clues that serve as a subterfuge for his true intention, which is to attack Denver.

Broken Arrow is a high caliber action film. It delivers all the fights and explosions that one expects in escapist entertainment, enabling the viewer to enjoy the cathartic release of good triumphing over evil. Along the way, it provides an insight into the strategies of those who want to destroy others. Not only do they want to win the battle, but they may also enjoy intellectually checkmating their opponent.

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Darkest Hour (2017), directed by Joe Wright

breakfast clubWhen I first started out in 1970 as an assistant rabbi in a large Orthodox synagogue in Atlanta, I also had the title of educational director. This reflected the fact that I was in charge of the afternoon Hebrew school which catered to kids who were not enrolled in the local Jewish day school. With the arrogance of youth, I thought I would be a perfect professional and not make any mistakes. I soon realized that I was, indeed, fallible.

After disciplining a student for bad behavior, her father made an appointment with me. He told me that my educational vision was small and that I did not recognize the emotional complexity of students. His comments stung and I thought about them for some time. I went to the senior rabbi to get his take on the situation, and he smiled at me. He thought my desire for professional perfection was nice, but unrealistic.

In life, we all make mistakes, and the big question is how to respond to our failures, how do we continue to grow in spite of errors we make along the way. The key is to “fail forward” as motivational guru John Maxwell has said. Let failure be a lesson and teacher for us, not a death sentence. Darkest Hour, the inspirational story of Winston Churchill’s leadership of England during World War II, is an example of a leader who does not allow others to define either him or his cause. He is a leader who triumphs over the darkest of times.

In May 1940, German troops were at the Belgian Border intending to conquer the rest of Europe. In England, Parliament had lost faith in the current Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who appeased Hitler. Britain quickly needed a replacement who could form a coalition government at this dangerous moment in history.

The only man who could do that was Winston Churchill, a very unpopular man with many members of Parliament. In his first speech to them, he tells them of his plans to aggressively fight the enemy and to win the war no matter what the cost. His address unsettles those who want to negotiate a peace and save the lives of British soldiers.

Compounding the problem for Churchill is the fact that at that very moment, 300,000 British troops are stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, with little possibility of rescue. He weighs carefully whether to tell this bitter truth to the English people in his next radio address. Ultimately, he decides not to reveal this information, which would put more fear into the hearts of his countrymen. Instead, he sends a fleet of civilian vessels to rescue the soldiers. Amazingly, the miraculous occurs and the vast majority of them is saved.

Churchill derives his mandate to lead both from the people and from his own intuitive comprehension of the challenge facing his country. In spite of the perilous situation, the people support him. That support lifts his spirits, enabling him to effectively lead the nation even when his approach is questioned by negative opinion makers in government.

Five years later, Britain declared victory in the war, thus vindicating his leadership. A seminal Churchill quotation flashes at the end of the film: “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Churchill’s political history before he became Prime Minister is one of mixed success. He failed many times before he succeeded as Prime Minister. The pattern of experiencing many failures before succeeding is often found in Jewish history. Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, for example, examines the life of Moses, and a review of Moses’ successes and failures can give us insight into why Churchill was successful.

Cardozo observes that Moses had many failures before he reached the acme of his influence when he reached the age of 80. For instance, his first meeting with Pharaoh was a disaster. He asked Pharaoh to let his people go, but Pharaoh hardened his heart, forcing Moses’ brethren to labor even harder.

In the desert, his own people continue to complain and some even rebel against his leadership. The incident of the golden calf was the nadir of his career. After shepherding his people out of Egypt, they worship an idol and lose sight of their commitment to serve one incorporeal God. When Moses sends out spies on a reconnaissance mission to scout the Promised Land, they return with a negative report that, in effect, delays their entrance into Israel for 39 years.

Korach, his opponent, threatens to take the reigns of leadership away from Moses. Furthermore, at a critical juncture in the wilderness, Moses fails to follow God’s instructions and hits the rock instead of speaking to it to cause water to flow in the desert. Finally, he learns that he will not enter Israel, the land to which he has labored for over 40 years.

Ordinary mortals would give up under such adversity, but Moses does not. He understands that failure is part of life, and that failure can be a stepping stone to success. Until his last breath, he works towards the goal of settling his people in the Promised Land.

Rabbi Cardozo quotes a Yiddish proverb: “one that lies upon the ground cannot fall.” Cardozo explains: “Many people who are the most critical of those who failed do not realize that they themselves have never left the ground. Those who never fail, never accomplish, since defeat is the necessary step to success.” Moses comprehended that the path to success involves failure, but failure does not have to be terminal. Winston Churchill understood that same message, and was able to inspire a nation in its darkest hour.

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Bobby Deerfield (1977), directed by Sydney Pollack

bobby deerfieldA few years ago, I had cardiovascular bypass surgery. I was planning to travel to the US for the wedding of my son, Ezra. Feeling occasionally short of breath, I went to my cardiologist in Israel and, after examining me, he told me that I should not travel since my risk of having a heart event was significant. And so I experienced the wedding virtually on Skype instead of being there in person.

Being in the hospital for a serious operation, I decided, at the encouragement of a friend, to recite the confessional that Jews say when the outcome of an operation is uncertain. I said to myself: maybe my mission on earth is complete and now I will bid farewell to this world and enter the next.

After the operation, my blood pressure was fluctuating greatly, and I felt a need to be with other people. I did not want to be alone. When a friend visited, I asked him to stay longer because I wanted to be close to another living being. It truly helped me overcome my anxiety during my recovery.

That need for physical closeness when confronted with mortality is evident in Bobby Deerfield, the story of a race car driver who confronts the possibility of death after witnessing a track accident in which a friend dies. That desire for human connection intensifies when Bobby himself survives a near fatal crash.

When we first meet Bobby Deerfield, we see that he is a loner. He has forsaken his brother, his parents, his entire family. He lives a life in which he is the main character and there is no supporting cast. All he wants to do is win Formula One races. That desire to win is muted once a teammate of his dies in a racing event. The thought of death then preoccupies him.

When Bobby visits an injured racecar driver in the hospital, he serendipitously meets Lillian Morelli, an idiosyncratic, impulsive woman who captures his attention. Although she has a serious, but unidentified, illness, she has left the hospital without authorization, asking him for a ride. She does not want to be confined to the hospital and yearns for freedom. Although Bobby does not initially understand the nature of her illness, he eventually discovers that her malady is life threatening and that her time is short.

The desire to be physically close to people when faced with mortality is akin to what I felt in the hospital after my surgery. This emotion resonates in the early stages of Bobby and Lillian’s relationship, when Lillian asks Bobby to be close to her. She does not mean close in an intimate way.

In truth, his relationship with the quirky Lillian changes the way he views the world. No longer is life only about him; it now considers others besides him.

The longing for human connection when faced with death moves Bobby to become more sensitive to those around him and less self-centered. After realizing that Lillian’s days are numbered, he approaches a gardener that he does not know and simply tells him that he wants to talk to him. The simple desire to be close to another human being is now very important to him.

I write this review a few days before Yom Kippur, a holy day in the Jewish calendar when we ask for forgiveness for the wrongdoings we have committed against people by always putting our own needs first. The Torah reminds man that he always has a choice about the way he lives and relates to other human beings. In Deuteronomy the Lord states: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live” (30:19). The message: the confrontation with death makes us value life more. The outcome of Bobby Deerfield’s encounter with death is an epiphany that makes him appreciate life and the physical presence of others.

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The Breakfast Club (1985) directed by John Hughes

breakfast clubI have learned over the years both as a parent and as a school principal that it is good to withhold judgment when forming an opinion about teenagers. They are works in progress and often what you see is only a brief snapshot in time that does not reflect who they really are.

A case in point. Daniel was a rebellious teenager. He challenged authority every day and made the lives of teachers very unpleasant. He was one of the few students I was happy to see graduate. Twenty years later, I received a phone call from Daniel in which he apologized for his behavior in high school and asked me to forgive him. He was now married with children and had a totally different perspective on life. As an adult, he was “born again” as a normal human being and a productive member of society.

In The Breakfast Club, five students in a public high school in Illinois in 1984 discover who they are as they reveal themselves to each other in the course of a nine-hour Saturday detention. The cohort of students include John Bender, “the criminal,” Claire Standish, “the princess,” Brian Johnson, “the brain,” Andy Clark, “the athlete,” and Allison Reynolds, “the basket case.” The students rarely socialize with one another at school, but now they interact with one another because there are no other people to talk to.

In the course of their tense and profanity-laden conversations, it becomes clear that they all have dysfunctional relationships with their parents. When they finally open up to one another, they realize they have more in common than they thought. They no longer see others in terms of stereotypes, which is the way adults often perceive them. Rather they see themselves as complex human beings with a variety of conflicting traits, all of which help define them as unique human beings.

Jewish tradition provides guidance for parents who want to stay connected and be relevant to their children during their teenage years, who want their children to develop into good citizens who achieve and who are respectful of others. Joanne Doades, a Jewish educator, reminds parents to be good role models of consistency, honesty, and clarity. Moreover, parents need to build mutual trust with their children. To do this, it is wise not to have unrealistic expectations of children, and to speak to them with respect, acknowledging and accepting their individuality. Furthermore, although one should chastise kids when they do something wrong, one should be sure the rebuke is a reflection of a parent’s love, not his anger.

Doades emphasizes that “positive interactions should outweigh negative ones.” She references the Torah and Talmud: “If parents are always chastising their teens about the more annoying aspects of teen behavior (messy room, inattention to schoolwork, issues about money, laziness, loud music, to name a few), there will be little opportunity to normalize the relationship. The Torah warns against being vengeful or bearing a grudge (Leviticus 19:18) because such behavior can cause us to continuously view another through an overly negative lens. The advice of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 107b) is to discipline with the left (weaker) hand and to reach out with the right (stronger), so that reconciliation is possible. Relationships between today’s parents and teens can deteriorate quite quickly unless parents deal with difficult issues and move forward in a constructive way.”

The key to successful parenting is to aim not for control but for consultation. You should not want to control your kids; you should want them to desire to consult you, to glean your parental wisdom, as they navigate life’s challenges.

The Breakfast Club was made in 1985. I viewed a DVD version billed as “the 30th anniversary edition” of the film. Frankly, I had forgotten about the movie until one of my Facebook fans asked me why I did not review what he considered an important film in the annals of “coming of age” movies. That motivated me to revisit this classic, which I now realized had timeless messages about parenting.

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Mission Impossible – Fallout (2018), directed by Christopher McQuarrie

mission impossible - falloutAn essential challenge in the life of administrators is to decide issues based upon whether something is good for the many or only good for the few. I confronted this often as a school principal. In my early years on the job, I made exceptions to the general rule because I wanted to do what was best for the individual child, and also because I was interested in boosting enrollment for what was then an unknown and untested institution. Having a large enrollment was outwardly a sign of success and it meant more tuition dollars to support the school’s programs.

As I matured in my profession, I made less and less exceptions because every exception undermined the overall policies of the school. Once the enrollment stabilized, I could set higher behavioral and academic standards that, in the long run, made the school stronger educationally.

Ethan Hunt, leader of the Mission Impossible (MI6) team of heroes, faces similar challenges in Mission Impossible – Fallout, the latest installment in what has become one of the great action movie franchises in film history. In the course of his mission, Ethan frequently has to decide whether to save the world or an individual friend, who has time and again saved his life and the lives of others.

Ethan’s task in this story is to recover three plutonium cores that have found their way into the hands of terrorists. When he is about to take possession of the plutonium, he discovers that the villains have captured Luther Stickell, one of the members of Ethan’s group. Ethan has a choice: to take possession of the plutonium, which can be used for atomic weapons to destroy the world, or to save his friend Luther. He opts for the latter, and thus begins a worldwide search to find the plutonium and to eliminate the terrorists. His task takes him to Paris, Berlin, London, and an assortment of exotic locations in which Ethan fights for his life as well as for possession of the plutonium cores.

Mission Impossible is a movie in which we know the outcome. Even If Ethan makes a questionable decision, things will work out okay in the end and the world will be saved. Nonetheless, the film presents the dilemma of making a choice knowing that the result will most likely lead to an imperfect solution.

In The Ethics of the Fathers the Sages ask: “Who is wise?” They respond: “One who sees the future.” In truth, one cannot foresee the future, but one can predict a likely outcome. Rabbi Bernie Fox shares an innovative twist on how the Rabbis of the Talmud viewed a wise man: ”Our Sages did not regard a person as wise simply as a consequence of the accumulation of data. A wise person is an individual who is guided by wisdom. This means that the reality of ideas is as definite to the wise person as input received through the senses. The Sages characterized this quality by referring to seeing the future. The future, although only an idea, is as real as the present that is seen through the senses.”

Ethan Hunt is a wise man and knows the likely outcome of saving his friend rather than rescuing the world; but when it comes to saving human life, especially that of a friend, he is conflicted. He knows terrorists are bent on destroying world order and are prepared to eradicate anyone who stands in their way. In spite of this, Ethan does not abandon his humanity.

In the imaginary world of Mission Impossible – Fallout, Ethan understands the dire consequences of saving his friend over securing the plutonium. We, the audience, know that Ethan will save his friend and also save the world. He will destroy the enemy and, at the same time, affirm his concern for the value of one single life, and that is why we admire him. The Talmud expresses this message, embedded in the mind and heart of Ethan Hunt: “he who saves a single life saves the entire world.”

Phantom Thread (2017), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

phantom threadI know a woman who likes to shop. I am grateful not to be the person in the store who sells her things because she is always dissatisfied with her purchases. One example. I watched her shop for athletic shoes on one occasion. She took close to an hour trying on different pairs of shoes in different sizes. She finally decided on one pair and made the purchase. Two days later I happened to be picking up a tennis racket for a friend, and I saw her again. She was unhappy with the purchase and returned to the store looking for refund or for a different pair of shoes. The same obsessive behavior was observed when she bought a piece of jewelry or a hat.

That kind of monomania typifies the approach of famous fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock to his work and to his relationships with other people, especially women. His story unfolds in Phantom Thread.

The narrative begins in 1954 in London. The opening scenes reveal Woodcock’s obsession with detail and his controlling personality. On a rare visit to the countryside, he meets Alma, a waitress at a restaurant, and their friendship blossoms into a relationship in which Alma becomes Woodcock’s artistic inspiration and lover.

At first, the relationship is calm and refreshing for both Alma and Woodcock. Over time, however, Woodcock’s obsessive personality reasserts itself and they begin to argue with one another. He criticizes her for even attempting to disagree with him: “I cannot begin my day with a confrontation, please. I’m delivering the dress today, and I can’t take up space with confrontation. I simply don’t have time for confrontations.” He refuses to invest in human relationships that disturb his equilibrium.

Things come to a head when Woodcock excoriates Alma for preparing a romantic dinner for him that breaks his normal work routine, which to him is sacrosanct. Alma is repelled by Woodcock’s obsessive concern for his own needs, yet she still cares for him greatly for he is the gateway to a new and exciting life for her. Her challenge: finding a way to make Woodcock more a man of feeling, willing and ready to emotionally connect with other human beings. She embarks upon an unconventional strategy by which she will cause him to experience a sense of mortality. This will compel him to rely on other human beings and not live a life of emotional isolation.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first chief Ashkenazi Chief rabbi in Palestine appointed in 1921, wrote about the importance of both the mind and the heart in living a full life: “Man cannot live with intellect alone, nor with emotion alone; intellect and emotion must forever be joined together Only the quality of equilibrium, which balances intellect with emotion, can deliver him completely.”

Moreover, in Ecclesiastes written by King Solomon in the autumn of his life, it states there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh. A time to wail and a time to dance” (3:2-8). To live life fully, we must embrace life with all its varied and at times contradictory thoughts and emotions, especially when it comes to loving another person.

Erich Fromm, the psychoanalyst and humanistic philosopher, discusses the paradox of love: “Two beings become one and yet remain two.” Rabbi Maurice Lamm gives a Jewish twist to this notion. He writes: “The Torah, in requiring the end result of man and woman becoming one flesh requires ezer, an overcoming of loneliness, a mutual completion of the selves, and also ke’negdo, an opposite, independent person with whom one chooses to side at will.” Woodcock finally comes to this understanding when he experiences a near death experience. At that moment, he sees Alma both as an opposite and as one who gives his life a sense of emotional completion.

Lady Bird (2017), directed by Greta Gerwig

Lady birdFriends of mine have a daughter poised to enter her senior year in high school. Their relationship with her is challenging. She wants to attend an out-of-state Ivy League school, but they are not wealthy and prefer that she attend a more affordable state university. The daughter also feels that her local high school is intellectually claustrophobic, and she yearns for a more stimulating educational environment in college, one that will allow her to dream and think out-of-the-box.

Her parents asked me for advice. I had no simple answers and said I would think about their questions. I reminded them that parenting is a lifelong journey. Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems. What they were experiencing was a normal part of the real life struggle of teenagers to define themselves as adults, to attain a level of independence without becoming alienated from the adults who love them.

This struggle is at the center of Lady Bird, a coming of age comedy/drama about Christine McPherson, also known as Lady Bird. Lady Bird is enrolled in a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California, that she finds narrow-minded and repressive. She desires to attend a cosmopolitan university far away from her small town roots. She wants like-minded friends who are more intellectually sophisticated than her high school buddies.

Lady Bird’s mother, Marion, is not an ogre. She tries to be helpful in enabling her daughter to be successful in the world; but Lady Bird still sees her as lacking understanding of her creative spirit and not recognizing her for the unique person she is. In one interchange, Marion tells her that she wants Lady Bird to be the “very best version of yourself that you can be,” to which Lady Bird responds: “What if this is the best version?”

Lady Bird wants her mother’s approval and yearns for her praise. Marion, however, feels she must be honest in her comments to her even if it risks alienating her. For example, Lady Bird asks her: “Why can’t you say I look nice?” Marion answers: “Okay, I’m sorry. I was telling you the truth. Do you want me to lie to you?” Lady Bird needs affirmation. Marion needs honesty. Sometimes the two conflict and there is no reconciliation.

Marion shares life wisdom with Lady Bird, hoping to give her tools to navigate life. In one encounter, she states: “Money is not life’s report card. Being successful doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. It just means that you’re successful. But that doesn’t mean that you’re happy.”

Lady Bird hears her and is bright enough to appreciate her counsel. But it is not until she enters college that she acknowledges the profound influence of her parents. In a poignant phone call from college, she tells them: “Hi Mom and Dad, it’s me, Christine. It’s the name you gave me. It’s a good one. Dad, this is more for Mom. Hey, Mom, did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento? I did and I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking when it happened. All those bends I’ve known my whole life, and stores, and the whole thing. But I wanted to tell you I love you. Thank you.”

Adina Soclof, a social worker and Jewish educator, provides some tips to enhance communication between parents and teens, to preserve the ties that bind them since birth. She writes: “Teens are egocentric. They often only think about themselves because they’re experiencing so much inner turmoil. Their emotions overtake them; they are dealing with their hormones, school, peers and other pressures. They don’t have the experience and maturity to handle their problems on their own.” Therefore, “Try to overlook this behavior. It is critical to keep the lines of communication open. All your effort should be directed to this goal.”

Lady Bird is an unsettling view of a teenager’s coming of age. In the end, her story is hopeful because Lady Bird, in spite of her arguments with her mother, still keeps the wisdom of her parents in her mind as she navigates her adult life.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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