Breach (2007), directed by Billy Ray

breach posterIn the course of my career, I have occasionally met people who are morally inconsistent. One example comes to mind. He was a synagogue attendee and very charitable towards the institutions I represented, but he gained his wealth by selling drugs, a fact I only learned some time after my friend was incarcerated. Jewish law is very clear: you cannot accomplish a good deed by committing an immoral action. However, in the woof and warp of daily life, many people make ethical compromises to justify an affluent lifestyle and the good deeds that one performs through charitable giving.

Breach, a political thriller based on the true story of Robert Hanssen, describes the banality and paradoxical nature of a man who counts the rosary every day and at the same time betrays the country for which he works.

The story begins as Eric O’Neill, a young FBI employee, is recruited to work undercover as a personal assistant to Robert Hanssen, a 56-year-old veteran FBI agent, who is suspected of giving highly classified information to the Russians, even causing the death of several agents. Their relationship is cool, but over time, Hanssen warms to Eric and sees himself as Eric’s friend and mentor. Moreover, Hanssen is a devout Catholic and encourages Eric to reconnect to the Church. His behavior in the public and private spheres is conflicting and complex, but that is the nature of many people living on the edge of morality and sin.

Although the FBI has enough evidence to send Hanssen to prison, they prefer to catch him in the middle of an act of espionage. In that way, they can use the threat of the death penalty for treason to motivate him to reveal the information he has given to the Russians. They charge Eric with facilitating the sting. A cat and mouse game ensues as Eric tries to lure Hanssen into making a mistake worthy of a major arrest. Even though we know at the outset that Hanssen will be caught and convicted of espionage, and serve life imprisonment for his treason against the state, we still watch with fascination as Eric works to find evidence to imprison him for a long period of time.

A subplot of Breach is Eric’s relationship with his wife, Juliana. Eric is sworn to secrecy, so all Juliana sees is her husband under stress and acting in strange ways. Their marriage is tested when Eric cannot freely communicate with her and share his work with her.

Emuna Braverman, a Jewish educator, in a thoughtful article on the importance of husband-wife communication in marriage cites the Chazon Ish, a revered Jewish scholar, who writes: “Treat your wife as a left hand protecting the right one … and not an independent limb.” What this refers to is the Talmudic notion that the body of the husband and wife are joined metaphorically. It is a symbiotic relationship in which one nourishes and supports the other. For that ideal to be fulfilled, spouses must talk to one another and actively listen to each other. In spite of provocations, Eric and Juliana happily do listen to one another and overcome the challenges of the present moment.

Breach is a brainy thriller. There are no car chases, explosions, or fight scenes. It is a well-painted portrait of a complex man willing to sacrifice his country to satisfy his own needs. What specifically those needs were remains unclear. Perhaps money was his key motivation or perhaps he was motivated by his own ego, a desire on his part to show how flawed was the intelligence community of the United States. No matter what his motivation, his story reminds us that even outwardly good people sometimes do very bad things.

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Dark Horse (2015), directed by Louise Osmond

dark horse posterDark Horse is a horse story, but, in my book, a horse story is always a human story. In the case of Dark Horse, it is a documentary about a barmaid, Jan Vokes, in Wales who decides to breed a racehorse. She enlists the aid of other villagers for advice and to raise the money to breed a champion racehorse. The simple folk who help Jan are not interested in monetary rewards, although they would welcome them. What drives them is friendship and the desire to do something extraordinary that will forever be worthy of remembrance.

The group’s first challenge as investors in the racehorse is to find a mare for an affordable price, and then to find a stud horse to impregnate her with the goal of producing an exceptional racehorse. The result is the foal, which they name Dream Alliance. The next task is to find an experienced trainer to train a horse with no experience on the track, a formidable challenge.

The horse wins and loses races; but the townsfolk never give up on him. They identify with him and feel the joy of winning as well as the disappointment of defeat. When Dream Alliance has a physical problem, they do not abandon him. Rather, they seek ways to protect him even if it means he will race no more. When he wins the prestigious Welsh Grand National Race, an elite race on the horse racing calendar, they celebrate his victory, aware that Dream Alliance represents them, ordinary people who, through an extraordinary series of events, have emerged as true winners in life.

One of the joys of the film is its depiction of the camaraderie of the simple Welsh owners. They are in the horserace business because it allows them to dream of a life beyond the mundane. Being the owner of racehorse, from a psychological and sociological perspective, gives them a temporary way out of the humdrum life they lead, allowing them to experience something new and exciting. They don’t mind losing. They just want to enjoy the ride and the company of friends as they bask in the experience of racing horse ownership.

Against the background of this horse story is a narrative about status and class. The lower class owners of Dream Alliance, plagued by a bleak economic reality, encounter a cool reception from the upper crust echelons of “the sport of kings,” horse owners who devote vast financial resources to producing world-class racehorses. Only when Dream Alliance shatters all expectations do they grudgingly acknowledge the presence of these local yokels who are making race history.

In Jewish history there are a plethora of underdog stories in which the weak vanquish the strong. In modern times, the Six-Day War is the paradigm of unlikely heroes changing the course of history. No one expected the Israelis to win a battle against an array of Arab nations bent on destroying Israel, but they did.

Another classic underdog story is the narrative of Chanukah in which the Jews vanquish the superior military force of the Seleucid Greeks. On paper, the Jews had no chance of winning; but the Jews banded together and possessed a clear vision that enabled them to succeed despite the odds.

Winning battles over physically stronger opponents is one of many themes embedded in Dark Horse. But there are more things about which the film makes us think. It reminds us of the value of friendship, of the great things that can be accomplished when average people band together to achieve an uncommon goal, when egos are submerged for the good of all.

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Ricki and the Flash (2015), directed by Jonathan Demme

ricki-and-the-flashThere often is a price paid for celebrity, especially for family members. I read of Hollywood movie stars who have dysfunctional kids getting into all sorts of trouble and trafficking in drugs.

Nothing is simple and we know life is complicated, but the suggestion clearly exists that parents who make their personal fame a priority are often not available for their own children. As a result of their frequent absence, these kids find other role models and succumb to negative influences.

Ricki and the Flash depicts this kind of conflict. We see Ricki as a middle-aged rock star who has made a choice between fame and family. She has chosen fame.

One telling exchange between her ex-husband, Pete, and her reveals her thinking at the time she left the family. He observes: “I thought we were your dream.” She responds: “I can’t have two dreams.”

What brings Ricki into contact with her ex is a phone call from him informing her that their daughter, Julie, is having a nervous breakdown after being abandoned by her husband. Pete feels that at this moment of crisis, she needs her mother’s presence.

Ricki, who has very little money, immediately scrapes up the necessary funds to fly from her California home to Indianapolis to be with Julie. Julie at first is not happy to see her estranged mother, but the relationship soon warms and Julie begins to come out of her depression.

While with Julie at the family home, Ricki also reunites with her two other children, sons Daniel and Josh, both of whom barely have a relationship with their mother. Moreover, Pete’s current wife Maureen is upset at the upheaval in the home caused by Ricki’s arrival. Maureen and Ricki’s first meeting is fraught with tension and ends with Maureen asking Ricki to leave.

Things turn for the better, however, when Maureen writes a letter of apology to Ricki and invites her to Daniel’s upcoming wedding. The wedding becomes the occasion when Ricki and her kids finally understand and appreciate one another in spite of Ricki’s being absent from their lives for so many years. Ricki cannot make up for the years of absence; but her abiding love of her children, especially manifested in times of crisis, enables mother and child to still love one another irrespective of past disappointments.

Jewish law is very clear on parent child relationships. Parents have an obligation to teach their children morality and ethics, to give them an opportunity to learn a vocation, and to teach them how to swim, which means how to swim through life and navigate all the challenges that confront a child growing up.

I remember great Torah teachers of mine who would spend time every week studying with their children in the evening, even though the kids were being taught in school. The parent desired face time with his child, and did not want to delegate all of his child’s education to the school.

Moreover, there is a custom in Jewish homes of blessing the children on the onset of the Sabbath on Friday nights. The parent stands in front of the child, utters the priestly blessing showering Divine protection over his offspring, and at the blessing’s conclusion embraces the child and plants a kiss on his or her face. The ritual is a reminder that there is no substitute for face time with a child.

Although it is sad to observe Ricki’s dysfunctional relationship with her kids, there is some comfort in knowing that parents and children can have a rapprochement even after many years of neglecting their relationship. Ricki and the Flash reminds us that even though family ties never break, they weaken when a parent is absent. There is no substitute for a warm embrace.

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Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (1997), directed by John Madden

mrs-brownWhen I was in eighth grade, I invited Dolly, a girl I knew through my local JCC, to my junior high school. I wanted to show her the building in which I took great pride. I had nothing in mind other than to show her my classrooms, but my visit after the school’s regular hours caught the attention of the school janitor who reported my unconventional visit to the principal. The next day I was summoned to his office and given a reprimand for escorting Dolly by myself after school. What I did was give the appearance of impropriety, and the incident gave me a visceral awareness of how appearances can often telegraph the wrong message about a person or event.

Mrs. Brown deals with the consequences of not considering how things look and, instead, just doing something because you want to do it. The film opens with information about Queen Victoria, who mourns her deceased husband, Prince Albert, long after he has died. Prince Albert spent lots of time with his servant John Brown, and the Queen’s advisors summon Brown to court to spend some time with the Queen and hopefully convince her to return to public life.

Things do not as planned, however, when Brown becomes an important man in the eyes of the Queen, who perceives him as a good friend and loyal subject who wants only to protect her. As a result, Brown foments tension at the court between himself and the royal family and the Queen’s long-time advisors. Even members of the public, the press, and politicians begin to resent Brown’s influence over the Queen. Soon rumors abound that Brown and the Queen are having an affair, all of which are unsubstantiated.

As the Queen’s popularity drops, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli encourages Brown to persuade the Queen to return to her public duties, arguing that this will please the people and be good for the monarchy in England. Brown reluctantly acquiesces to Disraeli’s request, but the Queen views his suggestion as a personal betrayal. As a result, their relationship begins to fracture, but their abiding friendship for each other weathers the storm.

Jewish tradition and Jewish law is very much concerned about the appearance of impropriety. The classic Biblical case is the woman suspected of adultery. If the husband warns his wife not to be alone with a certain man and she goes against his will, there is a suspicion that during the time that they are alone, they have been intimate with one another. This suspicion generates a ritual in which the woman has to drink a certain mixture of waters to determine her guilt. It is a trial by ordeal.

Another example of the Bible’s concern for impropriety is the discussion that Moses has with the tribes of Reuben and Gad who want to remain on the eastern side of the Jordan instead of entering the Promised Land. Moses permits them to do so as long as they join in war to conquer the Land of Israel. If they do that, then they will be “cleared before God and before Israel.” The Talmud derives from this a general principle that one has to consider not only how God, who knows all, sees an action, but how an act will be seen by people as well.

The story of Queen Victoria’s friendship with John Brown illustrates the consequences of impropriety, especially in the arena of public life. Being in the public eye creates enormous social pressure to be above suspicion of any kind. The implicit message of Mrs. Brown is to be sensitive to how one’s actions can convey mistaken impressions no matter what one’s station in life.

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Captain Fantastic (21016), directed by Matt Ross

captain-fantasticAs an educator for many years, I have encountered parents who opt for home schooling instead of enrolling their children into a traditional school. Sometimes the motive of the parent is to save the cost of private school tuition; at other times parents truly feel that conventional schools are often inferior and do not sufficiently tap a child’s intellectual potential. For these parents, home schooling offers an alternative and parents begin enthusiastically to educate their own kids at home.

Problems with this arrangement arise as the child gets older and needs more specialized education. It is rare that parents are skilled enough to meet the child’s growing academic needs, and home schooling becomes very labor intensive. Academic requirements often exceed what the average parent can deliver.

Captain Fantastic tells the story of parents who opt for home schooling and do not give up as their six children mature and the demands of home schooling increase exponentially. They understand that home schooling is by its very nature unpredictable and idiosyncratic, and adversity does not lessen their enthusiasm for it.

Ben Cash and his wife Leslie live with their six children in the Pacific Northwest. They are principled people who reject the American capitalist way of life and, instead, create for their children a learning environment where independent, critical thought is valued. Ben and Leslie teach their kids to think out-of-the-box, to question everything, and to learn skills that will enable them to survive in all kinds of challenging environments.

Life changes when Leslie dies leaving Ben totally in charge of his children’s education. His sister Harper tries to convince him to enroll the kids in a traditional school, but to no avail. His in-laws suggest the same, but he refuses their suggestion and their aid.

As time goes on, the children begin to question their father’s philosophy and his parenting skills. One even accuses him of being complicit in his mother’s untimely death. Family unity begins to unravel until Ben finally has an epiphany that his parenting practices might lead the children to very dangerous places. He then understands the importance of balance in navigating between the real and academic worlds.

In Jewish tradition, the educational ideal is for a parent to be the child’s teacher. The Bibles adjures parents: “ And you shall teach your children.” Proverbs states: “Listen, my son to the ethical instruction of your father and to the Torah of your mother.” But then reality asserts itself when parents are not capable of imparting wisdom because their own knowledge is limited. The Talmud tells us that when this happened historically, the Sages established schools to take on the parental task of educating children. Ultimately, what resulted is a synergy between parent and school in which both educated children and shaped their adult identities. The key is balance; one influence should not cancel out the other. Both contribute to the development of the child’s total personality.

Captain Fantastic, which refers to the charismatic father sensitively played by Viggo Mortensen, is an appealing character. It is clear that he loves his children dearly and wants the best for them. He shares their pain and their joy, and his kids recognize the love that underpins every interaction between them and him. Problems, however, arise in the crucible of life experience when educational theory meets reality. It is then that their relationship is tested.

The film reminds us that sometimes the ideal has to be tempered with real life demands in order for people to navigate life intelligently. Living a life without compromise of any sort may be intellectually satisfying, but also may be emotionally draining and even dangerous. The key to successful parenting, in the Jewish view, is to encourage children to lead a balanced life.

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Room (2015), directed by Lenny Abrahamson

room-posterThere is a story in the Talmud about a sage, Rabbi Elazar, who made disparaging remarks about an ugly man, whereupon the ugly man said that he was created ugly by God and that was his lot through no fault of his own. The sage regretted the unkind words he said and an overwhelming sense of remorse plagued him. The sage died soon thereafter.

The takeaway lesson learned is that one should not be critical or judgmental about a person who suffers indignity through no fault of his own. On the contrary, one should try to embrace such a person and make him feel a valued member of the community. The tragic story of Ma in Room illustrates one of the consequences of holding someone accountable over events over which one has no control.

The film begins with Jack, a five-year old, saying hello to all the things in his room. He shares the room with his mother who plays with him and does exercises with him. We learn that Old Nick provides food to them and basic toiletries but does not permit them to leave the room, locking it with a padlock code. The cubicle is soundproof and has no windows except for a skylight. They have a TV, but it is on a closed circuit with limited programming. Jack thinks of the people on the screen as aliens. In spite of these limitations, Ma teaches Jack, educating him as best as she can.

We soon learn that at age 17 a man told her he had a sick dog that he wanted her to see. The man then abducted her and kept her locked up in a room. She had a child, Jack, with him and has been trapped in the room for seven years. Jack knows nothing of the real world outside, and has trouble conceptualizing information about the real world that his mother is giving him now on his fifth birthday.

Desperate to escape, Ma hatches a plan, which involves Jacob being rolled in rug and pretending he is dead. Then Ma asks Old Nick to bury him outside in the real world. The scene of Jacob traveling in the truck bed and seeing the real world with leaves and trees for the first time is a powerful emotional awakening for Jacob, one that the viewer viscerally experiences. It is a magic cinematic moment.

Ma and Jack’s release from years of forced confinement is not the end of story. The narrative continues with their adjustment to freedom and trying to lead a normal life. Jack gets vaccinated for the first time and has to wear a mask and sunscreen while he builds up his immunity to the environment. His grandfather and grandmother embrace their long lost daughter, but her grandfather has difficulty looking at his grandson, the result of his daughter being raped by her abductor.

This brief but disturbing interchange between father and daughter depresses Ma because she feels her forced incarceration, which occurred through no fault of her own, has stigmatized her and her son. It is an unsettling reality, which she now has to endure.

Judaism has a different approach to the victim of rape. Yoni Lavie, a contemporary Orthodox rabbi, observes that it is important to reassure a rape victim that there is nothing wrong with her and she should feel no guilt. She does not have to repent for she is still “pure, pristine and righteous.”

Room is a difficult film to watch because it portrays people in extremely dire straits. However, ultimately it reminds us that no matter how bad our situation may have been in the past, we can, with patience and kindness, still move beyond the most horrible of realities.

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Infinitely Polar Bear (2014), directed by Maya Forbes

infinitely-polar-bear-posterAs a child with a Downs Syndrome sister, I recall in the 1950s families with Downs Syndrome children often kept their kids in the proverbial closet. My mother and father thought differently. They felt Carol, their daughter, needed to be visible in the community and that the community should provide the resources for such kids to develop their potential to the fullest extent possible. That’s why my mother fought for the establishment for a school in Westchester County for the mentally retarded and, when Carol was older, for the establishment of a retarded children’s workshop in White Plains so that Carol could feel and be productive in her mature years.

Not all parents felt the same way. Some wanted to hide the disability, for they were uncomfortable saying they had a retarded child. I know of one specific instance where the parents decided not to take the child home from the hospital, consigning the baby to life in an institution.

Infinitely Polar Bear does not deal with mental retardation, but rather with a manic-depressive father and the family’s attempt to live a normal life, which is challenged every day by the erratic and outlandish behavior of the father.

It is Boston in the late 1970s. Cameron Stuart suffers from manic depression, sometimes referred to as bipolar disorder. The film begins with him being fired from his job and going into rehabilitation in a hospital setting. To manage the situation financially, his wife Maggie and their two young girls move into a small apartment while she does her best to support the family.

As Cameron’s mental health stabilizes, Maggie applies to graduate school for an M.B.A. so she can earn more money and send her girls to private school. Fortuitously, Columbia University grants her a scholarship. To attend, she asks Cameron to take care of their kids for 18 months, the time she needs to complete the degree, after which they can reunite as a family. Cameron agrees, but has his doubts about whether he can fulfill the mission.

Living with their father is a constant source of embarrassment for the girls. They love him dearly, but Cameron’s bizarre behavior tests them. He occasionally abandons them during the night, is overly friendly with neighbors whom he hardly knows, and begins many home improvement projects that are never finished, leaving the house in disarray. To complicate matters, Cameron does not take the meds needed to keep him calm, and the home life of the family is shattered with frequent emotional outbursts.

Infinitely Polar Bear raises the question of how much a child should tolerate the abusive behavior of a parent. The Talmud in the Tractate of Kiddushin (31a) is instructive. A story is recounted in which a prominent man wearing expensive garments was seated among Roman officials. His mother forced her way into the gathering and tore his garment, hit him on the head, and spat in front of him. In spite of this, he did not embarrass her. Another sage states that if the mother threw his wallet into the sea, the child should remain passive and not embarrass his parent.

Implicit in this Talmudic narrative is the notion that honoring parents does not depend on what parents did for you or whether they were good to you. Rather the commandment to honor parents is simply because they gave you life. As a result, you need to be nice to them even if they are not nice to you.

Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin, a clinical psychologist, considers the extent to which a child should honor a parent who is abusive. He makes a distinction between a parent who is mentally competent and one who is deranged. In the former, there is more latitude for the child to respond to abuse; in the latter case, there is less. When a parent, for example, has bipolar disorder or Alzheimer’s, the child is faced with a great challenge to keep his composure in the face of behavior that might otherwise be condemned.

Infinitely Polar Bear reminds us of the challenge of being respectful to parents even when they do not behave as parents. It also indicates that an abiding love for parents can often overcome the worst of parental provocations.

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