Category Archives: Action/Adventure

1917 (2019), directed by Sam Mendes

There was a time when I thought that if I spoke to someone in order to correct his behavior, he would see the wisdom of my remarks and improve his behavior. As I have gotten older, I realize that my speaking to someone rarely will effect change unless that person is ready to hear what I have to say.

My conversation may relieve me emotionally, but it does not move the other person to act differently, unless, of course, it is a matter of life and death. This is the dilemma that is at the core of 1917, a war film depicting the efforts of two British soldiers during World War I to deliver a message deep inside German territory to prevent 1600 Allied soldiers from walking into a deadly trap.

The narrative begins when General Erinmore briefs two young British soldiers, Schofield and Blake, about aerial surveillance revealing that the Germans are not in retreat as some generals think. Rather, the Germans are setting a trap for the British soldiers.

A message needs to be sent to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment to call off their planned attack scheduled for the next day. It is a perilous mission for Schofield and Blake. In addition to the possibility of encountering enemy soldiers, there are trip wires and explosions along the way that jeopardize the soldiers’ mission.

An officer whom they meet in their journey gives them a piece of advice; namely, that when they transmit the message, they need to make sure there are witnesses because sometimes people just want to fight even in the face of conflicting evidence that one should retreat. This advice motivates the soldiers, entrusted with the task of telling a battle hungry commander to retreat, to make sure that the officer accepts their message and saves the lives of the soldiers. This will require the commander of the 2nd Battalion to abandon his own view and adopt his superior’s, which, as a good soldier, he will do in spite of his own objections.

The question is: will the soldiers deliver the message in time? Their tension-filled trek across a dangerous landscape forms the dramatic crux of the film.

The Torah informs us that we have to do whatever we can to prevent someone from making a clearly bad decision: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor “ (Leviticus 19:16). If a person knows that someone is in danger, he must try to prevent harm to that person. This especially applies when the failure to change someone’s mind will lead to certain loss of life. Schofield and Blake understand that the successful completion of their mission will save lives, and that is the catalyst for their supreme efforts to transmit the message.

Rabbi Shraga Simmons observes that the most effective way to convince someone to change his perceptions is through presenting him with obvious proof, not by rebuking him or arguing with him, or cleverly persuading him. Rabbi Simmons writes: “Nobody likes to be told what to do. Therefore, it is the act of self-realization that eliminates the defensive reaction… and produces effective change. For example, Joseph got the brothers to realize the internal contradiction of their own argument. He did not rebuke them. No doubt this is what King Solomon meant when he said, Give rebuke to a wise personand he’ll love you (Proverbs 9:8).” This, in essence, is what happens when the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion sees incontrovertible evidence that his troops are in mortal danger.

Indeed, we are all part of the family of man. If we have the ability to save others from harm, or to influence them positively, then we should try our best to do so. The Sages of old tell us that if a person has the ability to help others and does not help, then he is in part responsible for the outcome. We share responsibility for one another. The lesson is central to the emotions and thoughts of soldiers Schofield and Blake, who comprehend that the success of their mission will save the lives of others.

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The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019), directed by Simon Curtis

A friend of mine has two dogs. What is unusual is that as a child, he was petrified of dogs. Yet now he is an adult and dogs are an integral part of his life. I am not sure why his attitude towards dogs changed, but it is clear every time I visit him that the dogs provide unconditional love for him, his wife, and his kids. Indeed, the dogs are a genuine part of his family.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is a dog story, but we know that every dog story is really a story about people. The title of the film is a term used by Denny, an auto racing teacher and a race driver, to describe the particular skill of controlling the car when the surface of the road is wet and unpredictable. The term is a metaphor for being able to manage the unpredictability of life. Denny says it best: “The best drivers only focus on the present.” They do not let the burdens of the past or the uncertainties of the future prevent them from moving forward.

The film opens as Enzo, an old Golden Retriever, is near death and is waiting for his owner, Denny, to come home. Denny arrives and carries Enzo out of the house. As he does so, the film’s narration begins as Enzo begins to tell the story of his life.

Denny buys Enzo as a pup and the two bond strongly. A year later, Denny marries Eve, and Enzo’s life is disrupted for a short time until he gets used to sharing Denny with his beloved Eve. Eve’s parents, Maxwell and Trish, express misgivings about Denny’s career choice, and worry when Denny and Eve start a family.

Their daughter, Zoe, gives great joy to Denny and Eve and to her parents as well. Denny, Eve, and Zoe lead idyllic lives until Eve develops brain cancer. Her love for Denny and Zoe enables her to survive for a short time, but then she succumbs to her illness.

Denny is at a crossroads. He has left his racing career to care for his cherished wife and now he has to care for his daughter. Eve’s parents go to court to gain custody of Zoe, feeling that Denny is often absent from home and unfit to take care of her. The custody battle turns ugly when Denny inadvertently knocks down Maxwell, his father-in-law, causing him to break a rib.

Throughout all of this family turmoil, Enzo stays with Denny, serving as his quiet and loyal friend. Although Enzo cannot talk, his presence is comforting to Denny, and Enzo looks forward to time after death when he thinks that he will be reincarnated as a human being.

Enzo’s thought processes are given expression in his very human observations of his owner and the world around Denny. Judaism generally considers dogs as not having a soul like that of a human being; but, according to some Kabbalistic sources, dogs do go to “heaven,” and live some kind of afterlife.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin, a noted Jewish educator, writes: “while they are different from humans, animals too have souls that live on and can be elevated. This idea presents us with an enormous responsibility in our interactions with the animal kingdom. After all, the animal’s elevation in the afterlife can be dependent upon our positive interactions with it.”

Enzo probably would have a great life in the hereafter because of his interactions with his loyal and kind owner Denny. Their easy rapport with one another underpins a deep relationship between human and dog, a relationship in which Enzo gives emotional support to his owner who has endured the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for dog is kelev, which is a contraction of the words kol lev, meaning “a full heart.” The good dog is the one who is loyal, serving us with a full heart, reducing our stress and supporting us through tough times.

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Ford v. Ferrari (2019), directed by James Mangold

A rabbinic colleague once confessed to me that he disliked one of his synagogue board members. Feeling that the board member was always out to get him, he had to control his anger whenever he spoke to him.

I cautioned my friend never to lose his cool when speaking with this person. In spite of his negative feelings for him, it was important to maintain cordial relations, not only because of the many Jewish sources frowning upon anger, but also because he may need his support in the future to accomplish the Torah goals of his rabbinate. I told him: do not antagonize people that can hurt you. In Ford v. Ferrari, Carroll Shelby, an American car designer, and Ken Miles, a superb race car driver, are tested in the crucible of life experience to maintain calm when everyone around them wants to interfere with their jobs.

Carroll Shelby, a professional racer, is compelled to retire early because of a heart condition. Realizing he no longer can race, he develops his other interest, designing race cars. In the course of his work, he meets Ken Miles, a race car driver and an exceptional mechanic who follows his own inclinations as he runs his car repair shop.

Customers admire Miles’ attention to detail, but bristle at his brusque demeanor. Customers dwindle and he finds himself unable to support his wife and child.

While all this is happening, Henry Ford II is struggling to improve Ford’s bottom line in the face of sagging sales. Lee Iacocca, a Ford executive, suggests that Ford field a race car at the celebrated 24-hour Le Mans race in France to change Ford’s image in the minds of the many young people ready to buy new cars.

Ford then hires Carroll Shelby to design and test cars for the race. Shelby asks Ken Miles to be his driver, and Miles accepts knowing that the corporate powers at Ford are worried about his unpredictability as a spokesman for Ford. Throughout the car’s development, Shelby and Miles are second-guessed by Ford management who view the entire initiative as a public relations project, not as a test to prove Ford’s racing dominance over Ferrari, the winner of Le Mans for many years. Ken is angry when his desire for excellence is countermanded by Ford’s desire for expediency and immediate results. Ken becomes so disillusioned with their interference that he wants to quit, but Shelby convinces him to stay the course, and not allow anger to control his responses to Ford’s interference.

The Talmud tells us, “The life of those who cannot control their anger is not a life (Pesachim 113b). Moreover, “when a person gets angry, if he is a sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him (Pesachim 66b). The great Maimonides writes that when someone becomes angry, it is as if he worships idols (Hilchot Deot 2:3). The Sages caution us not to be angry, for when we are angry we do not see the consequences of our actions and often do things we regret later on. When it comes to the trait of anger, Maimonides says there is no middle way (Hilchot Deot 2:3). We should avoid it at all costs. It may be necessary to appear angry at times, but we should not actually be angry.

The Orchot Tzadikim, a 15th century ethicist, observes that anger destroys personal relationships. People do not like to be around angry people; therefore, angry people often end up isolated, apart from friends and even from family. Furthermore, anger often drives out positive emotions like forgiveness, compassion, empathy, and sensitivity.

Ken Miles in Ford v. Ferrari begins as a quick-tempered man, prone to anger. Through real life experience, he learns that by controlling his emotions and his responses to provocations, he can lead a more satisfying life.

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Ready Player One (2018), directed by Steven Spielberg

I recently gave a talk on “kosher movies” to seniors in a New Jersey high school. In the Q&A after my presentation, one student asked why I did not discuss any superhero movie. The question reminded me that the cinematic points of reference in my talk were before the superhero craze in moviegoing. I was thinking of the past; the kids were thinking of the future.

Ready Player One is a story of the future, but rooted in the past. By exposing oneself to both past and future, our heroes learn that what links the generations is the human connection, not the artificial game, no matter how immersive it many be. Let me explain.

The story opens in 2045 in Columbus, Ohio, in a place called “The Stacks.” It looks like low-income housing, constructed by using trailers stacked on top of one another, but separated by staircases and poles.

Wade Watts has no living parents and resides with his Aunt Alice in this run-down neighborhood. In this dystopian world, Wade, along with many others, escapes his dreary reality by entering the Oasis, a virtual reality world where people can find entertainments of all sorts and where they can be avatars, fictional representatives of themselves capable of extraordinary feats. Wade’s avatar is Parzival, a super cool dude who does not physically resemble Wade, who in real life is a brainy nerd.

This virtual reality of the Oasis world spans time. Once in it, a person can uncover the past as well gain insight into the future. These time shifts are both clever and humorous. There are memorable characters and scenes from cinema classics like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Moreover, a plethora of other pop culture iconic images and references inhabit the Oasis.

We learn that the Oasis was created by James Halliday and his friend and fellow scientist, Ogden Morrow. At his death, Halliday proclaims the ultimate challenge for his fans. He informs them that he has hidden an Easter egg, a secret, within the game that will be revealed after someone successfully completes three challenges. The reward: half a trillion dollars and total control of the Oasis.

Wade’s main competitor is Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of a nefarious high tech company that wants to sabotage Wade’s efforts to meet Halliday’s challenges. Sorrento wants to commercialize the Oasis and claim the reward money for himself.

After a number of visually immersive chases and battles, Wade and Halliday express their profound belief that the real world is more important than the escapism that the Oasis provides. That is the legacy they want to endure. Kenneth Turan, movie critic for the LA Times perhaps sums up the movie’s message best: “While on the surface, this futuristic film is a celebration of gamers, gaming and the pleasures to be found in immersive virtual reality, underlying it all is a heartfelt brief for abandoning all screens and enjoying the satisfactions of the real world.”

Mem Bernstein, a philanthropist, articulates this perspective in a message she delivered to a group of donors. To her, the legacy of real-world accomplishments is what really matters. She paraphrases the Ethics of the Fathers: “you are not expected to complete the task, but you should insure that there are others who will continue to work on it.” This is essentially what Halliday and Wade desire for the future of the Oasis in Ready Player One. It is okay to enjoy the fantasy world of the Oasis in the short term; but, in the long run, one should always remember to nurture the human connections that underpin it.

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Arctic (2018), directed by Joe Penna

One of the key skills I nurtured as a high school principal was to remain calm in the midst of stress and chaos. I recall the time when, on a class trip to New York, a student got lost at Rockefeller Center for over a half hour or the time students on a subway in New York gave money to a panhandler who responded by shouting that the money given him was not enough and began to threaten them. Thankfully, calm prevailed and both incidents ended happily. The ability to remain calm in the face of adversity is one of the key elements in Arctic, a survival story about Overgard, a cargo pilot whose plane crashes in a desolate Arctic wasteland.

As he waits for rescue, we see he is a problem-solver, not prone to panic. For example, he digs holes in the ice into which he places fishing lines to catch arctic trout. He also runs a distress beacon powered by a hand crank dynamo. Moreover, he clears away snow to create a gigantic SOS sign that can be seen by a plane flying overhead.

When a helicopter appears on the horizon to rescue him, tragically it crashes because of sudden strong winds. The pilot dies; but his passenger, the pilot’s young wife, survives badly injured and unconscious. Overgard carries her to his plane and attempts to provide rudimentary first-aid.

Soon he has to make a choice: stay with the plane and wait for rescue or leave the plane and try to find succor on foot? In the downed helicopter, he finds some food, a propane cooker, some medical equipment, a sled, and a map of the area. He then decides to make the trek to a refuge that appears to be only several days away. He secures the young woman to the sled and begins his journey, motivated by the knowledge that if he does not leave, the woman will surely die without proper medical attention.

Along the way, he faces several challenges. A polar bear terrorizes them, the map is inaccurate and forces him to take a longer route because he cannot surmount a rocky hill while pulling the sled, and he falls into a deep crevasse injuring his leg. Throughout the entire ordeal, he continually reassures the woman that help is only a matter of a day or so away, even though he knows it is not. He also assuages her fear by reiterating that she is not alone. At every step of the journey, Overgard is torn between being cautious and taking a courageous risk, between taking care of himself and altruistically taking care of his injured sled passenger, whom he encourages by telling her she is not alone.

Knowing that someone is with you at a time of crisis is a powerful antidote to despair. I recall an encounter I had during my early years as a synagogue rabbi. While visiting a hospital, I serendipitously met Aaron. He was 89 years old with no family, alone in the hospital. He told me he did not mind dying, but the staff at the hospital does not leave him alone. They insist on doing all they can to keep him alive. He asks me to send a message to mankind: people essentially love one another. He is so impressed with the goodness of other human beings that he breaks down in tears and thanks me for being with him.

Judaism offers several responses to adversity, which are highlighted by Breindy Lazor, a Jewish educator, on the Aish HaTorah website. They include the following: When faced with stark choices, always choose life over death. Help others who are less fortunate than you. Become better, not bitter. Focus on the positive. Take responsibility for your future.

Overgard in Arctic understands these Jewish responses to adversity. In spite of focusing on his own survival, he takes the high ethical road and does his best to save the other as well as himself. His altruism is worthy of emulation.

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Tomb Raider (2018), directed by Roar Uthaug

 A friend of mine who recently lost his mother shared with me an interesting vignette. When he was a guest at someone’s home, he very much enjoyed the soup that the hostess served. He then asked her for the recipe so that he could share it with his mother, forgetting for the moment that she had died a few weeks before.

The incident reminded me that parents and children possess a powerful bond with one another that emotionally transcends the physical. Even when they are no longer in this world, we still feel connected to them. The powerful connection between parent and child is at the center of Tomb Raider, an adventure in which a child embarks on a treacherous search for a long lost parent, whom most considered dead.

When we first meet Lara Croft, she is working as a bike courier in East London while simultaneously taking college classes and often not making it to the lecture. Although she is the heir to her father’s global wealth, she is fiercely independent and wants to make it on her own.

We soon learn that her father, Richard Croft, was an adventurer who disappeared seven yours before, and Lara is not reconciled to the narratives suggesting he is dead. She is not ready to mourn for him or to move on with her life because she secretly senses he is still alive. When confronted with the opportunity to control all of his wealth, she passes on it and decides to undertake a perilous journey to the site of her father’s last known destination, a mythical island off the coast of Japan.

Her father’s disappearance is connected to the legend of an ancient sorceress named Himiko, who is reputed to be a source of evil and destruction. Her burial plot is on the island; and the legend is that anyone who opens her tomb will unleash a torrent of destruction on the world. Hence, Richard Croft traveled to the island to insure that Himiko’s evil would not spread by getting into the wrong hands.

He bids farewell to his daughter reluctantly, only because he feels that his intervention can prevent a world catastrophe. They part from one another; but the ties between father and daughter, which are rooted in blood and a similar disposition to help the unfortunate, run deep and they survive absence from one another.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a well-known Jewish educator, sheds light on the nature of enduring love in the face of physical separation. He observes that the Biblical Jacob refused to be comforted for Joseph even after he heard that a wild beast killed him and after he saw his son’s bloodied cloak. Jacob, indeed, intuited that Joseph was still alive: “A Midrash gives a remarkable explanation. One can be comforted for one who is dead, but not for one who is still living, it says. In other words, Jacob refused to be comforted because he had not yet given up hope that Joseph was still alive. That, tragically, is the fate of those who have lost members of their family (the parents of soldiers missing in action, for example) but have as yet no proof that they are dead. They cannot go through the normal stages of mourning because they cannot abandon the possibility that the missing person is still capable of being rescued. Their continuing anguish is a form of loyalty; to give up, to mourn, to be reconciled to loss is a kind of betrayal. In such cases, grief lacks closure. To refuse to be comforted is to refuse to give up hope.”

Tomb Raider reminds us that the relationship between parent and child is unique and can withstand many challenges. Separation may test that connection, but the love between parent and child endures.

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Balibo (2009), directed by Robert Connolly

 In recent years, the concept of “fake news” has gained popular currency. People, generally, are less accepting of the word of mass media. However, there was a time when people trusted the news outlets. If Tom Brokaw or Walter Cronkite reported something, we assumed it was true and we had great respect for those who reported the news. Balibo harks back to a time when people looked to the newsman to find out what was happening in the world and relied upon reporters to deliver the truth.

The film, Balibo, follows the Balibo Five, a cohort of five journalists who were captured by Indonesian forces invading the tiny country of East Timor in 1975. They subsequently were killed while reporting on the conflict.

The story begins when Roger East, a veteran journalist, journeys to East Timor in 1975 to investigate the death of the reporters and to set up a news agency to broadcast news about the impending Indonesian invasion. He does this at the encouragement of young, charismatic activist Jose Ramos-Horta, who was East Timor’s secretary of foreign affairs.

Jose feels that the desperate plight of the people of East Timor will receive more international attention if the fate of the Australian journalists in East Timor is front-page news. The journalists are white while the East Timorese are brown, and the English media will identify with the Anglo journalists, not the brown-skinned Timorese whom, by and large, are anonymous. In fact, at the end of the invasion, which took place over an extended period of time, almost 200,000 East Timorese were killed.

The crux of the film revolves around the question of whether, given the dangerous environment, the journalists who, indeed, were in harm’s way, should have pulled out earlier. The reporters, totally focused on getting out the story, are depicted as naïve and naturally competitive, two qualities that often encourage simplistic thinking without considering the risks involved in a particular course of action.

Jewish law has a clear perspective on risk-taking. Dr. Daniel Eisenberg, a Jewish educator, writes: “Risk is everywhere — an unavoidable part of daily life. What are the parameters of our obligation to protect ourselves from everyday dangers? Judaism teaches God gave each person a body to use, but we are required to protect it. This is a difficult balancing act. If we are overly cautious, we miss out on much in life. Yet if we are reckless, we risk destroying the very body we were given to protect. What is the prudent course and what are the limitations?”

Dr. Eisenberg provides an answer: “In addition to removing hazards, the Torah twice commands us to protect our health, safety and well being. For example, the Talmud forbids walking near a shaky wall, lest it fall and injure the passerby. Similarly, all dangerous pursuits (bungy-jumping is an example) are proscribed.

Obviously, there is latitude in evaluating how much risk is acceptable. A person need not avoid small risks that are accepted by the rest of normal society without undue concern.

Judaism recognizes the need to earn a livelihood as a mitigating factor in allowing risky behavior. The Talmud asks: Why does the worker climb the tree and risk his life? Is it not to earn his wages?

Intrinsic in the Talmud’s argument is the assumption that one may take risks to earn a living that would not otherwise be permitted. Someone has to paint the bridge, build the skyscraper, and dive for pearls. So long as the risk stays within reasonable parameters, such activities are permitted as professions.

The exact degree of risk in any endeavor always remains hazy. And the overarching rule is the obligation to protect one’s health.”

It is clear that the idealistic journalists in Balibo confront extraordinary risk to life and, from the perspective of Jewish law, overreach normal standards of risk. Although their goal is worthy, they make the mistake of accepting an unacceptable risk.

 

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