Category Archives: Action/Adventure

Jaws (1975), directed by Steven Spielberg

jawsA number of years ago, drugs were discovered in the locker of a student in our high school. The school had a zero tolerance policy, which mandated immediate expulsion for the offending student. The parents appealed for a second chance, arguing that their child would be lost Jewishly if she were to leave a Jewish day school. I understood what was at stake, but I could not sacrifice the wellbeing of the many for the good of one.

It was a painful decision. I tried to be very helpful in finding another school for the student, but it was clear to me that the parents in the school wanted their kids to be in a safe environment above all, and I could not equivocate on this issue. The good of the many had to prevail over the good of the one.

A similar dilemma presents itself in Jaws, the classic film about a killer shark that invades Amity Island, a New England tourist town that depends on vacationer dollars during the summer season. When a body is washed up on shore, Martin Brody, the local police chief, knows that it was the victim of a shark attack and wants to close the beaches. The mayor, however, fearing a major loss of tourist revenue, does not want the beaches closed and prevails on the authorities to list the fatality as a result of a boating accident. For the mayor, the good of the few, the local businessmen, outweighs the good of the many. It is not until two more people are killed does the mayor acknowledge the real threat of the shark.

Once the beaches are closed, Brody hires Quint, a local fisherman with experience killing sharks, to hunt the shark. Matt Hooper, a scientist from the Oceanographic Institute, joins the crew, bringing along an array of high-tech equipment including tracking devices, harpoons, scuba gear and tanks, and a supposed shark-proof steel cage.

Once out in the open waters in Quint’s vessel, the Orca, they lure the shark by tossing fish guts and blood around the boat. Eventually this attracts the great white shark. Quint harpoons it with a rope attached to a flotation barrel, but the shark pulls the barrel under the water and disappears under the boat, displaying an uncanny intelligence, which separates it from other sharks that Quint has hunted. There is an eerie suggestion that the shark knows the intention of the Orca’s crew and is determined to destroy them. A hair-raising finale ensues pitting brute force against skill, technology, and courage.

The debate between Martin Brody and the mayor about when to publicize the shark attack relates to the larger philosophic question of when to reveal potentially life-threatening information, a matter discussed in the codes of Jewish law. Generally, the determining factor is whether health and safety are at stake. If the information is needed to preserve life, then clearly it must be revealed immediately. If, however, the revealing of such information will possibly lead to the shortening of life, then it should be withheld. The classic example is the doctor telling a depressed patient that he has only a very brief time to live, and thus increasing his sense of despondency and decreasing his will to live.

In Jaws, the mayor has no such reasons to avoid telling the truth other than an economic one. In order to insure that the townspeople make great profits during the tourist season, he puts lives as risk. Such a financial motive is no justification for falsehoods. Jaws, indeed, is a cautionary tale about the folly of placing monetary gain over the absolute good of saving lives.

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Baby Driver (2017), directed by Edgar Wright

 baby driverI remember hearing about the incident. I learned that two young boys were playing around with each other and one of them had a stick with a nail on the end of it. In the course of their “playing around,” the boy with the stick hit the other child in the eye. Blood gushed out and the boy was in great pain.

It was an accident. The boy with the stick never meant to do harm, but he did. The victim lost one of his eyes; but, thankfully, he was a boy of great inner strength and he went on to lead a relatively normal life and had professional success as a dentist as an adult.

From the Jewish perspective, the act of taking out the eye of another child may have been unintentional, but there is culpability. The fact that one does not intend to do harm does not free him from Divine accountability.

Baby, the central character in Baby Driver, an over-the-top heist film with an adrenalin rush and a strong musical motif, does some terrible things. Although he does not intend to hurt people either physically or financially, he does, and that makes him accountable to law enforcement authorities.

The story begins as Baby drives a getaway car for three robbers who rob a bank. His driving is extraordinary and he is able to evade the police chasing them. As he drives, he listens to loud music on his iPod. We learn that as a child he had an accident that left him with tinnitus, a constant humming in his ear, and listening to loud music drowns out the humming. Moreover, it inspires his driving skills.

Baby is a getaway driver because he owes money to Doc, a crime boss. It is Baby’s intention to quit the life of crime as soon as his debt to Doc is paid. The problem is that Doc needs Baby to continue driving for other heists he has planned.

When Doc threatens Baby with possible harm to Debora, Baby’s girlfriend, he is compelled to drive even though he knows that the thieves he is working with have no scruples and will murder anyone who gets in their way.

The next heist goes south when Bats, one of the robbers, kills a security guard. Baby, unnerved by Bat’s brutal behavior, figures out a way to leave his unsavory cohorts, but an intense cat and mouse game ensues between them and Baby, ending in explosive violence.

The police also pursue Baby and there is a moment of reckoning. Will Baby surrender to them in the hope that the authorities will understand that his sins were unintentional or will he continue to run?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the traditional Jewish approach to unintentional sin: “Unintentional sins stand midway between intentional sins (where you knew what you were doing was wrong) and involuntary action (ones, where you were not acting freely at all: it was a reflex action, or someone was pointing a gun at your head).” Such is the dilemma of Baby.

Yet, in Jewish law, even unintentional sins require atonement. Why? Rabbi Sacks, quoting several Jewish sages offers some answers. For example, Nachmanides, a medieval scholar, opines: “Sin, even without intention, defiles.” Moreover, “sins committed unwittingly produce a stain on our souls and constitute a blemish in it, and the soul is only worthy to be received by its Creator when it is pure of all sin.” A person cannot simply say, “I did not mean it” and expect God to forgive him. There has to be genuine contrition if there is to be forgiveness from on High.

Once he is apprehended, Baby’s response reflects his mature understanding that there must be consequences for a life of crime, even if all the bad stuff was not his fault. This recognition of past mistakes and accepting responsibility for them paves the way for a bright future in which his mistakes are forgiven. Baby Driver’s denouement is a reminder of the power of atonement and the corresponding power of forgiveness.

 

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Dunkirk (2017), directed by Christopher Nolan

dunkirkOne of the many things I enjoyed during my years of serving as principal of a high school was working with a top notch staff, a group of teachers who were mission-driven, focused on doing the best for their students. They were not limited by their job descriptions. I recall that, on several occasions, we needed someone to drive a van to pick up kids to come to school for several weeks. Teachers eagerly volunteered. They understood my dilemma and just did what was needed to get the task done. They did not simply stand on the side, waiting for someone else to do the job.

This readiness to get the job done in spite of obstacles is what drives the action in Dunkirk, a tense and engaging war thriller, describing the rescue of over 400,000 soldiers who were under German fire on the beaches of Dunkirk. The success of the rescue mission depends on the work of three different groups of men, all of whom contribute to the rescue but in different ways. They include British officers and soldiers, British airmen, and local villagers with small vessels who attempt to ferry soldiers off the beach and back to England, away from enemy fire. Although the solders and the pilots have a military mission, the locals who have small boats do not. What motivates them is simply the desire to aid those in danger.

It is the officers who come up with a plan to evacuate the soldiers using civilian boats since there is no large ship to transport them. It is not a simple task, but they enlist the aid of locals to give the soldiers a chance to survive. The solders themselves attempt to shoot down attacking German planes with conventional weapons, but they are severely tested when German fighter planes zoom overhead.

It is the British airmen who provide support for the troops on the ground, but they too are severely outnumbered. In spite of this, they are able to shoot down some enemy planes and provide an opportunity for the soldiers to board the rescue vessels.

But it is the local bystanders, not compelled by law but motivated by altruism and focused on the mission, who save the day. One of the civilian vessels is commandeered by Mr. Dawson. On the way to Dunkirk, his crew, consisting of his son and a family friend, rescue a shell-shocked soldier on an abandoned ship. The soldier wants no more of war and tries to discourage Dawson from continuing on to Dunkirk. Dawson resists the pressure and sails forward, committed to the rescue of the soldiers.

Judaism has much to say about the role of the bystander who witnesses a person in danger and does not help. Aaron Kirschenbaum, Professor of Law at Tel Aviv University, writes: “In Judaism, the bystander’s duty to come to the rescue of his fellow man who is in peril is religious, ethical and legal. A citizen is expected to engage in the act of rescue both personally and with his financial resource.”

Moreover, Maimonides observes: “If one person is able to save another and does not save him, he transgresses the commandment neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor (Leviticus 19:16). Similarly, if one person sees another drowning in the sea, or being attacked by bandits, or being attacked by wild animals, and does not rescue him, he transgresses in each case the injunction, neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.

The Sages tell us that when we save the life of one person, we are in effect saving an entire world. The inspiring story of the Dunkirk rescue reminds us of our obligation to help others at a time of crisis. In this way, we bring about the spiritual salvation of ourselves and the physical salvation of others.

Rocky (1976), directed by John G. Avildsen

rockyI have a friend who never fails to miss an opportunity. Although talented and possessing charisma, at age 45 he is still single and without a steady job. Occasionally, he asks me for a loan and I give him small pocket change; but his life, on the whole, is a mess.

At age 42, he decided to leave his regular job and explore becoming a real estate agent in Chicago where he was born and raised, but now he has neither job nor steady income. Instead, he has lots of stress and an unpredictable paycheck.

A year ago, he had a chance to take a high-paying job in the hotel industry where his superior people skills would in all likelihood make him successful, but he hesitated. In the interim, the job was offered to someone else and his job prospects turned increasingly bleak. I thought about him as I watched Rocky, a film about a loser who has the good sense not to let a one-time opportunity pass.

Rocky is an iconic story because it touches on the insecurities of every man who is mired in a mediocre reality, but who wants more out of life. Rocky serendipitously is given a moment when he can change his life for the better and he takes advantage of it, and that decision makes him an inspiration for many.

We first meet Rocky in November of 1975 as a small time fighter and collector for a local loan shark in a seedy neighborhood in Philadelphia. He is a man with no prospects. But fortune shines on him when the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed, needs a replacement for the boxer who has dropped out of a glamorous New Year’s title defense because of a hand injury. Apollo turns to a local underdog with the flashy pseudonym of “the Italian Stallion,” to generate interest in the fight, and so Rocky Balboa has his chance of a lifetime to come out of obscurity and into the limelight.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, reminds us that a person should never disparage another man, for every man has his hour. Although Rocky is at first dismissed by many who see him as a failure in life, who never capitalized on his talents, they reassess him when he reinvents himself as a serious contender for the title.

No longer casual about his training, he realizes what is at stake and resolves to go the distance with Apollo. All this happens because Rocky is blessed with a mentor, Mickey Goldmill, who initially calls Rocky a bum but then has a change of heart and mind, visioning Rocky as a potential champ who simply needs to get rid his old habits and rededicate himself to the sport of boxing. It is this mentoring that makes all the difference. Rocky understands that he does not know everything and that he needs guidance, which is the first step to self-knowledge. Under Mickey’s guidance, Rocky emerges as a real threat to Apollo, and what subsequently happens is the stuff of boxing legend.

Rocky has lots to recommend it. It reminds us to appreciate the talents that God has given us and to use them to become the best that we can be in spite of setbacks and limitations. Furthermore, it encourages us to find a mentor, who will give us the wisdom to make good life decisions. It is noteworthy that Ethics of the Fathers specifically recommends that we acquire a teacher. This is a priority in a world that can be confusing and damaging to us if we insist on going it alone.

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Arrival (2016), directed by Denis Villeneuve

arrivalAs I get older, I reflect upon the life I have led. Although I cannot change the past, I sometimes feel that I could have made different decisions that might have led to different outcomes. For example, if I had decided to become the chief rabbi of a small synagogue instead of an assistant rabbi at a large synagogue, my career path might have been different. In Atlanta, circumstances allowed me to switch my professional direction, and I became a high school principal instead of a pulpit rabbi. The opportunity would probably never have come to me if I began my rabbinic career as the chief rabbi in a small town.

The reality is that time is linear, and we can only respond to life as it unfolds in front of us. This assumption is belied in the intriguing science-fiction movie Arrival, the premise of which is that time is not linear and we can experience life in a non-sequential order.

There is another complicating factor as well in Arrival, an intellectually compelling story of aliens mysteriously landing on earth: how we view language and how the aliens view language. In order to avoid conflict between earthlings and aliens, there must be communication. If we want to avoid conflict, we have to understand the other’s language and motives, and that is not quickly accomplished. The key player in this cosmic drama is Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist and language professor, who is recruited by the government to discover a way to talk to the aliens.

We are introduced to her through a series of scenes in which she is speaking to her daughter at different stages in her daughter’s life, from birth until her daughter dies from a fatal disease. This narrative thread is abruptly dropped and the scene shifts to the present when Louise is asked to travel to Montana where one of twelve spaceships has landed. There she tries to initiate dialogue with the aliens, large creatures with tentacles.

Louise tries her best to communicate with the aliens, but the conversation is ambiguous. For example, the aliens use the word weapon, but Louise feels the word does not refer to the word’s conventional meaning, but rather to a tool. In other words, the weapon is language, and it is not sinister. Ian Donnelly, a physicist who is a member of Louise’s team, articulates this as he reads from a book that Louise wrote: “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”

With tension and uncertainty mounting around the world, some governments are very nervous. China delivers an ultimatum to the aliens: either leave or you will be attacked. Louise and Ian want to understand the mission of the aliens before confronting them with a military response. They labor heroically to prevent a precipitous decision that will bring the world to catastrophe.

Ultimately, the two plots converge: (1) Louise’s personal history with the birth and death of her daughter, and (2) the aliens’ arrival on earth. The denouement of both narrative strands is both surprising and satisfying on both intellectual and emotional levels.

A seminal issue in Arrival is the ability of one species to speak to another. The fate of the world hangs in the balance. The outcome depends on what we say and how it is interpreted.

Judaism has much to say about the influence of speech in everyday life, and there are ramifications for speech in circles of power as well. What we say and how we say it can change a relationship between two people or two nations. It can cause pain or it can bring about friendship and good will.

Indeed, the Talmud tells us that oppressing someone with words is worse than oppressing someone financially because money can be returned but words cannot be retrieved, once uttered.

Arrival considers the power of words in human discourse. The film reminds us that the wise use of language can help us avoid conflict and can serve as a fortifying bond between nations and between people.

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Silence (2016), directed by Martin Scorsese

silenceWhen I was a teenager, I was smitten by a beautiful girl from the Bronx. I thought we were going to get married, and I prayed to God that it all would work out. Thank God, God did not answer my prayers. If He did, I would have led a very different life from the one I lead now.

Many years later, I heard a song by Garth Brooks called “Unanswered Prayers.” Its lyrics spoke to me: “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers/ Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs/ That just because He doesn’t answer doesn’t mean He don’t care/ Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”

Silence, Martin Scorsese’s personal project in which he was a writer, producer, and director, deals with the matter of unanswered prayers in a very serious film about faith and how it is tested in times of crisis. The film opens as two Jesuit priests. Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe, are discussing the fate of their mentor, Father Ferrara, who they are told renounced his faith and now lives in Japan with a wife and child. The young priests cannot comprehend this and want to find Ferrara and determine for themselves his fate and clear his name.

The setting is 17th century feudal Japan where there is a raging theological battle between ancient Japanese religions and Christianity. Christianity is viewed as a dangerous and subversive force, and it is the target of a governmental official known as the Inquisitor who wants to uproot it from Japan.

Rodrigues and Garupe arrive in Japan and witness terrible atrocities visited upon Christians who do not symbolically renounce their faith publicly by stepping on an image of Jesus.

Rodrigues’ faith in God weakens when he sees people suffering and God is seemingly silent, indifferent to their pain. The Japanese officials tell him that if he renounces his faith, the people will be spared from more afflictions. The inquisitor regards Rodrigues as the leader and role model, and if he apostatizes, then the others will follow his example.

As tortures mount, Rodrigues’ crisis of faith intensifies. He wonders how God can be so silent in face of the agony of so many sincere Christians. His eventual meeting with Ferrara is complex, revealing ambivalence about religious certainties and it does not resolve his crisis of faith.

The question of why bad things happen to good people is one of the most difficult questions for people of faith. Suffering often leads to loss of faith, and that is the overarching enigma with which Silence deals.

Rabbi Noach Weinberg writes that one way to understand the mysterious ways of God is to accept the reality of eternity. Man only has finite vision and can only see the present; only God can see past, present, and future. From the aspect of eternity, pain on earth looks different because there is more to life than life on earth.

Rodrigues experiences an epiphany when at a moment of deep despair, he exclaims to God: “I feel so tempted to despair. I’m afraid. The weight of your silence is terrible. I pray, but I’m lost. Or am I just praying to nothing? Nothing. Because you are not there.” At that moment, he hears the voice of Jesus say: “I have suffered beside you. I was never silent,” to which Rodrigues responds: “It was in the silence that I heard your voice.”

Silence is a complicated film dealing with issues of religious faith that are seldom dealt with in commercial movies. It reflects a sensitive soul trying to come to terms with unsolvable matters. The beauty of it is in its refusal to give pat answers to complex ideological questions. In that sense, Silence reveals a Jewish sensibility which says that asking the question may be more important than finding the answer.

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Wonder Woman (2017), directed by Patty Jenkins

wonder womanIn the course of my career as a high school principal, I had many faculty meetings. I would present a list of agenda items and the staff would give me their thinking on them. On occasion, a teacher would say to me that the problem under discussion was simple. All we had to do was one thing and then things would be fine. This kind of simplistic thinking in most cases did not work. The failure to see complexity doomed the suggested solution.

In Wonder Woman, an exciting and thoughtful rendition of the famous comic book heroine’s origin, Diana as a young Amazon warrior first sees the world’s evil in a simplistic way, but through her life experiences realizes that evil is complicated and cannot be reduced to the evil of one bad man.

The movie opens when Diana is a child growing up on a remote island with Amazons, mighty female warriors. Her mother, Queen Hippolyta shares with the daughter the story of Ares, the god of war, who desires to corrupt men and encourage them to battle one another. Queen Hippolyta allows Diana to train for battle, knowing that there will be an eventual showdown between Diana and Ares at some future time.

Normal life changes for Diana when she grows up and rescues an American pilot, Steve Trevor, who has crashed into the sea. Interrogated by the Amazons, he reveals that he is an American spy gathering intelligence to fight Germany, a country at war with the United States. He has valuable information that will save lives, and this information resonates in Diana, who sees her life’s mission as saving lives and ending world conflict.

Allying herself with Steve and his noble cause, she gradually discovers that evil is not one-dimensional, residing only in one person. She understands that evil affects many people whose motivations are complex. Eradicating evil will take a lifetime, not victory in one battle.

Judaism believes in the reality of evil, and maintains that man is largely responsible for bringing it into the world. Man possesses an evil inclination, which, if left unharnessed, can lead man to do terrible things. It must be counterbalanced by a good inclination, which keeps man on the correct moral path. Man has a choice to make many times during each day to determine which inclination he will follow.

Rabbi Raymond Apple makes an interesting observation: There is a “paradoxical fact that when a person chooses to do evil, he does so not because it is evil but because he perceives it as good. We might question his judgment, regard him as having a warped view of what is good, and reject his probably subjective criteria of goodness – but he believes, nonetheless, that what he is doing is good in some sense.”

When General Erich Ludendorff, the personification of evil, shares his thinking with Diana, it reflects this notion that his destructiveness is good for the world: “You know your ancient Greeks? They understood that war is a god. A god that requires human sacrifice. And in exchange, war gives man purpose. Meaning. A chance to rise above his petty mortal little self. And be courageous. Noble. Better.”

Diana disagrees and expresses an optimistic, nuanced view of the world: “I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves.”

Wonder Woman ‘s early belief that evil is one-dimensional morphs into a mature understanding of the nature of evil, an evil that manifests itself in the world in many ways and requires more than one strategy to defeat it. Her complex vision of evil is a reminder for us not to seek simplistic solutions in the face of evil.

 

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