Category Archives: Action/Adventure

The Giver (2014), directed by Phillip Noyce

giver-posterIn one of the Israeli schools in which I taught, the students in one particular seventh grade class were mostly interested in parroting back information. The typical question I received was “can I read the next paragraph” or “what was my grade on the last test?” It was rare to hear a question that reflected a thinking, active intellect.

At one point I even told the students that unless they began asking thoughtful questions, the class would become boring for me to teach. I told the students I needed them to respond to the literature I taught. I did not want them only to behave; I wanted them to feel the power of the poetic image or verse. I wanted them to consider the meaning of the works we read. I wanted my students not only to think but to feel.

The Giver, a story set in some future time after a nuclear war, describes a society that wants its citizens to think and not to feel. What is paramount is living in tranquility without strong emotions that potentially can corrupt society. Therefore, citizens have their memories wiped out to insure a stable and peaceful world in the future.

The narrative follows the life of teenager Jonas who, after the completion of high school, is assigned a specific vocation in the community together with other teens in the city. The matching of student and vocation takes place in a public ceremony, and Jonas’s mission is saved for last. Unlike his peers, Jonas is chosen to be the new Receiver of Memories because he possesses the four attributes of intelligence, integrity, courage, and an ability to look beyond the present moment. The person charged with instructing Jonas about the past before the cataclysmic destruction of society is the Giver, an old man who is a living repository of all past memories.

Memories of the past both enlighten Jonas and frighten him. In dreams he sees visions of happy scenes and images of violence and destruction. The Giver explains that Jonas’ confused emotional state will create problems for himself and society. In spite of this, Jonas begins to appreciate the role of emotion, which makes life a richer experience.

He shares his newfound wisdom with friends, but the Elders are worried that his actions will destroy the tranquility of their society. The conflict between the Elders’ desire to preserve the status quo and Jonas’ desire to reinsert emotion into the lives of the citizens leads to tension and conflict. Finding balance between emotion and reason in society and in one’s personal life is the theme of The Giver.

Traditional Judaism promotes balance between emotion and reason. It is good to think and it is also good to feel. For example, the Sages tell us that prayer should not only be cerebrally understood and recited; it should also express the heartfelt sentiments of the supplicant. In reciting the daily prayers, Rabbi Shimon says that one should not make his prayers routine; rather they should express the deep emotion of the person praying. One should try to feel God’s presence.

Moreover, God reveals Himself in the Book of Genesis by two Hebrew names: Elokim and Hashem. Our Sages tell us that Elokim refers to God acting as a God of stern judgment and reason; Hashem refers to a God acting with mercy and compassion. For the world to exist, there most be a combination of justice and mercy. Just as God possesses both attributes, so too should humans. Reason without emotion is unnatural and potentially harmful.

Jonas arrives at this truth as he learns from the Giver, who we discover is not simply a repository of past memories, but a person of feeling who wants future generations to be human in the fullest sense of the word. He reminds us that life is richer and more complete if we experience the agonies and ecstasies of the human experience.

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Above and Beyond (2014), directed by Roberta Grossman

above-and-beyondA “lone soldier” home is located around the corner from me. What is a “lone soldier?” He is a volunteer who serves in the Israel Defense Forces even though he has no immediate family with him or her in Israel. Reliable sources tell us there are over 6000 of them serving in the army.

What makes someone volunteer for such service? One answer is given in the stirring documentary, Above and Beyond, which tells the story of a group of World War II pilots who, in 1948, volunteered to fight for Israel in its War of Independence. They knew that Israel was about to be attacked by its Arab neighbors and that the country might not survive the onslaught of so many powerful enemies unless it had help from others. They viewed themselves as being on the cusp of history and they were determined to do whatever they could to enable the new nation to survive. This diverse band of brothers fought in key battle theatres and laid the groundwork for the Israeli Air Force.

The narrative begins with the United Nations resolution to divide Palestine and the British decision to leave, opening up the way for an Arab conquest of the land. Into that perilous situation steps a group of volunteer Jewish American former World War II pilots who help the Jews secure planes and fly them into the line of fire, preventing the Arabs from driving the Jews out of Palestine.

What gives the film authenticity is actual footage of the original aircraft and contemporary interviews with the pilots who flew them. What is remarkable is the fact that these soldiers who survived the hazards of World War II voluntarily placed their lives in danger to help the fledgling state of Israel.

Indeed, there is a rich tradition of volunteerism in Jewish history. The basic commandment “to love your neighbor as yourself” sets the tone, encouraging all people to help one another in times of crisis. The commandment relates not just to requiring the rich to assist the poor, but includes all situations where people are in need of help. In truth, the notion of helping someone can relate to lifting his spirits as well as giving him charity. Furthermore, history records that such diverse causes as Jewish schools, burial societies, providing money for impoverished newlyweds so that they can establish their own homes, self- defense organizations, health and emergency medical centers all began under volunteer auspices.

The Talmud tractate of Sanhedrin tells us: “Whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world.” This mindset energizes the American pilots who want to prevent another Holocaust. They view their rescue mission as an opportunity to make a difference in the historic destiny of the Jewish people. For them, to save one life is to save the world.

Moreover, the Ethics of the Fathers states: “If I am only for myself, what kind of person am I?” The pilots are idealistic, unselfish, and willing to take risks. This combination enables these men to defy logic and convention, to try the impossible and sometimes achieve it.

Above and Beyond provides a window into a little known but important part of Israel’s history. It informs us that most volunteers are motivated by wanting to do the right thing, not by visions of being recognized publicly or getting financial benefit. It is gratifying to watch ordinary people rise to the occasion and make mighty contributions to the Jewish people that ripple into the future. Above and Beyond reminds us that heroes are often ordinary people meeting extraordinary challenges.

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Unbroken (2014), directed by Angelina Jolie

unbroken posterFor the past several years, I have been teaching in a middle school and a high school in Israel. I have observed that in dealing with 7th and 8th graders, the students tend to be very self-absorbed, interested only in what they have to say and not paying attention to the comments of others. In the high school, I see students more respectful of each other, more willing to listen to the opinions of a peer. There I see more students sensitive to the Biblical notion of “loving your neighbor as yourself.” Just as you would want to be heard, so too should you listen to the words of your neighbor and give his comments respect even when you disagree with him.

In Jewish jurisprudence, there is discussion as to what degree we should observe this commandment of loving our neighbor as ourselves. Do we observe it even when, by doing so, we put ourselves and our interests at a disadvantage? Is there some balance between our needs and the needs of others that needs to be struck?

This moral dilemma is portrayed in a scene in Unbroken, the story of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, an airman who, during World War II, crashed into the Pacific Ocean on a rescue mission to locate a missing aircraft. Of the eight men aboard Louie’s plane, only three survive: Louie, Phil, and Mac. The three are able to inflate a life raft, and so begins their treacherous journey on the open sea.

They have limited food; and Louis, as the take-charge guy, tells his friends that they need to limit their consumption of food so that the meager food they have will enable them to survive until they are rescued. They have only one bar of chocolate and Louie tells them that they can eat one piece in the morning and one in the evening. Mac, however, decides to eat all the chocolate.

The Talmud (Baba Metzia 62a) discusses a similar case of “lifeboat ethics.” Two people are traveling in the desert and there is a jug with only enough water for one of them to survive. There is a difference of opinion as to what course should a person take in such a moral dilemma. One sage, Ben Petura, says that it is better if both of them drink rather than have one witness the death of the other. Rabbi Akiva, however, maintains that your life should come first before the life of your friend. This moral calculus is analyzed in contemporary volumes of Jewish law that deal with the conduct of men in battle who have to make decisions that affect the health and safety of others. Unbroken does not provide simplistic answers; it only raises the question.

Louis Zamperini, a practical man, does not compromise his integrity. He does not blame Mac for taking all of the chocolate for himself. He accepts the reality of Mac’s feelings and actions and then moves on to think of new ways to acquire food in the middle of the ocean. Louie, an optimist, does not lose his focus in the face of a setback. He continues to try his best to keep everyone alive.

When he finally is rescued, only to find himself in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. he again expresses his independent spirit. He is unwilling to bend in the face of physical punishment and extreme torture designed to undermine his humanity.

Louis Zamperini survives incarceration and even forgives his enemies. Years later, we see the real Louis Zamperini as a senior citizen running with the Olympic flag. He counts his blessings and traces his survival and success in life to his faith in God, which sustained him throughout all his trials. When faced with moral conundrums, Louie chooses the high road and becomes a model for us all.

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All the Pretty Horses (2000), directed by Billy Bob Thornton

all the pretty horses posterOn rare occasions, I have been confronted with having to make a decision knowing that if I decide one way, I will hurt someone I care about; and if I decide differently, I will hurt someone else. Either way, I will wind up alienating a friend.

I recall that about 15 years ago, I was faced with such a dilemma and I decided to consult an older man with great knowledge of Torah and a deep understanding of human nature. He gave me a good perspective on my situation, enabling me to live with my decision without the burden of guilt. I continued to call him for advice until one fateful evening when I called his home, only to find out that his wife and family were in the midst of the week of mourning for my friend and mentor who had died only a few days before.

In the days that followed, I reflected on the time spent consulting with him. Although I could no longer speak with him, I learned much from the wisdom he shared with me, and I attempted to incorporate his perspectives in the way I viewed my own quandaries. Senior wisdom is priceless and I tried my utmost to take advantage of it whenever I could not come up with a satisfactory resolution to a problem. Such is what happens in All the Pretty Horses when John Grady Cole finds himself burdened by guilt by making good decisions that, regrettably, did not turn out well. Ultimately, he turns to a senior to put his own problems into perspective.

The year is 1949. John Grady Cole, a young cowboy raised in the wide-open spaces of a Texas ranch, is forced to find new means of employment when his grandfather dies and his heirs sell the property that was in his family for many years.

Together with his friend Lacey Rawlins, they journey south of the border to Mexico to find work. Along the way, they meet Jimmy Blevins, a savvy but unpredictable teenager, who wants to ride with them. Later they find employment with a wealthy rancher who needs help managing his exceptional prize horses. John and Lacey enjoy their work, but things get complicated when John falls in live with Alejandra, the rancher’s daughter.

Things change dramatically when both John and Lacey are arrested by the Mexican police. In jail, they again meet Blevins who is incarcerated for horse stealing and murder, and they learn that they are viewed as his accomplices. John and Lacey are sent to prison where they are surrounded by cutthroat prisoners who threaten their lives. They languish there until Alejandra’s aunt arranges to free them on condition that John never sees Alejandra again.

When John returns to Texas, he is arrested for horse stealing and appears in court to explain his side of the story. Surprisingly, the judge believes John and tells him that he is free to go. Never having encountered such fair play before, John visits the judge at his home, perhaps seeing him as a wise man and father figure. He confesses that he killed a man in prison and did not do enough to save his friend Blevins from being murdered.

The judge listens patiently and gently tells John that he could not have done anything to avoid those tragedies. Moreover, what John should do now is simply move on with his life, knowing that those tragic moments will be sorted out over time. The judge understands that John needs to share these secrets to assuage feelings of guilt. The judge intuits the wisdom of Ethics of the Fathers, which states that a person should not consider himself evil. When a person lacks self-esteem and views himself as a bad person, he may become emotionally paralyzed and give up trying to improve.

All the Pretty Horses depicts a rite of passage for a young man trying to make sense out of a life filled with contradictions. What enables him to survive is senior wisdom coupled with an abiding belief in God, which animates him every day. This sentiment is openly articulated by John at the film’s close: “I believe that God does watch over us, if he didn’t, I don’t see how we could get through each day.”

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Mission: Impossible III (2006), directed by J.J. Abrams

mission impossible IIII began my doctoral studies in English in Atlanta in 1972. It was intended to be a 5-year program, but it took much longer because I was busy with earning a living and rearing a young family. I finally received my PhD in 1984, twelve years after I started.

At one point, the school wanted me to leave the program because of my slow progress; but my advisor, Dr. William Sessions, a Milton scholar, intervened and asked them to allow me to continue. He knew I was a serious and capable student and that only the pressures of earning a living and raising a family were preventing me from moving through the program quickly. It was Dr. Sessions who found a way to remove the interference that was blocking my way to academic success. He was a person who never allowed me to give up.

Never giving up is precisely what Ethan Hunt does in the tense thriller Mission Impossible III. Ethan is a retired secret service operative working for IMF, a government organization tasked with high priority missions that are critical to national security. At his engagement party, he is summoned by Operations Director Musgrave to rescue Agent Lindsey Ferris, Ethan’s special forces protégé, who has been captured in Germany by Owen Davian, a black market arms dealer. The rescue is successful, but Lindsey dies when an explosive planted in her head detonates.

Ethan then decides to go directly after Davian, who is scheduled to appear in Vatican City where a deal involving the transfer of an unknown “rabbit’s foot” is in progress. In an elaborate ruse, Ethan and his team capture Davian. When Davian tells Ethan that he will brutally slay Ethan’s wife Julia when he has the opportunity, Ethan opens a bay on the plane and almost throws him out.

Regrettably for Ethan, Davian escapes en route to prison and now his threat becomes real. Fearing for his wife Julia, Ethan tries to protect her from Davian’s men, but he arrives too late to prevent her kidnapping.

Davian contacts Ethan and tells him to retrieve the “rabbit’s foot” in 48 hours or he will kill his wife. Ethan travels to Shanghai to locate and steal the rabbit’s foot from its current owner. At each step of the way, Ethan encounters what seem to be insurmountable obstacles, yet he is never deterred. From the first challenge to capture Davian in Vatican City, which has extremely heavy security systems in place, to the final confrontation with him in Shanghai, Ethan always finds a way to approach a problem or imminent threat and succeed. He never gives up. He lives in a treacherous reality, but never succumbs to pessimism.

The history of the Jews in many ways is a history of never giving up in the face of insurmountable challenges. The Chanukah holiday commemorates a festival when a superior military force wanted to defeat the Jews; but the Maccabees, inspired by their faith in God, led the Jews to military triumph. The key to their success was never giving up. The holiday of Purim, featuring the heroics of Ether and Mordechai, also celebrates a similar victory where the few triumph over the many.

Perhaps the most vivid example of not giving up and prevailing against impossible odds is the action of Nachshon, the son of Aminadav, who jumped into the Red Sea before it split, believing that somehow he would survive. The message: miracles can happen but only after we do our part to implement a solution. Ultimately, the outcome is in God’s hands.

To transform the unthinkable dream into a reality, we need a combination of confident preparation for the challenge we face and an overriding belief that God will help us achieve our goals. David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, expressed this idea poetically when he said: “in Israel in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”

Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible III lives by that credo. He does not give up. Obstacles do not limit him because he knows that as long as there is life, there is the possibility of achieving the seemingly impossible.

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Sicario (2015), directed by Denis Villeneuve

sicario posterI live in Israel where I often read about the moral dilemmas faced by the Israel Defense Forces as they fight terror that threatens the fabric of daily life. There are no simple answers to these complex questions. I reflected on this reality as I watched Sicario, a tense and unsettling look on law enforcement in America as it tries to control illegal drug trafficking in Mexico, a drug trade that infiltrates the southern border of the United States.

The story begins with an FBI SWAT raid of a home used by Mexican drug cartel kidnappers. Agent Kate Macer and her partner Reggie Wayne discover dozens of dead bodies, presumably executed by drug dealers. Kate’s boss thinks highly of her and recommends that she participate in a special task force put together by the Defense Department and the CIA to ferret out the people who caused these horrific murders.

The leaders of the team are CIA agent Matt Graver and his partner Alejandro Gillick, who are joined by U.S. Marshals and an elite cohort of Delta Force soldiers. Their target is Manuel Diaz, one of the major players in the drug cartel operation. As the mission progresses, Kate wonders what the true purpose of the mission is. Gradually she learns that Diaz is only important for his connection to the drug lord Fausto Alarcon.

In order to reach him, many may die. CIA agent Graver believes that collateral damage is worth it if they achieve the goal of disrupting the flow of drugs into America. Kate sees it as using immoral means to attain worthy goals. She is uncomfortable with the mission, which expects her to compromise truth in order to attain the desired results.

Jewish tradition asks us to consider the moral calculus before embarking on a mission that involves compromising one’s integrity. The litmus test is whether the action fits within the parameters of the Torah and Jewish Talmudic law, which offers general guidelines as to how to deal with these very thorny moral questions.

In an article on battlefield ethics based on sources in the Talmud and Codes of Jewish Law, Rabbi Michael Broyde outlines the conditions that allow for a theoretical “license to kill.” One may not kill an innocent third party to save someone’s life. One may not compel a person to risk his life to save another. One may not kill a person after he has already committed an evil act, and one may not use more force than is minimally needed. Moreover, before waging battle, one must first try to establish peace. Of utmost importance is killing only combatants, not innocent people. They must be given a chance to leave the battle theater. Once these conditions are met, then one has a theoretical “license to kill.”

When one considers these givens of Jewish tradition as guidelines for proper conduct, we see that the good guys in Sicario operate in morally ambiguous terrain. It is not easy to live in this environment, which continually tests our sense of right and wrong.

Understanding this reality, Alejandro advises the morally sensitive Kate to leave: “You should move to a small town, someplace where the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now.”

Sicario is not a typical action flick, although it has its share of tense and visceral action scenes. The film also makes us think about the complexity of law enforcement in an environment where there is no respect for the law. There are no easy answers for someone with a conscience. Kate Macer is thrown into chaotic universe with no moral center, and it unnerves her. Watching Sicario unnerves us as well.

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Becoming Bulletproof (2014), directed by Michael Barnett

becoming bulletproofMy sister Carol, of blessed memory, was six years older than me. She had Down’s syndrome, and as a kid I vividly remember going with Carol and my mother to Teen Town, a Thursday night social get-together where developmentally disabled teenagers could mingle socially, form friendships, and plan outings together. It was there that Carol met Sam Berniger, who also had Down’s syndrome.

Carol and Sam were an item in those days, often flirting with one another. At first it was strange to observe because I viewed my own sister as disabled in some way and not capable of romantic relationships. However, after witnessing Carol and Sam’s obvious affection for one another, I realized they were no different from other teens I knew. They wanted human connection. They wanted to feel love and affection, and that desire is common to all people, not just the developmentally disabled.

I thought of their romance as I watched Becoming Bulletproof, an arresting documentary about a cohort of disabled people from all over the United States, who come together once a year to make a movie.

Some background information is in order. Zeno Mountain Farms has an annual project of making a film using people with disabilities of all kinds as actors. Although their disabilities are wide-ranging, the young men and women come together in the service of art, making a movie that somehow transcends the limitations of their disabilities.

The project takes place in their summer camp program, and this year the project is to produce a short western movie by the camp’s residents. Period costumes are used, some paid for and some donated. The key scene is the confrontation between the hero and the villain in a shootout on a deserted street. The entire cast serves as bystanders to the imminent bloodshed. The camera pans over the worried faces of people in the crowd and then focuses on the guns in the holsters of the antagonists, who are about to draw their weapons against one another. It is a scene reminiscent of many classic western movies.

Working with the campers are people without disabilities who relate to the disabled as normal human beings. They see the disabled as significant others; and by doing so, they discover their common humanity, and forget about the disabled label. Watching the residents learn their lines and act their respective parts is both very heart wrenching and inspiring. What is especially noteworthy is how the staff relates to the residents as regular friends and family, even though the disabilities that distinguish them are glaringly evident.

Although there is an implicit message embedded in the movie, the movie is not preachy. The message: the disabled want to be recognized as people of value, who have an independent identity, who want to be taken seriously. This harks back to the Biblical notion that we are all created in God’s image; therefore, we all have infinite value regardless of our physical disabilities.

Jewish law recommends treating the disabled as regular members of the community as much as is humanly possible considering the idiosyncratic nature of each disability. As a synagogue rabbi, I recall vividly a father who painstakingly taught his developmentally disabled son how to recite the Torah portion for his Bar Mitzvah. In the father’s eyes, it was very important that his child experience the same rite of passage as other young men.

Becoming Bulletproof is testimony to the fact that the disabled are part of the human family, and want to be treated as such. Stigmatizing someone as disabled may be a necessity in the world of therapeutics, but labels should not define a person in the world of human discourse.

 

 

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