Category Archives: Action/Adventure

The Finest Hours (2016), directed by Craig Gillespie

finest hoursRescue missions are inherently unpredictable. In Israel there are many rescue narratives, the Entebbe rescue being the most famous. Before any rescue attempt is made, the plan is intensely scrutinized to obtain the optimum results: saving those in danger and making sure no one, including the rescuers, gets hurt. That is why the Entebbe rescue is so highly praised. The lives of ninety-four hostages, primarily Israelis, and the 12-member Air France crew were in jeopardy, all of whom were threatened with death. As a result of the 90-minute Israeli operation, 102 were rescued.

In The Finest Hours, there is a crisis of a different sort that is the catalyst for the rescue mission. It is February 18, 1952, near the coast of New England. An oil tanker, the Pendleton, on a stormy winter night suffers a hole in the ship, allowing in huge amounts of water. The dilemma: how to keep the ship afloat until rescuers come. Ray Sybert, the ship’s engineer, recommends that they try to run the boat aground to keep it afloat. Moreover, the challenge of the rescuers is enormous because of the inclement weather and raging sea.

Bernie Webber, a Coast Guard seaman, is tasked by his superior to take out a large motorboat and rescue the tanker’s crew. Three brave men accompany him. The waves almost capsize their boat, but miraculously they get beyond the fierce waves and continue towards the tanker.

Once the Coast Guard crew finally arrives at the sinking ship, they realize that there is not enough room on the boat for all the sailors. However, they persist in trying to get all the men on board. Most make it to the rescue boat. Once the last man hops on board the Coast Guard boat, the Pendleton sinks.

In the melee of trying to rescue the men amidst torrential rains and waves, the Coast Guard crew loses its compass. How they find there way back in the dark is a minor miracle, and the viewer rejoices in their success against all odds.

Jewish tradition tells us that it is a good deed to save someone’s life. It is derived from the Biblical commandment ‘You shall not stand aside when mischief befalls a neighbor (Leviticus 19:16).” We are responsible for our neighbor’s welfare. This commandment is an extension of the commandment to love one’s neighbor as one would love himself. The question arises, however, to what extent should we put our own lives in jeopardy to save someone else’s? This is the scenario on The Finest Hours in which Bernie Webber and his Coast Guard crew knowingly endanger their own lives when they attempt to rescue the crew of the Pendleton.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, quoting the Talmud and Codes of Jewish Law, speaks of two approaches to this dilemma. The first is to consider the level of risk and not be overly cautious when it comes to evaluating whether a rescue attempt will fail or succeed. When human life is at stake, we should be willing to assume some level of risk and not be apathetic to a cry for help, even if it means endangering ourselves.

The second approach is to take great risks when it comes to saving another person’s life. The Sages say that entering into great danger is justified is there is at least a fifty per cent chance of success. This means that both the rescuer and the person whose life is immediately threatened will survive. Saving the life of another is considered an extreme act of kindness, for which there is much Divine reward.

The Finest Hours, in exceptional visual terms, recounts one of the greatest small boat rescues in the history of the Coast Guard. It skillfully dramatizes the tactical and emotional challenge faced by Bernie Webber and others to encounter personal peril when that is what is required to save human lives. Bernie does not take the easy way out; rather he courageously confronts danger and becomes a hero worth emulating.

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Hacksaw Ridge (2016), directed by Mel Gibson

hacksaw ridgeIn Israel, I am a member of a synagogue with a large cadre of volunteers. The volunteers serve in many different capacities, each calling upon their unique talents to strengthen the infrastructure of the congregational community. One person may help with organizing the prayer service, another may focus on taking care of members who have suffered the loss of a loved one, another may be in charge of building repairs, and so on. There is a clear recognition that people are different and contribute in different ways to the overall health and wellbeing of the community.

This mindset exists in the military as well both here in Israel and in America. Different units specialize in different areas, and bring their specific expertise to the table. However, in Hacksaw Ridge, the true story of Desmond Doss’s experience in World War II, the soldiers in one unit do not fully comprehend or appreciate the fact that one soldier operates under a different set of givens than the others and contributes to the greater good in his own idiosyncratic way.

Desmond Doss is a conscientious objector and refuses to carry a weapon in war, even within his own combat unit. He wants to serve as a medic and save lives, not end them. His fellow soldiers view him as an unreliable ally and coward and they make his adjustment to the military miserable.

A military court prepares to court martial him for disobedience, but at the proceeding they change their view of Desmond when he explains his perspective on the war and on his personal vision of military service: “When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, I took it personal. Everyone I knew was on fire to join up, including me. Why, I had a job in a defense plant and I could’ve taken a deferment, but that ain’t right. It isn’t right that other men should fight and die, that I would just be sitting at home safe. I need to serve. I got the energy and the passion to serve as a medic, right in the middle with the other guys. No less danger, just… while everybody else is taking life, I’m going to be saving it. With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to me to wanna put a little bit of it back together.”

In the crucible of battle on Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond’s comrades change their view of him. The Japanese attack ferociously and many Americans die and become wounded. Time and time again, Desmond is there to tend to his fellow soldiers and help them get to safety. Against all odds, he rescues 75 men. Later Desmond becomes the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Desmond remains true to his principles and becomes a hero, an invaluable member of his brigade. His commanding officer, Captain Glover, asks Desmond to forgive him for misjudging him: “All I saw was a skinny kid. I didn’t know who you were. You’ve done more than any other man could’ve done in the service of his country. Now, I’ve never been more wrong about someone in my life, and I hope one day you can forgive me.”

Misjudging someone is at the core of Hacksaw Ridge. The inability to see another’s perspective almost prevents Desmond from serving his country. Consider how many more lives would have been lost without his intervention.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, tells us: “judge every man favorably.” It is important to give every person the benefit of the doubt. Always try to see the good in the other. Moreover, the Talmud teaches us: “Anyone who judges others favorably will be judged favorably in Heaven” (Shabbat 127b). Hacksaw Ridge reminds us that those who see life differently from us may teach us by example how to lead a life of virtue and meaning.

Julius Caesar (1953), directed by Joseph Mankiewicz

julius caesarI taught an eighth grade class for a number of years in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in Israel. The secular class began in late afternoon and there were only two hours per week devoted to English language study.

However, I still wanted to introduce the students to classic literature, and so I created a unit on Shakespeare in which the students read and acted out a few seminal scenes from the great bard’s plays. Included was the assassination scene in Julius Caesar. The kids had fun wearing makeshift togas and learned about something about the wielding of political power. Moreover, we reviewed some of the classic lines in the play in their context.

This cinematic version of Julius Caesar still has legs although it was filmed in black and white over sixty years ago. The reason: the stellar cast which included Marlon Brando as Marc Antony, James Mason as Brutus, and John Gielgud as Cassius.

The story begins in Rome when Caesar is at the height of his power. Some, however, see his rise to power as a reflection of his unflinching ambition and as a threat to Rome. They recruit the honorable Brutus to join with them in a plot to murder Caesar and, by doing so, save Rome. Brutus’ participation gives the conspirators respectability and the courage to move forward with their plans.

After the assassination, Brutus gives permission for Antony to eulogize Caesar, and his emotional speech turns the crowd against the conspirators. His funeral oration beginning with the famous words “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” is a speech for the ages, and Brando executes it in iconic fashion. This sets the stage for war between Antony and Brutus and their respective constituencies.

When I discussed the themes of the play with the students, I inwardly lamented their lack of exposure to great literature, the touchstone of superior culture. Of course, I understood that Torah study was primary, but one can still learn from great literature and the study of the humanities in general. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a rabbinic scholar with a PhD in English from Harvard, writes that the humanities gives us insight into the human soul: “Great literature presents either a rendering, factual or imaginative, of aspects of the human condition, or a record of the artist’s grappling with the ultimate questions of human existence: man’s relation to himself, to others, to the cosmos, and above all to God.” As such, reading exceptional works of literature can help us navigate our own lives.

There are lines in Julius Caesar that express truths about life in a poetic way that touch the heart as well as the mind. Moreover, they coincide with Jewish sensibilities. Here is one of them: “Cowards die many times before their death, the valiant never taste of death but once.” This passage makes us think about how to confront fear. Another passage: “There is a tide in the affairs of men/ Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune/ Omitted, all the voyage of their life/ Is bound in shallows and miseries/ On such a full sea as we are now afloat/ And we must take the current when it serves/ Or lose our ventures.” The message here is to take advantage of the moment. Evaluate the present and then act boldly to determine your future.

What I found in instructing students of all ages is that life lessons that were embedded in sacred Jewish texts often emerged in the secular texts I was teaching in my English literature classes. My students, many of whom were not reared in observant Jewish homes, connected with the secular source more easily than with the sacred. In teaching, I understood that when it comes to student learning “the readiness is all.”

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Life of Pi (2012), directed by Ang Lee

life of piI enjoy and respect the company of people of faith, as long as they are not functioning as missionaries. Let me give you an example. When I was principal of a Jewish high school, I learned that one of our very fine Jewish general studies instructors was living with someone other than his wife. It was a private matter until I discovered he was hiring our students as babysitters for his paramour. At that point, I asked myself: if I were a parent, would I want my child to be exposed to a situation which was contrary to my own value system by a teacher in a school that shared my value system. Flash forward to another teacher in the school, the Christian mother of five children who was an outstanding science teacher. In her spare time, she wrote poetry about the details of God’s creation and always emphasized the renewal of God’s sustaining powers on each day of a person’s life, a message very much consistent with the ethos of our Jewish day school.

I realized then as I do now that faith transcends religious boundaries. One can be a serious person of faith and that particular faith does not have to match yours. This is the thinking than permeates Pi Patel, the central character in The Life of Pi. Pi, an immigrant from India now living in Montreal, Canada, is approached by a local writer who has heard that Pi has an unusual life story that would make a great book, a story that will make him believe in God.

Pi’s religious faith is eclectic, developing over time. He begins life as a Hindu, then finds meaning in Christianity, and connects to Islam as a teenager. He even has an interest in the Jewish Kabbalah but has not yet embraced it as a personal doctrine. His religious faith is very much part of him as he moves through his unconventional childhood and adolescence.

We learn that his father owns a zoo, affording Pi an opportunity to feel comfortable with animals from early boyhood. In particular, he is fascinated with a tiger whose name is Richard Parker due to a clerical error when the animal was acquired. When his father decides to close the zoo and move to Canada where there are more financial opportunities, the family sets sail on a Japanese freighter. They bring the animals with them to sell them in North America. Tragically, they encounter a fierce storm which capsizes the ship and Pi’s family is killed.

Pi, who was on the deck when the storm erupted, is miraculously saved by being thrown into a lifeboat in which there is an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and the Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. How Pi manages this situation is an arresting survivalist adventure in which Pi’s strength, intelligence, and emotions are tested.

After many days at sea, Pi is rescued and insurance agents visit to get his account of what happened. When his initial story is dismissed as too hard to believe, he offers a second, more plausible account. When at the close of the conversation with the novelist, he asks him which story he believes is true, the writer cites the story with the tiger because it is a better story. Pi cryptically responds: “And so it is with God.”

It is a fitting end to a narrative that defies reality. In a profound sense, Life of Pi is about accepting God in one’s life. The specific religion to which one subscribes is not important. What is relevant is the overall acceptance that things happen with a divine providential hand. Pi wisely tells the writer that “faith is a house with many rooms with doubt on every floor.” Furthermore, “doubt is useful; it keeps faith a living thing. After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it is tested.”

When all seems lost, Pi still senses that God is watching over him. Pi observes in retrospect that “even when He seemed indifferent to my suffering, He was watching and when I was beyond all hope of saving, He gave me rest and gave me a sign to continue my journey.” Speaking as a sincere man of faith, he says in his moment of extremity: “God! I give myself to you. I am your vessel.” This is a Jewish sensibility: to try our best and then to acknowledge that the outcome is in God’s hands.

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The Accountant (2016), directed by Gavin O’Connor

accountant posterMy son-in-law is a special education educator focusing on autistic students. He helps kids and their families cope with a disability that manifests itself in different ways depending upon many idiosyncratic factors such as age and family background. Therapies that work in one situation may not work in another.

Although we don’t see the actual therapies that work in The Accountant, a thriller about an autistic man who cooks the books for a number of criminal elements, we do see him as a child manifesting autistic behaviors. At the beginning of the film, we visit Harbor Neuroscience Institute in New Hampshire, a place where parents go for help with their autistic children. Christian Wolff, a young boy, is there with his parents to consult with a psychologist.

The father, a military man, sees the problem one way, his mother another. When the therapist discusses the boy’s sensitivity to bright lights and loud noises, the father suggests exposing his son to more light and noise since this will better prepare him for a world that will not accommodate his son’s needs. The mother prefers to leave him at the institute where her son can learn how to cope with excessive light and noise and where he can be in calm environment, learn how to make eye contact with people, and make friends.

Flash forward to the present day in which Christian has a small accounting practice and derives his primary income from serving as an accountant for some of the world’s worst criminals and terrorists. Ray King, director of financial crimes at the Treasury Department, launches an investigation to discover the identity of this man who enables the bad guys to avoid tax liability and to launder large amounts of cash.

It is fascinating to watch Christian behave as a high-functioning autistic. His home is devoid of luxury and there are no decorations. His behavior is strongly ritualized as we see him prepare dinner. He owns only one fork, one knife, and one spoon and every movement reveals an attention to detail. In a storage facility nearby, he has a trailer in which are valuable paintings, cash, multiple passports, and lots of weapons of all types.

Things change for Christian when he accepts a job for a company presumed to be legitimate. Having heard of Christian’s special accounting expertise, the CEO of Living Robotics, a high tech company specializing in advanced prosthetics, hires him to discover a huge financial discrepancy in the business. When he is on the verge of discovering that 61 million is unaccounted for, he is fired. But Christian cannot just abandon his work. His autistic sensibility drives him to finish the job, and the denouement involves lots of twists and turns before we find out the truth.

Although Christian Wolff is a fictional character, he still represents the general profile of a high-functioning autistic individual. His social interaction skills are weak, he has problems with verbal and non-verbal communication, and is at times obsessive about his routines and interests. But he ultimately makes a valuable contribution to the world, albeit in an unconventional way.

Judaism regards the autistic person, or any disabled person, as created by God in His image. The Sages tell us that only one man was created to send a strong message that all men come from the same mold, yet each person is unique as God is unique. Moreover, the Ethics of the Fathers observes that we should not disdain any person, for every person has his hour. Everyone has something to contribute to the totality of society, even the disabled.

Tammy Ruggles, mother of an autistic child, observes that the Passover Seder is an evening of inclusion. There is a section in it known as “the four sons.” Here four different sons are described, one of which is the son who knows not how to ask. The son is emblematic of the autistic child who needs patience and love from a supportive family in order to function.

The Talmud (Eruvin 54b) shares the vignette of Rav Preida, a great sage, who repeated his lesson to his young student 800 times in order to be sure he understood the material. For that effort, God rewarded him with long life and life in the world to come. The story reminds us we have to be patient and be diligent in our efforts to help the autistic child and any child whose disability prevents them learning and integrating into the larger world.

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The Incredibles (2004), directed by Brad Bird

incredibles posterMy oldest son, Rabbi Daniel, has recently written a book entitled What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone: Creating a Life of Legacy. Much of the book emerges from eulogies that he has delivered during the past 25 years as a synagogue rabbi. A consistent theme over the years is the good that people do anonymously, without any recognition or fanfare. Such good deeds done, below the societal radar, testify to the essential goodness of the deceased. Doing good without being recognized for it is at the heart of The Incredibles, an imaginative animated film that deals with superheroes who want to do good without receiving accolades. They just want to be helpful and do the right thing.

The main superheroes in the film are Mr. Incredible, who possesses super strength, Elastigirl, who can stretch her body like flexible rubber, and Frozone, who has the ability to create ice instantly. The opening scenes depict the heroes in a series of events where they are called upon to use their superpowers to catch criminals. They are almost entirely successful except in one case when they are foiled by Buddy, an enthusiastic fan of Mr. Incredible, who wants to be his ward like Batman’s Robin. It is his interruption that prevents Mr. Incredible from capturing the culprit.

After the excitement, the superheroes return to their alter egos and lead normal lives. Mr. Incredible is Robert Parr, Elastigirl is is Helen Parr, Robert’s wife, and Frozone is Lucius Best, Parr’s close friend.

Their lives are turned upside down when an avalanche of lawsuits are filed against the superheroes because of civilian injuries and collateral damage. Eventually, the superheroes conclude that they have to turn in their super suits and live normal lives away from the limelight, and assume their secret identities permanently. The Superhero Relocation Program provides ex-superheroes with new jobs and homes and amnesty for past actions.

The narrative continues 15 years later with Robert working for an insurance company, leading a life focused on his wife and children. However, he still dreams of his superhero years when he saved many people from disaster.

Soon an opportunity arises for him to return to his calling as a superhero. For a hefty sum, he is asked by Mirage, a mysterious woman, to destroy a rogue robot who is wreaking havoc on the residents of a remote island. However, Mr. Incredible soon discovers that his job is a ruse simply to get him to the island where Mirage’s anonymous employer terminates the lives of all the existing superheroes. The race to save himself and other superheroes makes for a tense and exciting denouement, in which Elastigirl, Frozone, and Mr. Incredible’s children play key roles.

A character trait that stands out among all three superheroes is their lack of interest in public acclaim. None of them is seeking recognition of any kind. They only want to help other people. This is a Jewish sensibility. In The Ethics of the Fathers, Jews are instructed to serve God, to do the right thing, without any intention of receiving reward. Moreover, Maimonides, in describing the eight levels of charity, writes that giving anonymously is one of the highest forms of charity.

It is significant to note that Mr. Incredible’s adversary is motivated primarily by a strong desire for recognition. He purposely destabilizes the world so that he can arrive on the scene and put it back together again in front of a large audience. He is a villain who thrives on the aphrodisiac of fame. The Incredibles reminds us that doing good things is more enduring than transient fame.

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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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