Category Archives: Drama

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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Schindler’s List (1993), directed by Steven Spielberg

schindler's listWhen I taught the Holocaust to high school students, I often would show the students a documentary that would make the statistical information more vivid and meaningful. Night and Fog was a frequent choice. On occasion, I would show excerpts from Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s 11-hour documentary.

After the appearance of Schindler’s List, I would show the iconic scene in which Oskar Schindler for the first time sees the gross brutality of the Nazi regime. A ghetto is being purged of Jews and, in the midst of this chaos, we see a little girl in a red dress fleeing the horror around her. It is the only color in a black and white scene that unfolds like a newsreel. Oskar is a war profiteer, but now he sees the tragedy from a human perspective and it changes him.

The film opens with the relocation of Polish Jews from all parts of the country to Krakow in 1939, shortly after World War II began. Oskar Schindler, an entrepreneur, sees the possibility of using a cheap labor force of Jews to manufacture enamelware for mess kits and cooking utensils for the German military. To advance his business interests, he bribes army and SS personnel and develops a coterie of loyal supporters.

However, he has no real business experience and needs someone with accounting expertise to run the business. This he finds in Itzhak Stern, a member of the Judenrat, the local Jewish council. Stern has valuable connections with the underground business community in the ghetto and is an expert accountant. Schindler proposes that Jews lend him the money to open the factory, in return for which the Jews will receive enamelware that they can trade on the black market.

Stern suggests Schindler hire only Jewish workers since they are cheaper, but he has in mind the welfare of the workers. Schindler’s employees will be allowed to leave the ghetto to go to work; and if they are considered “essential” workers, they will not be sent to the death camps.

The initiative works, even when Amon Goth, a ruthless German officer, subverts Schindler’s plans by relocating his “essential” workers. Schindler convinces Goth to reconsider and this lays the groundwork for Schindler’s extraordinary effort to save Jews.

As his relationship with Stern deepens, and as Schindler sees the awful plight of the Jews, he becomes sympathetic to them and wants to help. Again, bribery and the force of his charismatic personality enable Schindler to be successful economically and rescue Jews at the same time.

What distinguishes Schindler’s List from other Holocaust films is its focus on individual stories. It is difficult to comprehend the loss of six million Jews, but it is easier to understand the tragedy through the eyes of people who saw their lives crumble before them, who suddenly went from affluence to poverty, who witnessed loved ones disappear before their eyes.

Schindler’s metamorphosis from bystander to savior is prefigured in the Bible story of Moses who does not understand the terrible situation of the Jews in Egypt until he steps out of the palace where he was raised and sees an Egyptian beating a Jew. The abstraction of slavery becomes the reality in which his brethren live, and this marks the emotional turning point for Moses.

Seeing things for yourself changes the human equation. This is what happens to Oskar Schindler when he views evil close up, when he sees how decent, law-abiding people can suffer at the hands of cruel oppressors. It is then that Schindler becomes a more sensitive human being. His empathy for the Jews and his heroism make him a hero for our times.

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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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Sully (2016), directed by Clint Eastwood

sullyAs principal of a high school, I would often interview teachers for positions in the school. Resumes often were superb, but the person had no teaching experience. I remember one candidate in particular who took pride in the fact that he had a perfect SAT score. I did not hire him because there was no empirical evidence that he would succeed, let alone survive, in a high school classroom.

The difference between someone who possesses sterling academic credentials and someone who possesses exceptional real world experience is at the crux of Sully, the film that depicts the famous “miracle on the Hudson,” in which the pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, landed a commercial jet, US Airways Flight 1549, carrying 155 people on the Hudson River in New York with no loss of life.

The opening scenes of the film depict the investigation of the incident by the airport authorities, who question why Sully chose to land on the Hudson River rather than simply fly back to LaGuardia Airport from which they had just departed. They argue that computer simulations of the flight that replicate the large flock of birds that flew straight into the plane’s engines indicate it was possible for it to return to LaGuardia safely.

Through flashbacks, we see the flight as it unfolded in real time. It becomes clear that the flight simulations do not consider the human factor in making the right decisions under pressure. When the group listens to the cockpit recordings, they understand how critical the human component is in making good decisions at stressful moments, when life and death are at stake. Sully reminds them: “No one warned us. No one said ‘You’re going to lose both engines at a lower altitude than any jet in history. But, be cool, just make a left turn for LaGuardia like you are going back to pick up the milk.’ This was duel engine loss at 2800 feet followed by immediate water landing with 155 souls on board. No one has ever trained for an incident like that. No one.”

Jewish tradition shows great respect for the learning that one acquires over a lifetime. The Bible exhorts us to stand up before the aged, even if the old person is not necessarily a scholarly man. We simply revere age because it tells us that a person has experienced much in life, and that experience makes him a valued and respected member of society.

Rabbi Noach Weinberg writes: “People have some idea that there’s nothing to learn outside of a university. We think: What does the average person on the street know? This attitude is destructive because it stops us from learning the many bits and pieces of wisdom that are available. Just the fact that someone survives from day-to-day, and copes with life’s obstacles, means he’s picked up valuable tips on living.” Moreover, Rabbi Weinberg observes: “We assume that unless a person is a recognized scholar, or successful business person, he lacks wisdom. But the truth is, anyone who’s had life experience possesses great wisdom. You may be shocked to find out how much your parents know about the issues you’re grappling with right now. As Mark Twain said, ‘I spent four years in university, and I was amazed at how much wiser my father got while I was away!’ “

Sully’s many years of experience as a pilot enabled him to do extraordinary things when an emergency demanded a quick response to a life or death scenario. Textbook learning alone would not have prepared him for dealing with such an unknown and unpredictable crisis. Only through the crucible of life experience, for which there is no substitute, do we acquire the practical wisdom that enables us to overcome life’s challenges.

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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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