Category Archives: Drama

Dog Day Afternoon (1975), directed by Sidney Lumet

 Somewhere I remember a teacher saying the following line: “If you think education is experience, try ignorance.” I thought of this maxim as I watched Dog Day Afternoon, a true story about two men who attempt to rob a small bank in Brooklyn. Neither of them has any criminal record. One of them needs a few thousand dollars to help a friend; the other comes along for the ride. Both have some street smarts but are incredibly ignorant and naïve when it comes to understanding the dire consequences of their unrealistic plan.

Their ignorance is dramatically brought home when they are arranging for a plane to fly them to a foreign country. Sonny wants to fly to Algeria but is clueless about what would await him there. Sal confesses he has never flown on a plane before and wants to fly to Wyoming. To this New Yorker, Wyoming is a foreign country, and it is this kind of ignorance that dooms these would-be robbers from the outset.

Sonny and Sal, two down-and-outers, attempt to rob a bank, but things fall apart very soon after they realize that the cash for the day has already been picked up. Only about $1000 remains in the till. When Sonny tries to burn some traveler’s checks to prevent them from being traced, the business across the street sees the smoke coming from the bank and soon policemen surround the building. In a panic, the robbers decide to go ahead with the robbery and hold the employees hostage. Sonny tells the police detective in charge that he will kill the hostages if anyone tries to enter the bank.

Things get very complicated as TV cameramen and bystanders crowd around the bank, where Sonny has become a minor celebrity in his stand-off with the police. Realizing his situation is deteriorating, he requests a jet and safe passage to a foreign country in return for the lives of the hostages. A limousine arrives taking everyone to Kennedy Airport and it is here where the story ends sadly and violently.

As we watch events unfold, it is clear that Sonny will not kill anyone. Life’s challenges have simply overwhelmed him and his bank robbery is a desperate act. In the midst of the robbery, he refers to his Catholic faith that still sustains him and is solicitous about the condition of his hostages. Before leaving for the airport, he even dictates his last will and testament to a bank employee, revealing the simplicity of his motives. He is not robbing the bank to get money for himself. He wants the money so that he can help another person in distress. When he departs, he does not want to leave a mess.

Jewish tradition reveres education and acquiring knowledge. The commandment to teach one’s children goes back to Biblical times and is set forth in the first paragraph of the credo of the Jewish faith, the Shma. Moreover, the concern for transmitting wisdom throughout subsequent generations is echoed in various books of the Bible including Proverbs, written by the wise King Solomon. Although the verses primarily relate to religious education, they have a ripple effect in secular learning as well.

The great sage Maimonides, who excelled not only in Torah learning but in medicine as well, maintained that wisdom comes not only from holy text, but from careful observation of nature as well. Learning is a supreme value, and not to learn puts one at great disadvantage. Dog Day Afternoon, a gritty, profanity-laced, New York story of two small men in the big city, dramatically reminds us of the perils of ignorance.

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Triple Frontier (2019), directed by J.C. Chandor (a Netflix film)

One of the important lessons I transmitted to my children over the years was never to make the acquisition of money the sole reason for one’s actions. Make important decisions in life based on Torah wisdom, not based on acquiring more stuff. Stuff has limited shelf life. Good character does not.

Another related life lesson for my children is based on an aphorism in the Talmud: “Attempting to grab too much will lead to grabbing nothing (Yoma 80a).” The expression is found seven times in the Babylonian Talmud.

The consequences of making money the main motivation behind one’s decision-making and the consequences of grabbing more than you need is depicted in the thriller Triple Frontier, a heist film with a message about the perils of compromising one’s integrity to acquire more riches. Five ex-special forces soldiers are tested both physically and morally when they decide to raid the compound of a Columbian drug lord, Gabriel Martin Lorea, whose cartel is responsible for the destruction of many individuals and families.

The film opens with an assault by a private military outfit on the Lorea cartel. Santiago “Pope” Garcia, an ex-special forces soldier, is employed by the company to help stop the flow of drugs into America. While on his mission, Yovanna, an informant, gives him a tip about Lorea’s whereabouts and the amount of money he has stashed away in his home. In return, she wants Santiago to smuggle her brother, whose life is in danger, out of the country.

Santiago travels to the United States to recruit his old Delta Force friends to join him in a job to steal the money from Lorea. The cash prize will be more than 75 million. His buddies include Tom “Redfly” Davis, a realtor; William “Ironhead” Miller, a motivational speaker; his brother Ben Miller, a mixed martial arts fighter; and Francisco “Catfish” Morales, a former pilot.

Redfly is regarded as the leader since he was the one who successfully led them on missions in the military. Initially, he is only willing to do reconnaissance and is reluctant to participate in the venture. However, once he learns how much potential reward there is, he decides to join.

At the initial meeting of the group, he emphasizes that what they will do is illegal and they have no military support. The job is only for personal gain. Everyone understands the ground rules and Redfly’s plan is put into action.

When scouting Lorea’s compound, they learn that Lorea goes to church every Sunday with his family, leaving his home with only minimal security for about an hour. This is the maximum time for Redfly and his companions to steal the loot and disappear into the surrounding jungle.

Things begin well, but then there are complications when they discover close to 250 million dollars hidden in the walls of the house. Greed overwhelms Redfly’s normally cautious approach, and precious seconds are lost with dire consequences.

Moreover, their troubles mount when their plane, weighted down by the excess money, has trouble flying over the Andes Mountains. Additionally, they are confronted with unforeseen moral dilemmas when they have to decide to continue with their original mission when it involves the killing of innocents.

Alan Morinis, a Jewish ethicist, in his book, Everyday Holiness, discusses the importance of leading a life of simplicity not based on acquiring more money. He writes: “The mindset of acquisition can leave us constantly feeling great pangs of need. Of desire, the Talmud says, Satisfy it and it becomes ravenous; Starve it and it becomes satiated.”

The Talmud tells us in several places to be happy with what one already possesses: Ben Zoma says: ”Who is happy? He who is content with his lot.” Morinis amplifies this: “No matter how many or few your possessions, you will actually feel the reality of your riches only if you have an inner contentment with what you have. To devote ourselves exclusively to the stuff of the world is to be left with nothing.”

The heroes of Triple Frontier are not initially greedy men. They have served their country admirably and are now in civilian life leading ordinary lives. But they have little financial security. The attraction of being in a better situation economically appeals to them and they rationalize their heist of a drug lord’s wealth to be a good thing, a boon for society as well as for them.

It is only in the crucible of real life experience that their lofty goals are compromised. Triple Frontier reminds us not to abandon our moral sensibilities no matter what the temptation.

Logan Lucky (2017), directed by Steven Soderbergh

As a school principal, I am sometimes faced with parents who, no matter the evidence, refuse to admit the shortcomings of a child. I recall one occasion when a student was caught plagiarizing a paper. At the subsequent meeting in which the teacher, the parents, and I were discussing what should be the consequences of this dishonesty, the boy’s father proclaimed: “My son never cheats.”

It was a troubling comment because it revealed an inability to accept truth and the consequences of lying. A similar inability to accept truth is evidenced by a prison warden in Logan Lucky, a humorous heist movie. No matter what the evidence, the warden denies he has a problematic prison population even when it is clear to the viewer that the prisoners are engaged in nefarious activities.

The narrative begins in a rural county in West Virginia when Jimmy Logan gets fired from his physically demanding job because he has a pronounced limp. The origin of his injury is a football injury sustained during his high school days when he was a star player. Now he is out of the limelight and working hard as a laborer to survive.

Desperate for cash, he enlists his brother, Clyde, and sister, Mellie, to assist him in robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a NASCAR race. There is one problem: they need the help of a safecracker, Joe Bang, who is presently incarcerated. Jimmy’s plan is both crazy and straightforward, and it depends on lots of uncertainties. First, they have to get Joe Bang out of jail surreptitiously. Then they have to break into the racetrack vault. They then have to abscond with the cash. They then have to return Joe to prison without anyone realizing he was gone. Finally, Jimmy has to arrive at his daughter’s beauty pageant on time. How all this works out is the stuff of movie magic. It involves a very willing suspension of disbelief.

The conceit that enables the robbers to succeed is the fact that the local authorities who are charged with finding the culprits and recovering the stolen money are not willing to accept criticism. It is easier for them to plead ignorance or to lie outright than to recognize and accept the stark reality of the crime with all its attendant consequences. Because of this desire on the part of the establishment to cover up incompetence and to avoid public ridicule, they inform the news media that the money has been recovered when they actually do not know if it has been or not.

In contrast, Judaism accepts the reality of sin and requires man to atone for bad behavior. There are no excuses and there is accountability. Unlike my high school parent who refused to acknowledge his son’s cheating, and unlike the establishment authorities who see the robbery as only hurting the insurance companies, Jewish law mandates candor, sincere regret for past indiscretions, and teshuva, repentance.

Repentance involves several steps: regret, ceasing the harmful behavior, confessing to God, and resolving not to do it again. Rabbi Shraga Simmons, a noted Jewish educator, shares a thoughtful analogy that illustrates how we should view the mistakes of a child: “Imagine a new child taking his first steps in front of the proud parents. He gets to his feet, takes a few steps ― and falls flat on his face. The parents clap with excitement and joy. But if you analyze the scenario, shouldn’t the parents be upset? After all, the child fell down! The answer is obvious. A parent doesn’t judge a child based on whether he walks or falls, but rather on whether he took a few steps in the right direction.” That mindset perhaps should have guided the parents in my school who, by protecting their son from the consequences of failure, taught him to avoid accountability at all costs.

Logan Lucky makes no moral pronouncements and the protagonists of the story do not necessarily walk in the right direction, but the film does provide an example of what can occur when people rationalize bad behavior.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Coco (2017), directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

One of my children was recently visiting me in Israel and I decided to peruse with him some old photo albums to review our family history. In the albums were images of family members, close and distant relatives, and friends from different communities in which we lived.

Much to my surprise, I could not identify many people in the pictures. Out of sight for a long time, they were also out of mind. I could not remember them; it was as if they no longer existed. The theme of memory is central to Coco, an animated feature about a young boy whose memory of the past provides a gateway to understanding his future.

Miguel is a 12-year-old Mexican boy and a budding musician. For some unknown reason, his family has placed a ban on all music, which conflicts with his desire to make a career out of music. Things come to a head when, through a serendipitous event, Miguel is magically transported to the Land of the Dead, a place where the dead continue to live if they are still remembered by the living. Here Miguel can meet his musical idol Ernesto de la Cruz and discover for himself the reason for his family’s ban on music.

In the Land of the Dead, Miguel meets Hector, a skeleton with musical talents, who will assist Miguel in his search for his family’s secrets. Hector takes the job as Miguel’s guide when Miguel promises to take his photo back to the Land of the Living to give to his daughter so that he can, in some mystical way, be reconnected to his daughter and prevent her from forgetting him. He implores Miguel to carry out this mission so that his daughter’s love for him will survive eternally: “When there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you, you disappear from this world. We call it the Final Death.”

Along the way, Miguel learns that Imelda Rivera, his great grandmother, was abandoned by her husband who left her and her 3-year old child Coco to pursue a career in music. Music was the root cause of the family’s disintegration and Imelda opened a shoe-making business to enable her family to survive financially. These memories animate the past and create a living legacy for Miguel, who finally discovers secrets and misunderstandings that led to his family’s ban on music. Hector reminds him: “Our memories, they have to be passed down by those who knew us in life, in the stories they tell about us.”

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, reflects on the purpose of memory: “Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption.” Jews on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, recite the Yizkor prayer, the memorial liturgy for those who are no longer with us in this life. Its recital evokes in our minds and hearts the memories of all those family members who were close to us and who now dwell in the uncharted beyond. By preserving their memory, we can emulate their positive behaviors and incorporate their attributes into our own lives. Saying Yizkor reminds us that the good deeds a person performed when he was a vibrant human being have a ripple effect on those who remain alive after his death. Yizkor, indeed, opens a door leading to eternity, a link between generations.

Coco is more than a typical animated feature. It is a meditation on death and on the connections between the living and the dead that survive and transcend the end of life. Miguel keeps the memory of his ancestors alive, and in so doing creates a happy future for himself, a future grounded in the rich history of the past.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Highwaymen (2019), directed by John Lee Hancock

In the 1960s, I saw the classic Bonnie and Clyde. It was part of a group of films that changed my view of cinema. Others films in the group were The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. All of those movies took a conventional story and stood it on its head. The Graduate dealt with love that was complicated when the young man was in an adulterous affair with his girlfriend’s mother. Butch Cassidy glorified the bad guys, and Bonnie and Clyde, robbers and murderers, were depicted as amiable friends and champions of the common folk. The Highwaymen seeks to correct that image.

The good guys are the Texas lawmen who brought down Bonnie and Clyde. Before they arrive on the scene, the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, thinks that new forensic technology will lead to the capture of the criminals. But when the crime spree intensifies and Bonnie and Clyde are still at large, two former Texas rangers, Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, are recruited out of retirement to get the job done. They use basic low-tech detective work to track them down.

Hamer and Gault possess dissimilar temperaments. Hamer simply wants to kill Bonnie and Clyde. His is sick and tired of the public romanticizing their exploits and not recognizing the barbarity of their killing of innocents. Gault is also bothered by their notoriety. When he sees a poem by Bonnie in a local newspaper, he remarks: “Used to be, you had to have talent to get published. Now you just have to shoot people.”

Gault agrees with Hamer’s assessment of Bonnie and Clyde for the most part, but he would prefer to capture them. He is very much concerned about the collateral damage of ambushing them. Memories of past deadly encounters with criminals in which bystanders were killed still haunt him.

Hamer and Gault are not interested in publicity. They only want justice. They are humble men who take pride in serving the law-abiding public.

Humility is a classic Jewish virtue, especially when it is manifest in Jewish leaders. Moses, the greatest prophet in the Bible, is referred to as the most humble of all men (Numbers 12:3). Moreover, Abraham, the Patriarch, refers to himself as nothing but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27).

The great deciders of Jewish law in contemporary times gained acceptance by the masses for their erudition and knowledge and also for their good character. Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Joseph Soloveitchik, Torah luminaries of the twentieth century, were not scholars who sought the limelight. People simply sought out their wisdom and they did their best to respond.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shares an insight about why Jews generally value genuine humility and do not seek out recognition or notoriety: “Appearances deceive. The Hebrew word for garment, begged, comes from the same Hebrew word as to betray – as in the confession Ashamnu bagadnu, We are guilty, we have betrayed.”

The text indicates that we should not posture nor see ourselves as powerful and influential people. Rather we should view ourselves as modest, seeking to complete our mission as human beings on this earth. We should not yearn for recognition for the deeds that we do, especially when the deeds we perform are clearly the right things to do even without recognition.

Bob Diener, founder of Hotels.com and a motivational lecturer, examines Talmudic sources and concludes that a successful life involves promoting the welfare of others, not just gaining accolades and fame for oneself: “Success is not just what we have done personally, but what we have done to pass on Jewish values and wisdom to the next generation. Did you have children and raise them to continue the mission of improving the world around us?”

The Highwaymen reminds us that the good that we do is more important than any recognition we can receive. Frank Hamer and Maney Gault did their job well; any public recognition of their completed task was not the motivator for their good deeds. Their humble work ethic is worth thinking about.

The Mustang (2019), directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

I have met a few angry people in the course of my life. One stands out. He was a Civics teacher in my junior high school who played pick-up basketball games with his students. If a student missed a critical shot, he would forcefully slap him on the head. Of course, this was in the 1950s and such behavior was often overlooked by the administration. I played ball with him on occasion; but once I saw him slap the student, I stopped playing with him for fear I might be his next target.

Anger is a dangerous emotion because an angry person is not in control of his emotions and can do some very bad things. The Mustang is about a very angry man who does terrible deeds, but who is given a chance to change his behavior and redeem himself.

The film opens as a herd of wild horses is galloping through the prairie. Suddenly a helicopter’s whirring blades is heard over the quiet landscape. The helicopter is prodding the herd to enter corrals and trucks that are part of a roundup of mustangs by the US government. We are informed that more than 100,000 horses are roaming the countryside, but the government can only manage a small number of them.

In order to determine which horses will find a home, prisoners are given an opportunity to train them for conventional uses. An auction is held at the end of a 5-week training period. The training time serves as therapy for the prisoner who, like the horses, is wild and difficult to tame.

Roman Coleman has been in prison for 12 years after leaving his domestic partner permanently brain damaged in an act of uncontrollable violence. Guilt overwhelms him, and he resists being reintegrated back into society, arguing that “I’m not good with people.” He makes no effort to leave the confines of prison, even though it means his daughter will be left parentless.

While working in a prison maintenance detail, rancher Myles, who runs the prison’s rehabilitation program, assigns Roman to train one of the wild mustangs. Initially, Roman has problems, but slowly he learns to control his own aggressive nature and make progress with his horse, whom he names Marcus.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about the trait of anger: “In general, Maimonides, like Aristotle, believed that emotional intelligence consists in striking a balance between excess and deficiency, too much and too little. Too much fear makes me a coward, too little makes me rash and foolhardy, taking unnecessary risks. The middle way is courage. There are, however, two exceptions, says Maimonides: pride and anger. Even a little pride or anger is wrong.”

Moreover, he quotes Talmudic sources that speak about the terrible consequences of anger: “One who yields to anger is like one who had worshipped idols (Shabbat 105b). The life of those who can’t control their anger is not a life, they said (Pesachim 113b). Resh Lakish said, When a person becomes angry, if he is a sage his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet his prophecy departs from him (Pesachim 66b).

Rabbi Sacks continues: “What is dangerous about anger is that it causes us to lose control. While in its grip, we lose the ability to step back and judge the possible consequences of our actions. The result is that in a moment of irascibility we can do or say things we may regret for the rest of our lives.”

Roman Coleman, by learning to be sensitive to the behavior of a wild mustang, learns to be sensitive to other human beings. Anger no longer dominates his personality; and he desires his future relationships to express forgiveness and love. He is repentant and repentance for him is the gateway to personal salvation.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2019), directed by Chiwetel Ejiofer

One of my earliest childhood memories was going to the library with my mother. She would bring me there regularly for story hour. I think it was there that I developed an appetite for reading. We would always take out several books and I eagerly anticipated reading them at home.

Those visits are remembered fondly because they were exciting and enjoyable, often introducing me to places and people far away from my provincial hometown. Books catapulted me to the world of imagination, a world that was nurtured throughout my academic career.

Moreover, my mother was an avid reader herself, and I remember that she bought a complete set of the works of Charles Dickens for the home. Raised in an environment where books were treasured, reading classic literature became an aspiration even at a young age.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells the true story of William Kamkwamba, a bright boy born in Malawi, Africa, for whom the library is a magical place where his curiosity about science can be explored and satisfied. William has his roots in a family of farmers. The family lives a meager life dependent upon crops that may or may not be harvested. The possibility of famine always exists because of the lack of rain or an abundance of rain, making their economic future always uncertain.

William has a hobby of repairing radios for his friends and spends time in junkyards looking for electrical components. While figuring out how things work, he discovers an idea whereby windmills can create energy to bring up water from underground wells.

But there is a problem. He is asked to leave the school because his parents cannot pay the tuition. Denied access to the school’s library, he privately asks a teacher for a key to the library. Indeed, he needs its resources in order to develop his windmill theory. He surmises that building an electric water pump will enable people to transport underground water to the surface.

After constructing a prototype, William wants to build a larger windmill. This requires cannibalizing moving parts from his father’s bicycle, which essentially will destroy the bicycle. Father and son love one another, but their love is tested when William requests his father to give him the bicycle, his only means of transportation. Both understand that it will not be returned to his father as William has found it.

The library is key to William’s acquisition of knowledge. It gives him access to books, which give him the know-how to build the water pump, thus avoiding famine and giving the gift of life to his family and his neighbors.

The library with its storehouse of books encourages problem-solving and curiosity. Moreover, in the view of educators, the school library is the center of the cultural and social life of the school, providing reading of all kinds, access to information, knowledge building, and opportunities for deep thinking.

Jews throughout the ages have understood the value of book learning and the supreme importance of the beit midrash, the communal study hall and library where books are stored and studied. Rabbi Benjamin Blech writes: “ We are known as the people of the book. We were the first people to mandate literacy for every child and lifelong study for every adult. Jews didn’t get the genius from their genes; they made study a central feature of their faith and passed on their love of learning to their children.”

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a testament to the value of book learning and what it can do to enhance the lives of those who use the acquisition of knowledge to improve society. The film reminds us that in the midst of despair, knowledge and wisdom can help us transcend an unpleasant reality.

 

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