Category Archives: Drama

What They Had (2018), directed by Elizabeth Chomko

From 1967 through 1970, I taught English in the evening division of Rockland Community College in Suffern, New York. It was an introductory course that included both literature and composition. On one evening, I took my mother with me so she could observe me as a teacher for the first time. Since most of my students were adults, my mother’s presence would not be noticed.

It was a special moment that I treasure. She had invested so much in my education that it gave me much pleasure to display my talents as a teacher to her. She never told me to be a teacher, but she always spoke in positive terms about the teaching profession. To her, it was an honest and dependable way to make a living.

I thought of that memory as I watched a scene in What They Had in which a parent finally sees his child as a competent adult, and that moment changes the entire relationship between them.

What They Had is the story of family that has to come to grips with what to do with their mother who is entering the stage of dementia. Ruth has Alzheimer’s, walking out of her home on Christmas Eve in spite of a blizzard outside in the windy city of Chicago. Fortunately, she returns home safely, but the incident is a catalyst for the family to make a decision about whether Ruth should be placed in an assisted-living facility or remain at home under the loving care of her husband.

Nicky, the son who lives in Chicago, is dealing with the day-to- day issues that come up and is functioning as the local caregiver. He is very tired and wants very much to place his mother in an assisted-living facility where they can take care of her properly. To make that decision, he needs his father to sign an authorization form and he needs his sister, Bridget, to approve the arrangement as well. He calls her and asks her to come from Los Angeles to Chicago, and she readily travels. Moreover, he wants Bridget to help him convince their father of the wisdom of moving their mother into a supervised residence.

Burt, their father, has been in love with Ruth for a veritable lifetime and feels he can provide the best care for Ruth, not an impersonal health care facility. Bridget is supportive of Nicky’s plan to move their mother, but she is also dealing with her own family issues that distract her. Her daughter, Emma, is uncommunicative and has stopped attending college classes, and Bridget feels emotionally distant from her husband.

Tempers flare as the family tries to sort out conflicts that have been dormant for many years, but now re-emerge because of the family dilemma that is consuming them. Things are messy, but there are moments of tenderness that surface and help ease moments of crisis. One such interlude occurs when Burt spontaneously visits his son Nicky for the first time at the bar that he owns. Nicky makes a “Manhattan” for him and his dad tells him it one of the best he has ever tasted. This small bit of praise by a father for his son does much to reduce the tension between father and son and alters their relationship.

The scene reminds us of how important it is to promote self-esteem in our children. Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski, a noted rabbi and psychiatrist, gives some practical advice: “God in His great mercy distributed various talents among people in the world. Everyone has some special talent. Be sure to point out to your child where his talents lie. This will enable his self-esteem to grow. Do not let a day go by without giving some praise to your children. This will help them to grow and to be a source of pride to you.”

One wonders how Nicky and Bridget would have turned out if Burt had consistently given praise to his children instead of constant criticism. Although it is clear that affection exists between parents and children in What They Had, it is evident that for it to grow and be strong, it needs to be planted in a garden of love, nourished daily with words of praise.

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Balibo (2009), directed by Robert Connolly

 In recent years, the concept of “fake news” has gained popular currency. People, generally, are less accepting of the word of mass media. However, there was a time when people trusted the news outlets. If Tom Brokaw or Walter Cronkite reported something, we assumed it was true and we had great respect for those who reported the news. Balibo harks back to a time when people looked to the newsman to find out what was happening in the world and relied upon reporters to deliver the truth.

The film, Balibo, follows the Balibo Five, a cohort of five journalists who were captured by Indonesian forces invading the tiny country of East Timor in 1975. They subsequently were killed while reporting on the conflict.

The story begins when Roger East, a veteran journalist, journeys to East Timor in 1975 to investigate the death of the reporters and to set up a news agency to broadcast news about the impending Indonesian invasion. He does this at the encouragement of young, charismatic activist Jose Ramos-Horta, who was East Timor’s secretary of foreign affairs.

Jose feels that the desperate plight of the people of East Timor will receive more international attention if the fate of the Australian journalists in East Timor is front-page news. The journalists are white while the East Timorese are brown, and the English media will identify with the Anglo journalists, not the brown-skinned Timorese whom, by and large, are anonymous. In fact, at the end of the invasion, which took place over an extended period of time, almost 200,000 East Timorese were killed.

The crux of the film revolves around the question of whether, given the dangerous environment, the journalists who, indeed, were in harm’s way, should have pulled out earlier. The reporters, totally focused on getting out the story, are depicted as naïve and naturally competitive, two qualities that often encourage simplistic thinking without considering the risks involved in a particular course of action.

Jewish law has a clear perspective on risk-taking. Dr. Daniel Eisenberg, a Jewish educator, writes: “Risk is everywhere — an unavoidable part of daily life. What are the parameters of our obligation to protect ourselves from everyday dangers? Judaism teaches God gave each person a body to use, but we are required to protect it. This is a difficult balancing act. If we are overly cautious, we miss out on much in life. Yet if we are reckless, we risk destroying the very body we were given to protect. What is the prudent course and what are the limitations?”

Dr. Eisenberg provides an answer: “In addition to removing hazards, the Torah twice commands us to protect our health, safety and well being. For example, the Talmud forbids walking near a shaky wall, lest it fall and injure the passerby. Similarly, all dangerous pursuits (bungy-jumping is an example) are proscribed.

Obviously, there is latitude in evaluating how much risk is acceptable. A person need not avoid small risks that are accepted by the rest of normal society without undue concern.

Judaism recognizes the need to earn a livelihood as a mitigating factor in allowing risky behavior. The Talmud asks: Why does the worker climb the tree and risk his life? Is it not to earn his wages?

Intrinsic in the Talmud’s argument is the assumption that one may take risks to earn a living that would not otherwise be permitted. Someone has to paint the bridge, build the skyscraper, and dive for pearls. So long as the risk stays within reasonable parameters, such activities are permitted as professions.

The exact degree of risk in any endeavor always remains hazy. And the overarching rule is the obligation to protect one’s health.”

It is clear that the idealistic journalists in Balibo confront extraordinary risk to life and, from the perspective of Jewish law, overreach normal standards of risk. Although their goal is worthy, they make the mistake of accepting an unacceptable risk.

 

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A Separation (2011), directed by Asghar Farhadi

When I was 11 or 12 years old, my sister Martha arranged for me to take a babysitting job in her stead. I approached the job casually, arrived on time, turned on the TV, and relaxed on the couch. The next thing I remember was being woken by the child’s parents with the baby crying violently in the background. Needless to say, it was my first and last babysitting job.

Caring for a baby is serious business because the baby is helpless and relies on the caregiver, i.e. the babysitter, to take care of the child in an emergency. A similar incident occurs in A Separation, in which a caregiver is careless about taking care of an Alzheimer’s patient and there are consequences for the caregiver. First, some background.

A Separation begins with a divorce hearing before a judge in an Iranian court. The adversaries are Nader and Simin. They love one another but have issues that are driving them apart. They both had planned to move to Europe to provide better educational opportunities for their daughter Termeh. However, Nader’s father suffers from Alzheimer’s and his situation is deteriorating. He no longer recognizes his children and needs 24-hour care. When Simin remarks to Nader “your father does not even know you,” he responds “but I know him.” This is the crux of the dilemma. Nader does not want to abandon his father, even if the consequence is divorce from his wife.

Simin leaves home with her daughter, compelling Nader to hire a caregiver for his father. The caregiver is Razieh who accepts the job reluctantly. She needs the money; but, in view of her strict religious upbringing, she does not feel comfortable cleaning Nader’s father when he has an accident in the bathroom.

On one particular day when she has to run an errand, she ties Nader’s father to the bed to prevent him from walking out of the apartment. Nader makes a surprise visit and discovers his father on the floor in distress. Nader sees Razieh as irresponsible, and in anger pushes her out of the house. As a result, Razieh falls down the stairs and has a miscarriage.

This leads to more complications. Nader is accused of killing Razieh’s unborn baby. Now Nader has to deal with this accusation in the courts in addition to dealing with his father’s deteriorating condition at home. Both families are struggling with challenges: economic, religious, and familial. There are no easy answers as each person is trying to navigate a complex reality that deals with accepting responsibility for one’s behavior and being truthful in one’s social interactions. Watching the Iranian family court system dealing with the child custody case in the light of numerous other issues is illuminating as it attempts to blend the letter of the law with what is in the child’s best interest.

Determination of custody is a common topic in most legal systems. The Talmud lists three guiding principles: (1) Custody of all children under the age of six is to be given to the mother; (2) Custody of boys over the age of six is to be given to the father; (3) Custody of girls over the age of six is to be given to the mother.

However, these rules are viewed with flexibility. Rabbi Michael Broyde, professor of Law at Emory University, observes: “Jewish law never understood these rules as cast in stone; all decisors accepted that there are circumstances where the interest of the child overwhelmed the obligation to follow the rules in all circumstances.” This nuanced view also appears in Iranian courts as depicted in A Separation, a film that presents a balanced view of justice with unpredictable outcomes.

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Ant-Man (2015), directed by Peyton Reed

As I was progressing in the early 1960s through Yeshiva University’s Jewish Studies Program designed for students who had not attended a Jewish day school, I asked a rabbi what would I accomplish after four years of intense Judaic studies in this new program. He told me that at the end of my academic program, I would be able to listen to a class in Bible or Talmud and understand it intelligently.

It was after that conversation that I decided to pursue ordination. I was not happy that, at the end of my studies, the rabbi’s assessment was that all I could do was understand a challenging class and not have some level of personal proficiency navigating original source material in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Little did the rabbi who spoke to me about my academic limitations realize that his comments inspired me to delve deeper into my studies in order to reach a higher level of proficiency. As the poet Robert Browning said: “man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

That desire to do more and be more than people expect energizes Scott Lang, an electrical engineer with a criminal record, to accept the challenge of saving the world. Moreover, once having saved the world, he will ultimately reunite with his beloved daughter, Cassie, who is now living with, Maggie, Scott’s ex-wife and her new husband.

Here is the backstory. Hank Pym, founder of a high tech company developing shrinking technology, resigns as head of the business when he realizes that his protégé, Darren Cross, wants to use the technology in weapons systems that are capable of destroying civilizations. The technology becomes useable through a special Ant-Man suit that enables the wearer to shrink to a tiny size and penetrate almost any obstacle.

Hank needs a thief to steal Cross’s prototype suit and chooses Scott to carry out the mission. Hank’s daughter, Hope, feels Scott is ill-equipped to execute this complicated task and shares her low estimate of Scott’s talent with him. Upon hearing it, Scott becomes more resolved to rise to the occasion and save the world from Cross’s evil plans. Hope’s negative assessment of Scott spurs him on to positive accomplishment.

Hank solidifies Scott’s determination to succeed by reminding him to take advantage of this opportunity for greatness: “Second chances don’t come around all that often. I suggest you take a really close look at it. This is your chance to earn that look in your daughter’s eyes, to become the hero that she already thinks you are.” Indeed, Scott realizes that no one but he can save the world at this moment and he rises to the occasion. Initially, he sees himself as inadequate; but at this moment he sees the infinite potential for good within him.

In The Ethics of the Fathers, the great sage Hillel says, “in a place where there is no man, be a man (2:6).” This means that sometimes one has to take charge when a situation calls for action. Someone has to stand up for what is right and often when catastrophe is right around the corner.

Consider, for example, the story of Moses who at first does not want to face Pharaoh to ask for the release of his Hebrew slaves. Moses claims he is a stutterer and not up to the task. God, however, reminds him not to define himself by his disability. Rather, define yourself by what your potential is, by what you could be and not by your present impediment. Scott Lang in The Ant-Man sees himself as a hero, and that mindset enables him to be heroic and save the day.

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Akeelah and the Bee (2006), directed by Doug Atchison

In 1970, I had to make a choice. Do I want to launch my career as a rabbi on my own serving as a pulpit rabbi or do I want to be an assistant rabbi and learn from a skilled and wise mentor? I chose the latter, and, in retrospect, it was a good decision.

In making the decision, I recognized my limitations and thought I would be a better rabbi in the long run if I had someone from whom I could learn. In Akeelah and the Bee, eleven-year-old Akeelah Anderson makes a decision to acquire a mentor as she prepares for the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, and that makes all the difference in her performance on game day.

African-American Akeelah Anderson resides in South Los Angeles, a tough neighborhood with poor schools. She is bored with being in an unchallenging academic environment. However, in spite of her surroundings, she has developed a talent for spelling. Principal Welch notices this and encourages Akeelah to enter the school’s spelling bee, which is the first step towards qualifying for the National Spelling Bee competition.

Akeelah, feeling that participation in the academic competition will brand her as a nerd, is reluctant to participate. In the face of consistent encouragement by the administration of the school, however, she relents and competes in the school’s contest and easily wins. This is the first step on the road to the national competition.

Along the way, she becomes friends with Javier Mendez, a spelling bee competitor from another school district consisting mostly of white middle class and wealthy families. Unlike her preconceptions of such students from affluent homes, Javier is friendly, supportive, and always has a smile on his face. In her conversations with him, she begins to see the world differently, becomes willing to step outside of her comfort zone, and starts to enjoy the challenge of competing in the national contest.

At first, Akeelah thinks she can win purely on the strength of her ability to master rote spelling skills. But as she competes in local contests, she realizes she will need a coach who will teach her about word roots and how to figure out how to spell complex words with obscure language origins. Serendipitously, Dr. Joshua Larabee, former chair of the UCLA English Department, becomes her mentor and coach. He is a harsh taskmaster, but ultimately Akeelah recognizes the value of his advice and follows his recommendations.

What Akeelah does conceptually is follow the advice of The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, which states “make for yourself a teacher (1:6).” The Sages interpret this to mean to get yourself a mentor, someone who will give you good advice as you navigate life.

Yaakov Astor, writer and Jewish educator, explains this aphorism. To get the most benefit from a mentor, you first have to acknowledge your own limitations and lack of perspective on certain issues. Once that is done, then you can seek out someone with wisdom and life experience to assist you. The mentor does not have to know everything, but he possesses more knowledge than you and can offer you perspective on your problems. He is objective where you are subjective.

Akeelah and the Bee demonstrates the positive effect that a mentor can have on your life. First, you need to know your strengths and weaknesses. Second, you can learn much and overcome challenges in life if you open to the perspective of an older and wiser person whom you respect and trust. It is then more likely that you will achieve success in life.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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.

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