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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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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The Last Play at Shea (2010), directed by Paul Crowder

last play at sheaIn the 1970s and beyond, Billy Joel was one of my favorite musical artists. At the start of his career, I had an opportunity to hear him in Atlanta, but I missed that chance. I finally saw him in concert at Madison Square Garden in New York in 2017; the show was one of those one-of-a-kind concerts that remains in your memory for a long time after. So it was with great anticipation that I watched The Last Play at the Shea, a 2010 documentary that recorded the 2008 Billy Joel concert that was the last concert at Shea Stadium, a huge sports venue that was scheduled for demolition the following year.

Primarily, Shea was known as the home of the New York Mets, so it was fitting that a native New Yorker like Joel was there to bid the stadium farewell. Interestingly, Paul McCartney of the Beatles makes a guest appearance at the end of the concert, which brings the history of the venue full circle. It was the Beatles who first appeared at Shea in 1965 soon after it opened; so when McCartney joins Joel for the concert finale, it poetically resonates.

The Last Play at the Shea is a blend of historical material, animation, and current footage of this landmark concert, interweaving the history of Shea, the Mets, and Billy Joel. New to me was the leadership of city planner Robert Moses, who was the engine behind the building of Shea and other city projects. In truth, Moses developed a master plan for the construction of the modern suburb in Long Island. He was ahead of his time when he began building the quintessential suburb in Queens. He comprehended that living in the city was cost prohibitive and that people would welcome the chance to work in the city but live in spacious, more affordable residences.

What impressed me were the comments of Joel as he tried to navigate his own career in a tumultuous time. He trusted people whom he regarded as friends and assumed they had his best interests at heart. Regrettably, some of these people swindled him and, at one point, he actually lost all his money. He felt compelled to tour relentlessly in order to rebuild his bank account, and this took a toll on his family life.

In spite of occasional disappointments, Joel maintains an overwhelming sense of gratitude for having the opportunity to perform before thousands who appreciate his music. His transparent sincerity endears him to his fans. He openly confesses: “If it weren’t for the Beatles, I wouldn’t do what I do.” His reuniting with Paul McCartney at the end of the film to sing the classic Beatles’ song “Let It Be” is a perfect ending to this nostalgic view of Shea, the Mets, and Billy Joel.

There is a powerful statement in The Ethics of the Fathers, by which Joel lives. The Sages say: “He who learns from his friend one chapter, one rule, one verse, even one letter, is obliged to treat him with respect.” Joel respects and appreciates the musical contributions of all who have gone before him. The Beatles were his muse, and their music changed him as well as the world. Joel understands that great rock music did not begin with him, but rather was an evolving art that expressed itself in a variety of ways over many years.

What stands out in The Last Play at the Shea is Joel’s honesty and sincere appreciation for those who helped him over the rough spots in his life. He is grateful for life, for the opportunity to do what he loves, and he is grateful to those people who inspired him along the way.

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Paterson (2016), directed by Jim Jarmusch

paterson posterAfter five years of teaching English in Israeli schools, I now have no official job. The school in which I worked cannot hire me because I am beyond retirement age. What do I do now? I learn Torah every day and I exercise every day. Additionally, I write almost every day. Mostly, I write film reviews that appear on the Internet and, when I visit the States, I lecture on “kosher movies,” films that have something meaningful to say about life and the subject of my recent book, Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema. Such writing compels me to think, to remember certain aspects of my life, and to formulate life lessons to impart to the reader. Writing keeps me engaged with the world.

I think of my old friend, Charlie, who owned a grocery store in Atlanta. We would study Jewish texts together and one day I asked him about his grocery business. Did he like it or was he in it only because it was his father’s family business? His response: I am in it because it is pleasant and affords me a livelihood, but my real interest is in Torah study. I may be in the grocery store, but my creative intellectual juices are focused on Torah study, not on my grocery inventory.

Reflection on these two experiences makes me appreciate Paterson more. Paterson is an unusual slice-of-life film about a bus driver named Paterson who drives a bus in Paterson, New Jersey. His regular job is driving a bus, but every day he finds time to write poetry. The subject of his poetry is his wife, Laura, and the varied people he meets in the course of the day, both on the bus and at a local bar where he stops each evening as he walks his dog Marvin. He carefully observes the world around him because he is interested in other people and because the scenes he sees and the people he meets provide poetic inspiration for him.

The film covers a week in his life. Every day starts out the same, but there are minor variations. In a sense, the movie is a visual poem with themes being repeated and visuals that are doubled into what might be considered as internal rhymes in poetry; these visual rhymes underpin the thoughts of Paterson as he drives his bus during the day.

Paterson is extremely sensitive to details and inspired by little things in life. For example, a simple matchbox motivates him to write a love poem. Life for him is filled with poetic possibilities. The film gives the viewer a window into the creative process. As Paterson closely observes the world around him, we hear him articulating his poetry and the poetry simultaneously appears as squiggly writing on the screen.

Although Paterson is a man of routine, at times life intervenes and he does something extraordinary. It may be just writing a poem or it may be as serious as saving someone’s life. Whatever happens, he remains peaceful in the midst of chaos.

Even when Paterson is faced with tragedy, he finds comfort in the contemplation of nature’s beauty and in his private thoughts. Serendipitously, when he is trying to come to terms with a personal loss, he comes upon a Japanese stranger. The stranger is also a poet, who, after a brief but cryptic conversation, presents Paterson with an empty notebook, implicitly suggesting that Paterson’s creative instincts are alive and well and they will enable him to see new poetic possibilities.

Patterson maintains his routine outer life because he lives an exciting inner life of intellectuality and creativity. Interestingly, the rabbis of the Talmud lived their lives in similar fashion. They intellectually rejoiced in Torah study and in matters of the mind and spirit, while possessing mundane jobs enabling them to survive financially. It is recorded that the occupations of the Sages included woodchopper, builder, field laborer, businessman, gravedigger, launderer, shoemaker, tanner, winemaker, blacksmith, and physician.

Patterson reminds us that no matter what our life’s profession, we can still lead intellectually creative lives. All we have to do is live small but dream large.

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The Confirmation (2016), directed by Bob Nelson

confirmationOne of the important lessons I learned over my long career in education is that kids are works in progress. If a student seems like a loser in high school, that does not mean he will always be a loser. I have witnessed many a student who has undergone a metamorphosis academically and spiritually. In high school, they were incorrigible; as adults they were exemplary human beings. I recall one student in particular, Daniel, who gave me grief every day he came to school, yet I controlled my response to his negative behavior and never said anything to him I regretted. Many years later, I received a phone call from Daniel apologizing for his confrontational behavior in high school. He then gave the school a sizable donation.

Watching The Confirmation, a coming of age story about Anthony, an eight-year-old child of divorce, reminded me of the truth of my experience as a teacher and principal. Anthony is a very sweet boy and he is clearly a work in progress. His father, Walt, and mother, Bonnie, are good people, but each has a different vision of what kind of adult Anthony should be. His mother encourages him to go to church. His father does not oppose this, but he tells his son that being a devout Christian is not necessarily a sure bet to get into Heaven. Maybe what the Church tells him is right and maybe it is not. He can listen to all points of view as a child, but when he grows into adulthood, he will have the freedom to decide for himself what path to follow.

The opportunity for the extended discussion between father and son occurs when Bonnie departs for a Christian Couples Retreat with her new husband, Kyle. She leaves Anthony in the care of his father, warning him that if he imbibes alcohol, he will lose visitation rights to Anthony. Walt, in truth, is in recovery for his alcoholic problem, but a series of unfortunate events test him emotionally. First, his car breaks down, then he receives an eviction notice from his landlord, and finally someone steals his carpentry tools, which he needs for an upcoming job.

Spending the day together with his father, who is challenged by so many problems, gives Anthony a window into the complexity of adult life. He begins to realize how complicated decision-making can be when, instead of seeing situations only in black and white, the predominant color of real life is grey.

There are two confession scenes that bookend the story. At the beginning, Anthony, at the request of this mother, goes to the priest to make confession. When the priest asks him to enumerate his sins, Anthony cannot name any. Even when the priest prompts him by asking if he was disrespectful to his parents or had impure thoughts, Anthony, in his innocent state, can recall nothing.

Near the end of the film, one day after spending a day with his father, he returns to the confessional booth with a very different narrative. In truth, Anthony is the same innocent boy, but now he has a better understanding of the complexity of life after seeing what his father’s life is like. For example, Anthony knows that sometimes lying is acceptable if it preserves peace in the home.

The Talmud’s style of discourse is to record different opinions, not merely to recite Jewish law. Having studied it for many years, I am continually amazed at its intellectual rigor and honesty. Rarely is a topic seen solely in black and white terms. One line of reasoning is presented; then another rabbi disagrees and expresses doubt about the conclusions reached by the previous sage. A final opinion is offered, but only after much analysis and give and take argument. Anthony in The Confirmation, after seeing the challenges his father faces and the strange assortment of characters he meets, emerges as a wiser young man who, in all likelihood, will mature into a wise and competent adult able to evaluate life in all its complexity.

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