Good movies are often not easy to watch for progressive Christian-types. In films of lesser quality, the action and violence is an end in itself rather than a vehicle to drive the drama. In better movies, stories often include violence that depicts the breadth and depth of the drama and evokes the emotions of the viewer.
In the Name of the Father (Universal Studios, 1993) is not an easy movie to watch. But it is a great movie.
This dramatic depiction of a real-world story of government cover-up in Northern Ireland and England opens by showing the level of desperation and despair felt by the working-class young people in Belfast in the early 70s. That despair for some becomes focused in the violent activities of the Irish Republican Army, such as the bombings of tactical targets in London, including the Guildford Pub explosion that killed four. Londoners were struck with consummate fear.
The public outcry for justiceor more accurately the fear of further violencecreates a public relations nightmare for the British government and police force. The perpetrators need to be brought to justice, and quickly, to contain the fear of the populace.
In such times individual rights are often sacrificed. And so it was for Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis), his friends, and his family.
After his arrest, conviction, and sentencing, Conlon increasingly begins to see the world through the eyes of those who had planted the Guildford bombs. As he confronts the violence he experiences in prison, he himself becomes more violent...and self-destructive.
His antagonist in prison is his own father, who was also wrongly arrested for providing logistical support for the bombers. Guiseppe Conlon (Oscar nominee Peter Postlethwaite) never loses faith in the steadfastness of God, the power of a nonviolent campaign, and the possibility for renewal of the political system. This is not fervent ideology for him; it is merely his nature.
As the son becomes more attracted to the vices of the prison, the father believes he is losing him. But his quiet witness eventually bears fruit as, in the midst of absolute violence, the younger Conlon cant stomach the human effects.
Im glad to say this movie is not overly directed (by My Left Foots Jim Sheridan, nominated for an Oscar for this film). The drama is carried by the story itself, and supplemented by good camera work, an extraordinarily powerful soundtrack (with music by many, including Sinead OConnor, Bono, and Bob Dylan), and Day-Lewis remarkable portrayalfor which he is nominated for an Academy Award. A few times the film editor snipped scenes a little shy, creating an unnecessary feeling of lack of resolve.
Heaven and Earth (Warner Bros., 1993) completes Oliver Stones trilogy of Vietnam movies, begun with Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. Heaven likewise evokes a deep and painful emotional response, despite Stones self-indulgent directing. What worked in the other two filmsbright light scene changes and hazy flashbacksbecome distracting tricks here.
The film presents the war in Vietnam through the eyes of a young woman just coming of age as the French arrive in her tiny country, the object of so many invading forces. Ten years later, in 1963, the peasant countryside of Phung Thi Le Ly Hayslip (Hiep Thi Le) was forever changed by the arrival of American troops.
Heaven and Earth is the unnerving, true tale of survival for Le Ly Hayslip and her childrensurvival from the brutality of her fellow revolutionaries, the Saigon government, the American forces, and her own American husband (Tommy Lee Jones), who is a murderous soldier of fortune.
The movie title comes from a Vietnamese saying (Troi vå Dat) which implies that sometimes Father Heaven and Mother Earth are tipped upside-down. This unnatural condition must be remedied. Hayslip spends her life righting this circumstance.
Steven Spielbergs Schindlers List (Universal Studios, 1993) also presents a story of the world tipped upside-down. The setting: Nazi Germany in the 1940s. This black-and-white film presents the horror of genocide in all its randomness and design.
Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a Nazi businessperson in good standing with the military might of the Third Reich. In an effort to be a major business force, he ties himself deeply to the regime. And then the political climate offers him a business opportunity.
In the herding of Jewish people into ghettos and the rewriting of laws to exclude Jews from positions of authority in the workplace, Schindler sees a workforce that is in a weakened position. He approaches Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), a financier who is Jewish, and asks him to line up Jewish "investors" (since they can no longer own businesses) and workers for his enamel pots-and-pans factory. They will be paid in product.
Schindler offers the wisdom in his method. He says to Stern, "It makes all the difference between success and failure." "Luck?" Stern asks, characteristically concise. "War," Schindler responds.
Schindler is transformed by the power of quiet relationship (especially with Stern) and the madness of war. As he witnesses the degradation and devastation of the camps on his employees and friends-in-the-making, Schindler begins to improve conditions in the factory to provide an "escape" for as many Jewish people as he can.
Eventually Schindler acknowledges, "War brings out the worst in people; never the good, never the good." What had been his private bonanza becomes a noose around his neck. He can no longer accept the brutality of his own people on others.
The horror is driven home in a scene when 300 "Schindler Jews" are transferred to Auschwitz by mistake. Schindler seeks their release, and the commandant offers Hungarians instead. The losers would be off to the gas chambers. I pleaded for the release of those characters I knew; then I painfully realized that the still-faceless Hungarian women all had their own stories as well. I felt like Id made a pact with the devil in hoping for the freedom of some at the expense of others.
Schindler has similar feelings. Only the blessing of those saved could come close to salving the guilt and pain for those lost. Only in his own transformation, guided by Itzhak Sterns gentle counsel, can he find peace. He is forever changed.
In each of these three films, the protagonist is educated by the gentle suasion of a faithful soul whose quiet, nonviolent approach warmed the protagonists heart. These are truly the heroes of history, the unnamed angels who walk among us, teaching us kindness, patience, and love, even in the midst of war and violence.
Shadowlands (Savoy Pictures, 1993), the biographical enactment of the lives of C. S. Lewis and Joy Gresham, provides the context for a similar transformation, but this one at a more personal level.
Lewis (Anthony Hopkinshis Oscar nomination for Remains of the Day excluded him from consideration for this film) is a traditional scholarly male figure. He is not the target of directed violence for his ethnicity or political views, but he is deeply affected by the structural tyranny of his station; he has little empathic ability and an easy-answer apologetics. At least until he meets Helen Joy Gresham (best actress nominee Debra Winger).
In Greshams battles with an abusive marriage and an all-consuming cancer, Lewis finds that his easy answers fail him, that his emotional distance disables him. He is confronted with his own need for conversion.
And Gresham is none-too-slow to help. She challenges him to expand his range of feelings to include the pain and joy of another. In his love for her, he finds a new life. By opening himself to another, he finds himself.
Its the Art...
Increasingly, I am convinced that the disdain people feel for political correctness has less to do with "bad" political content and more to do with "bad" art. If convincing and evocative, people are moved. When folks feel they are being manipulated, they walk. Two fine movies with important messages unfortunately are victims of this effort.
Philadelphia (TriStar Pictures, 1993) is the Jonathan Demme-directed film that has opened Hollywood to the portrayal of AIDS. A much-discussed topic within the industry, especially at awards banquets, no major studio had been willing to try a dramatic depiction with AIDS as a theme.
Tom Hanks account of Andrew Beckett is quite good and has earned him a nomination for the best actor award; Denzel Washingtons rendition of homophobic personal injury lawyer Joe Miller is astounding. By the end of the film, tears flow easily.
But along the way the film is predictable as the charactersother than Washingtonweave too thin a fabric: There are good guys and there are bad guys (not too many women presented here). As the viewer, I know who to root for and against. During the testimony and oral arguments in court, the camera places the viewer in the jury box, which left me with the feeling of being lectureda feeling I dont like even when I agree with the lecturer.
Geronimo: An American Legend (Columbia Pictures, 1993) suffers much the same predicament as Philadelphia. Though not as politically correct as many of the reviews implied, this movie is somewhat unsatisfying in its portrayal of heroes and villains (with the exception of Robert Duvalls bounty hunting Al Sieber).
Seemingly an attempt to take advantage of the success of Dances With Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans by using American Indian culture again as the setting, the movie does not do the man justice. Providing almost no context, the film leaves unclear why Geronimo is a legend.
The performances of Wes Studi (as Geronimo), Robert Duvall, Gene Hackmann, and Jason Patric are all solid. Glimmers of complexity burst through occasionally, but the movie too often fell flat.
Each of the above-mentioned films is quite powerful and worthy of your time, though they do not provide much emotional relief or substantial opportunities for women actors. Viewing them all within 54 hours, I started to believe that unless I saw something a little lighter, I just might turn into a "grumpy old man."