In 1991, an experienced and professional CIA analyst named Jack Ryan brought bad guys to justice after the detonation of a nuclear device on American soil. That is how the story goes in Tom Clancy's bestselling novel The Sum of All Fears. In 2002, as director Phil Alden Robinson brings an adaptation of the military thriller to the big screen, it's a much different story. It also has a different audience, with different concerns and fears.
Jack Ryan has tracked down terrorists and tried to prevent nuclear disaster several times before. You've probably seen previous adaptations: The Hunt for Red October (starring Alec Baldwin), Patriot Games (Harrison Ford), and Clear and Present Danger (Ford again). While Fears is a later chapter as the books go, on the big screen it has been altered to become a story of young Jack Ryan, played by Ben Affleck, whose furrowed brow gives away his adoration for Ford. Why was the story altered? The franchise wanted a new star that might stick around; Ford was not interested in the project.
But so much has changed in the world's political climate since 1991 that the story has changed in other ways as well. The villains of the novel were three terrorists: a German leftist, an anti-Zionist Arab, and a Native American political activist. Today, it would be politically incorrect to even suggest that such characters would carry out such atrocities. And America is trying to balance anti-extremist action in the Middle East with careful reaffirmation of respect and support for Arabs in America. Thus, the villains of this movie are—you guessed it—Neo-Nazis. Too bad Harrison Ford didn't sign on; we would have had ourselves an Indiana Jones movie in disguise.
As the story goes, these Neo-Nazis want to bait the U.S. and Russia into all-out nuclear smackdown, while they prepare to seize control in the aftermath. So Baltimore becomes the target of a nuclear attack, and all clues point to the Russians. More specifically, they're going to bomb the Super Bowl.
There has been much skepticism about Paramount's decision to release the film so soon after September 11. Religious press critics and mainstream reviewers as well are offering some limited praise, but I haven't seen any reviews that avoided the awkwardness of watching a movie that actually portrays the world's imminent nightmare.
Marie Asner (The Phantom Tollbooth) says, "There are certainly flaws in this script. A lost bomb and no one was looking for it for almost 30 years? Despite a horrible tragedy, the phones still work. People in danger of assassination never check under cars before starting them. Some of the special effects look cheesy, especially the Stealth planes." But she suggests that the plot "will bring audiences past September 11 and into the next phase of 'What If?'"
Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) writes, "Eerily prescient in the current political climate, the film is a frightening depiction of a growing fear. The story is convoluted, and its star still needs a bit more seasoning, but in the light of 9/11, it's both fascinating and frightening to watch."
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "I enjoyed every minute of this exciting story and applaud the approach … Robinson took with Clancy's thriller. I believe that this kind of movie serves a social purpose in reminding us all of how precarious the global climate is at the moment and how precious the gift of freedom and peace truly is."
But at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a critic argues, "A year ago the film might have described as a sleekly made thriller, which it is, but the devastation of Sept. 11 has given it an extra layer of horror. A story that once might have seemed far-fetched can now ratchet up fear and dread in an already nervous public. It's certainly not a movie for those still emotionally fragile from having lost anyone in the terrorist attack, and it still may be too soon for many others. In fact, given the disastrous turn of events the movie takes, one can find fault with presenting a film in which thousands are killed as an exciting thriller." The critic concludes that the film's "romanticized ending tends to trivialize the movie's tragedy in disturbing ways."
Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) is more troubled by the bad behavior of the film's heroes than he is by the questions of timing: "This violent drama shows men being strangled, shot, blown up, and crushed by a rolled helicopter. About half of its 30 profanities are blasphemous. Also, previous Clancy tales have benefited from tender moments involving Ryan's family. Not here. In this prequel, the bachelor is introduced waking up beside his girlfriend after their third date. What's really scary is the thought of a U.S. president with his finger on 'the button' who is quick to invoke the Lord's name as profanity, yet seeks no divine guidance amid crisis. God forbid." Similarly, Paul Bicking (Preview) rejects the film for "graphic violence and obscene dialogue."
Annabelle Robertson (Movieguide) says, "Because it portrays events that could realistically occur, especially with current threats of terrorist attacks … Fears should not be viewed by young audiences. All audiences, however, will benefit from a frank discussion about [the film's] apocalyptic ending … its biblical portrayal of the end times as described in the Book of Revelation."
Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) says, "For all the good writing, a central narrative problem remains. It concerns the detonation of a nuclear device … the effects of this disaster seem awfully tangential and superficial. It may be that Americans can still deal with terrorism onscreen, but treating it in pre-September 11 ways won't wash in a post-September 11 world." Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) agrees: "The obvious loss of life is extremely underplayed." He concludes, "Overall it just wasn't that impressive. But neither was the novel."
Those who are ready to protest Hollywood's exploitation of the recent headlines should first note that the film was in production long before the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. On September 14, the World Entertainment News Network reported that Fears was to be postponed, or perhaps even canceled. Another delay was announced on October 9. Skeptics claimed that action movies might never return to sensationalized battles against terrorists. But only a few weeks later, Arnold Schwarzenegger chased down terrorists to single-handedly save imperiled innocents. And there were other films that re-entered this sensitive territory. Fears may be the first of these films to treat the threat of terrorism with some level of intelligence, realism, and respect for those dedicated to preventing it. And yet, critics are still very uncomfortable and even upset about the result.
Commenting on this, David Denby (The New Yorker) writes, "It's not the fault of the filmmakers … that actual events have overtaken the portentous clichés. But it very well might be the filmmakers' fault that, as an evocation of danger, the movie seems threatening yet is nowhere near serious or intelligent enough to satisfy our current sense of alarm. Robinson, trying to generate entertainment, treats a nuclear attack on the East Coast as if it were just another disaster, with little of the unique horror that such an event would unleash."
Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) is not cheered by the happy ending: "My own fear is that in the post-apocalyptic future, The Sum of All Fears will be seen as touchingly optimistic. We can walk out smiling, unless we remember that much of Baltimore is radioactive rubble."
Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal (no link available) says the relevance of the film's violence is not matched by the relevance of the heroes' response: "There are times when fiction films collide with reality and must be judged accordingly. The last thing we need is entertainment that evokes the horror and then trivializes it with cheesy heroics. Never has a movie taken on a subject of greater immediacy, or handled it more ineptly."
Last week, I invited readers to share what they thought about Hollywood's imagined apocalypse. I asked if it might be inappropriate to make mass-media entertainment out of a subject that burdens us now on a daily basis.
Ken writes, "The daily possibility of AIDS didn't prevent Hollywood from making Philadelphia. The daily possibility of abuse and racism didn't prevent Hollywood from making The Color Purple. Why should movies not address the possibilities of terrorism—real or fictional?"
On the other hand, Lee Ann Wiernusz writes, "Personally, I am fed up with the same movie themes over and over again. Can't Hollywood come up with anything more creative than violence and sex? Can't we have films that are more encouraging and positive for the American populace? I'm sure I am not the only person who feels this way."
The Rev. Jeffrey W. Evans, an "avid fan of Tom Clancy," replies, "The only problem I have with this kind of entertainment is that often times it causes people to not consult the Bible to learn the truth but to allow fiction to set their worldview. We must always remember that this 'stuff' is produced by the world and as far as I'm concerned is to be judged as entertainment and not as anything other than a story. This is not what we are supposed to base our lives on."
Jacob VanHorn thinks this is just another case of Hollywood making money while corrupting its customers: "Hollywood has been exploiting the ugliest sides of life for decades and we keep paying for it. Not only with our money, but with our innocence, our hearts, and our very lives due to a society that has been desensitized to immoral behavior by entertaining us with immoral behavior."
Bonnie is most concerned about immature viewers who lack parents and guides to help them process such "entertainment": "I believe that for mature people … who can easily separate fact from fiction and then go home and actually process the information from a movie into a somewhat informed opinion, these kinds of movies are just fine. But what do we do with all those young'uns eating popcorn in the front row? … Unfortunately, I don't have any other answer than the one I provide my kids … watching movies with them and explaining that this is fiction or why someone might take said action, etc. In that way, I would hope we could do what is right for our families, our communities, and thereby our country."
Others believe that violence, when it is not exploited but is instead put in the context of a good story, can help us learn to process the violence we encounter in the world, and it can remind us that the impact of evil is temporary whereas God can bring hope and healing through even the worst disasters.
Brian argues, "We should never become too sensitive. As thinking adults we need to learn to cope with what has passed. And we need to take actions to prevent the past [from recurring.] Burning books and blacklisting movies is not the way to go as thinking adults."
And Donna Smith writes, "The fictional working out of overcoming disasters is a common release children find in fairy tales about monsters or the 'bogeyman.' Through seeing the monster triumphed over in the story, he is reassured that monsters can be bested. Likewise, we can be reassured that there will be ways we can find to overcome, or at least deal with, our fears of realistic disasters. Perhaps it would be too 'close to home' for people who actually went through 9/11, or had close relatives/friends involved. But for the general public, I feel these are acceptable scenarios to explore. I myself am looking forward to the story. It doesn't put me off that it might be 'too close to reality' for comfort."
While it may not offer profound solutions to real-life threats, The Sum of All Fears and other films of its genre may indeed assure audiences that nuclear holocaust is not the end of the world. If another film on the subject is made soon—you can bet there will be more than one—it is my hope that the artists will portray something more assuring than one brainy hero who puts two and two together to catch the bad guys. It's fine to see a superhero who represents hope and justice—the Jack Ryans of storytelling remind us of the courage, clear-thinking, and risk-taking that are necessary to overcome evil. But we also need stories of people who endure tragedy and grief and find healing. (Krsyzstof Kieslowski's Blue is one such film, a graceful exploration of one woman's struggle after losing her husband and daughter in a car wreck.) Perhaps someone will pen a script that can demonstrate the lasting impact of such tragedy while also pointing the way to renewal and redemption. We've all come to realize that events like Pearl Harbor and September 11 don't get cleaned up and put on the shelf—they become lasting influences on our thoughts, our personal histories, our choices, and our prayers. While military might may indeed be necessary to counteract such disasters, our hearts require very different measures for healing and hope.
Hot From the Oven
On a very different note, Undercover Brother aims only to make us laugh. And it does so by spoofing the unfortunate genre often referred to as "blaxploitation." Eddie Griffin (John Q, Double Take) stars as Anton Jackson, an Austin Powers-ish hero who takes his James Bond-style ladies' man mystique to new frontiers of glitzy '70s fashion.
The commercials and previews had most critics shaking their heads, anticipating another disposable sketch-comedy disaster. Most, however, have been pleasantly surprised, and some are even raving about the film. Several have claimed it is funnier than any of the Austin Powers movies, and audiences gave it a welcome warm enough to have movie columnists talking about a sequel. But religious media critics are preoccupied with criticisms of the language, skimpy costumes, and base humor—things it would be very difficult to avoid in any effective lampoon of a genre fraught with such things.
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) finds that the film has some virtues: "Whether poking fun at the white man's attempts to incorporate black culture into his own or skewering many of the black man's images of himself, the film has crossover appeal for audiences of all races. Within this good-natured but sometimes risqué film lies a considerable amount of honesty in the way it ridicules stereotypes. Too often, our perception of an entire culture or race is based on a lack of experiential knowledge." Elliott compliments Griffin and his co-stars. And he notes that the plenteous sexual innuendoes are "equivalent to the films which serve as source material for its spoofs," just as the split-screen effects, slow-motion action, and funky soundtrack lampoon the originals.
The USCCB critic says, "While the colorful costumes and props are a hoot, the threadbare script settles for lowest-common-denominator humor that lacks wit but has comic-book violence to spare."
Phil Boatwright says the film "has some funny moments, but often falters with too many Saturday Night Live-styled skits that blindly stumble around before falling over dead. It has a satiric slant, and even has something to say about race relations, but it relies too heavily on sexual and verbal crudity." Similarly, Paul Bicking (Preview) writes, "Mindless fun may be the idea, but there are better choices for summer recreation than Undercover Brother."
But the newspapers are dancing to that funky music. Rene Rodriguez (Miami Herald) says, "It takes some very smart people to make a dumb comedy as outrageously funny as Undercover Brother. The movie isn't just hilarious: It's witty and inventive, too, and in hindsight, it isn't even all that dumb. [Anton Jackson is] a comedic creation, a ridiculous exaggeration. But within his outsize dimensions lies a sense of celebration, too. In its own way, Undercover Brother makes for a thoughtful exploration of the pros and cons of racial assimilation, and by using a softer approach, it manages to provoke more thought than full-frontal assaults like Spike Lee's Bamboozled."
Mark Caro (Chicago Tribune) says, "No one is going to mistake Undercover Brother for high-end cinema. Yet the movie does primarily what it sets out to do. It's breezily entertaining and culturally specific without resorting to gross-out jokes or cruelty."
World Wide Pictures delivers another movie to the big screens this week, itslatest effort to package Christian messages in a way that will appeal to typical moviegoers. The Climb is receiving raves from Christian critics who promote a Christian movie subgenre, while other Christian media critics are less enthusiastic. The film follows a company of mountain climbers with lessons to learn about life, and how faith will help you climb every mountain.
Christian Hamaker of Crosswalk argues that the movie "tries to overcome its by-the-numbers plot with some spectacular scenery and slow-motion action sequences, but the result isn't compelling. Not terrible, just terribly mediocre. [It's] the dramatic equivalent of a so-so episode of TV's JAG—except it takes 40 minutes longer. The Climb only impersonates an action film, but it's the same dialogue-driven drama we've seen time and again. Most action movie fans, who go to such movies for the action, not character development or dialogue, will be disappointed, while those who embrace the Christian message at the heart of the film will wonder if the movie is an effective evangelism tool, or just a 'safe' movie to watch with other believers."
Hamaker sees the problems with The Climb as those problems prevalent in the subgenre called "Christian movies": "While World Wide Pictures and other Christian film companies struggle to make the gospel relevant to contemporary culture, films such as The Climb demonstrate that the same motifs and gospel presentations of the past half-century are slowly losing their impact. Although these film companies are making steady progress in the area of production quality, mainstream films, such as the recent Changing Lanes, have surpassed these films in presenting overt stories of spiritual redemption that resonate with the Christian conscience, communicating Truth in surprising, provocative ways. Perhaps it's time for these film companies, and audiences, to reconsider what is and isn't a 'Christian film.'"
But Ted Baehr (Movieguide) treats The Climb as a significant event. He raves that the filmmakers "[have] done an impressive job of weaving the Gospel of Jesus Christ into this story. It is one of the best presentations of the Gospel you'll ever see in a movie, with a very strong incarnational element." He calls the production values "good, considering the limited budget. … The climax of their story is very emotional and filled with deep biblical significance. The Climb is a first-rate production and terrific entertainment which will take audiences to new heights."
The arrival of The Climb failed to draw the attention of almost all mainstream critics. Online critic Christopher Null offers a mixed response. On the one hand, he calls it predictable: "See if you can guess who'll make a symbolic personal sacrifice … and who'll make a dramatic conversion to Christianity before it's all over." On the other hand, he says, "Sure, it's a Billy Graham production, but to be honest, I've seen far worse movies. Thankfully this is a far cry from apocalyptic nonsense like Left Behind, and while the religion can get thick, it's not generally the focus of the film. To be sure, The Climb will appeal strictly to the Born Again crowd (and fans of Todd 'Willis' Bridges!), but it's about time the ultra-religious right got a movie they can be proud of."
Meanwhile, a mainstream film had both religious press and mainstream media critics doing some soul-searching in their reviews. Thirteen Conversations About One Thing comes from director Jill Sprecher, and it stars Matthew McConaughey, John Turturro, Amy Irving, Clea DuVall, William Wise, and Alan Arkin. It has audiences reflecting on the need for love and compassion in everyday interactions.
The movie concerns four characters fighting to find a moral compass in the confusion and chaos of their lives. There's an arrogant lawyer (McConaughey) who tries to cover up a hit and run he committed. A college professor (Turturro) becomes unsettled about his marital infidelity after his life is threatened. A open-minded, compassionate, people-loving housekeeper (DuVall) struggles with her perspective after a terrible accident. And an insurance-claims adjuster (Arkin) wrestles with his temper as an annoyingly kind coworker provokes him to wrongdoing.
A critic at the USCCB praises the cast, especially Arkin, and writes: "Although the film's tone is solemn to the point of gloomy, most of the characters eventually make tiny steps toward hope and renewal and this comes across in understated, credible ways, in gestures as simple as a wave or a smile. The film reminds the audience how one never realizes the profound effect a look of kindness or simple word of encouragement can have on a troubled person. And this comes directly from two incidents in the director's own life which plunged her into hateful anger until a stranger's smile stopped her in her tracks."
Tom Snyder (Movieguide) calls the film "a brilliant, funny, quietly moving piece of work. A Christian worldview and a morally uplifting theme help to redeem the movie's occasional strong foul language and a minor scene of heroin use."
Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) says, "It takes awhile for this oddball film—a mosaic of stories in the style of Magnolia—to take hold, but when it does, it grabs you hard. Sprecher reaches deep into the minds and hearts of her characters in a haunting and hypnotic film that, aptly enough, is a real conversation starter."
Moviegoers continue to discover what may be the best-received American film of the year, Christopher Nolan's Insomnia. Film Forum directed readers to several reviews last week.
This week, at Hollywood Jesus, David Bruce finds spiritual significance in the film's storytelling: "The story is a declaration of profound truth. It is one of the best films of the year. It is important." He points out the way the villain uses the words of the hero against him. "Final Judgment or not, all of our words are recorded on our conscience. And, our words do come back to haunt us. As the Bible says, our sins will find us out."
At the same site, Simon Remark examines the film's symbolic imagery: "While most psychological thrillers rely on eerie music and dark exteriors, Insomnia's tension and conflict are driven by character. The beautiful Alaskan (Canadian?) backdrop is juxtaposed with the dark content of the film, a paradox that reflects the contrasting dispositions of the film's characters; the dark interiors penetrated by shooting beams of sunlight also highlight the inner turmoil of our protagonist; the light and dark contrasts may be symbolic of the inner struggle between good and evil. Insomnia covers no new ground but the intelligent way in which the material is handled makes it a great film."
At Ethics Daily, two pastors offer differing perspectives on DreamWorks' animated family film, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Mike Parnell, pastor of Burgaw Baptist Church in Burgaw, N.C., writes, "Spirit is not just a kiddy matinee; it's for adults too. We always believe that our plans and our ways are the best. When we see something that stands in our way, we attempt to subdue it. Spirit symbolizes that which should never be broken—a toughness without apology. Yet there is also a tenderness in Spirit that speaks of freedom as more than license. Like one of Jesus' parables, [the movie] has more depth than many would realize."
Roger Thomas, pastor of Northeast Baptist Church in Atlanta writes, "As a history lesson for children, it is probably as good as it could be, but one has to wonder if children are even involved enough in the story to understand the history being presented. The history is also 'politically correct,' with all the American Indians being virtuous, and all the settlers being villainous. Children and parents alike expect certain things from animated films, and Spirit does not deliver enough of those."
Next week:Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Bad Company, and one of the most heavily acclaimed films of the year, The Fast Runner.
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