Friday, April 29, 2011

Fair Game -- authority, truth and lies

Director: Doug Lima, 2010. (PG-13)

“The first casualty when war comes is truth.” Senator Hiram Johnson said this in 1917 when the United States entered the first world war. It is still true today. This becomes apparent in Lima’s true conspiracy thriller set in 2003 just as the United States was about to go to war with Iraq over Saddam Hussein’s WMDs (weapons of mass destruction).

Fair Game tells the true story of Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), a covert CIA agent who is outed by a leak from a government source because her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), wrote an op-ed piece criticizing the government. Though the story is known and recent, Lima’s film is taut and riveting.

The movie begins with Plame on a mission in Kuala Lumpur, seeking to turn a businessman into a spy for America. Acting as a venture capitalist, her cover, she deceives him but puts him into a position where he cannot refuse her “offer.”

A subsequent scene shows her back home in a restaurant with her husband and friends. As the conversation turns to politics and the impending conflict with Iraq (this being just two years after 9/11), she can offer no opinion, “being” a simple businesswoman. Her husband, though, gets drawn into the political debate, to her chagrin. This simple scene defines the couple admirably. She is calmly deceptive, able to easily handle the lies that she must tell and the false front she must maintain. But he is hotly truthful, sharing opinions even when they hurt friends or his own marriage.

When the CIA learns that Saddam might be buying a large shipment of yellowcake uranium, a component of nuclear bombs, from Niger, Plame mentions that Wilson still maintains connections in that country from his time as an ambassador. Shortly thereafter, he travels on his own dime to research this, ultimately for the CIA. His report: the rumor was wrong; no sale was happening. He has the truth from firsthand experience.

Then the Bush administration goes to war to find the WMDs. To support this military campaign, they point to this sale of yellowcake uranium. Seeing this on TV, Wilson cannot believe they have ignored his report and turned their backs on the truth. Against advice from close friends, and without consulting his wife, he pens a first-person account to refute what the government is saying. In effect, he is standing up on his own to the full power of the political machine in Washington.

At its heart, this account is about the truth and the conspiracy to cover up that truth when it is inconvenient. We want to respect our leaders and our politicians. We look to them for accuracy on current affairs. After all, the government pulls the trigger on war. But when these leaders are lying, they lose our respect, breach our trust, and cross the Rubicon, as this administration did in 2003.

Yet when an individual goes up against the President and his advisers, the stakes are high, and the kid gloves are removed. With the implied backing of the Vice President, and with the full knowledge of Scooter Libby (David Andrews) his advisor, the government retaliates. A source leaks the “fact” that Wilson was sent to Niger by his wife, a CIA operative. In this one article, Plame’s career is derailed and her ethics are questioned. Moreover, as Wilson fights back through TV interviews, the government aggressively attacks Wilson by downgrading and defaming Plame’s career.

Here is the abuse of power that comes from people in authority who are not willing to face the truth. One hundred years ago Baron Acton said, “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Here is absolute proof. Perhaps Wilson’s approach was wrong, but he did not have much to choose from. Certainly, the government’s response was wrong, even malicious. They moved the discussion from WMDs and truth to Wilson/Plame and personal ethics.

The authority of the government derives from the people. It serves the people and the people deserve the truth. Too often we have become immune to the truth, so satiated with lies force-fed us through the media that we no longer know what is true and what is not. Jesus said “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:32). We can know the Truth in the person of Jesus (Jn. 14:6). He is the creator and sustainer of all that is, so derives authority only from his father, our creator God. He is the one leader we can be absolutely certain of, who we can follow with no qualms. He never lies (Tit. 1:2), for his nature is truth. Plame said, “You have to know when you’re lying and remember what is the truth.” Better to simply speak and remember the truth and live a transparent life that has no place for lying.

Even as the government is attacking Wilson and Plame, she is taking their children and leaving him. Their home has become a circus of reporters, so she abandons it, putting a large question mark over their marriage. Yet while their marriage hangs in the balance, Iraqi civilians wait for her promised help. Having pressured an Iraqi to return home to seek needed intelligence, Plame had promised to get this woman’s family out of Baghdad. But when Plame’s true job came to light, the CIA washed their hands of her, terminating this and other operations she had been leading.

Here is the cost of standing up for the truth. It takes its toll, on the person blowing the whistle (Wilson) and the family (Plame and children). The consequences ripple out to many others whose lives have been touched (the Iraqi spy’s family). Though it is the right thing to do, it may not be easy or painless. If the world does not want to hear the truth it will do its best to silence the speaker.

Jesus knew this. He came telling the truth. He blew the whistle on the twisted religion that Judaism had devolved to under the Pharisees and other leaders in the Sanhedrin (Matt. 23:13). He offered an alternative vision of the kingdom of heaven that would have removed these political leaders from power (Matt. 5-7). Instead of embracing him as their Messiah, they declared him a liar and servant of Satan (Matt. 12:24) and crucified him (Matt. 27:35). He told us, his followers, to be ready to speak the truth in front of governors and kings (Matt. 10:18), relying not on our own strength for words, but on the Holy Spirit (Matt. 10:20). One day we might face a situation like the one Wilson faced. And if we do, we must choose truth realizing that it carries consequences. This is the only way to live. Be like Wilson, not Plame. Truth over lies.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Monday, April 25, 2011

Shutter Island -- guilt, monsters, and truth

Director: Martin Scorsese, 2010. (R)

2010 was a banner year for Leonardo DiCaprio. He starred in two thrillers, Inception and Shutter Island, that together netted over $1B worldwide. Not only were these financial blockbusters, but they were at the top of their genre. And there were similarities in plot. In both films DiCaprio played a protagonist troubled by dreams of his dead wife and who harbored a dark secret. This psychological thriller is not as scary as it seemed during the trailers, but it is deeper and more thought-provoking than many movies in this genre.

As in many of his films, Martin Scorsese has assembled a stellar cast. Alongside DiCaprio, who has teamed with the director three times before (in Gangs of New York, The Aviator, and The Departed), are veteran actors Ben Kingsley (Elegy), Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer (Lars and the Real Girl), Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent), Ted Levine, and Michelle Williams. Their performances are spot on.

Here DiCaprio is US Marshal Teddy Daniels. Together with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right), they are sent to Ashecliffe Hospital on Shutter Island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one of the patients. But these patients are prisoners, dangerous murderers, as Ashecliffe is a mental institution for the criminally insane. And it is 1954, when three differing approaches to treating mental illness are arising: repetitious pharmacology, respectful counseling, and radical lobotomy.

Visually, Shutter Island and Ashecliffe Hospital are stark and foreboding. There is something frightening about the place these two marshals must visit. The score is loud and discordant, echoing the twisted nature of the souls who live there. Together, the sounds and vision establish a menacing atmosphere.

Once they have arrived at the hospital, Daniels and Aule find a wall of silence. The doctors, staff and even the inmates seem unwilling to help the investigation. It as though there is a conspiracy covering up what has happened. When a hurricane-force storm pummels the island, knocking out power and communication lines, the two marshals find themselves stranded, trapped on an island that does not want to release them.

Meanwhile, Daniels is haunted by dreams and hallucinations of his dead wife, Delores (Williams), who tells him that the lost woman is still on the island. As well as this, he struggles physically with recurrent migraines and psychologically with guilt: guilt from the death of Delores in a fire started by an arsonist, and guilt from what he saw and did during world war 2. He was one of the soldiers who liberated Dachau concentration camp and experienced first-hand the results of the inhumanities committed by the Nazis: frozen bodies of men, women and children piled high beside the barbed wire fence.

Guilt is one of the themes. As a Catholic film-maker, it is not surprising that Martin Scorsese weaves this thread throughout his career. Guilt is the feeling that a person has violated a moral standard through action or inaction. Closely related is the concept of remorse, the emotional expression of personal regret for committing a shameful or violent act. Guilt is intended to drive us to God in repentance (Acts 20:21). When we do this, we will find forgiveness, the only thing that can trulyremove guilt. The forgiveness of God is freely given (Eph. 1:7) but must be graciously received (Jn. 1:12). It cost God his son, Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:25). We cannot erase our guilt in any other way, though, like Daniels, we may try.

Violence is a second theme, and again a recurrent one for Scorsese. The Warden, in a conversation with Daniels, brings this to the forefront: “God loves violence. . . Why else would there be so much of it? It’s in us. It’s what we are. We wage war, we burn sacrifices, and pillage and plunder and tear at the flesh of our brothers. . . . There’s no moral order at all. There’s just this: can my violence conquer yours?” Before this, the lead psychiatrist had said something similar to both marshals: “Men like you are my specialty, you know. Men of violence.”

The theology in view here is both right and wrong. God does not love violence. That is clear from his very nature: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:16). Violence was not part of the created order but entered the world with the fall of Adam. His son Cain became the first murderer (Gen. 4:8). Yet after the fall, with the entrance of sin, we are all capable of violence, of terrible acts. The film points to the atrocities of the Nazis in the second world war but also points to ongoing inhuman and immoral actions that occurred in Russia and even occur in America. Moreover, we read of the brutal acts of violence perpetrated by serial killers, monsters in our society, and we understand this aspect of the truth in the warden’s comments.

Monsters emerge as a third theme of Shutter Island. Dr Naehring (von Sydow) brings this point into view: “Wounds can create monsters. . . And wouldn’t you agree, when you see a monster, you must stop it?”

We are all wounded, in one way or another. Daniels was wounded and harbored deep, dark secrets. Our wounds result from the consequences of sin. Some may be our own sin, and we become our own victims. Sometimes it is the sin of others. Then, like the poor Jews in Dachau, we feel the pain of wounds inflicted on us by others. If we focus on our wounds, turning inward, we can become bitter and turn into the monsters who inflict wounds on others. The cycle can only be broken by dealing with the root cause: sin. And we cannot do this on our own. When we try, like Daniels, we find ourselves in a prison of our own making, running from those who may or may not be our friends. No, the person who can save us is Jesus (1 Pet. 3:21). He dealt with sin, once for all, when he went to the cross for us (Heb. 9:26). We must receive his gift of life, and find in him a new identity and a new nature; we become a new creation (2 Cor. 5:21).

As the film progresses it keeps the viewer engaged, unwrapping secret after secret at the right moment. With horrors without and within, it offers insight into the torments of the human mind. And it is through this inner war, fought by one man, Daniels, against himself and those around him, that we also see that truth is not always clear. Though Jesus said, “The truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:32), we must look carefully for the truth, and discern wisely else we will be fooled, by ourselves and by our friends.

At one point Daniels says to his partner, “Which would be worse – to live as a monster? Or to die as a good man?” And this summarizes nicely the themes of violence, guilt, monsters and truth in one succinct line. Are we willing to live out our lives as monsters, even if this is only apparent to ourselves? We may fool others, but we know our inner depravity, if we really look at ourselves closely in the mirror. Or will we confess our sins, our monster nature, to God and accept his cleansing, his gift of a new nature, and become a good man? This may result in society ostracizing us, even putting us to death, but we will find forgiveness and truth.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Friday, April 22, 2011

Love and Other Drugs -- empty sex

Director: Edward Zwick, 2010. (R)

Love and Other Drugs is billed as an unconventional romantic-comedy but is more of a sex romp with the occasional comic moment. There is so much skin shown, that it ultimately becomes offensive. What started as an interesting premise becomes a sad cliche-filled drug to avoid.

The premise, done before in Up in the Air, focuses on what happens when a superficial, sex-addicted man meets a woman like this and feelings get in the way. Or, as the tag-line questions, "Addicted to one-night stands or dependent on one another?"

The opening scene sets the tone. Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal, Brothers), is a salesman in a Best Buy-like store. It is the mid-90s and boomboxes are in, cell phones are big (literally), and TVs are flat. He can sell anything to anyone, being full of charm and chatter. But his eyes are on the girls, including his coworkers. When his sexual liaison during a break is discovered, he is fired. Here are his values: empty sex and deep pockets. Greed and sex, the two vehicles that drive Madison Avenue and most of the American culture.

Getting a new job as a Pfizer pharmaceutical salesman, he is partnered with veteran manager Bruce (Oliver Platt). Together they call on Dr Stan Knight (Hank Azaria), a cynical GP who wants free samples and free sex. He is open to bribery, especially if it involves dinner, drinks and dessert of the feamle variety. Free drugs leading to free love. Eventually, Jamie sells Viagra and becomes the rep of choice by throwing samples out like candy, irresponsibly without caring.

When Jamie meets bohemian artist Maggie (Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married), one of Knight's patients, he wants her number. Their opening "date" in the coffee shop where she works to pay the rent. Her dialog is a mirror image of his: "You want to close right? You want to get laid?" He is surprised, "Now?" But she makes it clear what kind of girl she is,
Oh right, right, right. I'm supposed to act like I don't know if it's right. So then you tell me that there is no right or wrong. It's just the moment. And then I tell you that I can't while actually signalling to you that I can, which you don't need because you're not really listening. Because this isn't about connection for you. This isn't even about sex for you. This is about finding an hour or two of relief from the pain of being you. And that's fine with me, see, because all I want is the exact same thing.
She is single and easy, wanting sex without emotional engagement. Dessert without the dinner.

Here is where the film does hit a correct note. There are many like Jamie who look to sex as a way out of the pain of living. In many ways, sex is just like a drug. It satisfies temporarily without any entanglements but it also becomes addicting. But like a drug, sex used in this way is damaging, to the users. Sex was not meant to be so superficial.

As Jamie and Maggie enter into this extended series of one-night stands, it becomes clear that both are afraid of relationships. He is enamored with career success and money. She, on the other hand, has early on-set Parkinson's disease and does not want to let anyone come close. She is afraid of pity. Neither are prepared for commitments. But as things progress, feelings appear until the dreaded words "I love you" force their way from Jamie's lips. Love, not sex, has surfaced.

This is one of the fallacies of the film's ethics. Sex is never intended to be the relational vehicle to lead to love. Sex was designed to be a beautiful expression of love, and in God's original intention it is experienced within the boundaries of marriage (Gen. 2:24). When a man and a woman are joined in holy matrimony their wedding night should be the beginnings of this physical aspect of their relationship (Heb. 13:4). When this is taken in the wrong sequence, sex before marriage, the act is reduced from its holistic nature to something simply physical. It rarely leads to a marriage that lasts. After all, if it's OK to sleep around before forming a relationship, why not sleep around with others after marriage?

Love and Other Drugs has a solid cast, including the late Jane Clayburgh in her penultimate movie, as Jamie's mom, and George Segal as his dad. But it fails to use them effectively. Most of them seem to exist merely to hover around the two principal protagonists. Josh, the geeky chubby brother, is especially annoying, having little to do with the plot except to provide some comic relief and to counter Jamie's "growth" in love by showing his own awareness of empty sex.

Unless you have trouble sleeping and have run out of sleeping pills or other drugs, you should abstain from  Love and Other Drugs. Its excessive focus on sex is simply too hard to swallow. Just say no. Love is not a drug. It is the very foundation of human relationship and the essence of God (1 Jn. 4:16). There are no side-effects.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Monday, April 18, 2011

Welcome -- illegal immigration and inhumanity

Director: Philippe Lioret, 2009. (NR)

Welcome succeeds at creating a compelling drama centered on the inhumanity of French law related to illegal immigration. It does so by making it personal, focusing on a single young immigrant and telling his story. It is actually a tale of two men whose lives have been turned upside-down by lost love. In their collision, we see the cynicism of middle-age erode under the power of personal values encouraged by the sacrificial devotion of youth.

Bilal (Firat Ayverdi) has come to Calais on the French coast from his home in Iraq. A 17 year-old Kurd, he has come over two thousand miles by foot and by hanging under trains. After three months he has arrived at this port-town, that is a mere 20 miles from England. His driving mission: to reach his love, who now lives in London with her parents and family.

A rude awakening comes at Calais. He cannot legally cross the border into England. And there are hundreds like him seeking a way across the channel to their dream of a new start in England. The early scenes looking down on and over the dozens of cargo trucks moving slowly back and forth from the ferries convey powerfully the overwhelming sense of smallness of the individual; these immigrants are at the mercy of vast forces that they cannot control.

Bilal's desire forces him to reconsider his approach, and his determination sees only a few miles of water between him and his woman. Going to the local swimming pool to take lessons, he meets the instructor Simon (Vincent Lindon). Vincent is separated from his wife Marion (Audrey Dana) with a divorce impending. He is losing his love, and his life is becoming empty.

While Simon keeps his emotions and feelings hidden deep within, living passively, Marion pours hers out into positive action. She runs a soup-kitchen with her new boyfriend serving food to the illegals in the "jungle," the woods around the port where these homeless men gather.

Welcome is filmed in a minimalist style with a pungent documentary austerity that focuses on the main characters. And the three actors are up to it. Surprisingly, Ayverdi is not a processional actor. An unknown, he was cast to play Bilal after a long search among Kurdish communities in Europe. He has a naturalness and truth that comes across in his performance, which is balanced by veteran actor Lindon. Together, they create an emotional impact.

Lioret's point in this film is to highlight the absurdity of the French legal system. It is against the law for a French citizen to help these refugees. Though they are homeless and hungry, to offer any assistance including sustenance is to risk arrest, fine and even imprisonment. Lioret likened this in an interview to the occupation during world war 2, when French resistance families harbored Jews and risked death. The French authorities have become akin to the Nazis, according to Lioret.

Regardless of the legalities, social justice would demand meeting a fellow human's needs. Jesus told his disciples that when they served others they are serving him: " For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink" (Matt. 25:35). To turn a blind eye and walk away is to be guilty of the sin of omission (Jas. 4:17).
Initially Simon walks away from Bilal and his needs. But he later offers him help, hospitality and harbor. Whether this is from pure motives or driven by his desire to win back Marion is unclear. Yet in reality, motives are not totally transparent, even to ourselves, as there are usually various factors at play. The result, though, is the same: Bilal finds a friend of sorts who will help him in his attempt to swim the English Channel.

Bilal's determination to reach his love opens up Simon's eyes to life's mission and passion. Once a champion swimmer, his worldview had closed in on himself. His horizon has shrunk to the limits of his living room, a room empty of relationships and hope. Through Bilal, Simon's vision enlarged and his values grew. Even when Marion urges him to walk away, he can no longer make that choice. He has been touched and changed forever, for the good.

Helping people in need will have this effect. It forces us to see our blessings and causes us to re-evaluate our values and our lifestyle. We can become immune to statistics but when we actually meet one of the faceless numbers in person and see his need, feel his pain, it can cut through the hardness of our hearts. We become open to God; we can allow him to use us. In this way, we become the hands and feet of Jesus, serving a meal to a homeless person.

A beautiful scene stands out. Simon walks down to the "jungle" looking for Bilal. He sees him there without a jacket, cold and alone. He takes off his own coat and gives it to him without words. This is a powerful image of Jesus' words in the sermon on the mount: "if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well" (Matt. 5:40).

Unlike a Hollywood film, Welcome ends ambiguously. There are loose ends. But it is clear Lioret wants us to address our own loose ends. Will we offer a welcome to the illegal immigrants in our community? Or will we continue to walk away, showing the unwelcome sign attached to our backs? How would Jesus want us to answer this?

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Fugitive -- determination, truth, and proof of innocence

Director: Andrew Davis, 1993. (PG-13)

TV series have often been transported onto the silver screen, but very few have garnered Best Picture Oscar nominations. The Fugitive, based on the long-running TV series of the 1960s starring David Jensen, is one of these. Though it did not win this prize, it did earn Tommy Lee Jones his only Oscar for this role as a US Marshall.

The film opens with black and white flashback footage of a murder, shown as negative imagery. Interspersed is the color flashback to the preceding events where Chicago doctor, Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford), accompanies his wife Helen (Sela Ward) to a pharmaceutical charity event, filled with doctors from the hospital where he works. But the prologue makes it clear: Helen has been murdered and Richard is found guilty of her killing.

Transformed from surgeon to condemned murderer, it is while on the bus taking him and four other convicts to prison that he gets his break. The bus crashes, rolls down onto railroad tracks and then is hit violently by an oncoming train. Kimble barely manages to escape, racing away on foot with an abdominal wound. He has become the fugitive. But knowing his innocence, he is determined to investigate the murder on his own, even while evading the authorities, to find redemption.

Called out to the scene, US Marshall Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) and his team of deputies take over the case and initiate the state-wide manhunt for killer Kimble. The chase is on. With Gerard as determined to find Kimble as Kimble is to find the true killer (the one-armed man), these two are destined to intersect head-on in this gripping thriller.

Indeed, The Fugitive is one of the best thrillers of the last 20 years. Without being overly violent or filled with foul language, director Davis relies on excellent pacing, revealing information in bite-sized lumps to keep the viewer engaged, and terrific set pieces to carry the plot. And by keeping Kimble returning to the obvious places where the police are looking for him, Davis ratchets the suspense higher and higher.

A number of scenes stand out for their effectiveness. The crash sequence, shot in one take, sets the tone for the film. The action will be powerful and the pace will be fast. When the two key characters meet for the first time after a prolonged chase through the sewers, Kimble faces a tough choice and makes a swan dive that is unforgettable. Another suspenseful scene occurs when Kimble enters the figurative lion's den, going into city hall to talk to a one-armed criminal being held in jail there. He is the most wanted man in Chicago going into the most police-filled place in the city, where just one glance could lead to his capture. His exit leads to a cat and mouse hunt amid the St. Patrick's day parade chase. Each scene builds on the next until we need some reprise from the tension!

Through it all Kimble is a man on a mission. He is determined to succeed. He provides a powerful picture of the kind of perseverance we all need to carry into our lives. He has found a purpose; so must we. When we discover our purpose we should pursue it with this kind of determination, not letting anything stand in our way. In other words, we should live like Jesus, who set his face like flint (Isa. 50:7) and went to Jerusalem to the cross (Matt. 16:21) so we might live in him (Gal. 2:20).

Even while Kimble was trying to solve the mystery of the one-armed man, he still took time to save a life. Pursuing the investigation in a Chicago hospital, he sees a young boy on a gurney, and he reverts back to his doctor mentality; he takes action that will save a life while putting him in more danger.

Even while we are following our purpose, striving to accomplish our mission, we are still called to be mindful of those whose lives we intersect with. Such God-planned points of contact are often opportunities for our mission, means to move us to our ends. We cannot wear blinders, as horses do to keep them focused; we must utilize peripheral vision. We must be ready to minister as the spirit moves us (Acts 8:39), even if it slows us momentarily from our mission.

Finally Kimble placed himself on the path of pursuing truth as if his life depended on it. In fact it did. Our lives might not literally depend on the truth as his did, but the truth will set us free (Jn. 8:32) from the spiritual bondage that will lead us to spiritual death (Rom. 6:22-23). If we find the truth, as Kimble did, then we we face a crossroads: will we accept it and follow it, or will we ignore it and follow the lie. Jesus is the truth (Jn. 14:6). To follow the truth is to follow him. To do anything else, is to walk away from him, and deceive ourselves. Have you pursued and found the truth yet?

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Apollo 13 -- turning tragedy into triumph

Director: Ron Howard, 1995 (PG-13) 

On May 25, 1961, President  Kennedy announced the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. That goal was achieved on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11, stepped onto the Moon's surface. The space race had been won.

By the time Apollo 13 came along, space flights had become routine, not worthy of TV coverage. That is, until Commander Lovell (Tom Hanks) uttered the now famous words, "Houston, we have a problem."

Howard's film takes us back to the true story of this ill-fated mission. Though the facts are well known, he manages to retain the suspense in this disaster film by focusing on the astronauts, their families and the mission control crew. Using the claustrophobic insides of the rocket's flight deck and Houston's ground control, the plot remains tight and taut.

As almost an omen of the impending mission, the astronauts scheduled for Apollo 13 are bumped out due to disease exposure. That puts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) in the drivers' seats of the rocket. But when blood work shows Mattingly has measles, he himself is replaced at the 11th hour by Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), breaking up a team that had worked for months together -- another bad sign. But the mission proceeds. And soon after take-off an accident causes them to start losing oxygen and then power. At that point, they "just lost the moon," the title of Lovell's autobiography on which this film is based.

Once this tragic accident has occurred, the film moves into focus. While Marilyn Lovell (Kathleen Quinlan) and her family ponders the possibility of never seeing Jim again, it falls on the ground control in Houston to turn this tragedy into a triumph. And it is Mission Control Commander Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) who has the bold leadership and the best lines. When the NASA director comments, "This could be the worst disaster NASA's ever faced," Krantz responds, "With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour."

It is the focus on the people that draws us into this film. But it is the workings of the mission control crew, including Mattingly, that gives us the lessons to consider.

Kranz commands his crew, "We've never lost an American in space, we're sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option." Sometimes, at home or at work, we declare we will try to do something, to complete a project or task. The word "try" implies failure. We might succeed, but we might not. And if we try, that is enough. But that was not good enough for Kranz or the stranded astronauts. The message was clear. We cannot fail. We need to adopt this kind of mindset in all that we do, especially our ministry. When we do, we will give more than 100%, we will be totally committed, as though someone's life depended on it. For Lovell and crew, that was true. For our unsaved neighbors, their spiritual lives depend on it. Will we take Kranz's words as our evangelistic mission, alongside the great commission (Matt. 28:19-20)?

As they started to realize the dilemma and argue among themselves, Kranz told his crew, "Let's work the problem people. Let's not make things worse by guessing." Too often, when the smelly stuff hits the fan, we move into blame mode. It's someone else's fault, so they should fix it. But that usually does not solve the problem; rather, it compounds it, since it adds another layer to work through. Kranz cut through this. So must we. We must refuse to play the blame game. Instead, we must be focused like a laser beam on the problem, tackling it head on, working together, until we have a solution that will work.

Team work is the final theme. With so little power to work with, the three astronauts had no computer, no heat and little hope. They were relying on the team of engineers in Houston. In particular, they were relying on grounded pilot Ken Mattingly. Kicked off the flight crew in error, he could have slunk away and lost himself in resentment or anger. Instead, he put his friends above himself and set to work, to find a way to help them land with only enough power to heat a coffee pot.

When we feel passed over, at work or at church, we can choose to mope and blame, or we can get on with life, seeking to serve under the new boss or leader. Ultimately, our life is in God's hands and he moves us as he wills. By accepting this, we are freed up to become better team players, helping others without regrets. In the church this is especially true, as God has gifted each of us differently so we might serve one another in different ways (1 Cor. 12:4-6). We cannot all be the voice that sings or speaks; we cannot all be the hands that build (1 Cor. 12:12-26). We must serve in the way we have been designed by God. In this way, he will get the glory and we will find the peace and joy.

In the end, the astronauts are given the instructions on how to power up to be able to come down to earth. They must trust their fellow NASA workers on the ground. And in the tense moments when radio communication is lost, everyone on earth is wondering if they have done enough to make the new mission, of bringing them home alive, a success. And when the communication is restored, cheers ring out and tears flow. At that point, we are all one team, one family rejoicing in the safe return of three human beings. This might be an imperfect picture of the rejoicing around God's throne that occurs in heaven when even one human being is saved through faith in Jesus Christ (Lk. 15:7).

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Gifted Hands: the Ben Carson Story -- faith and prayer impact a surgeon's life

Director: Thomas Carter, TV 2009. (NR)

I don't normally watch made-for-TV movies, but this DVD was a family Christmas gift and we found time to watch it as a family over Spring Break vacation. It was worth it. The story offers an inspiring biography of one of the world's leading neurosurgeons whose faith is evident.

Raised in a single-parent home in the 1960s, Ben Carson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) faced numerous obstacles, from both inside and outside. Externally, there was poverty and prejudice. Internally, he had a temper that eventually led to his attempt to stab a classmate. It was his heartfelt prayer to God to remove his anger that brought him freedom.

Anger itself is not a sin. After all, Jesus himself demonstrated a righteous anger over the money-changers' sacrilegious use of the temple (Jn. 2:14-16). But most human anger veers towards sin, which is why Paul wrote, "In your anger do not sin, do not let the sun go down while you are still angry" (Eph. 4:26). When anger has dug its claws in, it can be extremely difficult to remove. Carson shows us the best way: prayer. God wants to change us, working from within, and when we invite him to do so, he never lets us down. However, he might not answer in the ways or in the time frame we desire.

Ben and his brother watched hours of TV each day, and consequently found themselves failing in school. When his illiterate mom (Kimberly Elise) enforces a strict regime of limited TV combined with a reading program (two books per week with an expected book report on each), both boys' grades improve. But it is the gift of faith, her belief in her sons, that makes the difference for Ben. Someone believes he can be as good as the educated white boys in his school.

If nothing else, this film emphasizes the power of a parent's message. We have a tremendous opportunity to craft our children's self-concept. When we deliver positive words, our kids will believe them and be reinforced. If we deliver belittling, negative words, we will destroy their self-confidence. How critical it is, therefore, that we be careful what we say to our kids. We must not only be "quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry" (Jas. 1:19), but we must speak words of wisdom and truth with love and gentleness (Eph. 4:15), words that will build up not tear down (1 Thess. 5:11). Such words will be the seeds that produce fruit in adulthood.

The film traverses Carson's life chapters, from Yale to John Hopkins, allowing us to see a little of his journey. We see him feeling free to experiment with new medical procedures to save lives. The focus of the second half is on the specific novel surgery to separate two Siamese twins conjoined at the head. Other doctors had operated on such craniopagus twins, but had managed to save only one. Carson was not willing to see either die, and so spent weeks researching a new way to perform the surgery. Ultimately, he led a 70-member team in a successful 22-hour long operation.

Throughout, it is clear that Carson has faith, praying every day. He even mentions this to the German parents of the twins. Faith forms the foundation for this man's life.

We may never become world-famous like Carson, but we can choose to exercise faith as he did. We can pray, believing that God will answer and will lead us to be the people he desires us to be. In doing this, we not only find eternal life in Jesus, but we discover our heavenly father's belief in us.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Thursday, April 7, 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest -- authority and control

Director: Milos Forman, 1975. (R)

Only three films have ever won the grand slam of Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was the second one, after Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934), and before Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991). And it deserves the honors.

The film opens and closes with a long, almost idyllic view of a mountain scene, while a haunting native American tune plays in the background. Unlike Ken Kesey's book from which the story is taken, the main character is not Chief Bromden, even though the opening seems to suggest this. Instead, Forman chooses to film the tale from the perspective of Randall P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson).

McMurphy is a wild, full-of-life, fights-too-much criminal who wants to get out of his prison term by pretending to be mad. Lazy, he desires avoid the work detail and he gets his wish when he is transferred to a mental institution for observation and assessment. With no work, just daily group counselling sessions, he thinks he is on easy street. But he doesn't count on Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).

As he enters the ward, he is the only patient not wearing hospital clothes. He is cast as the outsider, come to save them (and him) from the authorities. His fellow "inmates" separate into two groups: those who really are out of it, not knowing where they are, and those who have some hope of positive change, of being helped, even cured. This latter group are quietly playing poker when he arrives, and he immediately joins them, seeking to take control.

Control is one of the main themes. An early scene highlights Nurse Ratched's icy stare-down with McMurphy. No words are spoken, but it is clear that a line has been drawn and a gauntlet has been thrown. It is her ward, and she will stop at nothing, never raising her voice or losing her cool, to ensure McMurphy remains in his place as a patient.

Nurse Ratched is the authority in the ward, but her approach symbolizes authority for authority's sake. She apparently desires to see the patients progress but only in her way. Control is like that. It becomes my way or the highway. And when faced with a different idea, such control refuses to acknowledge it.

In life, God is the authority (2 Sam. 7:22), although many refute this authority, either denying his existence or ignoring his presence and commands. We are like the inmates in this earthly asylum, playing cards while the world turns. Yet, unlike Nurse Ratched, God does not stand apart forcing us to take pills to medicate us into passivity. He is more like McMurphy, coming down to be with us, even one of us (Phil. 2:7-8), full of zest and life (Jn. 10:10). We can choose to retain our own control, living under our own sovereignty; we can choose to follow Satan's rule (2 Cor. 4:4), allowing him, like Nurse Ratched, to feed us and own us. Or we can follow the Savior, Jesus, the one who challenges the world's rules, and offers us a fresh chance at life.

The film is filled with great acting. Jack Nicholson won the first of his three Oscars for his role as McMurphy here and employs his characteristic maniacal grin to excellent effect. Fletcher is award-worthy as the ice-maiden nurse. Danny DeVito plays Martini, one of the patients, while three others are played by actors in their debut roles: Christopher Lloyd (later famous as Doc in the Back to the Future trilogy) plays Taber, the loud, inciting patient, while Brad Dourif (Grima Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) gives a nuanced Oscar-nominated performance as Billy Bibbit, the shy, stuttering man-child. And there is Will Sampson, the Oregon park ranger who was cast as Chief Bromden, the apparently deaf-mute Indian, because he was the only native American who matched the size needed. He went on from this screen debut to feature in other films, including Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales.

As McMurphy worms his way into the life of the ward, he starts to infuse life and hope into the patients. When he breaks out of the hospital, steals the bus and takes the patients on a deep-sea fishing trip (filmed at Depoe Bay in Oregon), he offers them a view of their own humanity that Nurse Ratched and the doctors are destroying. Though he knows they will be recaptured, nevertheless this hour of freedom is worth the price he must pay.

In his own twisted way, McMurphy is helping these patients to change for the better. They are all, including the silent Chief, moved for the better because of him. But Nurse Ratched cannot accept this and will not admit such improvement. To do so would be to admit defeat. In the film's most emotional scene, Billy's progress is evident both physically and in his elocution. But in a cruel and cutting manner, Nurse Ratched puts him in his place, leaving him worse off than before.

This scene highlights the interlinkage between change and control. When change comes through someone else's control, that change is refuted, even reversed. Ratched cannot accept McMurphy's results because she will not accept his methods. We must be careful that we are not like her. When we see positive change in others resulting from different methods than our own, we should seek God's counsel rather than give our own counsel. Seeking the improvement of another is better than seeking the following of our ways. Ultimately such improvement will come in God's time under his control and will. When we push for it to be our way, we are really pushing for our own control, placing ourselves above God.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest pulls back the curtains on the way mental patients were treated in the 1960s. Medicated to ensure compliance, if that did not work they were given electric shock treatment. If this failed, the final treatment was lobotomy, the removal of part of the brain, often resulting in a vegetative state.

The authenticity of the film's story comes from Kesey's experiences while working in the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Palo Alto California, while the veracity of the location comes from the movie being shot at the Oregon State Mental Hospital at Damasch. Some of the actual patients were used as extras and the head of the hospital, Dr. Dean Brooks, has a cameo as Dr. Spivey, the head of the hospital.

A key scene underscores the final theme of the film. In the tub room, McMurphy accepts wagers on if he can throw the water faucet that is cemented to the floor out of the window. As he strains to lift it, his neck tendons standing out and the sweat running down his face, he fails. He walks away commenting, "But I tried, didn't I? At least I did that." And he foreshadows the final scene of the film.

Too often we are like McMurphy's spectators, watching and wagering, but not trying. Life is meant to be lived, not viewed. We must try even if we might fail. It is often in our failures that we learn the most. God did not intend for us to be comfortable, cocooned in our medicated lifestyles. He wants us to take risk, to try things, ultimately realizing that it is only in him and in his strength (Phil. 4:13) that we can accomplish great things, like tossing the water faucet. Have you settled for too little out of life? Or are you willing to try, even it means failing?

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Music Review: "I will Praise You" -- Rebecca St. James

I Will Praise You

Rebecca St. James is back with a bang!

April 2011 is a special month for her for two reason: at 33 she is getting married for the first time, and she is releasing her first studio album in five years. This 10-song album is easily accessible and filled with upbeat and meaningful worship songs.
  1. I Will Praise You
  2. You Never Let Go
  3. Shine Your Glory Down
  4. You Still Amaze Me
  5. In a Moment
  6. The Kindness of our God
  7. When The Stars Burn Down (Blessing and Honor)
  8. Almighty God
  9. You Hold Me Now
  10. You Make Everything Beautiful
Rebecca has gone back to her roots: worship. Eight of the ten songs are new, and five of these are written by her; this is the strength of the album. Her lyrics flow from a heart sold out to Jesus. The twin themes of trust and surrender are evident. As she said in an interview, "I finally realized that I have to rely on Him."

The album opens with three powerful songs, each underscoring the subtheme of fearing no evil. "I will praise you," the title track and first of her new songs, communicates the message of living in hope, not fear, even in the middle of the storms of life. It sets the tone and draws the listener in immediately. We are worshipping an awesome God from the get-go. The second track, "You Never Let Go," is a cover of a Matt Redman song. Catchy and foot-tapping, this song will be familiar to many. It emphasizes God's perfect love which casts out fear. The third track is her current single, "Shine Your Glory Down," another of her creations. Of all the songs on this album, here her breathy voice is reminiscent of earlier albums. (You can hear the first three tracks at her listening party website: .)

If the album opens with worship, "Shine Your Glory Down" moves toward mission. Rebecca wrote this and wants to make an impact on the world for God and to shine for him. By being a light where we are placed, we can make a difference in the world; by loving the people around us with his love we can have an impact for his glory. And then "every heart will sing your praise."

After the pacing of this opening trilogy, the album slows down, becoming hauntingly melodic in places, although without diminishing in praise or worship. "You Still Amaze Me," another St. James song, has echoes, lyrically, back to "Amazing Grace".

The fourth song written by her, "The Kindness of God," offers a vehicle to show her vocal range. This track has a distinctive celtic sound, reminding me a little of the old hymn, "Be Thou My Vision." Here the love of God comes out as a second subtheme of the album, and it is this love which casts out fear and forms the bedrock for trust and surrender.

As the album moves through its second half, the songs get gentler and quieter, more worshipful and personal. "You Hold Me Now" looks ahead to the day when we will lock eyes with Jesus as he holds us close in heaven: "all my fears swept away in the light of your embrace."

The closing song, "You Make Everything Beautiful" is sung to piano and keyboard alone. With no percussion or guitars, this feels intimate. Having written it, St James is singing this as a personal prayer to God and we get to listen in, almost as eavesdroppers. A prayer of trust, she sings "in its time, in your time." Not the best song on the album, yet it is a fitting close to the album. This serenity prayer surrenders to God, "purify my soul, beautify my soul," a prayer we all can affirm and grasp.

The wait was worth it. In his time God has gifted her with some terrific music and this will certainly be one of the best albums of the year. We'll be singing these songs in church before she celebrates her first anniversary! 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Friday, April 1, 2011

Soul Surfer -- perspective, power and purpose

Director: Sean McNamara, 2011. (PG) 

Rarely does Hollywood prodce a film of faith, especially one with notable actors. Usually that is left for independent movie makers or churches, like the recent The Grace Card. But rarely has Hollywood had a story as compelling as that of Bethany Hamilton, the teenaged surfer who lost an arm to a shark attack and returned to surf again. The inspiring story was in the news in 2003, so most people know the basics even going into the theater. But Soul Surfer lets us experience emotionally the tragedy and its aftermath with the Hamilton family. And you can count on shedding a tear or two, along the way.

The film opens nationwide on April 8 and offers excellent family entertainment. For surfing-lovers this is a special treat. The cinematography is simply stunning. The locations are gorgeous, and are almost an advertisement for vacationing on the islands. And the hang-loose attitude is crystallised in the Hamilton family. Bethany, her parents and two brothers are shown in and around the surf constantly, and they are having fun. Though the acting may not be Oscar-material, the sheer exuberance of the filming captures the spirit of the waves. Even Carrie Underwood fares moderately OK in her movie debut.

Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) was born to surf. With parents Tom (Dennis Quaid, Vantage Point) and Cheri (Helen Hunt), both avid surfers, and a home right on the Kauai beach, she took to the waters like a mermaid. And she was so good that she and her best-friend Alana (Lorraine Nicholson) were home-schooled to allow them time and flexibility to hone their surfing skills.

An early scene shows Bethany surfing, then coming back to the beach, quickly donning a sun-dress, and then entering a beach-side open-air church gazebo. With music led by youth group leader Sara Hill (Carrie Underwood), her family is worshipping God. This scene underscores the faith-based nature of the film, but is perhaps the only one that is ham-fisted. After this, faith is shown in a natural and believable way. But if nothing else, it serves to show the Hamilton's faith and introduces Sara.

A little later, Sara's youth group message focuses on perspective. “So, if you’re dealing with something that’s hard to handle or just plain doesn’t make sense, do whatever it takes to get some perspective. Talk to your parents, come see me, or pray about it. From a different point of view, you’ll often discover that things aren’t quite as confusing as they seem." Moreover, she introduces one of the two verses that underscore the movie's message, Jer. 29:11 -- " 'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.' "

Bethany's skill earn her a prestigious endorsement and she is on the path to professional surfing when tragedy strikes. Surfing with Alana, a 14-foot tiger shark comes out of nowhere to attack. Thanks to quick thinking by her Alana's dad (Kevin Sorbo) and her own tremendous courage she somehow survives, losing her arm not her life.

A poignant scene in the hospital recovery room has Tom reading his bible while waiting for her to awake. When she does, she asks, "When can I surf?" Her dad replies, "Soon." Bethany: "How do you know?" Tom: "Because you can do all things . . ." and she completes the verse from Phil. 4:13, "through him who gives me strength." Here is the second thematic verse. Bethany's faith is her anchor. She holds onto Jesus Christ, the one who gives her strength. He gives power to those who follow him by faith. Jesus is the all-powerful God who is full of grace (Jn. 1:14).

Yet, Soul Surfer is not unrealistic and portrays Bethany honestly. Later, when she has trouble with her loss and her difficulty in doing ordinary things, like tying her bikini or slicing a tomato, she cries out "Why?" She questions this verse, since she cannot do all things through Christ any longer. She has limitations now. This is a normal reaction. What she later comes to understand is that this verse does not say we will be able to do everything through Christ. We cannot fly or swim underwater for hours, even if we try with faith. There are real limits on what we can do, even with two arms. There are more limits when we are physically disabled, like Bethany. But Christ will give us the strength we need to do all the things he wants us to do. There is grace and power sufficient for us to accomplish his plans and purposes.

Bethany returns to Sara, trying to understand why God allowed the shark attack to happen. How can the verse from Jeremiah make sense? Sara cannot answer. She is not God, but tells Bethany she simply has to believe that God intends it for good. This is the truth of Romans 8:28: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." Purpose reappears.

It is not until Bethany sees the effects of the devastation of the 2004 tsunami that she regains perspective and purpose. "Quitting" competitive surfing, she accompanies Sara and the youth group on a mission with World Vision to help those suffering in Thailand. While there, she comes face-to-face with people who have lost more than her. Here is suffering up close and personal. It humbles her. And when she helps a little boy overcome his fear of the waves, she understands that surfing is not her life, God is. But in coming to this fresh perspective, she realizes that God has made her to surf for his glory.

God's purpose for her life was to be a witness for him. The loss of her arm opened the eyes of the world to look at a teenaged American girl living in Hawaii. Though she could not compete like before, her determination and will to try gave hope to others less fortunate than herself. Not wanting it, she still become a hero for them. And she did the right thing: she pointed their eyes to see the Lord Jesus, who gave her strength. She may have questioned her identity but she found it hidden in Christ. She found her faith even more sure emerging from her period of doubt.

Toward the end, Bethany competes again at the highest level against her friend and her nemesis. Her joy is apparent, her mojo is back. She has found her purpose, regained her perspective, and is surfing in His power. She has discovered the plans he has for her.

We may not be as "fortunate" as Bethany to come into a clear understanding of God's plans for us, but we don't have to lose an arm to realize that we can serve God. We can refocus our perspective to see God's work around us, and to reorient our lives to join him in his kingdom activities. When we do this, we can find the peace that comes from walking in his path, discovering the purposes and plans he has for us. Even if it is simply serving our next-door neighbors or the homeless shelter in our city, when we minister in his strength using our God-given gifts we will find ourselves riding the wave, just like Bethany. Will we choose to be a soul surfer?

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs