‘First Reformed’ – Film Review and Analysis

Man’s struggle with God can almost be as endearing yet painful as his struggle against man. If there is one way to sum up the excellent film, ‘First Reformed’, that would be it. First Reformed (2017) focuses on the environment, one’s faith, and the struggle to find hope when things seem rather bleak. “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to the world?”, a troubled environmental activist asks Pastor Ernst Toller and the Pastor replies to his congregant, “Who can know the mind of God?”

While this movie did not receive any Oscar awards, the acting by Ethan Hawke (Pastor Ernst Toller) and also by Amanda Seyfried (Mary) is excellent as well as the cinematography, the adapted screenplay by Director Paul Schrader which helps this film earn its critical acclaim and some Independent Spirit award nominations as well as one Academy Award nomination. I still believe Mr. Hawke was snubbed from getting an Oscar nomination since this film’s performance was one of the best he has ever done and deserved more praise. In many of his films, I find him to be one of the best actors of his generation and able to produce genuine emotion regardless of the situation his character finds himself in.

In ‘First Reformed’, Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) finds himself faced with difficult questions surrounding his faith, morality, the environment in 2017, and what lies ahead in the future for humanity. These are weighty questions for anyone to deal with let alone a pillar of a community like Toller finds himself to be in Snowbridge, New York as the head pastor for the colonial era First Reformed church that dates back to the time of British colonization and the underground railroad movement later on.

This historical church is seen to be losing its membership and interest and Pastor Toller has to resort to touristic gimmicks and a small gift shop to help make ends meet to keep the church going. There is a noticeable parallel to the decline of Christianity in terms of active members of the Christian church in the United States so a fictional movie such as this one has some real-life parallels that seem plausible. The crisis of faith in churches in certain communities has a coinciding similarity with Toller’s own faith in God and in himself. He is an alcoholic struggling to find meaning and purpose in his life at the beginning of the film.

While making the church more touristy, he has also made the church more spiritual as well instead of its Calvinist origins. He sticks more to sermons than to scriptures and has enlisted the financial backing and ownership of an evangelical megachurch in nearby Albany, New York, which is likely to take over the church in the near future much to Toller’s apprehension. As we go through the film, we peel back the curtain on who this pastor is and like any of us, he has his own personal flaws and past sins but has also suffered for them and wishes to make amends in some way.

We find out that Pastor Toller lost his son, Joseph, recently while serving in the Iraq War and feels guilt for having told him to enlist having come from a military background himself as a chaplain. During that difficult time, he committed adultery and started drinking but also found his faith again to then become a pastor at First Reformed after going through grieving his son’s loss. However, a chance encounter with one of his congregants and his wife puts his faith in God and humanity to the ultimate test.

Mary, a devout congregant and believer in God and her skeptical husband, Michael, a stern environmentalist and becoming increasingly radical meet with Pastor Toller separately in their house. Mary has concerns about Michael’s well-being and tells the Pastor they expect to have a child soon. Michael is sincerely struggling with the fact that he will be a father soon when the world’s ecosystems are steadily collapsing, sea levels are rising, and the effects of global climate change are to be felt beginning in the next few decades. For any of us watching this pivotal scene including Pastor Toller himself, there are no easy answers from God or from man either regarding the future of humanity. Ernest finds it difficult to comfort Michael but asks to keep seeing him and to look out for Mary and the unborn child.

This particular scene leads to the rest of the film’s deeper dive into the effects of capitalism and greed on the environment as well as the relationship between big industry and religious institutions. Pastor Toller’s awakening from meeting with Mary and Michael leads him to questioning why the environmental situation is so dire, who is responsible for it, what can be done to stop it, and how far should measures be taken. Because the Pastor has no easy answers for Michael, he starts looking for them and is obviously dismayed by what he finds out regarding the local environmental situation in his community and how greed, industry, and the lack of stewardship for his community have led humanity down towards an unsustainable path.

Without spoiling the film, The Pastor struggles with what he can do as one individual to counteract the forces aligned against good stewardship of the planet and what a person can do to draw attention to the problem. Not only is there a crisis of faith in God but in each other and what is being done to the only planet we have ever known. The Pastor, with certain health issues related to alcoholism, is reconciling with the fact that he is mortal and what kind of impact he wants to leave behind.

He is comforted by the fact that Mary is still a believer in the future and wants to have a child even with the future of the planet looking relatively bleak. Pastor Toller knows however that he has the responsibility now to hold those accountable for their actions whether it’s the Evangelical church, a big industrialist doing environmental damage, or even himself when he strays from helping those in his congregation who need it the most.

‘First Reformed’ poses a lot of weighty questions and it is an extremely timely film in terms of its messages and themes. It is bleak because it has to be and raises a lot of issues that we have neglected regarding the environment and now we may be finding that time to make a difference in this escalating problem is running out. ‘First Reformed’ asks us how an ordinary man of faith yet a pillar of the community so respond to those in his congregation who are in despair regarding environmental damage and destruction.

How far should he go and how radical should he be to get people to listen and understand what is being done? Can love and faith overcome the desire to do harm and take revenge against those who have sinned against the planet? Like any good film, there are no easy answers and the director does not condone or condemn the thoughts or possible actions that Pastor Toller weights leading up to the climax of the last scene.

What this film does an excellent job of is warning its viewers about the consequences of greed, ignorance, lack of stewardship, valuing profits over the health and well-being of people, and the unholy alliance of organized religion and big industries. There are numerous fingers to point at regarding the worsening state of climate change going on in the world currently but perhaps those who watch this excellent film will realize that the finger should be pointed at ourselves first about the damage being done. Perhaps that kind of introspective thinking is what it will take for massive external action to occur and for the worst of the consequences to be avoided.

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The Brilliance of a Speech – Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin, one of the great film figures of the 20th century and known for his silent work in film, took a great leap of faith and showed moral courage by his performance parodying Adolf Hitler in ‘The Great Dictator.’ This film was the first one where Chaplin had any actual dialogue even though he had been in numerous silent films in previous decades from the 1910s through the 1930s. By that time of the late 1930s, Chaplin had achieved worldwide success and critical acclaim as an actor and a comedian but at that tumultuous time in world affairs, he knew he had the responsibility to speak out about growing militant nationalism that was surging in both Europe and Asia.

Compared to the modern times in which we live, Chaplin was taking a big risk with both his career and his personal safety by mixing politics and world events in his roles in ‘The Great Dictator.’ Because this film was the first of his to use sound and the fact that still in 1940, it was not common to condemn and criticize the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe by Hollywood. Even though World War II had begun, and the U.S. had remained neutral up until that point, Charlie Chaplin brought to life through satire and comedy just how ridiculous dictators like Hitler and Mussolini were in their desire to conquer territory and expand their rule.

It was unknown to Chaplin and the other people involved in making ‘The Great Dictator’ though that Hitler and the Nazis would create concentration camps and extermination chambers to kill over eleven million people, including six million Jewish men, women, and children. Chaplin, like few other actors of the time, was able in this satirical film to play both the main protagonist and the main antagonist. Both a Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, Chaplin in both roles was able to lay out how clearly to the audience how prescient of a threat the rise of fascism in Europe was but also how important it was to poke fun still at the Nazi threat in order to be better able to confront it later on.

While 95% of ‘The Great Dictator’ is making fun of Hitler and the Nazi leadership, the last five minutes is a speech given by Chaplin playing the satirical role of Adenoid Hynkel in full costume but talking seriously about the need to confront Nazism and how it got to this low point in world history. This speech is extremely popular and brilliantly crafted to put it simply. It is no wonder that this film was commercially and critically acclaimed especially in the United States and in the United Kingdom. The invigorating words that Chaplin passionately and profoundly passes on directly to the audience of ‘The Great Dictator’ carries real weight to it especially by the end of the film where it’s been comical and relatively lighthearted up until that point. At the time of the film and of the year it was released, 1940, the horrors of World War II were far from being fully realized yet. However, the ending speech was not just foreboding of what was to come but it was also a forewarning to humanity that this can happen at any time and in any part of the world. Chaplin urges the audience to consider how it got to this point, how we can turn it all around, and how to avoid the dictators who pit us against each other and separate us into us vs. them.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.”

Being able to take care of people and to treat each other with respect and dignity is crucial to one’s humanity regardless of race, ethnicity, or religious background. In Chaplin’s speech, he caters to the better angels of our nature and how we really should yearn to make each other’s live better and spread happiness, not hate. The Earth that we have been given is big enough for everyone regardless of who we are and is ‘rich’ in its natural resources and its ability to provide for everybody with food, water, etc. The natural state of man should be yearning for freedom and beauty, but sometimes we have to collectively steer ourselves back in that direction when we have ‘lost the way.’

“Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent, and all will be lost….”

Greed has turned men against one another, has caused hate to fill our souls, and has led us down the paths to misery and bloodshed. Similar to the pre-WWII period, we live in a time of rapid technological change where ‘speed’ is the essence of progress, but this same ‘speed’ has led to the consequence of alienating ourselves from others with these ‘advances in technology.’ While we live in abundant times, there are many out there who still ‘want’ for more because of increasing inequalities. Too much knowledge without wisdom can lead to cynicism. There is a lot of cleverness in the world but what really matters is how you treat other people and that ‘kindness’ and gentleness’ too often takes a back seat to ‘cleverness’ and showing your ego off to others. When there is not enough humanity, Chaplin tells us, life is violent, brutal, and the progress we have made can be reversed all too easily.

“The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.”

Substitute the iPhone and social media for ‘the aeroplane and the radio’, and this part of Chaplin’s speech is just as relevant as it was in 1940 with regards to technological change and its effects on humanity. While these devices and inventions can bring us together in an effort to achieve ‘universal brotherhood’, these same tools can be used to drive us apart from one another and lead to more universal forms of control, subjugation, and surveillance if we are not careful. Reaching out using technology to help men, women, and children in trouble thousands of miles away is what we should be striving for especially when they are in danger of being tortured, imprisoned, and killed.

“To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.”

Misery is temporary and so is greed which cannot go on forever because it stands in the way of both human progress and human development. Those men who benefit from hatred and violence also fear the progress of humanity because it will prevent them from taking all of the resources, money, and land for themselves. Dictators like all humans will eventually die and disappear from the face of the Earth and the power that was taken from the people will eventually be returned to them. There is always a chance for liberty to exist as long as the people have hope and as long as dictators can have their power be taken from them by force or by the passing of time. The torch of liberty can only be fully extinguished if people give up hope or if one dictator is exchanged for another dictator like nothing ever changed.

“Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!”

Dictators and authoritarian brutes do not care about the soldiers who they command and use them as pawns in their game of chess with other nations. These ‘leaders’ give the soldiers commands and teach them what to think, do, and feel, but they don’t instruct them on why they are fighting or what they are fighting for? The men who order soldiers to battle think like ‘machines’ rather than as human being. Men are born with the love of humanity in their hearts and were not born already hating others. Only those who are ‘unloved’ and ‘unnatural’ can be led to hate others (often by dictators). Soldiers enslave themselves to dictators and other leaders by fighting without questioning and instead should fight for the liberty of all human beings to live in peace, pursue their dreams, and better the world. The only fight worth having, Chaplin argues in the speech, is the ‘fight for liberty!’

“In the 17th Chapter of St Luke, it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.”

“The Kingdom of God is within man.” We are born imperfect as human beings but in order to create peace, prosperity, and liberty, it is within us alone to make. Only when all men unite together and not just one group or one man alone, there is nothing that we can’t accomplish together. For one, the power to create technology and machines is one that we have exercised for the past few centuries now. This power can be used for terrible things but if we unite together as one humanity then there is the power to do great good such as to pursue happiness, justice, and to make life free and beautiful for all peoples. One man can’t do it alone nor can a group of men from a country or region, but we must be all together united in the struggle to create a better future. These ‘machines’ that man creates can be used for evil or for good, and it is ultimately up to us in how to use the technology we have to further the progress of mankind.

“Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will!”

Democracy and not dictatorship are the only power we need to unite under a banner of shared humanity. Dictators look to divide and conquer but democracy urges unity and peace among all nations in order to create a decent world. Being able to work and create is what men desire to give future generations a shot at a good life and to aid the elderly in age to have a secure retirement. Brutes promise a lot of things to their peoples under the guise of democracy, but they do not care for democracy or its principles of liberty, equality, and justice for all. Brutes are dictators and authoritarians who lie to the people in order to free themselves financially and politically, so their own families, friends, and connected elites can benefit. They never fulfill the promises that they were elected to handle, and they use the people’s trust to enrich themselves and consolidate power for themselves while criticizing anyone who thinks differently from them.

Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!

When dictators rise to ultimate power, they keep that power for themselves and quite literally ‘enslave the people.’ This was the case in World War II with Hitler and Mussolini and is still the case today almost eighty years later. Chaplin argues that the only way the world and its seven billion inhabitants can be truly free is to do away with the borders we have imposed on ourselves to cause unnecessary tension, conflict, and violence, and to stop greed, hate, and intolerance in all of its forms or before it becomes too powerful to resist.

Democracy, liberty, equality, and justice are everlasting principles for human freedom but they must be fought for and obtained with each generation. These principles are not perfect either and they must be reformed and improved upon so that all humans can benefit from these ideals. Only in a world with reason, education (science and other subjects), the quest for humane progress can happiness and self-satisfaction be achieved. In order to prevent dictators from seizing power, democracy must be strengthened not just by ‘soldiers’ but by ‘citizens’ of all nations. Only when we unite together to disavow of false prophets like dictators and rather work together in a fair and free democratic system can we ensure the continued progress of man, woman, and child through the decades, generations, and centuries to come.

Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’ was a brilliant speech that tried to warn the world about the coming world war that would be the deadliest in human history. His words still carry immense weight and troubling foreboding in our world today. I hope and pray that we continue to heed his speech for its vision of a better, free, and just world or we could once again find ourselves staring into the abyss of future conflict, violence, and destruction….

You can read the full speech here: https://www.charliechaplin.com/en/articles/29-The-Final-Speech-from-The-Great-Dictator-

‘Training Day’ – Film Review and Analysis

‘Training Day’ is the kind of movie that highlights two people who somehow cross paths as they are on opposite sides of morality. The men are shown to be both flawed in their own ways but still have a direct impact on each other as they spend more time together. Throughout this film, both men are trying to outwit each other in the hopes that they’ll come out on top. Because of this gamesmanship, this is no simple training day but rather a series of events that end up changing both of their lives for better and for worse.

The two main characters, one of them who could be considered a youthful idealist, is trying to better his community and his city by enforcing the law by the book. The other man has been around the block and knows about the grittiness of the job more so than his impressionable, younger rookie partner. He is a pessimist who discards the idealism that he likely brought with him when he originally joined the police force. He has abused his power as a law enforcement agent, is looking to maintain his authority and grow his wealth through intimidation and threats.

“It takes a wolf to catch a wolf” is a powerful quote from ‘Training Day’ that shows that in order to bring somebody down, you have to act and imitate who they are. The problem with this attitude is that sometimes you end up becoming your own worst enemy. However, to simply be a sheep is leading yourself to the slaughter as well especially when you’re dealing with the criminal underworld.

In order to survive as a detective, both men know that you need to be confident in yourself, steadfast in your beliefs, and willing to confront ‘the wolves’ out there if you want to catch one. It could be argued that the protagonist of this film starts out as a sheep and ends up becoming a wolf in order to catch the antagonist, a true wolf who has caught the wolves for many years. This kind of symbolism embedded within ‘Training Day’ makes it a classic film worthy of repeated viewings.

‘Training Day’, released in 2001 is a crime drama / thriller directed by Antoine Fuqua which follows two LAPD detectives who patrol and fight crime in gang-heavy neighborhoods. The film stars Denzel Washington as Alonzo Harris, a veteran detective and police officer who prefers wearing street clothes over a formal uniform and a badge. Ethan Hawke, who plays Jake Hoyt, a new detective and Alonso’s new partner who is entrusted in learning from Alonzo on his first day of detective training.

This film has earned excellent reviews over the years and is considered one of the best movies of the 2000’s. It achieved critical acclaim and success in theaters as Denzel Washington earned a Best Actor award for his role as Alonzo Harris. Truly, one of the best parts of the film is Washington’s acting and how he brings the corrupt yet smooth talking cop character to life. Det. Harris is a classic villain who ranks as one of the best antagonists in film history for his duplicity to others and displaying his indefatigable charisma while doing it.

From the opening scene of the movie, you can tell that Jake Hoyt is out of his league when it comes to matching up against Alonzo Harris. Unfortunately, not much of Alonso or Jake’s backstory is given in the film as well as how they came to become partners together. However, you can see early they are both polar opposites of each other in terms of their ideals, morals, and overall character. Jake is a young guy who’s trying to make his mark as a police officer and trying to do everything by the book as instructed by his superiors at the academy.

He is idealistic, fair-minded, and perhaps a bit naïve to the murky shades of gray that make up the world. Meanwhile, the audience can tell that Alonso has been on the wrong side of the streets for a while and has become purely jaded by his work as a narcotics detective. Instead of serving and protecting the people in his community and city, he cares only about his image, the reach of his authority, and the ability to make illegal money without compromising his career. What once was left of the idealism and the drive to do good by becoming a police officer has long been washed away. You could argue that Jake is a sheep while Alonso is a wolf who is going to prey on him.

The ultimate goal of Alonso is to bend Jake to his will by manipulating his moral code and his willingness to stay clean as a police officer. While Jake starts out the film as being a bit reticent, gullible, and naïve to what Alonso is doing to him, he is able to change over the course of the film to fight for his future, his career, and his life. The transformation of Jake Hoyt from a ‘sheep’ to a ‘wolf’ able to stand up to Alonso is one of the greatest displays of character development in film.

The great drama of ‘Training Day’ is to see both men push each other to the limits both mentally and physically to see who will be left standing after the training day and night is over. While Alonso lost his soul and is trying to corrupt those around him, Det. Jake Hoyt needs to harness his strengths, moral fiber, and intelligence to best Alonso at his own game.

At first, Alonso seems like an ideal partner to be with if you are in the police force. However, Jake and the audience find out that he is anti-social, manipulative, and willing to take what he wants without remorse. The challenge throughout the film for Jake is how does he change into a ‘wolf’ without losing his own moral code. Complicating matters for Detective Hoyt is the fact that Alonso isn’t the only corrupt police officer to deal with and that it goes to higher levels in both local and state government who know what Alonso is up to.

While some officials turn a blind eye to Alonso’s money-grabbing, wrongful beatings and killings, and others in the police force actually join in on it, Jake takes a moral stand and wants to bring Alonso to justice. However, we find out that Alonso is in fact his own worst enemy and the bad karma that he’s acquired over his years of corrupt wheeling and dealing will come back to haunt him.

Everyone’s luck eventually runs out and Alonso finds himself on the wrong end of a bad gambling streak with organized crime. For all of his manipulation, wrongdoing, and anti-social behavior, its’ Alonso’s desire for control over others including Jake that leads himself to ruin. To the opposite, Jake becomes a stronger person and a more effective police officer as the film progresses. He stops two men on the street from physically abusing a high school girl, which pays off for him later after he faces another near fatal betrayal from Alonso.

The concept of karma plays out for Jake, as he is able to resist the corrupting influence of Alonso and remain on the right side of the law by doing his job even under great personal pressure. Instead of letting the power and authority entrusted in him get to his head, Jake is able to become not just a better police officer than Alonso by the end of the film but a better human being.

While Alonso wasn’t always a corrupt cop, ‘Training Day’ makes you wonder what could have happened to this man to turn him into what he was originally fighting against. Overall, this movie is a morality tale of two men who have different intentions when it comes to being a police officer, which puts them at odds with each other. Their impression of the other man continually changes as they learn more about who exactly is the ‘sheep’ and who is the ‘wolf’ as their training day plays out.