‘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.

Movie Recommendations – Volume I

‘Good Kill’ (2014)

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Good Kill is an excellent drama/thriller film that highlights the ethics and the cost involving drone warfare and how it can affect the servicemen and women who have to pull the trigger and live with the consequences. Starring Ethan Hawke, this film is a deep and probing look at how warfare conducted from thousands of miles away can still leave a lasting imprint on those who have a role in it even when they are not anywhere near the battlefield.

The film highlights correctly how while drone strikes may carry less collateral damage to civilian lives, there will always be the chance for the loss of innocent life and families being destroyed. Whether that’s an errant missile crashing into a wedding party or a group of children running by a targeted building within seconds of a missile being launched and getting caught in the crossfire, death from the skies will not only affect terrorists, but women and children too. Because drone strikes are less costly to governments and militaries, the rules of engagement can sometimes be abused to focus too often on low-level targets, who pose some actionable threat, but who could also be captured for intelligence purposes. A lack of international norms and standards regarding drone warfare leads to serious consequences in terms of possible abuse by governments who overuse it on secondary targets.

Airmen and women such as Ethan Hawke’s character and his colleagues, who conduct drone strikes, are shown to suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder because they get to know their targets, see how they live, and struggle with having the power of death over them. High-resolution surveillance makes the act of killing personal despite the fact that these servicemen are thousands of miles away. When a drone strike goes wrong and innocent civilians are killed, it leaves a long-lasting psychological effect on the military personnel involved.

They may not see their victims when they are flying an F-16, but they are aware of what collateral damage is when they see the dead bodies of women, children being shown on the high definition screen. Military service members do not last long as drone pilots due to the immense mental strain placed on them especially when they did not sign-up for conducting warfare with a joystick. Alcoholism, depression, and family problems have occurred due to pilots being asked to conduct drone strikes in the name of national security. All of these issues are highlighted in Good Kill making it more than just your average film about war, but also about an excellent look on how the human condition is affected from holding life or death decisions over those who never see it coming.

‘Roma’ (2018)

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Roma is more than just your average film about a family. It is excellent in its scope and ambition in covering a tumultuous period in Mexican history and for highlighting the issues of family, race, and class within the larger society. What I enjoyed most about this film was that it felt personal and it is based off of the childhood of the director Alfonso Cuaron. The way the story unfolds feels as if it has been lived out before.

Cuaron’s work and that of his film crew that was done with the cinematography, film editing, and screenplay is extremely impressive and goes to show the audience just how film is another form of human artwork that can display beauty, meaning, and pure emotion.

Amidst the story of this family are real-life events in Mexican history that overlap with the film without overwhelming the intimacy of the story being told. For example, The Corpus Christi Massacre or “El Halconazo” in 1971 are intertwined with Cleo’s search for a crib for his newborn baby to be.

Nobody in this film is perfect and true human error of both behavior and character are laid bare. Amongst the flawed characters in this film are redemptive qualities about them and how they fight and struggle to overcome betrayal, disappointments, and tragedy. The film is gripping in that it is about real life and there is no sugarcoating. In Roma, no one is immune from setbacks and struggles, and that is what makes the audience invests in the story being told even more.

Compared to many other films that I have seen, few have touched me more on an emotional level than Roma. The realistic dialogue, the set pieces, the chain of events, and the character development all lend to its longevity as one of the best films of the decade. If you have a Netflix subscription, do yourself a favor and watch Roma. You won’t regret the chance to view this pure work of art and I would not be surprised if it sweeps the awards at the Oscars. It is that good of a film and a noteworthy achievement by director Alfonso Cuaron.

‘A Private War’ (2018)

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This is a biographical film without feeling overwhelming or too much tied up in the protagonist. This film does a good job in covering the life of the deceased war correspondent, Marie Colvin, who reported from multiple war zones over two decades including Sri Lanka, Iraq, Libya, Syria. Marie was a fearless and bold reporter who did the under-appreciated work of reporting the facts on the ground when it came to what was going on in these war zones.

The film portrays her as someone who battled the terrible things that she witnessed and the horrors that she could not avoid. She struggled with her dependency on alcohol, cigarettes, was divorced twice and also had her bouts with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as many war correspondents deal with when they return home from a war zone. Rosamund Pike, the lead actress in A Private War does an incredible job in accurately portraying who Marie Colvin was in how she mimics both her mannerisms and her speaking style throughout the film’s entirety.

Despite losing an eye, suffering from PTSD, and struggling with maintaining her friendships and relationships away from the battlefield, Mrs. Colvin dedicated her life to reporting the truth and the facts from war zones around the world so that everyone would else would know the costs of war.

While she was afraid and while she was fearful, she had the courage to press on and do her duty in informing the public on what was going on. While she was killed during the siege of Homs, Syria, her memory lives on with this film and the work that she did for two decades in holding the powerful accountable for the wars that they started. In an era where journalists are being denigrated and dismissed with increasing impunity, it’s refreshing to see a film that pays tribute to a war correspondent who gave her life to the cause of reporting the facts so that people would be more informed on what was going on and to also care about why it was happening.  

‘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.