‘The Whale’ – Film Review and Analysis

“‘The Whale’, directed by director Darren Aronofsky shows us how low someone can go when things go wrong in life but also how our lowest lows can also bring out the best of us when it is most important.”

2022 may be over but I am still thinking about the most emotionally impactful movie of the past year, which deserves its own review and analysis. Likely to be nominated for a few Academy Awards at the least an Oscar for Best Actor nomination for Brendan Fraser, ‘The Whale’ is a powerful film about a man’s desire to try to right past wrongs in some way before it is too late. ‘The Whale’, directed by director Darren Aronofsky shows us how low someone can go when things go wrong in life but also how our lowest lows can also bring out the best of us when it is most important.

Aronofsky’s filmography from ‘Requiem for a Dream’ to ‘The Wrestler’ to ‘Black Swan’ to ‘The Foundation’ to now ‘The Whale’ all deal with flawed characters looking to right past wrongs or to find redemption in the most meaningful way(s) before they are past the point of no return. Aronofsky so brilliantly can capture psychological drama and tension in each sense in his movies that by the end, you’re so emotionally affected by it all that it can be hard to wrap your head around what you just watched. As a director, he is excellent at painting a picture of a person or people in distress and how while they may have had good intentions, they are almost too far gone to seek redemption or a new start.

Different from Aronofsky’s past films, ‘The Whale’ is adapted from a play of the same name dating back to 2012 so the screenplay that is written and the way the film is set up is exactly how a play would be seen on the big screen. There are few characters, the plot does not get too murky or complicated, and the setting remains the same largely throughout the whole film.

Film critics today may dismiss this film as lacking scale and scope in its ambition, but I was drawn to how beautifully it portrays what could be real people living real lives. ‘The Whale’ may be a film and fiction but it likely portrays real situations and real tragedies that some people unfortunately come to pass in their life. The film deals with multiple real world issues affecting people from obesity to alcoholism to lost loves to broken up families that most people in life can see how that can throw someone’s life off a cliff and make it almost impossible to recover.

‘The Whale’, as the title makes clear is about a severely obese man named Charlie who weighs around 600 pounds and suffers from multiple health issues because of his weight issue. He is estranged from his teenage daughter, separated from his alcoholic wife, and unable to turn the video screen as an online English professor because of his weight condition that may affect how his students see him. His only interaction is with his friend, Liz, who is also a nurse who comes to take care of Charlie especially with his multiple health issues causing him to be near death and at risk of heart failure.

Charlie has become a tragic figure in that he only has Liz left in his life after suffering the loss of the man who he fell in love with. Because of that love, he sacrificed his marriage with his previous wife and his relationship with his daughter for. After the affair he had with his student, Alan, who is also the brother of Liz, for whom she was adopted by a family and her father who was a pastor in the New Life Church. Liz was able to escape the church’s cultish tendencies but Alan’s possible guilt from being disowned by the Church and perhaps his family as well for his homosexuality and relationship with Charlie caused him to end his own life.

This terrible series of events punished Charlie and his eating condition after the death of Alan exacerbated his obesity and caused him major depression and an inability to form relationships with others beyond his caretaker and friend, Liz. Charlie is not looking for any pardoning of ‘sins’ from God or the Church that disowned Alan but rather the sole forgiveness of his daughter for whom he last saw when she was eight years old. Ellie is not a child anymore but is a rebellious and sullen teenager who misses her father and lashes out at her mother, who deals with her problems by downing a bottle of liquor, rather than raising her daughter to be better. Charlie is no saint in the matter in that he did commit adultery with Alan and led him to neglect his daughter, Ellie, and to push his wife away as well.

He never made amends for having caused them both grief and pain with his impulsive decision. His love for Alan eclipsed his love for his daughter, which he struggles in the film to get back. When the New Life Church’s doctrine and his family’s discontent with Alan’s sexuality, Alan’s suicide caused Charlie to spiral further to eat uncontrollably and to negate his relationships even more by becoming a total recluse who cannot even leave the house because of his body weight and inability to walk or drive a car.

‘The Whale’ also highlights how Charlie is not looking for pity from others or for forgiveness. He knows how much his life has gotten out of hand, but he is hoping to do ‘one thing in his life’ right before it’s too late for him. He believes that while his daughter acts out and despises what he has done, that there is still hope for her and that can she achieve her potential but to more importantly to ‘be a good person.’ It may be too late for Charlie to turn it around in life much to Liz’s, his wife’s, and even Ellie’s disappointment, but Charlie knows that redemption is possible for each of them and that even if he is not there, he will try to leave money for his daughter to have a future, or to tell his wife that he is regretful for him leaving them for his affair, and that he apologizes to Liz for what he has done to himself with the loss of her adopted brother that has strained their friendship in the aftermath.

Charlie does not want to be saved by God or religion or from himself but he wants to know that his life through the birth of his daughter is one thing that he got right in life and that while he wasn’t there for her before when she needed him, he can try to make amends before he leaves the world, and to encourage her to be better than he was, to be better off in life, and to be kind to others. He may have lost hope for himself, but he has never lost hope for his daughter.

Similar to how Charlie encourages his English students to be honest with their written essays, he tries to be honest with Ellie in why he did what he did, how he could have been a better husband to his wife, Mary, and how he let Liz down after the tragic death of Alan. Not everyone can be this honest, but Charlie has nothing left to lose, nothing much to gain, and with not a lot of life ahead of him except imminent death due to his body’s condition.

Despite all the concurring factors, Charlie is trying to regain his humanity and his family back as much as he can recoup after it had been lost even if he has become ‘The Whale’. While he may be misunderstood and loathed like the whale in the book Moby Dick by Herman Melville, he is not beyond redeeming himself in the eyes of others and providing some closure for himself in a life that had gone so far astray yet for which he had also been able to give something out of love back to the world to live on in the form of his daughter, Ellie.  

Movie Recommendations – Volume V

“Colder weather and shorter daylight hours mean it’s premium movie watching season again.”

Colder weather and shorter daylight hours mean it’s premium movie watching season again. Whether it is in the movie theater or at your home theater, this time of the year is best not just for Christmas movies but for watching new releases in general. Between the streaming services, new theater movies, or even documentaries, there are a lot of excellent movies coming out to close out 2022. I recently saw four movies that I would recommend to others with three of them being watched at home and one in the theaters. Even if some of these movies are not in theaters, I would recommend checking them out through Apple TV+ in this case for a short-term subscription.

  1. The Fablemans

A semi-biographical film about one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th and perhaps 21st century, ‘The Fablemans’ is an intricate tale of a genius who discovers his calling slowly but surely through his own ingenuity, his family’s encouragement, and with a little bit of luck. Steven Spielberg may not be named as the main character, but this is his life story told through his eyes and what it was like being a Jewish kid growing up in New Jersey, Arizona, and later California in the post-World War II era as his parents struggle to provide for him and his two sisters.

While Spielberg has this innate talent for filmmaking, he wasn’t always set on doing it for a living and struggled with his own doubts. His parents, while supportive, did not always see where his dream could go and were distracted by the issues in their own marriage that caused a divorce to occur. On top of that, having to move for his father’s work in the dawning of the computer age to communities out west not as friendly to American Jews, Spielberg’s ‘The Fabelmans’ covers the ugliness of antisemitism rearing its head and how Spielberg as a teenager was forced to confront it and the bullies who continue these vile tropes.

While not exactly a feel-good story, it is an excellent semi-biographical tale on how The Fablemans as well as The Spielbergs made his dream work and were crucial to the man who would become the most famous director in the world. It is an immensely personal movie with both its tragic and triumphant moments. It is a story that I believe a lot of us can relate to these days on how to overcome setbacks and trials in the pursuit of a life’s goal or dream.

2. Causeway

Not all wounds of war are physical. If I had to sum up the movie, ‘Causeway’ starring Jennifer Lawrence and directed by Lila Neugebauer, it would highlight how post-traumatic stress disorder highlights those wounds that are mental but brought on by physical trauma. Jennifer Lawrence plays the role of Lynsey, an American Army Corps of Engineers specialist who suffers a traumatic brain injury from an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that causes her not just physical pain but PTSD as well. Her memory suffers, her eye and hand coordination, and even her ability to form complete sentences is affected. It is a long road to recovery but luckily, she meets people along the way including a home health aide who cares for her upon her return to the States doing backbreaking work to give Lynsey the chance to get her mental and physical faculties together.

Even after the physical recovery seems to be going well, Lynsey suffers from the PTSD that the explosion caused and the horrific memories of seeing her fellow soldiers die in front of her eyes. While the home health aide and physical therapy helps, as a returned soldier, all she wants to do is get back to the front to continue the work she was doing in Afghanistan. She sees that people including her own mother, who was neglectful to her as a child, while she cares about Lynsey, has moved on without her and doesn’t understand quite what she’s been through. Lynsey finds a job cleaning rich people’s pools in New Orleans where she’s from but doesn’t see it as worthy of her skills she acquired while on active duty in Afghanistan. Lynsey has an older brother as well who is away and out of her life due to his involvement in drugs, so she does not have him around either as a steadying influence.

The one person she does relate to is a man named James who has been through his own trauma involving a car accident that left him with an amputated leg. They’ve both seen more than they would care to in life and they are able to bond with each other despite the difficulties of their past. In a world where both feel increasingly isolated and distant, the bond they share as friends may sustain them for the future and keep them from turning to despair. ‘Causeway’ is a great film that really shows you the reality of what it can be like to return to home from war and the mental and physical scars a soldier can take with him or her that never fully heal.

3. Emancipation

There have been multiple movies about the Civil War and about Slavery, but ‘Emancipation’ is an excellent recent film starring Will Smith as an escaping slave in Louisiana yearning to be free and reunite with his still enslaved family. Antoine Fuqua’s directing is on point in this one with sweeping views of civil war battlefields, old plantations, and muddy swamps with a unique choice of filming ‘Emancipation’ in black and white with red being the only other color represented usually by a character’s blood being spilt. This film does not sugarcoat anything and is based on true events and the real-life story of an escaped slave of Gordon or ‘Whipped Peter’ who was whipped repeatedly before escaping from a Louisiana plantation after killing two of the slave drivers before running towards where Lincoln’s army was fighting around Baton Rouge.

‘Emancipation’ does not hesitate to show brutality on screen as well as the violence of a Civil War battle where freed slaves would fight to liberate others from their enslavement. Some viewers may be turned off by the sheer violence of the film, but I thought that it was a rather accurate portrayal of the cruelty of slave owners, the terrible conditions that they were forced to do labor in, as well as the dogs, snakes, alligators, and muddy swamps that an escaped slave would have to go through to reach the Union Army. Many slaves like Peter who were able to escape were not treated that much better than the Union Army besides being free although they had no choice usually but to fight for the Union to free others and to hope to see their families again if they were able to liberate other plantations.

I would recommend this film due to Smith’s performance, the excellent cinematography, as well as the historically accurate nature of Peter’s experience in escaping from slavery, preventing himself from being captured again and fighting with other African Americans in the Union Army to end the horrors of slavery once and for all.

4, The Banshees of Inisherin

It is not every day where you’re able to watch a comedy and a tragedy take place in the same movie but ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ succeeds on both accounts. Led by an excellent cast including Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Barry Keoghan, and Kerry Condon, the fictional island of Inisherin off the coast of mainland Ireland is made up of a real bunch of characters who live out a life of repetition, tomfoolery, and drinking, which is a bit of community unifier. Set against the backdrop of the real Irish Civil War of 1922-1923, most of the Inisherin population is ignorant of what happens on the mainland and choose to tend to farm, to shop, and to drink, often excessively, as part of their daily routines.

One of the main characters, Colm Doherty (played by Brendan Gleeson), is fed up with a life in Inisherin that would revolve around just that and as he gets older, wishes to be remembered for his music and his song lyrics rather than getting drunk each day. That is the premise of the falling out he has with drinking buddy and friend, Padraic, (played by Colin Farrell), and while Padraic is nice, he is not someone Colm wishes to hang out with him again even though they are bound to run into each other.

The friendship was so strong and close that one day when it goes away, Padraic refuses to give up on Colm even though he tires of never getting a straight answer out of him. The refusal to lose out on a friend in such a small community, which conflicts with his desire to remain a ‘nice’ guy in the community causes Padraic as well as his sister, Siobhan, a lot of consternation and disappointment leading Padraic to undertake drastic and even ruthless measures to get his friend, Colm, back.

‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ while a fictional movie taking place in a fictional island is one of the best films of 2022 and is well worth a watch. It will make you laugh out loud, hold a tear back or two, and think of a time where you had a hard time letting go whether it was of a former friend or even a family member due to some personal grievance or a difference that came up. The film ponders some philosophical questions and does not belittle the audience with simplistic answers. It is an excellent tragicomedy and one worth seeing especially for Mr. Farrell and Mrs. Condon’s performances.

‘Triple Frontier’ – Film Review and Analysis

“Heist movies in Hollywood are a dime a dozen these days and can be quite predictable as well as not very engaging in terms of the characters and their backstories. ‘Triple Frontier’, a film released in early 2019 by Netflix takes the genre and makes it fresh again.”

Heist movies in Hollywood are a dime a dozen these days and can be quite predictable as well as not very engaging in terms of the characters and their backstories. ‘Triple Frontier’, a film released in early 2019 by Netflix takes the genre and makes it fresh again. The film explains the background of the characters, their individual motivations for conducting the heist, and the twists and turns along with a few surprises that happen along the way that will make the audience feel like it’s worth watching until the very end.

Not only is the film shot well with great cinematography, pacing, and direction so you know what is always going on even with the quick-paced action, it’s an intelligent heist movie, which is well thought out and involves a greater mission that the characters have despite their own personal motivations. The scope of ‘Triple Frontier’ or ‘Tres Fronteiras’ in Spanish is unique in that the film is set in the tri-border region of Colombia, Peru, and Brazil so it is an excellent way for the various sets to highlight this unique region of the world. From tree-covered jungles to rocky highlands to snowy mountain tops, the initial heist phase of the movie is bolstered by the 2nd half’s battle against not just external enemies but also by geographic factors.

The heart of the ‘Triple Frontier’ film is the story of the protagonists themselves. Each of them from different backgrounds but united by their special forces’ experiences, which bind them together as brothers. While the story does not get into their past experiences together, the film does a good job selling how close the bond is between the five of them is and how much they still care for each other. Civilian life has treated each of the five men differently but what they hold in common is their desire to improve their lives and go back to doing what they do best. Each of them is financially struggling to get by whether it is by dealing with a costly divorce, or by beating a misdemeanor drug charge, or by needing to fight in mixed martial arts to make more money, or by making dozens of motivational speeches to current soldiers to make ends meet.

The leader of the group, Santiago ‘Pope’ Garcia, is not so much as motivated by the money but rather to capture a notorious drug lord and leader of a prominent cartel in the ‘Triple Frontier’ who has been able to evade Pope for years as well as his Colombian counterparts. Pope has a hard time trusting the locals he is meant to led and needs a group of soldiers as well as his friends to ‘watch his six’ and help deliver Lorea for him. Pope has a local informant, Yovanna, helping him locate Lorea’s whereabouts and he just needs a solid team behind him to lead the raid as well as the heist but who better than his four ex-special forces colleagues who he knows can get the job done.

As with most things regarding a heist, it takes expert planning, a reconnaissance mission, as well as expert timing to make sure that things don’t go sideways when it comes time to exfiltration. After hearing from Yovanna that ‘the house is the safe’, and Lorea hides his money not in offshore banking accounts but in his fortress in the Amazonian jungle, Pope has the intelligence he needs to move forward with the heist. While each of the men have their own personal motivations to go on the heist with Pope, they are unified at first by their innate need for the large sums of money that can make them set for life and never have to worry about bills, MMA fights, or tedious motivational speeches ever again.

While each of Pope’s men question the ability for the heist to go smoothly, they feel like they owe it to each other to get it done especially each of them have a set of skills including one being a pilot (Francisco ‘Catfish’ Morales), one being a leader of the squad (Tom ‘Redfly’ Davis), a reconnaissance guy (William ‘Ironhead’ Miller), and the last being a stealth expert able to enact unarmed takedowns, (Ben ‘Benny’ Miller). Without each of his compatriots, Pope knows he cannot get the job done. With the help of Lorea’s money, Pope knows he can get Yovanna, his informant, and her brother out of the region safely without compromising their lives in the process.

While viewers would consider each of the men ‘greedy’ and ‘selfish’, the film makes their decision much more complex than that. They each know that his Lorea and his men pose a danger to the region and that they have a responsibility to look out for one another as brothers given the bonds, they formed with each other as previously active servicemembers. However, seeing as each of these five men have never experienced what it is to have $1 million at their disposal let alone tens or hundreds of millions, the film excellently portrays what it’s like when you finally stumble upon a smorgasbord of money never seen before and how that kind of greed can overwhelm someone, even the leader of the entire heist squad.

Money, like anything in life, when it’s too much with you or weighing you down, can cause things to go haywire when its impact is fully felt. Without spoiling the film for those readers who have not seen it, it’s not just the heist that could go wrong but also how to get the money back to themselves or their families after risking everything in the process. You can also carry so much physical money before you have too much where it starts to drag you down or also others with you, which could also put them in harm’s way if you are not careful. Each of the five men are very skilled in what they do, are loyal to each other, yet are fallible like the rest of us, and how they deal with their own greed, jealously, ego(s), and adversity in seeing the heist through carries the money to be one of the best of 2019, and a film to revisit for multiple viewings.

‘Triple Frontier’ is better than your average heist film for multiple reasons but most of all because it’s a very human film on how to overcome your own fears, doubts, shortcomings, to make sure your friend or brothers makes it back alive. The men are not good or bad men per say but are flawed in that they have given a lot to their country and the world, and now look to get what they desire in return, even if it may end up costing them dearly. The movie is not ‘black or white’ in terms of morality like other heist movies but rather shows the ‘grays’ in how people make decisions not just based on ‘self-interest’ but in a desire to be useful to the group and to put their skills to use.  

While it would be easy to say that ‘greed’ is a central theme that the film is based around, I would argue that the central theme is more about confronting our own nature and how to deal with murky aspects of right and wrong, and how that while money makes the world go around, that does not substitute for the guy or girl next to you who will fight with you, and even die for you. There are some things that money cannot buy and the film exemplifies that in its squad of five men, who while money is their motivation, they quickly learn that it is also a weight that will drag you down if you let it, and is no substitute to the man next to you, whose life is worth more than all the money you can carry, who is impossible to replace, and for which is truly worth fighting for and dying for, if necessary.

‘Up In The Air’ – Film Review and Analysis

“The choices he has made haven’t caught up to him yet, but he is on the path he has chosen that while unorthodox to most leaves him satisfied and content with who he is.”

Ryan Bingham has chosen a different life path than most people he knows. Instead of staying in his hometown, reveling in the glories past of high school and the diner down the road, he wanted to leave his roots and his family for his true passion in life: being up in the air and striving for excellence as a motivational speaker. The choices he has made haven’t caught up to him yet, but he is on the path he has chosen that while unorthodox to most leaves him satisfied and content with who he is.

Bingham (played by George Clooney) is at a crossroads in middle age where he has forgone the responsibilities that are normally achieved by most people his age with a house and a picket fence, being married, and maybe having children. He has forgone all that for an industry on the rise sadly at the time the film is set in and for being out on the road and up in the air for 250+ days of the year. He advocates for a life in motion because if he is not moving, he is not actually living.

His work like his constant travel is an unorthodox industry where he works as a human resources consultant traveling both domestically and internationally to do the dirty work of firing or ‘letting go’ employees in person and providing them with transition packet(s) that the company that’s firing them is leaving them with to help them in the ‘transition’ period. It is a rough job that due to the 2008-2009 global recession has made his HR consultancy firm as needed as ever. The one industry at the time that is gaining jobs rather than losing jobs, Ryan finds himself at risk of having his life of work travel outsources to advancements in video technology (about ten years before Zoom and Skype became mainstream).

While Ryan Bingham is not at risk of getting laid off like so many other working Americans during the period of the Great Recession, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, Bingham is at risk of losing his life of travel on the road due to firing people via telecommunications video instead. To make matters worse, his boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) is tasking him with having a new hire out of Yale University, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) shadow his in-person firings for a few months as the company, CTC, makes the transition to virtual consulting instead of letting those employees go in-person from now on.

That is not the only change that threatens to upend Ryan’s life choice as he has met a charming, attractive woman who has the same lifestyle as him and appears to see life as he does with less commitments and more choice. Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) is the constantly traveling business woman for whom Ryan may have finally met his match. While they started out as a casual fling, Ryan begins to develop feelings for her as he ponders his uncertain future of life on the road as well as the fact that once he achieves his life goal of ten million airline miles accumulated may not have much to strive for.

Ryan and Natalie may not show it at first but the firings and the emotional weight of being responsible for upending people’s lives cause them stress, anxiety, and a desire to break free of their own pains in doing the job they have chosen. While Ryan is content with travel on the road, he hears from his estranged sister, Kara, that his other, younger sister, Julie is getting married. Ryan left home when he first could leave and never looked back, and his family still remembers that. He is the ‘black sheep’ of the family, known to pursue his own gratification while letting his relationships deteriorate over the years.

Having Alex as a love interest has reignited his desire to see his sisters again and to be there for the wedding in northern Wisconsin. Him and Alex are still a bit of a mystery to each other, but they enjoy each other’s company, and he invites her to join him as the +1 guest, not wanting to be the ‘guy alone at the bar’ watching all the couples enjoy a dance together. There are these moments of vulnerability interspersed through ‘Up in The Air’ that remind the audience that all these characters have their own flaws and shortcomings. They are not perfect people, and the film does not judge them outright but allows the audience to decide if they are admirable or detestable or a bit of both. What I love most is that the film director and writers allow us to decide if we agree with Ryan’s choices or if we would have chosen to go the other route in life that he has neglected.

Sometimes, it is never too late to choose a different path than the one that we have set out for ourselves. However, whether we can pull back from previous choices made and to get a fresh start on a new path, is one of the underlying themes of ‘Up in The Air.’ Ryan can try to start a real relationship with Alex, make amends with his sisters and be more present in their lives, and still achieve his 10-million-mile goal but life can get in the way so it’s possible he will not be as successful in salvaging both his relationships, his career goals, and his need for travel. Even if he thinks he can be successful at keeping everybody in his life happy, he may have to make sacrifices as in life, it can be nearly impossible to keep all options available to you.        

The priorities we make now while end up defining us far into the future and there may come a time where the sacrifices, we make in one area may lead to a lack of connection or attachment or fulfilment in another area. Throughout the film during Ryan’s motivational speeches, he talks about the ‘stuff’ in life weighing us down whether it’s our relationships, our possessions, and even our desires. He makes the point in the audience that ‘life can be better footloose’ and not as tied down to suffer from it. However, what the film makes clear is that when you find real happiness in a relationship, can you pivot to slowing down with that heavier backpack you carry around because you feel fulfilled to do so? Can Ryan make room for a real relationship with Alex or his sisters to give up life on the road so his backpack will be heavier, but he’ll still be happier as a result, and maybe that what’s he was missing all this time around?

While Ryan is a ‘road warrior’ and enjoys not being attached to anyone or anything, who will be there for him if he must stay at his scant one-bedroom apartment in Omaha or if he were to be fired from his job where he fires other people. The film brilliantly shows real people who’ve been through real loss in terms of their jobs and livelihoods, and how while it is almost impossible to get through it, they could not keep going on without their responsibility to their families or the love that their families show for them in those tough times. In life, it always helps to have a good support system or to have good people like family motivating you to get you through the tough times.

Ryan may be prepared for a life unattached now, but he may find as he gets older, that his choice to not have many or any attachments at all may lead to the loneliness and pain that then can come from facing life’s hurdles alone, especially when you don’t truly get to know the person because you are so busy traveling and can’t make time for them at all. As Ryan says to his sister Julie’s husband-to-be, Jim, on their wedding day to help him get over his ‘cold feet’ at getting married, “Life’s better with company.”

Anatomy of a Scene – ‘To Know Me Is To Fly With Me’

“He has found a job that allows him to be constantly on the road at a job he is good at without commitments or obligations that would keep him from being who he is.”

Some people are most comfortable on the ground, others down below beneath the sea. Ryan Bingham, however, is most comfortable up in the air. Ryan goes from city to city and from town to town racking up airline miles, staying in recognizable hotels, and sadly letting people go from jobs by helping them with the transition process to a new life. He does the dirty work, which can be quite tense and unforgiving. He does not do his job out of pleasure for helping companies fire people in-person but rather because he likes life on the road and is comfortable being in airports, rental cars, and hotels rather than in a cubicle or a factory day in and day out.

Without going into too much detail about the movie, ‘Up in The Air’, I’m going to focus on two scenes to encompass Ryan’s life on the road and how he should be known best. Ryan is single, not a family man, never been married, and does not go on at length about children because he does not have them. He is driven not by his family or his career per say but rather how his home is his backpack or suitcase and how if he stays still, he loses an essential part of who he is as a person. When other people brag about their kids’ latest success or their wife or husband’s latest accomplish, Ryan instead brags about his quest for ten million airline miles and how he has privileged status with his hotel rewards program.

While others would find Ryan’s lifestyle odd and unusual, he would consider their lifestyle to be the odd and unusual one. He has found a job that allows him to be constantly on the road at a job he is good at without commitments or obligations that would keep him from being who he is. While he enjoys being with people, he is also comfortable on his own and enjoys his own company. He believes that any other way to live would not be as satisfying and for what others dislike about traveling constantly, he relishes it. Ryan does not think anything, or anyone would derail him from continuing this lifestyle even after he reaches his ten million miles goal. If he were to stop, it may be only because he loses his job where he helps to fire people or if he met a woman who could live with his ‘unusual’ lifestyle.

“Fast Friends.”

As the scene ‘to know me is to fly with me’ demonstrates, Ryan’s friendships are often self-serving because he is often on the road and can’t have true friendships but rather ‘fast friendships.’ He is a new kind of person and must go along with his constantly shifting itinerary. Ryan is personable and likes to meet new people such as a man next to him in business class and can relate to another gentleman who likes to be on the road.

Ryan has traveled so much that he knows how to approach a conversation with a stranger sitting next to him. They can discuss family matters, where to go for good food in a specific city, and even about the dreams of the person he is sitting with. He may not have deep friendships but is personable and friendly enough to make a quick connection like he would a flight to a new city without skipping a beat.

Ryan can get the business card, say goodbye forever, and is busy enough to move on without feeling a sense of loss or sadness about not seeing that gentleman he had met and formed a connection with for a few hours just before. As Ryan indicates in his narration, he lives by ‘the margins of his itinerary’ and is committed to his schedule without missing a beat or feeling like he is out of step. Even where there is turbulence, bad airline food, or onerous airline security procedures, Ryan Bingham takes it all in stride. He is not dismayed by any of the various annoyances that plague the travel industry. It is where he feels most at home and is probably the only kind of life he would feel at home with.

“I am home.”

Another scene that compliments the ‘to know me is to fly with me’ deleted scene from the movie is where Ryan’s travel process is shown from beginning to end. Different from ‘fast friends’, Ryan’s job encompasses him helping companies too afraid to fire their employees directly by having him fly around the country and perhaps internationally to do it himself. He says that it’s easy to do it since “he’ll never see them again” but it does not seem like he takes pleasure in it and just uses it to travel for a living. Instead of ‘fast friends’, he may be making ‘fast discontents’ as they blame him for everything bad happening to them at that job even though it’s not his decision to fire them but their boss’s. While Ryan never sees them again like the friendly businessman sitting next to him on the plane, those brief moments of sad or happy coincidence just fall by the wayside when he focuses on his true passion of making the travel lifestyle of his as seamless as possible.

From organizing his TravelPro suitcase easily stored in the overhead bin in any normal jumbo-sized jet plane to making sure his ties and shirts are neatly folded to fit in his suitcase, Ryan fits the bill as a true traveler who knows what to do. “This is where I live.” Ryan says as he drops off his rental car, which he probably rented for free by using his compiled credit card miles. He avoids long check-in lines by having ‘priority access’ with his airline points allowing him such perks as a personalized greeting from one of the airline staff, which is part of sitting in the ’first class’ section of the airplane. While ‘Up in The Air’ was made before TSA Precheck and Global Entry came out as options to avoid long security and U.S. customs lines, you can believe Ryan would have been able to sign up for those perks as well for free due to his accrued airline miles.

From greeting the smiling airline staffer who is aware of his ‘privileged’ status to making it through the TSA check like it is second nature, Ryan is suited up to make himself presentable for the flight but does not forget to wear dress slip on shoes to make the onerous security check process a little bit faster and little less annoying. He gets out the two bins to put through the x-ray machine for his luggage, expertly has his laptop at the top of his carry-on bag ready to be placed in one of the bins and has the slip-on shoes out of his face so fast he does not struggle with getting them back on later. He even folds his suit jacket expertly in half, so it does not wrinkle at all as it goes through the machine and holds his boarding pass out in front of him through the metal detector, so the TSA security agents know he does not have “anything left in his pockets.”

“All the things you probably hate about traveling: the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispenses, the cheap sushi…are warm reminders that I am home. While most people would hate to have a job that makes them the face people have to see when they get fired or would not enjoy constantly being on the road most of the year, if not all of it, Ryan Bingham in ‘Up in The Air’ truly relishes it and would not have it any other way. There are Ryan Bingham’s in the world out there and they live a lifestyle that while unconventional and difficult, is a unique one that deserves some respect as it isn’t easily pulled off especially since as he said, the stuff most people hate about traveling, he really loves, and that is worth admiring about him.

Our Many Faces

“We try to find those people or at least one person who we can share ourselves with and how to open up our ‘little weird worlds’ to them without being judged or criticized or made fun of.”

There is a touching scene in one of my favorite movies, ‘Good Will Hunting’, which focuses on Sean (played by Robin Williams), a former prodigious mathematician turned psychologist, who is mentoring Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon) but also providing guidance to a young man going through a tough time. Will is gifted but also has suffered physical abuse and mental trauma having lived with different foster families who did not treat him well. Sean notices Will not really sharing who he is fully and that is not just the case with Sean at first in their sessions but also with Will’s new girlfriend, Skylar.

Will is afraid to let his guard down and shows there are different levels or facets to he is but given his personal history, is afraid to let others into his world because he is worried that he’ll be hurt or abandoned again like his foster parents did to him. Sean tries to get through to Will on multiple occasions and so does Jerry, Sean’s old friend, who believes Will has great mathematical talent but is unwilling to work with him on his personal issues, which came to a forefront when Will got into a street fight with his friends and ended up assaulting a police officer.

In order to get Will to open up to him more, Sean attempts to tell Will why it is so important to show our true self or as I would like to call it here, our true face when we can because deep down that’s who we really are and it’s special to let someone in when we are vulnerable to get to know our full personality and who we are as individuals. Sean, in his personal anecdote, relays the story of how his dearly departed wife would fart when she was nervous and that only he as her husband would know that about her. Sean would sometimes hide the truth from her by saying it was him who farted even when it was so loud that it would wake the dog up when they were all sleeping in bed together.

“It’s the little things like that, that I miss the most.” Sean doesn’t reminisce primarily about their wedding, how they met perhaps, or about what they would do together on a date night. He would think about the things that made her his wife that no other person would know. In other words, Sean would see his wife’s true face or self because of how intimate of a relationship they had as husband and wife. Those little ‘idiosyncrasies or tics or habits that Sean knew about his wife is what made it such a special relationship even when she had passed away. Sean was encouraging Will to open up more to Skylar because it’s no use going through life without showing somebody you love your true self or face, which you likely hide from other people.

Will has friends, has his Mathematician mentor, Jerry, and his psychologist turned confidant, Sean, but these are different faces he presents to all of them, and the one true face Sean is encouraging him to show is with his girlfriend, Skylar. While Will can drink, talk construction, and reminisce with his buddies, he can’t show him his whole personality or face. In addition, Will can solve complicated Math problems and challenge himself intellectually with Jerry, he can’t do that with his friends. While Sean is a friend to Will and they can talk about sports and relationships and life, Will has a hard time confiding in Sean about his past and what he wants from himself.

I think all of us can relate to a movie like Good Will Hunting and a Character like Will Hunting. We try to find those people or at least one person who we can share ourselves with and how to open up our ‘little weird worlds’ to them without being judged or criticized or made fun of. It’s why we show different faces to our loved ones and our friends than we would with our work colleagues or a stranger. It’s hard to open up but we must do our best to be vulnerable with those we trust and whose relationship matters to us most. We can go days, weeks, months, or even longer without connecting with someone on a deep level, which is why it becomes even more special when we can share our peculiarities, our oddities, or the ‘good stuff’ as Sean would call it with someone we truly love and care about.

Similar to the character of Will Hunting, each of us can be hardened by life and find it difficult especially as we age to be vulnerable, to let people in to see the real ‘you’ without holding back, and to be accepted for it. A lot of times, we may be pretending with our other faces to please our boss, to support a colleague, to crack jokes with a friend, and even help a stranger out. It’s good to have those faces in public but it’s who we are in private with someone we care about or love that is our true face.

Thinking of the expression, ‘to put on a good face’, we often must withhold part of who we are at school, at an office, or at the local restaurant or bar, to hold back from showing 100% of what makes ‘you’ you. It’s not easy as Will and Sean illustrate in scenes from ‘Good Will Hunting’ how to show your real face and real personality to someone fully, especially if you have been burned before in the past and been hurt physically or mentally as a result.

We strive to be perfect and to not make mistakes in our daily dealings with others in both professional and personal interactions. However, it can be easy to forget in our lives to not be afraid to let our true face or our true self shine through as we each have our own flaws and our own ‘peccadillos’ that we set us apart from one another. The key challenge or opportunity in life, depending on how you look at it, is finding someone that we can be truly open and vulnerable with without putting on a different face.

Being able to let your guard down, share yourself fully with another person without fear, doubt, or anxiety, that can lead to some of the deepest joy or happiness in life as Sean had explained to Will in the film. While we may not be able to fully express ourselves day in and day out to most people we meet or interact with, hopefully, we can find the right person to spend as much time with as possible and for whom we can be 100% of who we are and what we are deep down inside.

‘A Serious Man’ – Film Review and Analysis

“Above all else, it is a story of a ‘serious’ man who wants to be taken seriously and seems unable to be granted that not only from his teenage children but also from his estranged wife and it seems from religious leaders in his suburban Jewish community.”

Man can be tested again and again but how exactly he deals with life’s challenges and his overall resolve and mettle will be seen as the measure of his true character. If I had to sum up the excellent movie, ‘A Serious Man’, it is a dark comedy but also a human drama regarding fate, fortune, and whether the role of a higher being can ultimately affect our destiny. Above all else, it is a story of a ‘serious’ man who wants to be taken seriously and seems unable to be granted that not only from his teenage children but also from his estranged wife and it seems from religious leaders in his suburban Jewish community.

‘A Serious Man’ (2009) is an excellent modern-day film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, who I would imagine have had a similar childhood to the lead character of Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), which is the inspiration for this adapted screenplay, which is brilliantly written and relatable even if you’re not of the Jewish faith. The Coen Brothers both were raised and grew up as Jews in 1960s – 1970s Minnesota near the Twin Cities. It is likely they had to deal with being religious minorities in a mostly goyim (non-Jewish state) as well as with the growing counterculture and changing attitudes towards parental authority, sex, style, personal responsibility, and other societal upheavals including regarding race, gender, and politics.

While the Coen Brothers have had successful movies before and have won Academy Awards for movies such as ‘No Country for Old Men’, this film, ‘A Serious Man’ is quite unique given that it combines both comedic and dramatic elements, usually in the same scene. Overall, it triumphs as a film in doing that and is also laugh-out-loud funny and additionally heart-wrenchingly sad and melancholic. This film was universally praised and as I re-watched the film again after many years, it stands as one of the best films of the 2000s. Not only is the screenplay and writing engaging and insightful but also the acting is top notch thanks to the hard work of Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, among others in the film.

When you consider the main themes of ‘A Serious Man’, you think of several of them that deal with human nature such as upholding your morality under stress, taking care of those closest to you, dealing with adversity and unforeseen hurdles, and how to deal with questions of faith when you feel that you have been abandoned. As I mentioned earlier on, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to be taken seriously given the way he has lived his life and he has strived to do so with his academic and professional accomplishments. Sadly though, he is not only not able to get as much success with his professional pursuits, but he also struggles to hold his personal life together.

Despite how ‘serious’ of a man Larry thinks he is, those in his life can’t help but not take him seriously or choose not to. Instead of reassessing his actions and trying to make some behavioral changes or work on any personal defects he may has in addressing his challenges, Larry instead challenges his faith in God and wonders if the Rabbis of his synagogue will have the answers to the questions God has challenged Larry with.

As the film starts out, Larry appears to be relatively successful as a Physics professor waiting to be tenured. He teaches his classes, does research (albeit has not published anything), and enjoys the work he does. Larry is married with two teenage children and a modest house in the suburbs. Him and his family want for nothing, and it looks like he has everything you could want out of life on the surface.

As appearances can be deceiving, the film breaks down how one man’s life can be turned upside down and inferring what events beyond Larry’s control could have tipped his fortune to be negative, as in a curse, years or centuries ago. It is a series of events that tend to turn Larry’s life upside down even when he has not done anything wrong. A Korean student in his Physics class tries to bribe Larry to get a better grade and leaves before Larry can return the money and punish him for the illegal act.

Larry also comes home to his wife, Judith, who asks him for a divorce and for a ‘gett’ or permission to do so she can remarry within the faith to Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed) who everyone takes seriously as a ‘Serious Man’ except for Larry. Larry is envious of Sy to some degree and feels like he has everything given to him whereas Larry has had to work hard for his success. Suddenly, ‘the domino effect’ of one negative event after another happens including Larry losing his home, access to his bank accounts, his marriage, and even his relationship to his teenage children become estranged.

This string of unfortunate events has Larry looking to cast judgment on God and questioning his faith in Judaism. Larry goes to three different rabbis whose advice and counsel does not help him any further. He cannot relate to what they tell them especially as the eldest, he considers to be too unavailable or unwilling and the youngest rabbi being too inexperienced or immature, who end up wasting his time. The 2nd and wisest rabbi give him the advice through an allegory, that while fictional, has a good message to it ends up helping Larry the most that God can only provide the questions, but you must find your own answers. The best way the 2nd rabbi implies to Larry is that he must “help himself by helping others.”

Essentially, Larry Gopnik must look beyond his own pain and selfish wants and look to control what he can and do what he can to get his life back on track. Larry can also do ‘mitzvahs’ especially regarding his own family. Larry’s younger brother, Arthur, is homeless and not mentally sound so Larry tries to get him on his feet but struggles to find the money or the resources to help his brother with his many troubles. He still attempts to maintain better relations with his kids, his soon to be ex-wife, and with his work colleagues. Without spoiling the rest of the movie, Larry understands that he must look to help others rather than looking to God to intervene. While ‘The Boss’ is present to give questions, the answers must come from within.

How Larry stands up to challenges and adversity is like the Torah’s stories about men like Job and Jonah who had their lives thrown into upheaval but were able to get over the anguish by holding true to their faith in God but looking inwards in their own strength, knowledge, and belief in morality and good will to make it through on the other side better than before. Life throws challenges at us every day and how we react to them and try to get through it with our God-given wisdom, kindness, compassion, patience, and reasoning will decide how far we can proceed in life to get back to being successful. Fortune is not everlasting, and faith will not provide good fortune. What can provide good fortune is to do your best, help yourself and others around you, and look to your own inner beliefs and values to guide you through the tough times.

‘A Serious Man’ is about a man who considers himself to be serious but has to struggle for others to call him ‘serious.’ In an effort to be taken seriously, Larry does end up struggling to fulfill the other important parts of his life that require his attention. He can forget to be loving and caring to his wife, attentive and helpful to his children, and more involved within the Jewish community including at his son’s Hebrew school. Larry is not a bad man but the cracks in his life cause some bad events to happen including events for which there is no logical explanation. Larry does his best to be a good man and although he is flawed, bad things happen out of nowhere to him.

The test throughout this excellent film is how do you claw back from adversity and try to give yourself the best shot at having good things happen in your life. Even if your family may appear to be cursed or have a string of bad fortune dating back to the shtetls of Eastern Europe, how do you turn it around so your son or your daughter don’t deal with the same tragedies and setbacks? There are no easy answers in ‘A Serious Man’ but the Coen Brothers make it clear that it is not wise to look to God to solve the problems for you or provide the answers.

The central message of this film is not just for Jews but for all people. God may have provided life’s questions for you to answer but it’s up to you alone to answer them throughout your life. While you may lose faith in hose providing counsel or advice or in the religion itself, the film makes clear that you have to believe in yourself, to help yourself pull through the pain and sorrow, and to help other people, especially the family and friends closest to you, who are going through tough times as well, whose aid and assistance you can provide may be able to help you get to the right direction in life again and to lead you to a better place than you were before.

Anatomy of a Scene – ‘A Small Measure of Peace’

“To be at a certain place or with a certain person for the rest of your days and to be at ease with your decision, that contentedness is to have found the ‘small measure of peace’ that we can spend our entire lives trying to capture but only a few ever truly find.”

The Last Samurai (2003) – ‘A Small Measure of Peace’

There is a distinct moment in our lives when we realize that the fight is done, and the work is over. It is a pleasant realization that all you can do has been done and that you must take the rest of our days to welcome ‘a small measure of peace’ in one’s life, which is not easily found or embraced. To be at a certain place or with a certain person for the rest of your days and to be at ease with your decision, that contentedness is to have found the ‘small measure of peace’ that we can spend our entire lives trying to capture but only a few ever truly find.

It does not mean that the work is over but rather that the trials of our life have come to pass and that what we have fought for, bled for, or even cried for have now come to pass. While there may no final resting place until we depart from this Earth, finding a small patch of land to call your own, a garden or a farm for you to mend, and a woman (or a man) for whom you can love freely, that is the ‘small measure of peace’ to strive for obtaining, especially in one’s later years.

One man who was able to find his small measure of peace was Nathan Algren, who in ‘The Last Samurai’ can redeem himself, end his alcoholism, and fight with courage and honor in preserving the memory of the Samurai. While the Samurai age came to an end, Industrial Japan, and its Emperor, partly thanks to Nathan leading the Samurai into battle, to preserve their dignity and honor, were able to leave their mark on Japanese culture and history. While he may have been the last Samurai and a foreigner in Japan, he was able to rally them to a glorious end for which Imperial Japan would never forget.

“Tell me how he died.” “I will tell you…how he lived.” Even after losing his close confidant and friend in the final battle, the samurai Katsumoto, who took Nathan under his wing, told him the ways of the Samurai, and introduced him to the woman he came to love, Nathan wanted to preserve his memory to the young Emperor and to let the Imperial Japanese court know how special the age of the Samurai was and how it should not be forgotten.

“Nations, like Men, it is sometimes said…have their own destiny.” While nations choose to look forward to the future, they must also embrace the past to preserve their identity. What was once part of their culture may go away but it can leave an imprint and be remembered by generations to come. Japan’s destiny lies in looking to the future but always remembering the past, such as the age of the Samurai. Nathan Algren, the American who learned the ways of the Samurai, was able to throw off his own turbulent past as a Civil War captain by learning to fight with dignity and honor as a Samurai in a cause bigger than his own ego.

“As for the American Captain, no one knows what became of him…some say…he died of his wounds…others…that he returned to his own country…But I like to think…he may have, at last, found some small measure of peace…that we all seek…and few of us ever find.”

After trying to get himself killed or trying to deliberately drink himself to death, being able to survive as the last Samurai and tell of their traditions to keep the memory of Katsumoto alive, Nathan Algren was able to finally let go of the demons of his past and find the small measure of peace in a small Japanese village where he was first introduced to the only woman he truly loved. In her, Nathan finds a reason to stay alive, to make a life away from war and suffering, to be part of the woman’s village again, and perhaps start anew where he could be at peace with the past and have a pleasant future that is filled with love and peace.

As Nathan gathers his horse and rides down to Taka’s village, he is a man who is content, who is at peace, and who knows what exactly he must do for the rest of his living days. Taka and Nathan have a history together over the course of the film but by the ending scene, she is happy to see him alive and well again. Her beauty, grace, and femininity shine through as she gazes at Nathan, giving him a heartfelt smile, happy to see him in her presence again.

One look at each other says it all and they have been through so much in their time together that just to be making eye contact again is enough to fill up both of their hearts with joy. Like how Japan was willing to move forward to a new age while remembering the last Samurai, Nathan is also ready to be at peace with his past while looking to the future with Taka.

The Yearning for Nostalgia

“Whether it is an escape through our popular culture, a preference to revisit the past than to explore what may come in an unknown future, or to enjoy simply what we have been accustomed to, the power of nostalgia should not be underestimated.”

What is it about nostalgia that stirs such powerful emotions in us all? Why do we insist on revisiting, remaking, and reconstructing the past? This innate yearning that is part of being human, I would argue, is a part of gaining back some comfort and familiarity in an increasingly unfamiliar and complex world. Whether it is an escape through our popular culture, a preference to revisit the past than to explore what may come in an unknown future, or to enjoy simply what we have been accustomed to, the power of nostalgia should not be underestimated.

As the new year begins, looking at the popular culture, which reflects trends in our overall society, this yearning for nostalgia has only gotten more prominent in the recent years, especially with the continuing of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are multiple examples in pop culture where nostalgia is the rule rather than the exception. One example would include video games where remakes, sequels, and remastered games from the Halo series to Assassin’s Creed to Call of Duty are still the most popular even after being decades long in terms of their original creation.

Another example would be television shows where one of the most popular series released recently is ‘Cobra Kai’ whose origins come from the Karate Kid movies of the 1980s, but for which has had a rebirth with the same actors almost four decades later but also with new characters who compliment the original story. Other popular shows involve those from the ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Marvel’ series whose revitalizations include the bounty hunter Boba Fett (also from the 1980s as a character) and popularly known comic book heroes including ‘Loki’, ‘Captain America’, and ‘Hawkeye.’ While these comic book heroes may be new to some viewers, they also date back in their creation back to the 1990s or even earlier allowing their fans to indulge in their own nostalgia in seeing these comic book heroes come to the small screen.

I haven’t even mentioned the plethora of movies from ‘Licorice Pizza’ (1970s), ‘The Power of the Dog’ (1920s Western), ‘The Matrix: Resurrections’ (1990s-2000s), released just in the past few months who pay homage to the past from settings we are familiar with or at least recognize. While there are films and TV series that do focus on mankind’s possible future(s), such as ‘Station Eleven’ on HBOMax or ‘The Expanse’ on Amazon Prime, most popular media today focuses on either adapted stories or at least remakes of stories with slight changes or new ideas related to the same characters to keep its popularity going.

In 2022, nostalgia sells the best, which is why new Halo video games, new Spider-Man movies, and new Game of Thrones books still rule the day in terms of our popular media consumption. Now, that does not mean that our appetite for new and original ideas in our popular culture are going extinct, but you can tell that we live in an age of rampant nostalgia, which is the norm rather than taking a chance or a risk on a new story or new ideas.

I believe that this resurgent nostalgia does have its positives to give people some familiarity with what they already know from their own past and for which they have experience in liking already. In addition, it can take more time to warm up to a new story, a new idea, or a new experience when it’s easier to go with something or someone you already know. Stories can change or adapt or get better sometimes over times and just because we are familiar with a character, or a series does not mean that it automatically gets boring after a certain point.

However, it is much easier to rely on nostalgia rather than to forge a new path. In anything in life and not just popular culture, it’s not as challenging to look back on what we’ve done, where we’ve been, or what we’ve experienced than to go forward, challenge oneself, and try new things. The impulse to be comfortable with what’s familiar rather than the unknown is a powerful force and an impulse that can be hard to overcome without pushing yourself. Nostalgia does not create lasting comfort though usually and it can be rather stale to rely on reliving things, experiences, or places rather than to look forward to unknown occurrences in the future.

Sequels, remakes, reshoots, adapted materials are harder to make better than the originals and they also do not break any new ground. Whether it is film, music, art, books, or in general, it may be easier to rely on nostalgia for creation but if it does not work out, it can be harder to bounce back from that failure. If you do something original or unique instead, it will stand out much more currently, and while you may polarize people who have gotten so used to nostalgia everywhere, you can be more wildly successful in your endeavor potentially and create a new cultural touchstone.

One great example from this past year that generated not only a cultural touchstone, but a worldwide phenomenon from Seoul to London to New York was the Netflix original series, ‘Squid Game.’ While the popular show contained elements from other TV series from the past, it had its own flair to it with unique set design, memorable characters, and a compelling and timely plot. It was the #1 TV series on the global streaming platform for over a month or so and generated important conversations in the public sphere regarding capitalism, income inequality, and debt servicing. The creators of the series took a big gamble, and they could have failed but they put their heart and soul into this unique show, and it paid off in more ways than one.

‘Squid Game’ and other original programming are a lesson for us all to not let our imaginations be stymied by what’s familiar and already known. Even in an uncertain world being continually upended by a pandemic and the effects of climate change, people want to be challenged to discover what’s new and what’s important. There is room in this world for both what’s new and what’s nostalgic. I think our problems begin in society when we only crave what’s comfortable or only what’s nostalgic to us. If we only choose to focus on what we already know, we won’t be able to face what’s new or on the horizon for us. It is not good to dwell only on what’s past and to rehash forever and ever what we already like rather than not trying to discover what we may like or embrace in the future that can help us learn more about the world around us.

Anatomy of a Scene -‘The Life We Chose; The Life We Lead’

“One scene that conveys that ‘movie magic’ to me is a scene of verbal confrontation between Paul Newman and Tom Hanks in ‘Road to Perdition’ (2002).”

Movie magic is an illustrious concept to grasp but it often happens when you have those special moments to show off the full acting prowess by men or women at the top of their game. Moments like these are increasingly hard to come by when most movies today focus on non-stop action, horror, or thrills without taking the time to stop and let actors perform their best to act like real people in real situations. One scene that conveys that ‘movie magic’ to me is a scene of verbal confrontation between Paul Newman and Tom Hanks in ‘Road to Perdition’ (2002).

In another article, I wrote about my thoughts on this beloved movie of mine now almost twenty years of age but still ripe for a rewatch for me whenever the weather gets colder, and the sun goes down earlier. ‘Road to Perdition’ is a serious film with serious actors. This particular scene titled, ‘The Life We Chose, The Life We Lead’ lets these two juggernauts of Hollywood use their acting skillset to the fullest without any action distractions or cheap thrills.

Director Sam Mendes and the late and great Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall are able to use the muted lighting, the wide lens camera to help focus all of the audience’s attention on Hanks’ and Newman’ characters at a pivotal scene in the film. A good movie lets the attention focus in on the actors and heightens the importance of the dialogue so that nothing is missed, and every word, facial expression, and bodily movement means something to the plot. I fully appreciate this scene because it strips down the movie to its bare bones and puts its faith in the leading actors who make it a great film to begin with. When you are surrounded by great talent, you don’t obscure their abilities but rather let them shine in their roles for all viewers to enjoy.

Without spoiling too much ahead for readers who have not seen the movie, this ‘Road to Perdition’ scene focuses on the evolving conflict between Irish American Mob boss John Rooney (played by Paul Newman) and his loyal enforcer turned outcast named Michael Sullivan (played by Tom Hanks). They are at odds over the murder of his wife, Annie, and his youngest son, Peter, early in the film by John’s only son, Connor, who is now on the run from Michael but whom is being protected by John and his mob associates throughout the Midwest U.S. Both John and Michael find themselves protecting their own sons from each other while mourning the loss of their own special ‘father-son’-like relationship.

The old English idiom of ‘blood being thicker than water’ looms heavily in this dark scene as both men must sacrifice their friendship, their employer-employee relationship, and perhaps their own kin for these acts of bloodshed to stop. In this movie, the Road to Perdition or ‘hell’ is paved with the bloody sins that each man has committed to save the innocence of those they still love.

‘Road to Perdition’ – Confrontation (Scene)

The metaphors of the scene itself especially at the beginning speak for themselves. John and Michael meet secretly in the catacombs of a Church basement where their talk of murder and betrayal is almost drowned out by the church choir practicing above them as they try to avoid more bloodshed. Similar to angels singing from heaven, the men are in ‘hell’ as they confess to each other how as ‘murderers’, they’ll never see ‘heaven’ like the dark catacombs they find themselves meeting in away from the light of the church or of the day.

In a last-ditch attempt to save John from certain death at Michael’s hand, Michael Sullivan tries to convince John that his own son is betraying him. Michael alleges that Connor is stealing from John and has been opening bank accounts while taking money from the men that Michael has killed on Connor and John’s orders. As an enforcer for the Irish mafia, Michael thought he was helping John keep control over his mob empire, but he instead was lining Connor’s pockets with blood money.

Amazingly, John is aware of all this even before Michael gives him the account statements from all the money Connor has been compiling over the years. With remorse and regret in his eyes, John Rooney admits to Michael that he tried to protect Michael from the fact that he was working for Connor and not himself but that he still loved him ‘like’ a son. The key word in their discussion is ‘like’ because Michael is not John’s son, but Connor is. Both men must do what’s in their son’s best interests even though they don’t always see eye to eye with their own sons.

John gave Michael and his wife Annie a home, consistent income, and the ability to live a middle-class American life and in return, Michael killed on John’s behalf and tried to protect his family from the gritty truth of being an enforcer. Michael lost Annie and Peter because of his murderous past but it is not too late at this point in the movie for his only remaining son, Michael Jr. Connor knows Michael Jr. is aware of the murders of his mom and brother along with Finn McGovern, a man who Connor was stealing from so Connor wants Michael Jr. dead. Michael Sr. and his son are on the run from Connor, but they know that once John Rooney is dead, the rest of the mob will give up Connor leaving Michael Sr. in a devastating position of playing ‘cat and mouse’ with his former boss.

Michael Sr. tries to reason with John to give up Connor to spare John’s life. John won’t allow Michael to kill Connor as revenge while he’s alive even though Connor murdered Annie and Peter previously. John can’t let Michael Sr. keep using his losses as a justify for another murder, which would be his son, Connor. “There are only murderers in this room. Michael! Open your eyes! This is the life we chose, the life we lead…and there is only one guarantee: None of us will see heaven!”

“Michael (Jr.) could.”, Michael Sr. hopefully responds. With his mob ties gone, his family torn apart, and his livelihood evaporated, Michael Sr. has one mission left in life and that is to protect his son’s innocence. Michael Jr. is a good teenage boy shielded from his father’s history of violence. To make Michael Sr.’s life worth living, it is worth protecting his son from Connor, his father John, and the rest of the Chicago mafia. Even if it means Michael Sr. dying to protect his son, it would be worth it to Michael to protect his son’s innocence and prevent him from becoming a murderer. At this point in the film, Michael Sr. knows just what to do and that involves killing John, who will keep hunting the two of them to protect Connor, his son.

To have Michael Jr. see heaven, to not go down the same path as his father, to live a full, happy life away from the violence and bloodshed he has already bore witness to, it is up to Michael Sr. to do what he must to protect his son from John’s son. The choir stops singing at the end of the scene signaling that Michael Sr. must decide about what to do once and for all about John.

            “And if I go?”, Michael Sr. asks of John if he lets Connor and John live.

            “Then I will mourn the son I lost…”, John tells him and walks away, with tears glistening in his eyes.

Michael Sr. finds himself with an impossible decision that his life of murder has led him to. Either he lets John, his boss, go free and let Connor escape as well, or he must stay and kill John for not giving up Connor to him. Either John will mourn ‘the son he lost’ meaning Michael Sr. or Michael Sr. will end up mourning the death of John, the ‘father he loved’ even though they are not related by blood.

Throughout this pivotal scene in the film, you can see the many years of friendship, love, and trust that each man shared with one another. Despite them leading a notorious life of crime and violence, they know they have done wrong and will eventually pay for it in this life or the next. The cinematography even indicates from this scene that they may end up perhaps in a ‘hell’ like in the catacombs of a dungeon that they find themselves in now with no exit in sight and away from the singing angels above them in heaven.

However, Michael Sr. knows his son must not lead the same life of misfortunate, pain, and regret that he has. While Connor, John’s son, is now a murderer like John is, Michael Sr. resolves to sacrifice his own innocence to protect that of his own son before it’s too late. In the process, he must continue to avenge the deaths of his wife and other son to protect the only precious thing he has left in this world. Even though he loves John like a ‘father’, he is the only man standing in the way of killing the man who murdered his family and preventing that same man from killing his only son left.

Both men walk away knowing that one of them is going to die after this meeting. The question remains: which man will it be and who is willing to sacrifice himself first to save their own son in the process? This scene of ‘Road to Perdition’ is one of the best in the film because it allows two great men of acting stature do what they do best with just dialogue, emotion, and having amazing chemistry between them even in a fictional world. It’s why I believe this scene and this movie is one of the great films of the 21st century and to which I will keep returning to watch in the future. When acting professors want to show a great scene of pure dialogue, I hope they choose to show their students this one because it will long live on in pure film lore and reverence.

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