“ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” (2016) Review

“ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” (2016) Review

When I had first learned of Disney and Lucasfilm’s plans to create a series of stand-alone films within the STAR WARS franchise, I felt a little taken aback. I had felt certain that the new owners of the franchise would stick to a series of films that served as one chapter in a long story. But following the release of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” and my slight disappointment over it, I was willing to accept anything new.

“ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” was announced as the first of a series of those stand-alone film. However, I found this ironic, considering that the plot for “ROGUE ONE” more or less served as a prequel to the first film in the franchise, 1977’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. The 2016 film’s plot centered around the Rebel Alliance’s discovery of the first Death Star and their efforts to steal the very plans that served as a plot incentive for “A NEW HOPE”. Upon contemplating the movie’s plot, it occurred to me that Disney/Lucasfilm could have re-titled the movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – ROGUE ONE” and change the title for all of the films that followed chronologically. Especially since “ROGUE ONE” seemed to have a major, major impact upon the narrative for “A NEW HOPE”.

Actually, “ROGUE ONE” begins with a prologue set thirteen years before the film’s main narrative. Research scientist Galen Erso and his family are discovered to be hiding out on the planet Lah’mu by Imperial weapons developer, Orson Krennic. The latter wants him to help complete the Death Star, which had began construction several years earlier. Although Galen instructs his wife Lyra and daughter Jyn to hide where they can be found by Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera, Lyra instructs Jyn to hide and tries to rescue her husband from Krennic. Unfortunately, Lyra is killed, Galen is escorted away by Krennic and a squad of death troopers and Jyn spends the next few years being raised by Gerrera.

Thirteen years pass when Imperial cargo pilot Bodhi Rook defects from the Empire in order to smuggle a holographic message from Galen to Gerrera, now residing on the desert moon Jedha (where the Empire is mining kyber crystals to power the Death Star). Rebel intelligence officer Captain Cassian Andor learns about Bodhi’s defection. He frees Jyn, now a minor criminal in her early twenties, from an Imperial labor camp at Wobani. He brings her before the Rebel Alliance leaders, who convince her to find Gerrera and rescue Galen so the Alliance can learn more about the Death Star. While meeting Gerrera on Jedha; Jyn and Cassian become acquainted with Bodhi, who is Gerrera’s prisoner; a blind former Guardian of the Whills named Chirrut Îmw; and Chirrut’s best friend, a former Guardian of the Whills-turned-freelance assassin named Baze Malbus. While Jyn and the others escape the destruction of Jedha’s holy city by the Death Star and head for Galen’s location on Eadu, they are unaware that Cassian has been covertly ordered by Alliance General Draven to kill Galen after confirming the existence of the Death Star.

I noticed that the media tend to describe the plot for “ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” as a mission for a group of rebels to steal the Death Star plans. And yet . . . after watching the film, I noticed that “theft of the Death Star plans” story line did not really kick in until the last thirty-to-forty minutes. Most of the film seemed to be centered on the Rebel Alliance confirming the existence of the Death Star. By shifting the actual attempt to steal the Death Star plans to the movie’s last act, Gareth Edwards and the film’s producers may have undermined the actual narrative surrounding the mission. It seemed . . . well, it reminded me of Luke Skywalker’s plans to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt in 1983’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI” – confusing, a bit lame and out of left field. It also struck me as a bit rushed. I also found the major battle over Scarif during the heist of the Death Star plans a bit too much. I thought it was unnecessary to include it in the movie. Since the opening crawler for “A NEW HOPE” had made it clear that the Rebel Alliance had won its first major battle against the Galactic Empire, while the plans were being stolen, I can blame George Lucas instead of Gareth Edwards. So now, the movie is a . . . what? I do not know. Perhaps I had been expecting a Star Wars version of a heist film. Or an espionage film that did not a major battle. Instead, I found myself watching a movie that seemed to have more than one kind of narrative.

I had a few other problems with “ROGUE ONE”. Once the movie had moved past the prologue regarding Jyn Erso’s childhood, the narrative rushed. At breakneck speed. It rushed from Cassian Andor’s meeting with an informative on a planet whose name I do not remember, to his rescue of Jyn Erso from an Imperial prison transport, to Bodhi Rook’s disastrous meeting with Saw Gerrera and finally to Jyn’s meeting with the Rebel Alliance leaders on Yavin. Once Jyn, Cassian and the latter’s companion – a reprogrammed Imperial droid called K-2SO arrive on Jedha; the movie slows down to a tolerable pace. I also had a problem with the movie’s prologue – especially the circumstances surrounding Lyra Erso’s death. I am still wondering why she had believed she could save her husband from Orson Krennic and a squad of death troopers with a blaster. Was she really that stupid? Or did the screenwriters simply found a lazy and contrived way to kill her off?

“ROGUE ONE” also featured the appearances of a few characters for fan service. C-3P0 and R2-D2 were briefly shown at the Rebel Alliance base on Yavin before they were supposed to be aboard the Tantive IV. Their appearance struck me as unnecessary and forced. Speaking of the Tantive IV, what kind of transport did Bail Organa used to return to Alderaan? Especially since the corvette was his personal transport and his adoptive daughter, Leia Organa would end up using the ship for her mission, later on. I was very surprised to see Cornelius Evazan and Ponda Baba, the thuggish pair who had harassed Luke Skywalker in “A NEW HOPE”. This pair had bumped into Jyn and Cassian on the streets of Jedha City. Considering that an hour or two later, the Holy City was destroyed by the Death Star, I found myself wondering how they had avoided death in order to reach Tattoine in time to encounter Luke and Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in “A NEW HOPE”. I eventually learned that the pair had left Jedha just before the city’s destruction. Okay . . . but why include them in this movie in the first place? It was unnecessary. And their presence in the movie nearly created a blooper within the saga.

“ROGUE ONE” also featured the return of the Death Star commander, Grand Moff Tarkin and a young Leia Organa. Since Peter Cushing, who had portrayed Tarkin in the 1977 film had been dead for over two decades; and Carrie Fisher was at least 58 to 59 years old when the movie was shot; Lucasfilm had decided to use CGI for their faces. Frankly, it did not work for me. I feel that Lucasfilm could have simply used actor Guy Henry to portray Tarkin without pasting Cushing’s CGI generated image on his face. They could have done the same for actress Ingvild Deila, who briefly portrayed Leia with Fisher’s image. Honestly, the CGI images of the two characters reminded me of a video game. A relative of mine had pointed out that both had a “dead in the eyes” look about them.

And yet . . . despite these quibbles, I still managed to enjoy “ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” very much. I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than I did Disney’s other entry for the franchise, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The movie’s narrative seemed very original in compare to the 2015 movie. Of all the STAR WARS movies I have seen, it seemed more like an espionage flick than any other in the franchise. And like the Prequel Trilogy, “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and the last act of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”; “ROGUE ONE” seemed willing to explore the ambiguity of its characters and its plotlines.

This especially seemed to be the case for characters like the ruthless Rebel Alliance General Davits Draven, Alliance leader Mon Mothma, the extremist Rebel freedom fighter Saw Guerra and one of the main characters – mercenary Baze Malbus. Forest Whitaker had been cast to portray former Clone Wars veteran and Rebel freedom fighter, Saw Guerra; who had served as Jyn Erso’s guardian following her mother’s death and father’s capture. I noticed that Whitaker, who seemed to have a talent for accents, had utilized a slight West African one to portray Guerra. However, I was more impressed by Whitaker’s portrayal of the imposing Guerra as a slightly withered soul, whose years of political extremism and violence had left him physically disabled and paranoid. I really enjoyed one scene in which Whitaker conveyed Guerra’s fear that his former protegee, Jyn, had sought him out to kill him. Alistair Petrie did an excellent job in combining both the commanding presence of General Draven and his ruthless ambiguity. After all, this was the man whose sole reason behind the search for Galen Erso was to have the latter killed. Genevieve O’Reilly had portrayed the younger Mon Mothma in 2005’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH”, but her scenes had been cut. Eleven years later, she returned to portray the same character. Only in this film, O’Reilly’s former Senator Mothma who is nearly rendered speechless by Jyn’s revelation about the Death Star. O’Reilly did a first-rate job in portraying a Mon Mothma never seen before. Yes, she behaved like a leader. However, O’Reilly got the chance to convey some of Mon Mothma’s uncertainty about the Alliance dealing with the Death Star. I realize that some of you might find it odd that I would list Baze Malbus as one of the movie’s more ambiguous characters. He really did nothing in the movie to hint his ambiguous nature, considering that he spent most of his time coming to the aid of his friend, Chirrut Îmwe or their companions. But I noticed how actor Jiang Wen skillfully conveyed Baze’s cynical personality and reluctance to play hero and get dragged into the rebellion against the Empire.

If there were two characters that truly reflected the movie’s moral ambiguity – namely the two main protagonists, Jyn Erso and Captain Cassian Andor. Since the age of eight or nine (I think), Jyn has endured a lot by the age of twenty-two – the loss of her parents via death and capture, being raised as a Rebel fighter by an extremist like Saw Guerra and eventually abandoned at age sixteen, and life as a petty criminal (which included the occasional prison incarceration). It is not surprising that by the time the Rebel Alliance had recruited her, Jyn had become a cynical, wary and slightly ruthless young woman. And Felicity Jones did one hell of a job in bringing her to life. This is not surprising. Jyn Erso was such a complicated character and Jones was talented enough to convey this aspect of her. Cassian Andor, an intelligence officer for the Rebel Alliance, had experienced a hard life since the age of six. His homeworld of Fest had joined the Separatists during the Clone Wars. This means that Cassian has been fighting for twenty of his twenty-six years – first against the Galactic Republic and later against the Empire, after he had joined the Rebel Alliance. Cassian shared Jyn’s ruthlessness. In some ways, he is a lot more ruthless and pragmatic than her. And unlike Jyn, Cassian is a dedicated warrior, rebel . . . and loner. But unlike her, he was also a very dedicated warrior and rebel. It seemed very apparent to me that those years as a freedom fighter had not only transformed him into a loner, but almost into another Saw Guerra. And Diego Luna gave a brilliant performance as the ruthless and pragmatic Captain Andor. I have only seen Luna in two other roles, but his performance as Cassian Andor was a revelation to me. Perhaps I should check out some of his other work.

“ROGUE ONE” featured other interesting performances. Donnie Yen gave a very charismatic performance as the blind former Guardian of the Whills priest, who believes in the Force. I must also add that I thought that as a screen team, both he and Jiang Wen seemed to be the heart of the movie. Another interesting performance came from Alan Tudyk, who provided the voice for K-2SO, the former Imperial enforcer droid reprogrammed to serve Cassian and the Rebel Alliance. Jimmy Smits gave a charmingly brief performance as Alderaan’s senator and royal prince, Bail Organa – a role he had originated in the second and third Prequel movies. He and O’Reilly enjoyed a poignant moment on screen, as they discussed the possibility of requesting the help of none other than former Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. Riz Ahmed gave a very memorable performance as the very man who helped Galen Erso kick start the events of this film, former Imperial shuttle pilot turned diehard Rebel, Bodhi Rook. Whether being scared out of his wits by Saw Guerra or enthusiastically supporting Jyn’s scheme to steal the Death Star plans, Ahmed’s Rook seemed to be a bundle of raw energy. Speaking of the Erso family . . . Mads Mikkelsen gave a very poignant and sad performance as Galen Erso, a brilliant scientist who willing helped the Empire complete its construction of the Death Star following the death of his wife and his daughter’s disappearance. Before one can label Galen as another one of Mikkelsen’s villainous roles, he turns out to be an unusual hero who surreptitiously gives the Rebel an opportunity to destroy the weapons station . . . before he is betrayed by them. The movie’s main antagonist; Orson Krennic, the Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Military; was actually portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn. Krennic proved to be something different as far as STAR WARS villains go. Mendelsohn did a first-rate job in conveying Krennic’s murderous tendencies and raging ambition. At the same time, he did a great job in allowing Krennic’s inferiority complex to crawl out of the woodwork . . . especially when in the presence of the domineering Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin or the very intimidating Anakin Skywalker aka Darth Vader.

Many have claimed that “ROGUE ONE” is either the darkest or ambiguous film in the STAR WARS franchise. I do agree that the movie is ambiguous. Most of the main characters were not portrayed as dashing heroes or idealistic heroines who made little or no mistakes. With the exception of a few like Bodhi Rook, Chirrut Îmwe, Bail Organa and Orson Krennic; the movie featured some very ambiguous characters . . . three of them being Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor and Saw Guerra. I was especially impressed by how screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy portrayed Jyn Erso. Instead of feisty heroine or someone who is ridiculous ideal, they had portrayed her as a young woman who had aged before her time, due to the hard knocks she had experienced. A few STAR WARS fans had complained that Jyn’s reason for going after the Death Star plans had not been motivated by some kind of patriotism or ideal. Someone even went so far as to criticize her for not being some leader or a person with “special” abilities. Personally, I am glad. With the exception of Rey, who proved to be a little too perfect for my tastes, I had no problems with the saga’s other lead women characters. I liked that Jyn could not give a rat’s ass about the Rebellion. I liked that she felt a great deal of anger toward the Rebellion Alliance for what happened to her father. And more importantly, I am glad that her decision to go after the Death Star plans was based upon a personal reason – to finish what her father had started.

But what I had found even more interesting were the screenwriters and Gareth Edwards’ willingness to shine an unflattering light on the Rebel Alliance. Looking back at the Original Trilogy’s portrayal of the Alliance, the latter came off as an organization governed by morally upstanding and brave people. Perhaps a little too shiny or a little too . . . “good”. Not so in “ROGUE ONE”. One example of their moral ambiguity was featured in a scene in which the Alliance political and military leaders expressed reluctance and fear to do something about the Death Star, let alone continuing with the rebellion. Despite my annoyance at the “town hall” style meeting, I must admit that I enjoyed watching the Rebel Alliance leaders express their flaws and fears. I was also fascinated by how the filmmakers – through the Cassian Andor, Saw Guerra and General Draven characters – reveal how low the Rebel Alliance would sink for its cause. This was especially apparent through Cassian’s murder of a Rebel informant and Guerra’s paranoia, which led to his torture of Rook Bodhi. However, General Draven’s orders for Cassian to assassinate Galen Erso, along with his second plan regarding the scientist really conveyed the ugliness of the Rebel Alliance. And I loved it.

But is “ROGUE ONE” the “darkest” or most ambiguous of the eight current films in the STAR WARS saga? Personally, I believe that honor still belongs to the 2005 film, “REVENGE OF THE SITH”. Yes, “ROGUE ONE” was willing to convey the more unpleasant sides of its main characters. Then again, I could say the same about the Original and Prequel Trilogies. Especially the latter. And yes, “ROGUE ONE” was willing to reveal the uglier sides of the Rebel Alliance. Although I cannot say the same about the Original Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy seemed very ambiguous in its portrayal of both the Galactic Republic and the Jedi Order. But I cannot regard “ROGUE ONE” as the saga’s most ambiguous film. Despite the mistakes and crimes committed by many of the film’s protagonists, the theft of the Death Star plans and the Battle of Scarif pretty much provided redemption not only to the movie’s protagonists, but also the Rebel Alliance. One cannot say the same for the protagonists from the Prequel Trilogy. Nearly all of them, along with the Galactic Republic and the Jedi Order, suffered the consequences of their mistakes and crimes . . . for years to come. There was no last minute redemption for the by the end of “REVENGE OF THE SITH”. Perhaps that is an ending that certain moviegoers could not swallow, especially in a STAR WARS movie.

I have no memories of Michael Giacchino’s score for “ROGUE ONE”. None whatsoever. David Crossman and Glyn Dillon’s costume designs earned them a Saturn Award nomination. Personally, I did not see what the big deal was about. I will give Crossman and Dillon credit for creating the right costumes for the movie’s characters and setting. Otherwise, they almost strike me as a rehash of John Gallo and Aggie Guerard Rodgers’ work in the Original Trilogy. I felt somewhat impressed by Doug Chiang’s production designs – especially for the Jedha City and Scarif sequences. His work was enhanced by Greig Fraser’s photography. Speaking of the latter, I noticed that Fraser’s photography of the Jedha City streets brought back memories of Gilbert Taylor’s photography of the Mos Eisley streets in “A NEW HOPE”. Both settings seemed to possess a similar lighting and atmosphere as shown in the two images below:

The Maldives served as a stand-in for the planet of Scarif, location of the Death Star plans and the movie’s major battle. Between Chiang’s production designs and Fraser’s photography, part of that sequence brought back memories of various World War II movies set in the Pacific Theater:

In the end, I rather enjoyed “ROGUE ONE”. There are some aspects of it that struck me as very original – especially in its characterization and its portrayal of the Rebel Alliance. Yet, at the same time, its plot and setting made it clear to me that the Disney Studios and Lucasfilm are still chained to some kind of nostalgia for the Original Trilogy – a nostalgia from which I feel they need to break free. And although I feel that the movie possess some flaws in its narrative, I still believe that it proved to be first-rate in the end.

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“TRUMBO” (2015) Review

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“TRUMBO” (2015) Review

I tried to think of a number of movies about the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and the Hollywood Blacklist I have seen. And to be honest, I can only think of two of which I have never finished and two of which I did. One of those movies I did finish was the 2015 biopic about Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo.

Based upon Bruce Alexander Cook’s 1977 biography, the movie covered fourteen years of the screenwriter’s life – from being subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 to 1960, when he was able to openly write movies and receive screen credit after nine to ten years of being blacklisted by the Motion Picture Alliance for the Protection of American Ideals. Due to this time period, it was up to production designer Mark Rickler to visually convey fourteen years in Southern California – from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. I must say that he, along with cinematographer Jim Denault and art directors Lisa Marinaccio and Jesse Rosenthal did an excellent job by taking advantage of the New Orleans locations. That is correct. Certain areas around New Orleans, Louisiana stood for mid-century Los Angeles, California. But the movie also utilized a few locations in Southern California; including a residential house in northeastern Los Angeles, and the famous Roosevelt Hotel in the heart of Hollywood. And thanks to Denault’s cinematography, Rickler’s production designs not only made director Jay Roach’s “Southern California” look colorful, but nearly realistic. But one of my minor joys of “TRUMBO” came from the costume designs. Not only do I admire how designer Daniel Orlandi re-created mid-20th century fashion for the film industry figures in Southern California, as shown in the images below:

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I was especially impressed by Orlandi’s re-creation of . . . you guessed it! Columnist Hedda Hopper‘s famous hats, as shown in the following images:

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I have read two reviews for “TRUMBO”. Both reviewers seemed to like the movie, yet both were not completely impressed by it. I probably liked it a lot more than the two. “TRUMBO” proved to be the second movie I actually paid attention to about the Blacklist. I think it has to do with the movie’s presentation. “TRUMBO” seemed to be divided into three acts. The first act introduced the characters and Trumbo’s problems with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, leading to his being imprisoned for eleven months on charges of contempt of Congress, for his refusal to answer questions from HUAC. The second act focused on those years in which Trumbo struggled to remain employed as a writer for the low-budget King Brothers Productions, despite being blacklisted by the major studios. And the last act focused upon Trumbo’s emergence from the long shadow of the blacklist, thanks to his work on “SPARTACUS” and “EXODUS”.

I have only one real complaint about “TRUMBO”. Someone once complained that the movie came off as uneven. And I must admit that the reviewer might have a point. I noticed that the film’s first act seemed to have a light tone – despite Trumbo’s clashes with Hollywood conservatives and HUAC. Even those eleven months he had spent in prison seemed to have an unusual light tone, despite the situation. But once the movie shifted toward Trumbo’s struggles trying to stay employed, despite the blacklist, the movie’s tone became somewhat bleaker. This was especially apparent in those scenes that featured the screenwriter’s clashes with his family over his self-absorbed and strident behavior towards them and his dealings with fellow (and fictional) screenwriter Arlen Hird. But once actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger expressed interest in ignoring the Blacklist and hiring Trumbo for their respective movies, the movie shifted toward a lighter, almost sugarcoated tone again. Now, there is nothing wrong with a movie shifting from one tone to another in accordance to the script. My problem with these shifts is that they struck me as rather extreme and jarring. There were moments when I found myself wondering if I was watching a movie directed by two different men.

Another problem I had with “TRUMBO” centered around one particular scene that featured Hedda Hopper and MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer. In this scene, Hopper forces Mayer to fire any of his employees who are suspected Communists, including Trumbo. The columnist did this by bringing up Mayer’s Jewish ancestry and status as an immigrant from Eastern Europe. This scene struck me as a blatant copy of one featured in the 1999 HBO movie, “RKO 281”. In that movie, Hopper’s rival, Louella Parsons (portrayed by Brenda Blethyn) utilized the same method to coerce – you guess it – Mayer (portrayed by David Suchet) to convince other studio bosses to withhold their support of the 1941 movie, “CITIZEN KANE”. Perhaps the filmmakers for “TRUMBO” felt that no one would remember the HBO film. I did. Watching that scene made me wonder if I had just witnessed a case of plagiarism. And I felt rather disappointed.

Despite these jarring shifts in tone, I still ended up enjoying “TRUMBO” very much. Instead of making an attempt to cover Dalton Trumbo’s life from childhood to death, the movie focused upon a very important part in the screenwriter’s life – the period in which his career in Hollywood suffered a major decline, due to his political beliefs. And thanks to Jay Roach’s direction and John McNamara’s screenplay, the movie did so with a straightforward narrative. Some of the film’s critics had complained about its sympathetic portrayal of Trumbo, complaining that the movie had failed to touch upon Trumbo’s admiration of the Soviet Union. Personally, what would be the point of that? A lot of American Communists did the same, rather naively and stupidly in my opinion. But considering that this movie mainly focused upon Trumbo’s experiences as a blacklisted writer, what would have been the point? Trumbo was not professionally and politically condemned for regarding the Soviet Union as the epitome of Communism at work. He was blacklisted for failing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Also, the movie did not completely whitewash Trumbo. McNamara’s screenplay did not hesitate to condemn how Trumbo’s obsession with continuing his profession as a screenwriter had a negative impact upon his relationship with his family – especially his children. It also had a negative impact with his relationship with fellow screenwriter (the fictional) Arlen Hird, who wanted Trumbo to use his work for the King Brothers to express their liberal politics. Trumbo seemed more interested in staying employed and eventually ending the Blacklist. I came away with the feeling that the movie was criticizing the screenwriter for being more interested in regaining his successful Hollywood career than in maintaining his politics.

“TRUMBO” also scared me. The movie scared me in a way that the 2010 movie, “THE CONSPIRATOR” did. It reminded me that I may disagree with the political or social beliefs of another individual; society’s power over individuals – whether that society came in the form of a government (national, state or local) or any kind of corporation or business industry – can be a frightening thing to behold. It can be not only frightening, but also corruptive. Watching the U.S. government ignore the constitutional rights of this country’s citizens (including Trumbo) via the House Committee on Un-American Activities scared the hell out of me. Watching HUAC coerce and frighten actor Edward G. Robinson into exposing people that he knew as Communists scared me. What frightened me the most is that it can happen again. Especially when I consider how increasingly rigid the world’s political climate has become.

I cannot talk about “TRUMBO” without focusing on the performances. Bryan Cranston earned a slew of acting nominations for his portrayal of Dalton Trumbo. I have heard that the screenwriter was known for being a very colorful personality. What is great about Cranston’s performance is that he captured this trait of Trumbo’s without resorting to hammy acting. Actually, I could say the same about the rest of the cast. Helen Mirren portrayed the movie’s villain, Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper with a charm and charisma that I personally found both subtle and very scary. Diane Lane gave a subtle and very convincing performance as Trumbo’s wife Cleo, who not only stood by her husband throughout his travails, but also proved to be strong-willed when his self-absorption threatened to upset the family dynamics. Louis C.K., the comic actor gave a poignant and emotional performance as the fictional and tragic screenwriter, Arden Hird.

Other memorable performances caught my attention as well. Elle Fanning did an excellent job portraying Trumbo’s politically passionate daughter, who grew to occasionally resent her father’s pre-occupation with maintaining his career. Michael Stuhlbarg did a superb job in conveying the political and emotional trap that legendary actor Edward G. Robinson found himself, thanks to HUAC. Both John Goodman and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gave colorful and entertaining performances as studio head Frank King and Trumbo’s fellow convict Virgil Brooks, respectively. Stephen Root was equally effective as the cautious and occasionally paranoid studio boss, Hymie King. Roger Bart gave an excellent performance as fictional Hollywood producer Buddy Ross, a venal personality who seemed to lack Robinson’s sense of guilt for turning his back on the blacklisted Trumbo and other writers. David James Elliot gave a very interesting performance as Hollywood icon John Wayne, conveying the actor’s fervent anti-Communist beliefs and willingness to protect Robinson from Hedda Hopper’s continuing hostility toward the latter. And in their different ways, both Dean O’Gorman and Christian Berkel gave very entertaining performances as the two men interested in employing Trumbo by the end of the 1950s – Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger.

I noticed that “TRUMBO” managed to garner only acting nominations for the 2015-2016 award season. Considering that the Academy Award tends to nominate at least 10 movies for Best Picture, I found it odd that the organization was willing to nominate the likes of “THE MARTIAN” (an unoriginal, yet entertaining feel-good movie) and “MAD MAX: FURY ROAD” (for which I honestly do not have a high regard) in that category. “TRUMBO” was not perfect. But I do not see why it was ignored for the Best Picture category, if movies like “THE MARTIAN” can be nominated. I think director Jay Roach, screenwriter John McNamara and a cast led by the always talented Bryan Cranston did an excellent job in conveying a poisonous period in both the histories of Hollywood and this country.

“INTO THE WEST” (2005) – Jacob Wheeler and the Awareness of Self

 

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“INTO THE WEST” (2005) – Jacob Wheeler and the Awareness of Self

Many people would usually consider the topic of Self Awareness when discussing New Age religions or Eastern mysticism. Characters from a TV Western miniseries seems like the last thing anyone would think of when discussing the meaning of Self. Yet, a major character led me to consider this very topic, while re-watching Steven Spielberg’s 2005 miniseries about two families – Lakota and western Virginia – called “INTO THE WEST”

“Self” has been described as the essential self or the core of an individual. A person who has learned to live one’s life with a strong sense of Self is considered as someone who has achieved or come close to a level of self-actualization – namely, achieving personal growth through accepting the true core of oneself. If there is one character in “INTO THE WEST” who seemed to personify self-actualization, it was Thunder Heart Woman (Tonazin Carmelo and later Sheila Tousey), the Lakota woman who had married into the Wheeler family. I am not saying that Thunder Heart Woman was a person with no insecurities, personal demons or anything of the sort. But of all the major characters, she seemed to be more in tune of what and more importantly, who she was.

In the miniseries’ second episode titled, “Manifest Destiny”, Thunder Heart Woman had seemed impervious to her white in-laws’ attitude toward her, during her immediate family’s short stay with her in-laws in Virginia. Even when faced with the disapproval of a German minister and fellow wagon immigrant called Preacher Hobbes (Derek de Lint), she remained impervious to his bigotry. At least according to her husband’s narrative. But this essay is not about Thunder Heart Woman. It is about one of the men in her life – the one love in her life, who managed to catch my attention. Namely one Jacob Wheeler (Matthew Settle and later John Terry).

The third of four brothers from a Virginia wheelwright family, Jacob Wheeler seemed very similar to his Lakota wife – the type of person that seemed to know his own mind. The miniseries’ first episode, ”Wheel to the Stars” revealed that Jacob’s Virginia family seemed to view him as a non-conformist . . . or oddball. He, in turn, regarded his hometown of Wheelerton, Virginia; his family and its profession with mild contempt. In short, this young Virginian was a fish out of water in 1825 America and he knew it. This would explain Jacob’s longing to see the world beyond his hometown and the eastern United States. He did not hesitate to express his enthusiasm for the West. After meeting mountain man James Fletcher (Will Patton), he immediately set out to achieve his desire to leave Wheelerton.

Possessing a talent for persuasion, Jacob managed to convince two of his brothers – Nathan (Alan Tudyk) and Jethro (Skeet Ulrich) – into joining his trek to the West. Jethro turned back at the last minute and Nathan ended up accompanying him. After Jacob and Nathan parted ways in St. Louis, the former caught up with Fletcher and famed mountain man, Jedediah Smith (Josh Brolin) and convinced the latter to allow him to accompany Smith’s expedition to California. I could probably list a number of examples of Jacob’s talent for persuasion, along with his exuberant and non-conformist nature. What I had failed to mention was that he possessed a strong and stubborn will to achieve what he desired. A perfect example of this was his determination to return to California after he, Smith and their fellow mountain men had been kicked out of the province by Mexican authorities. Not only did Jacob manage to achieve this goal, he did so at a great price. And yet . . . one of the interesting aspects of the Jacob Wheeler character is that despite possessing a strong will and extroverted nature, he also had certain vulnerable characteristics and insecurities. Especially insecurities. In both ”Wheel to the Stars” and ”Manifest Destiny”, Jacob’s relationships with his Wheelerton family and Thunder Heart Woman revealed just how insecure he could be.

Jacob seemed to have a rather peculiar relationship with his Virginia family. Despite regarding them with contempt for their provincial attitudes, he had also allowed their attitudes to bring out his own insecurities. His grandfather Abraham (Ken Pogue), his father Enoch (Serge Houde) and his three brothers – Nathan, Ezra (Joshua Kalef) and Jethro – either derided or teased him about his lack of interest in the family’s wheelwright business. And all of them viewed Jacob as a daydreamer with no sense of family duty or any common sense. The Wheelers have never hesitated to express their low opinion of Jacob’s desire to experience life beyond Wheelerton. I cannot help but wonder if the Wheelers’ contempt toward Jacob’s non-conformist ways had bred a sense of insecurity within him. Or if this insecurity was one of the reasons behind his desire to escape Wheelerton for the west.

It is possible that I may have stumbled across one result from Jacob’s less-than-ideal relationship with his Virginia family. I do not know if anyone else had noticed, but it seemed to me that whenever any of the other Wheelers teased, ranted or expressed contempt toward Jacob or his views on the West, he rarely bothered to defend himself. Jacob did not defend himself whenever his brothers mocked him at the dinner table.; when Jethro made the ”tail tucked between your legs”comment, following Jacob’s return to Wheelerton in ”Manifest Destiny”; and when Enoch accused him of luring both Nathan and later, Jacob to the West. Instead of defending himself, Jacob merely remained silent in an effort to ignore the hurtful comments.

However, there have also been moments when he did defend himself. Jacob made a snarky comment about his grandfather Abraham’s penchant for rambling on about his past as Revolutionary War veteran and the family’s business. And the elderly man reacted in such a vitriolic manner that I found myself wondering if Jacob had ended up with a new hole in his backside. When Nathan raged against him for helping an escaped slave named Ben Franklin (Sean Blakemore) in Tennessee, Jacob insisted they had done the right thing considering that Ben had earlier released Nathan after holding him hostage with a knife. And when Nathan lost his temper over Jacob’s refusal to follow him to Texas, the younger brother merely insisted upon continuing his intention to join Jedidiah Smith’s expedition.

One could only wonder why Jacob had rarely bothered to defend himself against his family’s scorn. Did he share Thunder Heart Woman’s talent for imperviously ignoring the scorn and prejudices of others? I rather doubt it. Whereas Thunder Heart Woman had seemed unconcerned by others, Jacob’s face tends to express his pain or embarrassment caused by his family’s attitudes. I suspect that deep down, Jacob longed for not only his family’s respect, but their acceptance of his true self. But unlike many people, he was not willing to change his nature for the Wheelers or anyone else’s acceptance.

Why did Jacob decide to return to Wheelerton with his pregnant wife and daughter after eleven years in the West? In his narration, Jacob claimed that he wanted Thunder Heart Woman and his daughter Margaret Light Shines (Elizabeth Sage, later Irene Bedard) to meet his Virginia family. Perhaps he was telling the truth. Yet, a part of me found that hard to believe. The moment Jacob began to enjoy his Lakota in-laws’ hospitality, he felt certain that his own family extend the same kind of warmth to his wife. And yet . . . he had insisted upon returning to Virginia. Why? Had Jethro hinted the truth in his ”tail tuckered between his legs” comment – that Jacob encountered nothing but failure in the West and returned back to Virginia for a livelihood? Or was it something deeper? Perhaps a last chance for Jacob to seek final acceptance from his family? Who knows.

Whatever Jacob had sought in 1836 Virginia, he did not find it. His father Enoch revealed that the family’s wheelwright business had suffered a setback, due to the economic depression that struck the United States in the mid and late 1830s. And the Wheelers seemed no more closer in accepting Jacob for himself or his Western family. His cousin, Naomi Wheeler (Keri Russell) viewed Indians as non-human. His brother Ezra regarded Thunder Heart Woman as a mere ”squaw”. Naomi’s sister, Rachel (Jessica Capshaw), viewed young Margaret’s hand as a piece of dung. And Enoch seemed to act as if his new daughter-in-law and grandchildren did not exist. No wonder Jacob ended up complaining about the Wheelers’ treatment of his Lakota family.

Eventually, Jacob decided to take his wife and children and return to the West permanently – preferably Californa. It seemed the Wheelers’ continuing disregard toward them – along with news of his idol Jedediah Smith’s death – led to this decision. He almost seemed cold and distant toward his parents and Ezra. But he did not count on Jethro and his three female cousins’ decision to accompany him to California. Apparently, not all of the Wheelers viewed him as an oddball for his preference for the West. Jacob seemed heartened by Jethro’s decision to join him. And although Naomi, Rachel and Leah’s (Emily Holmes) decision to join the trek West took him by surprise, Jacob readily accepted their company. In the following narration, he came to this conclusion:

”I hope that I would prove equal to the responsibility I had undertaken.”

I found this comment rather odd. Jethro and the three cousins had been determined to follow Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman on the trek to California, regardless of anything he would have done or said. Even Jethro had later pointed this out.

The next three years (1837-1840) must have been the best Jacob had ever experienced with any of the Virginia Wheelers. The three cousins – Naomi, Rachel and Leah – finally began to view Thunder Heart Woman as a member of the family and cherished her and Jacob’s three children (Abraham had been born in Wheelerton in 1836 and Jacob Jr. was born in Missouri sometime in late 1840). Jacob’s close relationship with Jethro seemed like a far cry from the conflicts with Nathan that marred his trip to the west back in the 1820s. One would begin to think that Jacob no longer suffered from any insecurity by this point. And yet . . . they only remained buried inside him, waiting for the right moment to manifest.

In the end, it took the wagon train journey to California (dubbed ”the Wagon Train of Doom” by me) featured in ”Manifest Destiny” for Jacob’s insecurities to get the best of him. Upon their arrival in Independence, Missouri in the fall of 1840, the Wheeler family remained there during the winter before joining a California-bound wagon train led by one Stephen Hoxie (Beau Bridges) in the spring of 1841. Surprisingly, only Thunder Heart Woman seemed reluctant to leave Missouri. I suspect she had enough of being constantly on the move for the past several years. But the rest of the Wheelers, especially Jacob, seemed determined to head for California.

Once the Hoxie wagon company began their westward trek, everything seemed to be faring well. The weather seemed beautiful. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits – including the black family from Illinois named Jones that managed to join the wagon train without any opposition. Both Naomi and Rachel attracted the romantic attention of the train’s two scouts – ‘Skate’ Guthrie and James ‘Jim’ Ebbets (Ryan Robbins and Christopher Heyerdahl). This contentment finally ended when Thunder Heart Woman spotted wolves feeding off the corpse of a buffalo and when the train later crossed what I believe was the Big Blue River. The incident proved to be the first of two disagreements between the couple. Thunder Heart Woman viewed the wolves as a sign that the wagon train would come to a bad end. She insisted that the Wheeler family return to Missouri. Jacob dismissed her worries as superstition on her part. But the expression on his face clearly indicated his doubts on the wisdom of the trip.

Then the first disaster struck. One of the emigrants, a German-born minister named Preacher Hobbes (Derek de Lint), lost control of his wagon during the crossing. Distracted by the Hobbes family’s situation, Jethro nearly lost control of his wagon. Leah fell out of the wagon and drowned in the river’s fast flowing water. Although Hobbes received an angry response for his carelessness from Captain Hoxie, the Wheeler women’s anger seemed to be directed at Jacob for leading them to this western trek. The expression of guilt seemed very palpable on Jacob’s face, as Naomi demanded that he take the family back to Missouri. Leah’s death proved to be just the beginning.

The further west the wagon train traveled, more disasters followed. The emigrants were forced to deal with a severe thunderstorm and a cattle stampede that left the only son of a black emigrant named Absalom Jones (Neville Edwards) dead. Not long after the storm and the stampede, both Naomi and Rachel married two of the wagon train’s scouts, Skate and Jim. But that brief period of happiness failed to last when the wagon train attempted to travel through a pass. While traversing a pass, a wagon broke free, knocked Rachel down and ran over her leg, causing a severe compound fracture. The leg eventually became infected. Hobbes, the closest thing to a doctor available, tried to amputate Rachel’s leg; but his efforts turned out to be clumsy and Rachel died before he could finish. Although no family member angrily demanded that return to Missouri, the expression on Jacob’s face obviously conveyed his feelings of guilt.

The final blow to Jacob’s disastrous return to the west occurred when Mrs. Jones died from cholera. Since the Wheelers’ wagons had been traveling with the Jones’ wagon at the back of the train, they had been exposed to the disease. Hoxie and the scouts forced the Wheelers and the remaining members of the Jones family (Mr. Jones and Sally Jones) to remain behind under quarantine while the main body of the wagon train carries on. Only Naomi was able to continue with the train, since she had been with her new husband. Jethro became afflicted with symptoms of cholera but recovered. Both Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman drifted into a serious quarrel, when he suggested that she take their children and attempt to find her Lakota family. Needless to say, Thunder Heart Woman took the suggestion badly and reminded Jacob that he should have listened to her warnings about the journey.

No new outbreaks occurred after Jacob ordered that all drinking water be boiled. The Wheelers and the Jones rushed to catch up with the wagon train, but discovered that it had been attacked by Cheyenne warriors. All of the emigrants had been wiped out, aside from Naomi, who first became a captive and later, a wife of a Cheyenne chief Prairie Fire (Jay Tavare). The Wheelers and the Jones families were also attacked by Cheyenne warriors. They managed to repulse the attack, but Jacob ended up seriously wounded by an arrow in his chest. The surviving emigrants tried to move on with a wounded Jacob, but the juts and bumps of the trail made it impossible for him to endure the pain. Instead, he insisted that Thunder Heart Woman, Jethro, Mr. Jones and the children continue west to California without him, since he would only prevent them from crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains before winter. They left him behind with great reluctance.

The period that Jacob spent east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains allowed him to wallow in loneliness and grief over the separation from his family. But he remained determined to find them. And it took him another four to five years before he finally did. Becoming a member of John Charles Frémont’s California Volunteer Militia during the Mexican-American War allowed Jacob to scour the region for signs or news of his remaining family. Five years passed before he finally came upon the ranch that Jethro and Thunder Heart Woman had settled. Jacob also discovered that in the intervening years, his brother and wife had considered him dead, began a relationship and had a child – a little girl named Cornflower. Devastated by this turn of events, Jacob decided not to reveal himself to his family. At least not openly. Instead, he left the wooden medicine wheel necklace that Thunder Heart Woman had given him when they first met to his youngest child, Jacob High Cloud. Another five years passed before Jacob finally reconciled with his family, due to the efforts of his daughter, Margaret Light Shines.

Ever since I first saw ”INTO THE WEST” and especially the above mentioned scene from ”Manifest Destiny”, I have found myself wondering about Jacob’s actions. I understood why he decided not to intrude upon the family that Jethro and Thunder Heart Woman had formed upon their arrival in California. But why did he leave the medicine wheel necklace to young Jacob? Surely, he knew that his family would be aware that he was alive . . . and knew about their situation? Looking back on his action, it struck me as a very passive-aggressive on his part. He lacked the courage to face Jethro and Thunder Heart Woman. And yet, he seemed determined to thwart the happiness they had created . . . as if he was punishing them for continuing their lives without him. Or perhaps Jacob felt a great deal of envy toward Jethro because the latter turned out to be the one who successfully led the family to California, and not him.

Perhaps Jacob had always a passively-aggressive personality from the beginning. His relationship with his Virginia family struck me as being marked by a great deal of passive-aggressive behavior from the start. Jacob seemed determined to be his own man, whether in his enthusiasm for the West, his decision to leave Wheeler or join Jedediah Smith’s expedition over following his brother Nathan to Texas. And yet . . . he never defended himself in the face of their criticism. Instead, he resorted to resentful silence. Why did he constantly fail to defend himself? Was he merely trying to keep the peace? Or did some small part of him fear that his family may have been right about him? It seemed strange than many fans and critics of “INTO THE WEST” seemed to adore Jacob for his seemingly self-assurance and outgoing personality. At the same time, they derided Jethro for being an insecure loser in their eyes. I got the feeling that they were so busy either scorning Jethro or adulating Jacob that they failed to detect the latter’s personal insecurities and darker traits. And Jacob certainly had them by the bucketful.

Did Jacob ever overcome his insecurities? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I wonder if many are aware of this, but it usually takes an individual to overcome his or her faults during an entire lifetime. A good number of people never succeed in overcoming all of their faults. And since “INTO THE WEST” focused more on his and Thunder Heart Woman’s children in the last three episodes, audiences never discovered if he had overcome all of his faults and insecurities. Jacob certainly seemed more at peace in his old age than he did during his first forty years. Perhaps those years of solitude near the Sierra Mountains foothills helped him finally achieve some inner peace.