MOVIE REVIEW: “RICHARD JEWELL”

JEWELL

I will sometimes forgive a film’s R rating if the director forgoes all the CGI effects and simply tells a good story. Twice in a row now, Clint Eastwood has done that. (His recent drug-cartel adventure, The Mule, is another quietly effective movie.) Richard Jewell shares the aching story of an earnest doofus accused of the Centennial Olympic bombings during the ’96 Atlanta Games.

Richard is the classic live-with-Mom antihero, chunky fast-food aficionado who turns off concertgoers with his hubris and strident orders. He’s a wannabe cop security guard lurching from one part-time gig to another when, hey, the Summer Games come into town. You know the story: he’s instrumental in spotting the suspicious bag, and then quickly becomes the main suspect. There’s a sordid cinema moment when an FBI investigator leaks Jewell’s name to a news reporter who trades promiscuous favors for whispered police intel.

There’s standout acting by Kathy Bates (Jewell’s mom) and his lawyer, nicely played by Sam Rockwell, who was wonderful in the world’s greatest film, The Green Mile. This is a quiet story where we already know the ending, but it’s sweet satisfaction when Jewell is finally cleared. Also nice when the news lady has her own come-to-Jesus moment, carefully pacing the distance from the bomb site to the nearest pay phone and then muttering to herself in awe: “He didn’t do it!”

In terms of the film’s R rating, yes, there is a sprinkling of harsh language in this saga populated by cops and hard-boiled news people. But the profanity is muted and overcome by the uplifting arc of Eastwood’s storytelling.

Two nice takeaways are these. Very quickly in the story, you sit in your theater seat groaning over the general ineptness of this guy. The main character is needlessly prickly; he mouths off and immediately is cast in an unsympathetic light: the private security mall cop so enthralled and power-hungry by his plastic badge he pulls people over on the freeway and berates them. Living with Mommy and consuming four thousand calories a day, mostly in the form of milkshakes . . . and that’s strikes two and three. And so many of us just carry around this inner pomposity where we disdain those who don’t have it quite as together as we do. But by the end of this story, I find myself chastised because Richard Jewell, despite his flaws, saved a whole bunch of lives. He endured something a lot more harrowing than I ever have, and yeah, he deserves for his noble story to be told. By Clint Eastwood, no less.

The second lesson is this. Even when injustice threatens to win out, with the wrong guy going to jail, God still knows. Heaven doesn’t miss a single clue. And it’s so nice, as the final credits roll, to read that a criminal named Eric Rudolph was the guilty party. Life imprisonment without parole, while Richard Jewell finally got the real Georgia Deputy Sheriff badge he had craved for so long.

You gotta love it.

 

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BOOK REVIEW: JUSTICE ON TRIAL

KAVANAUGH

As a moderate Democrat, I read this book with mixed emotions. I will say up-front that the writing is really quite good, and the reporting impeccable. Other reviewers have noted that the authors’ conservative credentials have given them nearly unlimited access to a ton of sources, and that redounds to the benefit of the reader. It’s a herculean achievement and these two authors deserve a lot of credit for their work. It’s a good thing for all of us to understand and respect the process of nominating a Supreme Court justice, and I appreciate the education.

It’s also clear that these writers are fine people and citizens. They’re both devout Christian believers – as I am – and dedicated professionals and family women. All to the good.

Thirdly, it’s abundantly plain from their detailed reporting that Justice Kavanaugh has many sterling qualities. He’s kind, a hard-working man, a good father and husband, a believer. From the accounts of this book, he rises to the high court with a resolve to be fair, to not prejudge cases according to some Trump doctrine, and he says he respects the ideal of “stare decisis.” So that’s good. He shares a 93% similar voting record with Merrick Garland (don’t get me started), so that’s good too.

However, I will echo what some other reviewers are pointing out. There are definitely moments when the right-wing bias of the writers bleeds through the narrative. Republican senators are “just doing their job,” while Democrats are “hysterical,” “apocalyptic,” “shockingly vicious.” They breathlessly relate how Senator Kamela Harris unleashes a torrent of f-bombs while ignoring the reality that Republican senators are equally prone to use profanity. No one has been more rabid during the recent impeachment proceedings than Lindsey Graham, but in this book he’s portrayed as a model of sobriety and thoughtful reflection. As they report on CBF’s testimony, they allow that it’s likely some encounter actually did happen but that failing memory or other factors fuzzed the account. But by their final chapter, they predictably revert to the Republican talking points and label the same scenario as “scurrilous and unverified stories.”

The other blind spot, in my view, is how the authors decry how Kavanaugh was assailed by a mountain of unfounded rumors . . . and then proceed to fill several pages with exactly the same sort of loose attacks on Ford, based on nothing but hearsay and flamboyant guilt-by-association regarding Holton-Arms, the high school she attended.

Several senators shine through nicely in this story. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who essentially sacrificed his seat over his moral outrage over Donald Trump’s unfitness for office. Amy Klobuchar, who did a good job interviewing Kavanaugh and had to endure his one recorded lapse in judgment when he weirdly accused HER of having a drinking problem. And Susan Collins, who was genuinely conflicted about Kavanaugh and the preserving of Roe v. Wade and did a thorough job of due diligence before giving him her reluctant yes vote.

One more affirmation: the last 8% or so of this book is really, really good. It’s thoughtful, insightful, and analytical about what the Court needs. Just the last chapter alone makes this story an important contribution.

Here’s my third anxious observation, and I’ll point out that I finished reading this the same day I went to see “Bombshell,” the heartbreaking saga of how powerful men at Fox News sexually abused vulnerable women. One of these two writers works in that apparently sordid and corrupt place, so I’m confident she’s already taken this lesson to heart: SOMETIMES POWERFUL MEN ACTUALLY DO ASSAULT WOMEN  . . . and then determine to lie their way clear to the finish line. Deny deny deny come on let’s vote already. Cases in point: Donald Trump and Bill Clinton.

These writers are absolutely convinced that both Thomas and Kavanaugh were falsely accused. Perhaps so. Let’s hope so. But if shellshocked and battered women are telling the truth in 92% of all such cases, it’s more than troubling to wonder if there is perhaps a man sitting right now in that black robe who made a callous decision to prevaricate, while turning justice on its head by calling Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford the liars.

 

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FILM REVIEW: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

tom-hanks-fred-rogers-beautiful-day-696x442                There was no church choir. No baptismal font. No pulpit. But I just heard one of the very best sermons of my life.

For two poignant hours on Black Friday I sat in a Regal theater auditorium next to Lisa and watched Tom Hanks in a sweater talking gently to kids about life’s ups and downs and why things don’t always work like we want them to. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a plot built around a hard-boiled Esquire reporter, Lloyd Vogel. Now there’s a guy who needs a sermon preached at him. During a boozy diatribe, his alcoholic dad (a brilliant cameo by Chris Cooper) pops him in the nose and his face is purple with bruises. Now he’s being coerced into an unwanted puff-piece assignment. He has to do a 400-word quickie story about the legendary PBS milquetoast TV host, Mr. Rogers.

I honestly cannot find the words to describe how it all goes except to warn you that this quiet, no-explosions-no-sex-no-F-bombs movie will change your life if you allow it. Because Fred Rogers sits down with Vogel and is the exact same character as when the director hollers “Action!” Or when he slips his right hand into a puppet named Daniel Striped Tiger and gives his juvenile audience whimsical doses of encouragement. Every script in the Rogers neighborhood is really just two words long: BE KIND. And when he’s off-set, or riding on the subway with a bunch of hardened New Yorkers – who spot their childhood hero and begin singing the theme song – or when he leans closer to Vogel and says in a voice that reveals genuine sympathy, “Oh dear, what happened to your face?” you’re awestruck with this: This guy actually does mean it.

The pivotal moment happens early on. This cynical writer fully expect the Hanks character to walk off the set, drop his syrupy-sweet persona, and – I don’t know – light a cigarette and bark at his stage hands about where the hell’s my makeup lady or bring me a bagel. For sure, when he sits down with a hack writer from a New York magazine, he’s going to drop the façade and just be himself. Grumble about ratings and how sick he is of that effing red sweater.

But no. Mr. Rogers is Mr. Rogers. It’s not an act and not a script and not a carefully contrived image. He peers into every visitor’s face and says with genuine warmth: “How ARE you? What is wrong? I would love to take your picture and then keep it and remember your name and know who your wife is and your little baby boy.”

There are a couple of cinema moments where Lloyd Vogel almost loses it. “Come on! I’m here on assignment! Drop the act, Rogers, and gimme my 400 words so I can get back to Amtrak and my rotten New York life.” But there’s a slowly developing look of wonder and awe when he realizes: “Holy cow, all this is real. This Presbyterian minister-turned-God’s ambassador to the children of the world honestly believes kindness can redeem our busted planet.”

This story is a powerful paean to the necessity of forgiveness. And I was also struck with how Fred Rogers, who is on a relentless pace to produce these PBS shows for 33 years . . . still has time to visit Lloyd and his dad in the hospital and minister to them. To pause and take pictures with every new friend. There’s an amazing scene near the close where Mr. Rogers is kneeling by his bed and simply going through his prayer list. For this particular bedtime it’s just ten words long. “Please bless Lloyd. Please bless Andrea. Please bless Baby Gavin.” As I exited the theater, that moment of generosity took me back to a signature line penned by C.S. Lewis in his essay, “The New Men.” Gracious, stalwart people here and there dot this planet and, with lowered voices and the magnetic power of their love, heal our many wounds. Lewis writes: “They usually seem to have a lot of time. You will wonder where it comes from.”

This inspirational film may not impact your life at all and your reaction might be to roll your eyes. And if that happens, I won’t question your heart or your life experiences. All I can say is this: my eyes were rimmed with tears nearly the entire two hours.

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BOOK REVIEW: “I Will Always Write Back”

 

I-will-always-write-back

I WILL ALWAYS WRITE BACK

This amazing book relates the miracle of two high school kids whose pen pal relationship transforms both lives. Martin is a brilliant boy living in abject poverty in Zimbabwe; Caitlin is an admittedly pampered junior high girl in Pennsylvania suburbia. For the first half of the book, the contrast is stark. Martin works against insuperable odds to better himself while his lily-white counterpart in America goes to the mall, goofs off, and wastes her extravagant allowance.

But the thrill of this story is witnessing how Caitlin’s family develops a sympathetic heart for her bereft overseas friend, sending him $20 bills, then care packages, and finally a desperate attempt to get him into a prestigious U.S. university with a full scholarship.

Special kudos must go to Liz Welch, who took the collected stack of saved letters from these two young people, endlessly interviewed them, and then created this amazing saga of “Love Thy Neighbor.” And a big thanks to Scholastic for spotting this literary gem and putting it in their bargain catalog where millions of children might be inspired to go and do thou likewise.

 

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Red Hat Blue Hat

HATS

Christian #1: “Send her back!”

Christian #2: “You’re all bigots!”

I got a prickly surprise the other day. It leaked out here on Facebook that an admired friend of mine is a diehard and enthusiastic member of The Other Party. And I didn’t know. I really didn’t know.

Let me say, first of all, that she’s a sweet and precious Christian. Our email exchanges are cheering, heartfelt, and bathed in the gospel. Her passion for Jesus is palpable. She lends her talents to the cause of growing the Body of Christ.

And hey, she’s in The Other Party. In the 2016 election, it’s painfully obvious her vote cancelled out my own.

Thinking about this brought to my mind a classic line from C. S. Lewis’ wonderful book, Mere Christianity: THERE WILL BE SURPRISES.

In terms of my Facebook friend, she might not yet suspect that I’m the Enemy. But if she has, I can picture her muttering imprecations to herself, fingers trembling over her keyboard: “David? You? Say it isn’t so!” And I have a decent confidence she’d return what I hope are the above spiritual compliments. I know for a fact she appreciates the Christian stories I pen and the good they hopefully accomplish.

Okay, is this an amusing or terrifying sci-fi scenario? A large congregation senses some sort of divine “pulse” right during the morning prayer. When they get up from their knees, every believer is wearing either a blue or a red rally hat. We’re all outed! People are craning their necks and gaping. “You! No way! I believed in you! You spoke at prayer meeting!” I still recall how my daughter was comically aghast to learn one of her favorite aunts was really and truly one of “them.” She shook her head, confused. “Didn’t Uncle Danny INTERVIEW her?” How could such a fatal character flaw go undetected for so long? “There will be surprises.”

Here’s my takeaway for this week of unexpected realignments. There are wonderful, solid disciples of Jesus Christ in the Democratic and Republican parties. Millions of them. As you kneel for prayer this weekend, there might well be people on both sides of you, also on their bended knees, who passionately donated to and campaigned on behalf of and voted for That Other Person.

I’ll go one step further. Most everyone in that faraway D.C. club of 535 people – senators and representatives – are amazing, passionate, well-informed, articulate citizens. They all won tough political races against savvy, well-organized foes, something you and I have not accomplished. In the Venn diagram that is our current Congress, yes, they do split off into discrete D / R subsets . . . but they’re all still American patriots. Not one person walking those frescoed halls hates their country or wishes for its demise. And it’s grossly unfair when we imply that they do.

So the question comes. How do men and women grow up in the church, attain to voting age, read the literature and watch the presidential debates, and then split into two such vehemently warring and polarized camps? I can’t fully answer that question for others, but I can look back at my own 46 years of studying issues and formulating a core philosophy. My variables aren’t yours; nudges came at me that bypassed your neighborhood. I came of age during Watergate; your formative moments might be poles apart from that wrenching time. And as I think about my recently unmasked friend, me on one coast and she on the other, I have to bow respectfully in accepting that a different set of factors gave her a passion for a distinct set of national and cultural priorities.

I don’t fully understand it, but our shared friendship forces me to acknowledge that her Christian ardor isn’t diminished or compromised by the fact of how she marks her ballot.

Just to fill out my musings, here’s the Lewis paragraph:

“Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that we are really wore than those whom we regard as fiends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler? THAT IS WHY CHRISTIANS ARE TOLD NOT TO JUDGE. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man’s psychological make-up is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or the worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off of others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one of us as he really was. THERE WILL BE SURPRISES.”

None of us can comprehend the gut-wrenching 2:00 a.m. experience which might have tugged any one of us into, say, either the pro-life or pro-choice army. Or why one devout believer supports same-sex marriage while the Christian one pew over feels they cannot. I daresay if we could open up and share these testimonies and then hug each other while blurting out, “Okay, now at least I understand,” the surprises would begin to fade into the shared sunset of our national identity.

In the meantime, “Love one another. For love is of God.”

 

 

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Movie Review: “Yesterday”

YESTERDAY

 

You’d have to be a Beatles fan, but the new film “Yesterday” is a wonderful nostalgia-drenched ride. Its basic premise is that the entire world has blinked . . . and all of a sudden, only Jack Malik has any memory of songs by the Fab Four. So out of the blue, this inept songwriter is coming up with brilliant new tunes. There’s a stunning scene early on where Malik begins quietly singing McCartney’s hit, “Yesterday,” for three female friends of his who have never heard anything from him beyond June-croon-spoon. The look on their faces as those classic lyrics bathe them for the first time . . .

The film nicely grapples with the reality that he’s morphing himself into a global phenom by plagiarizing the creative brilliance of others. But the whole movie is really stolen by actress Lily James, who seems to be luminous in every role she picks. You’ll hardly recognize the same blond beauty from “Mamma Mia” or “Downton Abbey,” but this story of unrequited love between her and Malik is very touching.

The soundtrack is awesome, of course, and the film has tons of inside jokes, some of which I’m sure I missed. But if you’re a fan of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, don’t miss it. I enjoy ditching work and seeing a classic like this when I’m 64. See, like that.

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MercyMe Concert!

mercy me

I was re-baptized last Friday night, and no, I didn’t actually get wet. Lisa and I were fortunate enough to be at the Microsoft Theater in L.A. to hear MercyMe perform from their 25-year legacy of Christian hits. I know of no musical artists anywhere who convey in such pure and powerful form the totality of Calvary’s saving power.

This concert tour has it all: powerhouse music, the stadium light show, the passionate singing-along of a huge temporary “congregation” of 7,000 fans united in Jesus. What’s more, the band put all the lyrics up on massive screens – often in effective rapid-fire bursts that tattoo the gospel message in our minds. We sang “Because He Lives” and “Amazing Grace” as a cappella anthems, and those were amazing moments.

On the drive down I confided anxiously to Lisa: “When they sing ‘Flawless,’ I’m gonna lose it.” Sure enough. Less than 200 yards away at the adjacent Staples Center, the Lakers were beating the Clippers in a Friday night game, and that’s comparatively about as important as, well, nothing. But we were on our feet, tingling with Sabbath joy, as Bart Millard took us right to the gates of heaven with our favorite song:

Let me introduce you to amazing grace . . .

No matter the bumps

No matter the bruises

No matter the scars

Still the truth is

THE CROSS HAS MADE YOU FLAWLESS

No matter the hurt

Or how deep the wound is

No matter the pain

Still the truth is

THE CROSS HAS MADE YOU FLAWLESS

 

Okay, maybe I lied. I did get a little bit damp right about then.

 

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