THE COMPANY MEN, starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper

In 2008, the financial markets of the United States tripped, slipped, careened toward disaster. I distinctly remember saying, “Wow, I wonder how much the Dow will fall tomorrow?” not at all worried that the mortgage fiasco and related meltdowns would impact my cozy little world.

But many people—like those depicted in The Company Men—saw their worlds shaken. They lost jobs, homes, marriages, reputations. Nor was the end of 2008 one of those moments when one could simply pick oneself up, shake off the dust, and get back in the saddle. There were no more desks to ride.

The Company Men shows successful families taking massive hits and wavering under the pressure. Not every family can take the stress of losing it all. I thought I might feel smug toward them, as in, “Yeah, buster, now you can go to a real job like the rest of us,” but I didn’t: these men had worked hard for many years to acquire the things they had. They deserved to be able to keep them. (I know from experience that losing everything when that everything will fit into a small Toyota is no big deal. Wal-Mart purchases are replaceable. I’m guessing that having to sell the Degas off the study wall is devastation of a far more painful sort.)

The cast cannot be beat: Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Craig Nelson. Huge actors at the top of their games doing an important movie about something that matters. Nice work, gentlemen.

Perhaps one lesson of this film is that families can survive a financial implosion if all the right pieces are in place—love, extended family support, and oh yes, faith, courage, and enthusiasm.  A man who wants to shoulder the burden of supporting his family alone is a noble thing to see. Ben Affleck portrays this with grace and vulnerability. I felt his pain when his Porsche was taken away. I was sad.

But not every family can survive, and when the most dysfunctional—therefore least likely to succeed—of these families experienced their nearly-inevitable denouement, I felt nothing but sorrow.

I suppose there would be many people who would turn up their noses at rich people losing money, but I did not. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a beachside home with a fountain? Yes, it would.  And I am sorry for someone who has this and then, through no fault of his own—and while the CEO is lining his pockets on the backs of thousands of fired 9-to-5ers—loses it all. There is also that little detail (often missed by anti-rich-people commentators) that it’s the people with money who build businesses, hire people, support economies, take risks, and so forth.

Happily, America runs on successful businesses, and there is always room for someone with a great idea to gather a team, work hard, invest everything, take enormous risk and look forward to a new payday. And while a good job making enough money to be comfortable with is not the end-all of life, it is of course a lovely thing. The  Company Men leaves us feeling good about America, good about working hard, and happy that committed families can survive the most stressful of times.

(family cautions: the Lord’s name is taken in vain a few times. There are a few vulgarities. A married man is having an affair. A woman struts around in her foundationals, except when she doesn’t for one teeny startling second. I wouldn’t take kids to this.)

THE WAY BACK, starring Ed Harris

The Way Back, starring Ed Harris, is not your ordinary anti-communist movie. There are no evil Russian scientists, no squeaky-clean Americans. There are no moving speeches, no revolutions, no bread lines, no up-with-the-proletariat rhetoric, no political arguments.
Instead of all that, we have what is certainly a most powerful argument against communism—that people will do anything to get away from it. They will walk four thousand miles. Through Siberia. Across the Gobi desert. Over the Himalayas.

(For that matter, they will get in little rafts and paddle ninety miles, risking their lives to arrive “dry foot” in Florida, but that is a different story.)

The story of the seven men who escaped from a Siberian prison camp in 1941 was first told in the book The Long Walk. Written by Slawomir Rawicz in 1956 as autobiographical, it was later revealed that Mr. Rawicz did not in fact make this walk (as is claimed in the book), but learned about it by reading army records. Researchers do not agree on whether the long walk actually happened, although there is some evidence it may have.

The filmmakers are a bit conflicted as well: at the beginning of the movie, we are told that this walk occurred and that the movie is dedicated to those who endured it. At the tail end of the credits, however, there is your ordinary disclaimer: this movie is a work of fiction. Any resemblence to anyone living or dead is unintentional.

I think it matters. If the long walk did occur, it is nothing less than heroism—the triumph of the human spirit longing to be free, and to give itself that others may be free. However, if the walk did not happen, then we have to see this movie as a kind of allegory of the corporate heroism of the victims of communism: peoples and nations trudging through the frozen wilderness of the initial crackdowns, hounded by trenchcoated terrors; then gasping through the blazing waterless deserts of the decades of famine, starvation, and human tragedy; then, at last, scaling the seemingly insurmountable heights of revolution to gain their freedom.

In that light, then, perhaps it doesn’t matter whether the Walk was literally taken by seven men. The journey itself did happen. God be thanked, the peoples formerly imprisoned by the Soviet Union live today in societies far freer than they would have dared imagine fifty years ago. They do not tremble at the fear of the knock in the night. This movie can stand as a testimony of their enduring the unendurable, and as a witness to the rest of us of what hell awaits those who hold their liberty lightly.

I first read The Long Walk in 1990, and was so riveted by the story, I went back to it again and again over the following twenty years. The book is a far better tale than the movie—more interesting people, more touching human interaction, more astonishing life-sustaining providences—but the movie will certainly reach more people and perhaps serve the purpose of educating some who don’t understand what all the fuss was about and why we still talk about the Cold War as if it mattered.

The film is long, and there are scenes where no one speaks. I fear that the lack of action and suspense, as well as the not-great script and mediocre characterizations (with the exception of Mr. Harris, who does his usual class-act work) may not hold the attention of the younger audience, which is a shame.

(One character makes some “girly” sketches, but one can hardly blame him. He’s locked up for 25 years in the Gulag, after all. Give the guy a break. Still, just so you know before bringing your kids. It might be better to wait for The Way Back to stream into your home, so you can scoot through these bits. There’s no bad language.)

THE GREEN HORNET, starring Seth Rogen

Written, produced, and starring Seth Rogen, The Green Hornet is a movie that was badly conceived, badly written, and crassly acted. It is not a well-crafted comedy nor a well-crafted action flick, reminding me of RED, the movie about the retired CIA agents that couldn’t figure out whether it wanted to be a thriller or a mockery.

Britt Reid (Rogen) is the spoiled son of an extremely wealthy newspaper owner. He has been both overindulged and emotionally starved by his widowed father who has no time for him. When his father dies unexpectedly, Britt is thrown into the world of newspaper editing, for which he has no time, no inclination, and no aptitude.

He decides to become important by being a hero. He will be a good guy. But that’s too scary, because if you’re a good guy, the bad guys will be after you. Brain wave: he’ll be a good guy who pretends to be a bad guy so that bad guys will not hurt him. This actually sounds like an interesting premise, except for one teeny weeny problem: he and his sidekick Kato actually do bad things.

In fact, in their first hero-outing, they kill a police officer, and commit a tremendous amount of property destruction. This is not the way to become a community hero. However, at least they rescue two anonymous, unidentifiable people from a group of thugs.

Heady with this success, Britt and Kato (Asian sidekick, played ably, but stereotypically, by Jay Chou) proceed to blow up cars, houses, and meth labs, killing everyone as they go. They do not feel bad about this. Nor do they ever again visit the idea of helping people.

Turns out the D.A. is the bad guy, and all kinds of horrendous destruction and death follow this revelation. All the while, we are treated to the supposed-to-be funny, but painfully crass acting of Mr. Rogen.

Cameron Diaz shows up as Journalism Barbie, no surprise here. All the usual jokes about her derriere and her hotness levels are made, as well as a few unfunny comments about how she is not aging all that well. I don’t know why Ms. Diaz takes this abuse, although my best bet is there is a lot of money in it, and if someone wants to mock me for several million dollars, I say, bring it on.

In the end, it seems to be all right to murder as many people as you like, cause the deaths of many, many others so that you can save your newspaper and kill the corrupt district attorney. Britt is not sorry for the mayhem, nor does he seem to realize he has committed any crimes.

The script is plain and uninteresting: no dry humor, no witty give-and-take, no smart comebacks. There is no love interest, no heroism, no saving-the-girl, no character development.

I don’t know who will watch this with enjoyment. Maybe it would be okay with the sound off, because there are a few interesting fight sequences and some big explosions.

One other small, but irritating, detail. The movie is supposedly set in Los Angeles, but we never see L.A. There are no views of the city or even iconic images such as City Hall or the skyline or the Chinese Theater or the Hollywood sign.

Defnitely don’t see this movie. If you insist on seeing it, you must not take your children. There is quite a lot of crass innuendo and one or two trashy sequences at the beginning.

THE KING’S SPEECH, starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush

The Duke of York stammers. This is not really a national disaster because he is the second son of George V, and therefore not up for the big job. That is, unless Big Brother David does something stupid like grow up to be a selfish wastrel besotted with an unavailable, unattractive, and unlikeable woman. That still wouldn’t have been a problem, had David (the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII) been content to keep the still-married Wallis Simpson under wraps, but as we all know, he wanted to marry her, needed to marry her, and would marry her.

Now the stammer is a national disaster. The Duke of York has become George VI with the abdication of his brother. He can’t speak more than a few words—sometimes not even that—without agonizingly long pauses, chokings, and false starts.

It’s 1936, not a good time to have a Head of State who can’t give a speech. Just a few hundred miles East of London is someone who can make very good, very long, and very patriotic speeches. In German. If George VI can’t pull a speech together for a big moment, such as announcing that England is at war with the brown-shirted mustache-man, his position as king may be wobbly. Maybe the cry will go up louder than it had been for the newly-minted Duke of Windsor to come back, wife and all.

Of course, Bertie’s tried everything to remediate his speech impediment. He’s tried every method, every doctor who can be found. Now, at last, he finds Lionel Logue, an Australian speech teacher who promises to help.

The audience hopes he can help, because watching Colin Firth choke and strain is heartbreaking. Mr. Logue attempts to break through the good King’s decades of repressed feelings so that the king can own his voice and thereby lead his Nation.

When Hitler invades Poland in 1939, and war begins, George VI must broadcast to his people for eight minutes, an Everest-like feat for a man who can barely speak to his own wife. With one-quarter of the world listening (the sun never sets, etc.), the king approaches the microphone. The light flashes. Mr. Logue nods encouragingly. It is time for the King’s Speech.

The actors all give wonderful performances. Firth delivers brilliantly, giving us a King George VI who is deeply in love with his wife, is as loyal to Duty and Country as George’s daughter has been, and is absolutely committed to overcoming a debilitating handicap. Hats off to them both: George VI who actually did it, and Colin Firth who shows us how.

Geoffrey Rush also gives a stellar performance as Mr. Logue. He makes a speech therapist into a hero and does it with heart and poignancy. We feel for him as a father, as a man: we want him to win.

Helena Bonham Carter is loving and lovely as the future Queen Mum. Wallis is suitably awful. David is suitably dominated. Queen Mary is regal, all queen.

Too bad this movie probably won’t do too terribly well at the box office. It is a wonderful movie, but very few people under 30 will care about it. This is a shame, because there are so many good things to take away from this movie: keep trying, for one thing. Don’t give up on yourself. Do your duty even when it’s painful. And so on.

There were some odd moments for this history major. For example, the Churchill character is all wrong. He has dark hair, he scowls all the time, he actually walks in front of the king into a room, and says (like we believe this), “I hate microphones too.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury is likewise awkward. In one scene, he tells the King, “Your job is to consult and to advise; you didn’t consult, but I’m going to advise.” The “advise and consent” has to do with Parliament, not the Archbishop, and certainly here it is wrenched out of context–we’re talking about the King’s choice of a speech tutor, not policy or legislation.

There are other oddities: The Duke of York goes to 10 Downing Street, rather than the PM calling on him. In another scene, we see Mr. Churchill speaking to the Duke about the inevitability of his brother’s abdication and suggesting he use the name George when he succeeds. In all my years as a Churchill fanatic, I missed this bit. Usually, Churchill is at Eddy 8’s side, encouraging him, and going to bat for him against Stanley Baldwin & Co., to the extent of endangering his own political career.

I wondered why, since obviously Colin Firth does a good impersonation of George VI, why they didn’t just get someone to do this in 1939, considering the potential for Empire-wide emotional disaster if the King gets on the wireless and flubs up in 58 countries. A pinch-speaker would have saved Bertie a world of trouble. It was all radio then, you know. No one would have known. Which makes his struggle all the more heroic.

There are a lot of “f”s and “sh”s in this movie, because Mr. Logue is attempting to un-repress the king, and swearing a lot is quite freeing, apparently. In one scene toward the end of the movie (the most memorable scene perhaps in the whole film), just before the Speech, a great many of these short Anglo-Saxon words are used to great effect. Also singing and dancing. I believe that even non-swearers of the most repressed natures will enjoy this scene. I did, if that’s any indication, but you might want to warn your teenagers that what may be proper for a King attempting to inspire his Nation is not at all proper for a young man or woman who lives in your house.

A wonderful, heartwarming movie.

True Grit, starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld

Picture a movie in which everyone is mocking themselves, but doing it so deftly that you think they don’t know that they are mocking themselves. It must have been crazy hard to do this, but every one of the actors in this film pulled it off. When Matt Damon declared that Texas Rangers are “ever stalwart,” the whole audience loses it, but Damon’s character LaBoeuf is, well, simply stalwart.

Quite a lot of people are shot to death in this movie. Quite a lot of audience members are constantly clearing their throats, trying to get Mr. Bridges to clear his. Or was that just me? As US Marshal Cogburn, Bridges is spectacular. His gravelly, indistinct voice drove me to distraction, but it was just the thing for a US Marshal who shoots bad guys as a matter of course, without thought, without lingering emotion.

Ms. Steinfeld, as 14-year-old Mattie Ross, is horribly , awfully, and perfectly the quintessential Prude Vigilante, if such a thing can be imagined. She does it with finesse, with stark plainness, and with a vocabulary and delivery that brought every laugh from chuckles to guffaws from our audience.

The story is that Mattie’s father was recently killed by Tom Chaney. Mattie wants to avenge her father’s death. She hires the Marshal to hunt him down, but because she doesn’t trust him, she goes along for the ride. That’s the whole thing: young girl out with the one-man (soon to be two-man) posse.

The only question I had before going to this movie with my Louis L’Amour loving husband was whether I would be able to keep myself from dying of tedium during a (choke, gasp) Western. The dusty Main Street, the saloon, the sheriff, the horses. I went so that I could write this short review, not because I wanted to see the movie, and this is coming from a serious Damon fan.

The true grit that is eventually shown is remarkable, sweet, and memorable. I was touched by Marshal Cogburn’s tenacity in an overwhelming situation in which he gives himself for another.

I can’t say that I loved it, but I can say that I was intrigued from beginning to end, that I was interested in the character’s behavior , conversations, and marksmanship throughout. I also loved the soundtrack with the continual refrain of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arm,” until the very end, when a grating female voice finally comes in with the vocals and ruins it all. Our audience actually burst into laughter when this happened, and I didn’t blame them. I didn’t laugh, but I did cringe.

Not for children. Too many corpses, too much shooting, too much hanging. (Not too much for the film, but too much for children to watch.)

People who enjoy Westerns as a genre will like this. People who like movies in general will probably be okay with it. The tricky part will be for the Western-lover to determine whom to take along. The wrong choice in a date here could be fatal to the relationship. I’m going to say make it a guys’ night out. Girls are really not going to love this movie.

The Wise Men Didn’t Follow A Star

“We have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him.”

Here’s a picture you’ve seen: three tall old men on camels. There’s a star in the sky bigger than all the other stars (with long extended points! In the shape of a cross, even!), and the men are looking up at it, following it. Once you’ve got this picture in your head, you stop wondering what happened.
The trouble is, you can’t follow a star. It’s not believable to say you can, and it’s not Bible.

Here’s another thing that’s not Bible: the Wise Men were idolatrous pagan priests.

Think back on your Old Testament history. Adam, Abraham, Moses, David and all the kings and then what happens? The Exile to Babylon happens. Who is the great Wise Man of the Exile? Daniel the Jew. Who returns to Judea to end the Exile? A Remnant. Just a few thousand.

Thousands more stay in the East. Many of these people are godly, believing Jews who are waiting for Messiah. They build synagogues. They study the Scriptures. Some of them work in government service. They are Daniel’s spiritual children–the Wise Men of Babylon. These godly Jews loved the Scriptures and were in possession of most if not all of the Old Testament. There was sufficient commerce and regular travel that the Babylonian Jews would have obtained the post-Exilic writings as well, but whether they did or not, it is certain they had Micah, a pre-Exilic prophet.

It is, however, not necessarily reasonable to assume that the Wise Men came from Babylon, as is often presumed. You see, Babylon is too close to Israel. If the Wise Men left their hometown in the hours or days after the appearance of the star, it would not have taken them anywhere near two years to complete the journey to Jerusalem. A quick internet search tells us that it’s about 1000 miles from Babylon to Jerusalem on the usual trade routes. One thousand miles is about the distance from Washington, D.C., to Miami, Florida. This is a long trip in anyone’s book, especially if you’re going on foot, donkey, or camel, but it would not take two years, especially for men who are determined to get where they are going.

A better explanation may be found in Esther 8:9, the longest verse in the Bible (actually a meaningless distinction, since the verse breaks were added in the 1100s AD). In this verse, an edict is issued by Mordecai to all the king’s provinces: “. . . which are from India unto Ethiopia . . . unto every province according to the writing thereof, and unto every people after their language, and to the Jews according to their writing and according to their language.”

Since this edict is relating to the treatment of the Jews and is sent to all 127 provinces (from India to Ethiopia), it is safe to assume that there are Jews in all those provinces.

The Wise Men, then, may have come from India. In fact, since there are several hundred years between Esther’s time and the birth of Christ, migrations even farther east may have occurred, and the Wise Men could have come from an even more distant place. However, India works well for the two-year time-frame of the Wise Men’s journey.

It is approximately 3000 miles from India to Jerusalem. At ten miles per day, this journey would take 300 days. But of course there is one day of rest every week and some days and weeks are designated as feast days when you would not travel. There are some days you can’t go anywhere because of the weather, because of illness or injury, or simply because you need a rest. Too, they are passing through the area we know as Pakistan and Afghanistan which we know to include challenging terrain, rainy seasons, floods.

As mentioned above, the Wise Men had the prophecy of Micah. They knew Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. And they knew the way. They didn’t need a star to guide them, nor does the Bible tell us that they had any such star to guide them at this time. We know only that they “had seen” the star, not that it guided them anywhere. They knew the place and they knew the way.

What they didn’t know was when Messiah would be born. So God sent them a messenger—a star, that is an ANGEL, to tell them that the time had come.
It is not surprising that an angel should be referred to as a star. Jesus himself is referred to as the bright and morning star, and also as the star out of Jacob. Judges 5:20 tells us that “the stars in their courses fought against Sisera,” which cannot mean literal stars. Job tells us that the “morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy,” a parallelism that does not refer to literal stars and probably refers specifically to angels . There are many other places in Scripture where the word star does not indicate a literal ball of fire in the sky.

In fact, a look at Strong’s concordance will reveal that in only one instance in the New Testament does the word “star” indicate a literal ball of fire in the sky. All the others—if you include the Matthew 1 references as I am doing here—are figurative.

A further argument for the word “star” to here mean angel is that the other announcements of the Savior’s birth are angelic. Mary hears the news of the conception from an angel. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream. The shepherds are visited by angels.

So then, why is the word star used here? Very simply, it is the word the Wise Men used when they told the story to Mary and Joseph. They used the term star to indicate angel. Maybe there was a translation problem. Maybe the words were synonymous, sounded the same, or perhaps it was a simple figure of speech. They would naturally have told Mary and Joseph their whole story during their visit, and no doubt Mary (who was pondering all these things in her heart) was very careful to repeat the Wise Men’s exact words to Matthew years later. She simply repeated what they had told her.

“Where is he that is born king of the Jews? We have seen his star in the East, and are come to worship him.”

The Wise Men come to Herod’s palace, not because they don’t know Messiah was born in Bethlehem, but because they assume he will be at the palace by this time, being nurtured, much as Moses was nurtured by the Pharaoh’s daughter. Notice that they don’t ask “where was he born?” but “Where is he?” You can imagine them waiting on pins and needles to be ushered into the Royal Nursery so they can present their gifts to him.

To their surprise and dismay, Herod doesn’t know what they are talking about. None of the Roman government people do. (Read “all Jerusalem with him” much as we would read “Washington was at a loss,” that is, the government corporately.) The government people don’t know, so Herod next calls on the Jewish religious leaders. He asks, “Where is he?” but they don’t know.

(It seems odd at first glance that these men did not know that Jesus had been born. After all, a fairly big to-do had occurred a couple of years before. Shouting shepherds, old people testifying loudly at the temple. Then again, these are mundane, simple things, of which the leadership might not have been made aware.)

Herod now advises the Wise Men that the child was supposed to be born in Bethlehem. I can hear them groan, “We knew that!”

Disappointed that the king is not there for them to worship, they don’t know what to do next other than to head down to Bethlehem and start asking around. But, as soon as they get outside, Lo! The angel again! After two years of foot-weary travel over thousands of miles only to find that no one knows what they are talking about, suddenly, the very same angel appears. This time there’s no guess work. This time he leads them directly to the house where Jesus is living.

They don’t just rejoice. They don’t just rejoice with great joy. They rejoice with exceeding great joy. These men are out of their minds with relief, wonder, thankfulness, and unbounded joy. They came in faith over tremendous obstacles, and now they are going to receive the reward of faith: sight. In just a few minutes, they are going to see their Messiah, the one they have longed to see all their lives.

This joy—this exceeding great joy—is the real clincher on the premise that the Wise Men did not follow a star. If they had followed it to Herod’s palace, they would not have been surprised to see it when they came out. But they did not follow it. They never said they did. They said, “We have seen,” not “We have followed.”

The Wise Men probably wondered why God hadn’t sent the angel the day before, but we know why he didn’t. For the prophecy of Rachel’s weeping for her children to be true, Herod had to pursue the terrible course he did in fact pursue in just a few days’ time when he unleashed his lust-for-continued power on the babies of Bethlehem. By then Jesus was well on his way to Egypt, of course, and the Wise Men were well on their way home.

In order to return a different way than the way they had come, it is possible they traveled south. This would be the quickest way to get out of Herod’s jurisdiction so that he would not hunt them down as well. If they did in fact travel south, and if they traveled by boat through the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea and from there on back home to India, they would naturally stop in Ethiopia. In this way, on this trip, the Wise Men would have had opportunity to tell about the Savior’s birth to the Jews from India to Ethiopia.

The last time anyone spoke to all the Jews from India to Ethiopia it was to warn them to gird themselves for battle, to defend themselves from those who would seek to kill them. This time, there is a message of hope, of salvation through Messiah, brought by a few faithful—and certainly very weary—Wise Men.