All the President’s Men

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: PG
Profanity: Some very strong language for a PG including the f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Some tense moments
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 1976
Date Released to DVD: June 11, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: B000CEXEWA

This week is the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in and a good time to look at the Oscar-winning movie about the two reporters who would not give up on the story of the Watergate break-in, this is as gripping as any detective novel. Bob Woodward (Robert Redford), a junior reporter for the Washington Post, is sent to cover a small-time break-in to the office of the Democratic National Committee (located in the Watergate office building). He works with Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), another reporter, to find, after tediously painstaking research, that it is just part of a complex pattern of corruption in President Nixon’s re-election campaign.

Producer/star Redford was so intent on authenticity he even flew actual garbage from the Washington Post wastepaper baskets out to the set. The movie does a good job of showing how much of the work of the reporters was dull persistence, and it also does a good job of showing us what went in to the decisions of editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards in an Oscar – winning performance) and (off-screen) publisher Katharine Graham about what they needed in terms of proof in order to be able to publish the story.

There is an interesting range of moral choices and calibrations. The famous “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook), unidentified until 2006, is someone from the inside who will not allow himself to be identified or even quoted, but is willing to confirm what the reporters are able to find elsewhere.

Others involved in the scandal, both in the corruption itself and in its cover-up, must decide what to do and how much to disclose. “Deep Throat” will not tell them anything new, but will confirm what they find out and give them some overall direction, most memorably, “follow the money.” One key development is the decision made by someone identified only as “the bookkeeper” (Jane Alexander) to talk to Bernstein. The participants must also deal with the consequences of their choices. Donald Segretti (Robert Walden) manages to evoke sympathy when what began as juvenile pranks leave him in disgrace. Woodward and Bernstein also make mistakes and must deal with the consequences.

As the movie ends, in 1972, Nixon is re-elected, and it seems to the reporters that their work has had no impact at all. Kids who view this film may need some context in order to understand it, and will want to know what else happened before Nixon resigned in August of 1974.

Families who see this movie should discuss these questions: Why were Woodward and Bernstein the only reporters interested in the story? Why did they insist on two sources before they would publish anything? What were Donald Segretti’s “dirty tricks?” How was he different from Sloan? From the bookkeeper? From Deep Throat? One of the people portrayed in the movie later testified before the Watergate Committee that he had “lost his moral compass.” What does that mean? How does something like that happen? How has technology changed the way that reporters do research and prepare their stories?

Families who enjoy this movie might like to see “The Final Days,” a made- for-television sequel, based on Woodward and Bernstein’s follow-up book. For more on this era, see Nixon with Anthony Hopkins, and Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech and resignation statement. An odd little movie called Nasty Habits is an allegory of Watergate, set in a convent, with Glenda Jackson as a Nixonian nun. And a very funny satire, Dick (for older audiences) sees these events through the premise that it was all uncovered by a couple of high school girls.

If audiences want to know more, they should know that the book this movie was based on is not much fun to read and has more reporting than analysis. Older kids who want to know more can read Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon by Theodore White, To Set the Record Straight: The Break-In, the Tapes, the Conspirators, the Pardon, by Judge Sirica, or the books by John Dean and H. R. Haldeman. In 2006, the identity of “Deep Throat” was revealed and Woodward told the story in The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat.  President Nixon’s series of television interviews with David Frost inspired the Oscar-nominated film Frost/Nixon,  and the interviews are also available on DVD.

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Based on a book Based on a true story Classic Crime Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week

Amadeus

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Antionio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham in an Oscar-winning performance), the court composer, should have been Mozart. He followed all the rules, worked hard, and cared deeply. Music was his life. Mozart (Tom Hulce) arrives, a bawdy, bratty, foolish boy whose music could enchant the angels. Salieri, ironically the only one who understands music well enough to realize Mozart’s genius, is consumed with jealousy.

Teens will be interested to learn that this movie was written by a man whose twin brother was for a time the more commercially successful of the two, both playwrights, which surely influenced his choice of subject and his approach.

Families who enjoy this movie should see Ingmar Bergman’s movie version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

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Based on a true story Drama

Amistad

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: In 1839, a group of Africans sold into slavery were being transported to the United States on a Spanish ship. Off the coast of Cuba, they escaped from their shackles and attacked the crew, leaving two crew members alive to take them back to Africa. The Spanish sailors tricked the Africans and sailed up the coast of the United States until an American naval ship off the coast of Connecticut captures them. The Africans were brought into court to determine their fate. They were claimed as property (“like livestock”) by both the Spanish crew and by the American captors.

Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), a property lawyer persuades abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård) that he has a theory that will help the Africans. He argues that it is not a property case at all. The law provides that only the child of slaves can be a slave. Since the Africans were not born slaves they are free, and their actions were merely self-defense in aid of restoring their freedom. If Baldwin can prove that they were born as free people in Africa, and not, as their captors alleged, slaves in the West Indies, they would not be considered property; they would be considered human beings.

The trial attracts the attention of President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), who is in the midst of a campaign for re-election and very aware that he will need the support of Southern voters to win. He is under additional pressure from the eleven-year-old queen of Spain, Isabella II, and her ambassador, who raise claims on behalf of the Spanish fleet. When the judge and jury appear sympathetic to the Africans, Van Buren arranges for a new judge to hear the case without a jury.

Meanwhile, the Africans try to understand what is going on around them. Baldwin and Joadson are able to find a man who speaks Mende, the language of Cinqué (Djimon Hounsou) and some of the other Africans. They win in court and the government appeals. Former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) represents them before the U.S. Supreme Court, where seven of the nine Justices are slaveholders. In a moving and eloquent argument, he persuades the Justices (with one dissenter) that the Africans were free, and that if they had been white, they would have been called heroes for rebelling against those who tried to take that freedom away.

Discussion: Adams explains that in court the one with the best story wins. Indeed, we hear many different stories in the course of the movie as each character tries to explain why his view is the right one. In the first courtroom scene we hear several different “stories” about what should happen to the Africans. All of those stories assume that the Africans are property; the only question is whose property they are. Interestingly, as “property,” they can not be charged with murder or theft. One cannot be both property and capable of forming criminal intent. The only issue before the court is where the Africans will go.

As Baldwin begins to tell Joadson and Tappan his “story” of the case, we see them slowly becoming aware of what had always been obvious to us. The Africans cannot be property. They were free, in which case their actions were not only honorable but heroic, in the same category as America’s founding fathers, our own “story” about who we are as Americans. Despite the attempts of Van Buren to subvert the legal system established just decades before, the essential commitment to freedom is so much a part of the story that, at least in this one brief moment, justice triumphed. Adams, the son of the second President, made that his story.

Questions for Kids:

· Why was it important to prove where the Africans were from?

· What was Calhoun’s justification for slavery?

· Why does Tappan say that the death of the Africans may help the cause of abolition more than their freedom?

· Why does Spielberg organize his story this way, taking the audience from the confrontation to the courtroom and only later providing the background about the capture of the Africans?

· What does it mean that there is no Mende word for “should”?

Connections: Chief Justice Storey is portrayed by real-life former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.

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Based on a true story Drama

A Man for All Seasons

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: The Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) is a man of great principle and a devout Catholic in the time of King Henry VIII. The King wants to dissolve his marriage to the queen (a Spanish princess and the widow of his late brother) so that he can marry Anne Boleyn. All around him, courtiers and politicians plot to use this development to their advantage, or at least to hold on to their positions, given the conflict between the Church’s position that marriage is indissoluble and the King’s that it must be dissolved. For More, the choice is clear, and God comes before the King. But because of More’s incorruptible reputation, his support is crucial. Every possible form of persuasion and coercion is attempted, but More will not make any affirmative statement on behalf of the divorce (though he refrains from opposing it explicitly). And More will not lend his allegiance to the new church headed by the King.

Finally, having lost his position, his fortune, his reputation (on false charges) and his liberty, More is sentenced to death. He accepts it with grace and faith, forgiving the executioner.

Discussion: This is an outstanding (and brilliantly filmed) study of a man who is faced with a harrowingly difficult moral choice. The choice remains clear to him, even at great cost not just to himself but to his family. Yet within his clear moral imperative, he does calibrate. His conscience does not require him to work against or even speak out against the divorce; he need only keep silent.

Questions for Kids:

· What does the title mean?

· The same director made “High Noon” — do you see any similarities?

· What would you consider in deciding what to do, if you were More?

· What other characters in history can you think of who sustained such a commitment to a moral principle?

Connections: Kids and teens should read some of the books about this period, and see if they can find reproductions of the paintings by Hans Holbein of the real-life characters. They may want to watch some of the many movies about it as well. As history shows, the marriage that led to the establishment of the Church of England did not last. “Anne of the Thousand Days” tells the story of the relationship of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, including, from a different perspective, some of the events of “A Man for All Seasons.” A British mini-series, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” devotes one episode to each wife, and is more historically accurate and very well done. Henry VIII is such a colorful figure that he appeared in several movies, including the classic “Private Life of Henry VIII” with Charles Laughton. His death appears in the (completely fictional) “Prince and the Pauper,” and his daughter with Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I, is featured in several movies, including “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (with Bette Davis and Errol Flynn) and “Mary, Queen of Scots” (with Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth) and “Mary of Scotland” (with Katharine Hepburn as Mary and Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth).

This movie won six Oscars , including Best Picture, Director, and Actor.

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Based on a true story Biography Drama Epic/Historical Tragedy

Chariots of Fire

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for adult situations and language
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense moments of competition
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 1981
Date Released to DVD: July 9, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: B00284AVN

In honor of the 2012 Olympics in London, this 1981 classic and winner of the Oscar for Best Picture has been reissued.

This is the true story of two athletes who raced in the 1924 Olympics, one a privileged Jewish student at Cambridge (Ben Cross as Harold Abrahams), the other a missionary from Scotland (Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell). Wonderfully evocative of the time and place, with superb performances, the movie shows us the source of the runners’ determination, for one a need to prove his worth to himself and the society that discriminates against him, for the other, a way of connecting to God.

The movie begins with the memorial service for Harold Abrahams, and then goes back to his first day at Cambridge, just after World War I. A speaker reminds the entering class that they must achieve for themselves and for those who were lost in the war. Abrahams is a bit arrogant, but finds friends and impresses the whole university by being the first to meet a long-term challenge and race all the way around the quad within the twelve strokes of the clock at noon.

Liddell is deeply committed to missionary work. But when his sister asks him to give up running so that he can go with her, he explains that “I believe God made me for a purpose. He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

Abrahams is devastated when he loses to Liddell, saying he won’t race unless he can win. But his girlfriend reminds him that he can’t win unless he races. Both Abrahams and Liddell make the Olympic team. There is a crisis when Liddell’s event is scheduled for a Sunday, because he will not run on the Sabbath. But Lord Lindsay (Nigel Havers) graciously allows Liddell his place in a different event, “just for the pleasure of seeing you run,” and both Liddell and Abrahams win.

Both of the athletes must make difficult choices with a great deal of opposition. One uses a coach (who isn’t even English), in defiance of tradition and expectations. The other resists the urging of his sister, the person he loves most, who wants him to quit racing and defies the Prince of Wales, who wants him to race on the Sabbath.

One of the themes of the movie is the problems that the Jewish athlete has dealing with the prejudice of society. The other athlete has to confront the conflict between the dictates of his religion and the requirements of the sport (including the entreaties of the heir to the throne) when he is asked to compete on the Sabbath.

Families who watch this movie should talk about these questions: Why was running so important to these men? Was it different for different athletes? Why does Harold Abrahams think of quitting when he loses to Liddell? Have you ever felt that way? What did you do? Why doesn’t Eric’s sister want him to race? Why does he race despite her objections? Why don’t the teachers at Harold Abraham’s school think it is appropriate to have a coach? Would anyone think that today?

This movie deservedly won the Oscars for best picture, screenplay, costume design, and music.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy a two-part made for television miniseries called “The First Olympics — Athens 1896,” about the American team entering the first modern Olympics in 1896. It features Louis Jourdan (of “Gigi”), David Caruso (of the original cast of television’s “NYPD Blue”) and David Ogden Stiers (of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”). While it does not have the resonance and meaning (or the production values) of “Chariots of Fire,” it is heartwarming, funny, exciting, and a lovely period piece. Not currently available on video, it usually shows up on television around the time of Olympic competitions. An extremely silly movie about the first modern Olympics is “It Happened in Athens,” with Jayne Mansfield and real-life Olympic athlete Bob Mathias.

“Miracle on Ice,” another made for television movie, is the true story of the 1980 U.S. hockey team, which astonished the world at the Olympics in Lake Placid. Yet another Olympic made for television movie, “The Golden Moment,” is the story of a romance between a Soviet gymnast and an American athlete. Its primary charm is the fact that it takes place at an Olympics in which, in real life, the U.S. never competed — that was the year the U.S. protested the Soviet invasion of Afganistan by boycotting the Moscow Olympics.

See also “Cool Runnings” about the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team, “The Bob Mathias Story,” with the real-life decathalon champion playing himself, “The Jesse Owens Story,” with Dorian Harewood as the legendary athlete, and “Babe” with Susan Clark as Babe Deidrickson Zaharias.

On the silly side, try “Animalympics,” an animated spoof of the Olympics with some comical moments, and the very funny “Million Dollar Legs,” with W.C. Fields as the President of Klopstockia, a country entering the Olympics.

And of course Bud Greenspan’s documentaries about the Olympics are always worth watching, for the stories and the personalities as much as for the athletic achievements.

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