Enigma

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

One of the most important contributions to the Allied victory in World War II was a code-breaking operation that was so secret it was not revealed until 30 years later. Their deciphering of the Enigma code developed by the Germans shortened the war by as much as a year.

This is the story of the people who worked at a huge and historic estate called Bletchley to unlock the unlockable. They had to solve a puzzle considered impenetrable because it was so complex that it could never have been decoded by the human brain. What the Germans never anticipated was that the British would think up the beginnings of the modern day computer and develop a “thinking machine” to sort through billions of complex computations and find the equivalent of a needle buried in one of millions of haystacks.

The essentials of the story are true, but the characters in the movie are fictional. As he did with “Shakespeare in Love,” screenwriter/playwright Tom Stoppard brilliantly interweaves the real and the imaginary to illuminate not only his characters’ era but our own.

The central figure in this story is Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott), a brilliant mathematician with a stunning grasp of numerical relationships. His grasp of human relationships is a little shaky, however. When we first meet him, he is returning to Bletchley after a breakdown. He was shattered by a brief, overwhelming affair with Claire (Saffron Burrows), a co-worker who seduced and then abandoned him. His superiors do not want him back, but he may be their best hope for breaking the German’s new code, the Shark, before a group of U-boats meet up with American convoys carrying desperately needed supplies.

The reason the Germans are using a new code is that they found out that the British had broken the Enigma. Meanwhile, Claire has disappeared. Figuring out where she is and whether there is a connection between her disappearance and the leak to the Germans is a puzzle that is as important to Tom as decoding the Shark.

He teams up with Claire’s roommate Hester (Kate Winslet) to find out what happened to Claire. As they search for clues, they are watched by Wigram (Jeremy Northern), a sleek secret agent investigating Tom and his team to see if one of them is a traitor.

Stoppard is fascinated with puzzles, wordplay, secrets, and stories within stories, all of which lend themselves very well to the Bletchley code-breakers. The movie brilliantly depicts the desperate atmosphere and heart-breaking dedication of the people who knew that their success – or failure – could do more to determine the outcome of the war than a thousand soldiers with guns.

The performances are excellent, particularly Northern, whose single syllable on entering Tom’s room, “Bliss!” gives us his character’s history from tony prep school through too many compromises. He is a man who has had to sacrifice what he once thought of as honor to serve a greater cause, has had to betray in order to be loyal, and has had to keep too many secrets. Winslet’s only failing is her entirely unsuccessful effort to look dowdy. But she and Scott are marvelous at showing us something we seldom see in movies, really smart people using their intelligence.

Parents should know that the movie has some sexual references and situations (brief nudity). Claire seduces just about every man she meets. There are some very tense scenes, including graphic images of slaughtered bodies in a mass grave.

The movie raises a number of moral dilemmas that are well worth discussion. When it becomes clear that there is no way to save the American supply ships in time, the code-breakers debate whether it is right to use what they know about the ships’ positions to help them calculate the keys to break the code. What are the best arguments for each side? Who was right? The characters lie and there are a number of betrayals in the movie – more than some members of the audience may be able to sort through on the first viewing – and it is worth talking about how people decide whom to trust and how much evidence they need before they change their minds.

Families who enjoy this movie should read about the real key figure at Bletchley, the truly enigmatic Alan Turing. His artificial intelligence test is still the standard used today.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy reading Between Silk and Cyanide, a wonderfully entertaining memoir by Leo Marks, who worked on creating codes during this era. (Fans of 84 Charing Cross Road will enjoy the fact that Leo Marks is the son of man who owned the bookstore at that address.) The complicated issues of uneasy alliances and tragic choices are explored in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Mother Night. You can also see an exciting but highly fictionalized version of the capture of the Enigma machine (in real life, it was the Brits, not the Americans) in U-571.

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Based on a true story Drama Epic/Historical Spies War

Friendly Persuasion

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: This is the story of the Birdwells, a loving Quaker family in the midst of the Civil War. Eliza (Dorothy McGuire), a devout woman, is the moral center of the family. Jess (Gary Cooper) is a thoughtful man, not as strict as Eliza on prohibitions like music and racing his horse, but with a strong commitment to his principles. Their children are Joshua (Anthony Perkins), a sensitive young man who opposes violence but feels that he must join the soldiers; Mattie (Phyllis Love), who falls in love with Gord, a neighbor who is a Union soldier; and Young Jess, a boy who is fascinated with the talk of war and battles.

A Union soldier comes to the Quaker prayer meeting to ask the men to join the army. They tell him that they cannot engage in violence under any circumstances. “We are opposed to slavery, but do not think it right to kill one man to free another.” Even when the soldier points out that this means others will be dying to protect their lives and property, no one will support him.

The Confederate army approaches, and Joshua and Enoch, a freed slave who works on the Birdwell’s farm, decide to join the Union. Eliza does everything she can to keep Joshua from going, even telling him that in doing so he will not only reject what he has learned in church but he will reject her, too. Jess says that Joshua has to make up his own mind. “I’m just his father, Eliza. I’m not his conscience. A man’s life ain’t worth a hill of beans unless he lives up to his own conscience. I’ve got to give Josh that chance.” Joshua prays for guidance, and leaves to join the army the next morning. At first Eliza won’t respond, but then she runs after him to wish him well.

As the war gets closer, Jess and Eliza refuse to run away from their farm as others are doing. When Josh’s horse comes back without him, Jess goes looking for him. He finds his good friend Sam mortally wounded by a sniper. When the sniper shoots at Jess, too, Jess takes his gun away, but will not harm him; he tells the sniper, “Go on, get! I’ll not harm thee.” Josh is wounded, and deeply upset because he killed a Confederate soldier. Jess brings him home.

In the meantime, the Confederates ride into the farm, and in keeping with her faith, Eliza welcomes them and gives them all her food. But when one of the soldiers goes after her beloved pet goose, she whacks him with the broom, amusing her children and leaving herself disconcerted and embarassed. Jess and Josh return, and the family goes off to church together, to continue to do their best to match their faith to their times.

Discussion: This is an exceptional depiction of a loving family, particularly for the way that Jess and Eliza work together on resolving their conflicts. They listen to each other with enormous respect and deep affection. Jess does his best to go along with Eliza’s stricter views on observance, because in his heart he believes she is right. Nevertheless, he cannot keep himself from trying to have his horse beat Sam’s as they go to church on Sunday, and he decides to buy an organ knowing that she will object. In fact, he doesn’t even tell her about it. She is shocked when it arrives and says that she forbids it, to which he replies mildly, “When thee asks or suggests, I am like putty in thy hands, but when thee forbids, thee is barking up the wrong tree.” Having said that if the organ goes into the house, she will not stay there, she goes off to sleep in the barn. He does not object — but he goes out there to spend the night with her, and they reconcile and find a way to compromise.

All of this provides a counterpoint to more serious questions of faith and conscience. In the beginning, when the Union soldier asks the Quakers if any of them will join him, one man stands up to say that nothing could ever make him fight. Later, when his barn is burned, he is the first to take up a gun. Even Eliza, able to offer hospitality to the same men who may have just been shooting at her son, finds herself overcome when one of them captures her beloved pet goose.

Jess is willing to admit that the answer is not so simple. All he asks is that “the will of God be revealed to us and we be given the strength to follow his will.” He understands the difficulty of finding the right answer for himself and for Joshua. He resolves it for himself in his treatment of the sniper, and he respects Joshua and the issues involved enough to let Joshua make his own choice.

The movie is a rare one in which someone makes a moral choice through prayer, which many families will find worth emphasizing. Josh, who was able to respond without violence to the thugs at the fair, decides that he cannot benefit from risks taken by others unless he is willing to take them, too. He cries in battle, but he shoots.

The issue of how someone committed to non-violence responds to a violent world is thoughtfully raised by this movie.

Questions for Kids:

· How is the religious service in the movie similar or different from what you have experienced?

· How was the faith of the characters tested in this movie? What did they learn from the test?

· How should people who are opposed to violence respond to violence when it is directed against them? When it is directed against others?

Connections: The screenplay was written by Michael Wilson, who received no screen credit because he was blacklisted during the Red Scare. His involvement makes the issues of conscience raised in the book even more poignant. The book on which the movie is based, by Jessamyn West (a Quaker, and a cousin of Richard Nixon) is well worth reading. Cooper faces some of the same issues (and has a Society of Friends bride) in “High Noon.” “Shenandoah,” with Jimmy Stewart as the father of a large family who tries to keep his sons out of the Civil War, raises some of the same themes without the religious context. It later became a successful Broadway musical.

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Based on a book Drama Epic/Historical War

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: Naive Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) is sent to Washington to serve the remaining term of a Senator who has died. The governor (Guy Kibbee), and businessman Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) believe that Smith, the leader of a Boy Scouts-type organization called the Boy Rangers, will do whatever he is told by senior senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), a friend of his late father, who was an idealistic newspaper editor. Paine approves of the appointment: “A young patriot turned loose in our nation’s capital — I can handle him.”

At first, Smith is such a hopeless rube that he is an embarassment. The cynical press ridicules him. He is daunted by jaded staffers Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell) and Saunders (Jean Arthur), and reduced to stumbling incoherence by Paine’s sophisticated daughter (Astrid Allwyn). But a visit to the Lincoln memorial reminds him of what he hopes to accomplish, and he returns to the Senate to promote his dream, a national camp for boys. Saunders begins to soften when he tells her what he believes: “Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books.” She acknowledges her own idealistic roots as the daughter of a doctor who treated patients who could not pay, that idealism now buried under the practicality that resulted from her having to go to work at 16 because her family had no money. “Why don’t you go home?” she asks. “You’re halfway decent.”

Saunders warns him that Paine is corrupt, that he is promoting unnecessary legislation that will benefit Taylor. Smith goes to see Paine, and is crushed to learn that Saunders was right. Paine tries to explain that it is just a compromise. “It’s a question of give and take – – you have to play by the rules — compromise — you have to leave your ideals outside the door with your rubbers.” Smith promises to expose Paine, but Paine moves quickly and makes it appear that it is Smith who is corrupt. He presents a forged deed showing that Smith is the owner of the land for the proposed camp, and will therefore profit from the legislation.

Smith is ready to quit, but Saunders explains that he can filibuster — take the floor of the Senate and keep speaking — while his mother and friends get out the real story. While Smith holds the floor, his Boy Rangers print up and try to distribute their own newspaper. But Taylor’s henchmen stop them. After speaking for 23 hours, Smith sees that all of the letters and telegrams are against him. He looks over at Paine. “I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about the lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once that they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason that any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain simple rule, ‘Love thy neighbor.’ And in this world today, full of hatred, a man who knows that one rule has a great trust.”

He vows to go on, but collapses from fatigue. Paine, overwhelmed with shame, runs into the cloakroom and tries to kill himself, confessing that he was the one who was corrupt.

Discussion: Frank Capra was to movies what Norman Rockwell was to illustration; he gave us a vision of our national identity that never ignored the challenges we face, although it was idealistic about our ability to meet them. This movie, made on the brink of World War II, was criticized for its portrayal of dishonesty and cynicism in Washington. But ultimately, it was recognized for the very patriotic and loyal statement that it is.

Questions for Kids:

· Paine tells Smith he has to learn to compromise. Is that wrong? How could Smith tell that this was not compromise, but corruption?

· Watch the scene where the press meets the new Senator for the first time.

· People today often criticize the press for being unfair or too mean to politicians. Do you think they were unfair? Were they too mean? Why does the press like to make fun of politicians?

· What makes Saunders change her mind about Smith?

Connections: It is hard to imagine a time when Jimmy Stewart was not a major star, but this is the movie that made him one. He was a perfect choice for the shy young idealist. Capra selected cowboy actor Harry Carey to play the Vice President, who presides over the Senate during Smith’s filibuster. His look of weatherbeaten integrity perfectly suited the part, and contrasted well with Rains’ suave urbanity.

Activities: Those families who visit the Washington locations featured in the movie, the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol building, might also want to stop by the local Planet Hollywood, which features the desk Smith stood at during his filibuster, autographed by Stewart. Those who can’t get to Washington might enjoy taking a look at today’s Congressional proceedings on C-SPAN and comparing them to those portrayed in the movie.

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Drama Epic/Historical

Ninotchka

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: Three Soviet bureaucrats arrive in Paris to sell some jewels so they can buy tractors. But the former Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), who lives in Paris, is outraged, because they were her jewels confiscated during the Russian revolution. Her beau, Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas), goes to court on her behalf, seeking return of the jewels. More important, he goes to the three Russians and plies them with wine, food, and fun to distract them from their mission.

The Soviets respond by sending a stern and severe senior official, Lena Yakushova (Greta Garbo), to straighten things out. Leon, who calls her by the nickname “Ninotchka,” is unsuccessful in persuading her to enjoy the pleasures of Paris. Finally, he just tries to make her laugh. She is unmoved by even his best jokes, but when he falls over in his chair, she laughs uproariously. From then on, she warms to the pleasures of Paris and the charms of Leon. She dons an elegant little hat and a glamorous gown. She drinks champagne until she is tipsy.

Swana gets the jewels from a hotel employee sympathetic to the exiled Russian nobility. She tells Ninotchka she will give them back if Ninotchka will leave Paris (and Leon) immediately. Given her duty to the Soviet Union, Ninotchka has no choice. But soon, based on the success of their mission, the same three men are dispatched to Constantinople to sell furs, and soon Leon has corrupted them again and Ninotchka is sent to straighten things out. This time Leon is waiting for her, so they can stay together forever.

Discussion: Kids will need some introduction to the issues behind this enchanting romantic comedy. A few words about the state of the Soviet Union following the revolution and the different ideas of the communists and the capitalists will prepare them. The movie is really not about politics; it is about romance, and being open to the pleasures of life. Leon learns as much about this as Ninotchka does. Before she arrives, he is in what looks more like a business partnership than a love affair with Swana. He does not introduce the Soviets to food, drink, and girls in order to teach them about having a good time, but in a calculated attempt to profit. Ninotchka makes an emotionally honest man out of him as he makes an emotionally honest woman out of her. And note that as much as Ninotchka loves Leon, she will not compromise on her duty to her country. She completes her mission, even though she knows it may mean she will never see him again.

In a way, the story is the obverse of “Born Yesterday” and “My Fair Lady.” The women in those stories grow by using their intellect; Ninotchka grows by using her emotions.

Ernst Lubitsch was the master of the sophisticated romantic comedy. Close observers of his films notice that he often uses doors to tell the story. An example in this film is the way the Count’s successful corruption of the Soviet emissaries is shown through a succession of delightful treats being delivered to them through the doors of their hotel suite.

Questions for Kids:

· If they had gone to court, who would have won the jewels? What is the best argument for each side?

· What does Swana try to do when she sees Ninotchka at the nightclub?

· What would you say the “moral” of this little romantic comedy is?

Connections: This movie had one of the most famous ad slogans of all time: “Garbo Laughs.” The mysterious dramatic actress had not made a comedy before. Director Ernst Lubitsch reported that when he was considering her for the part, he asked her if she could laugh, and she said she would let him know, and then came back the next day to say she could, and to show him. “Silk Stockings” is a musical version of this story, with songs by Cole Porter. An odd update made in 1956 with Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope(!) is called “The Iron Petticoat.”

Compare this movie to “Ball of Fire” by the same screenwriting team, another story of an intellectual who is taught to appreciate the more frivolous pleasures of life.

Activities: Older kids may want to read more about this era in Soviet history, or find out about the fall of the USSR and the current efforts of the former Soviet states at capitalism and democracy.

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Comedy Drama Epic/Historical Romance

Mansfield Park

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Bodices may not be ripped, but they are certainly loosened in this very liberal adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. This is not your mother’s “Mansfield Park.” Fans of the book are warned early on that there will be some significant departures when the credits read that the screenplay, by director Patricia Rozema, is adapted not just from the novel, but also from the letters and journals of its author, Jane Austen. And indeed, Rozema has effectively removed the book’s frail and mousy — if resolutely honorable — heroine, and replaced her with some amalgam of Austen’s feistier characters plus a dash of Austen herself. Then she threw in a little bit of Jo March, Susan B. Anthony, and even Scarlet O’Hara for good measure.

And, for those who are not literary purists, it is good measure indeed. The movie version’s heroine is far more cinematic than the Fanny Price of the book, and the adaptation works remarkably well. Less successful is the attempt to import 20th century sensibility on issues like slavery (Fanny’s wealthy relatives own slaves in the West Indies) and some wild anachronisms (Fanny lies casually on her bed while she talks to her male cousin; neighbor Mary Crawford even more casually smokes a small cigar). And there is even that most unforgivable sin of movies set in the past – a character who says, “After all, it’s 1806!”

In the movie, as in the book, Fanny Price is from a large and very poor family. When she is a young girl, she is invited to stay with rich relatives as something between a servant and a companion. She is befriended by her cousin Edmund, but ignored by his dissolute older brother Tom and his selfish sisters, neglected by their parents, and bullied by her aunt, also a poor relative under their care. She grows up reading everything she can and doing her best to get along with everyone.

Henry Crawford and his sister Mary, both wealthy and attractive, come to stay nearby. Omni-seductive, they are both weak-willed and manipulative. They charm everyone but Fanny, creating many crises of honor and reputation.

The movie is sumptuously produced. Australian actress Frances O’Connor is terrific as Fanny. To use one of Austen’s favorite words, she is “lively,” but she is also able to show us Fanny’s unshakeable honor and dignity. Playwright Harold Pinter is outstanding as Lord Bertram.

Families should talk about some of the issues raised by the movie, including the family’s dependence on slaves in the West Indies to maintain their luxurious lifestyle, and the limited options available to women that led Fanny’s cousin Maria to insist on marrying a foolish – but wealthy – man. They should also discuss the Crawfords, two of Austen’s most intriguing characters. With wealth and charm of their own, why was manipulating others so important to them? One of the great moral crises of the book is whether the young people should put on a play (answer: they should not because it would create too great an intimacy). But Austen never shied away from having characters make ineradicable moral and social mistakes, and most of her books feature at least one couple who run off together without getting married and suffer some serious consequences. Perhaps in frustration over the difficulty of making those actions seem real to today’s audiences, or perhaps just as a way of making a classic work seem unstuffy, this movie has more implicit and explicit sexuality than we have seen in other movies based on Austen’s books (except maybe for “Clueless”). Parents should know that there is one scene with an implied lesbian interest and a brief inexplicit scene of an adulterous couple. Fanny finds drawings depicting abuse of slaves, including rape. Fanny’s aunt takes opium, her cousin is often drunk, and Fanny gets tipsy at a party.

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Based on a book Drama Epic/Historical Family Issues
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