The Sum of All Fears shows how a movie with a ton of dumb stuff happening in it can also have profound moments

Tonight, for the first time, I watched the 2002 Morgan Freeman / Ben Affleck spy thriller movie, The Sum of All Fears, based on Tom Clancy’s 1991 novel of the same name. Not knowing anything about the plot, I was hoping to be swept up into a smart, twisty espionage movie with plausible crises, fast-paced action, suspense, and some strong characters with good chemistry between them.

But the movie blew up my suspension of disbelief in its opening scene, because the series of events it presented were, just frankly, impossible. It opens on an Israeli military air base on October 9, 1973, during the Yom Kippur War (or October War or Ramadan War depending on which side you supported). The Egyptian and Syrian forces have made strong gains after their surprise coordinated attack, and Israel decides to launch a fighter jet with a single tactical nuke on board. The pilot’s mission is to stay airborne and wait for orders. If the Israeli ground troops were to start to be completely overrun, the order will be given to him to nuke some enemy target.

As these kinds of movies go, so far so good. I’m pretty sure that in real life no Israeli plane actually took off with a nuke on board. It’s possible Clancy was using artistic license to expand on news reports that then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir did elevate the nuclear alert level, but I’ve yet to read any news stories of an Israeli fighter jet zipping around in Syrian or Egyptian airspace with a nuke in its belly. But for a fictional story, I can work with an alternative possible history imagining what might have happened if something important had gone differently than it did in reality.

Story premise: Israel misplaces a nuke in its own backyard but decides to do nothing to find it for 30 years. Whoops.

But the opening scene went off the rails in the first few minutes. You see, the brave Israeli fighter jet pilot – presumably the best pilot in one of the world’s most highly regarded air forces – is flying low over desert terrain that looks a lot like the Sinai, and he does something no pilot would never do. He has a photo of his wife and child perched on the instrument panel. He hits a bit of turbulence, and the photo falls from where he can see it into a hard to reach space near the floor of the cockpit. So what does this world class fighter pilot, who is flying low to the ground to avoid radar and is carrying a live nuke, decide to do? He starts reaching down with one hand and stretching uncomfortably to try to grab the fallen photo, and when he frustratingly can’t get a grip on it, he stops looking out the front windshield, and leans down awkwardly to try to find the photo. When he sits back up straight again, he screams because – forehead slap – he’s about to crash into a hill. Which he does. The plane, the bomb, and the pilot all get hurled into the sand. The pilot is dead and the plane smashed to bits. The nuke is dented here and there but remains intact, unexploded, and half-buried in the desert sand.

Next the screen tells us it’s 29 years later., and we see two Arab men who apparently make some money by looking for discarded military equipment and ordinance from previous wars, collecting a bunch of it, and then selling it to different black market buyers who find some of it useful. They stumble upon the buried Israeli nuke. They don’t know it’s a nuke – but it’s clearly a bomb of some sort. They dig it up, get it on their truck, and end up selling it to some European creep who turns out to be part of a neo-Nazi plot that seeks to acquire a nuke and other WMDs.

So that’s the opening premise. The Israelis secretly put a pilot in the air with a tactical nuke as a last ditch deterrent in case the war on the ground looked like it was about to turn into a total collapse for Israel. Is that much a plausible premise? I mean, okay, why not, you gotta be willing to suspend some disbelief and not get hung up on questions like whether sending up a plane that could crash, be shot down, or even be captured with a single nuke in its hold would be the way that an Israeli head of state would go about making the threat of a nuclear strike known to their enemies.

But we’re supposed to believe the plane crashes because the pilot pulled an Albert Brooks move from Defending Your Life? No way.

And then what happens? The Israeli army has now lost a nuke, somewhere in the desert, possibly still in Israeli controlled territory, or possibly Egyptian or Syrian territory. So what do the Israelis do? They leave it, lost somewhere in the sand. They don’t go get it. They just shrug and go, “welp, heh heh, sorry to all of our allies – especially you, America – but we kind of lost one of our nukes in the desert and we can’t think of any way to organize a mission to retrieve it. Oh, and just to clarify, we aren’t saying we have nuclear weapons. But if we do have them, well, we have them minus one that we are supposed to have. Which we’re not going to bother to try to find and get back. Shalom.”

This is the Israelis, mind you. Not exactly the Keystone Cops of military action. The army that busted into Entebbe airport in Uganda in order to rescue Israeli hostages. They are supposed to be, like, “Yeah, we can’t go looking in a stretch of barely populated desert nearby for a missing nuke.”

Next comes some Hollywood laziness. Because we are told that the two Arab scavengers who found the nuke live in the Golan. Take a look at the landscape of where the Israeli fighter pilot crashes his jet, and where the wreckage of the plane has come to rest:

This is the Golan Heights? It looks like the Sinai desert. Seriously, I’m waiting for some modern day cinematic Moses to walk into the scene of the wreckage and take a close up look at the burning mush that is this shark-jumping movie premise. I’m half-expecting Mark Watney to amble along in his EVA suit. Just in case you’re not familiar with what the Golan looks like, here’s a pic from the Lonely Planet guide to visiting the Golan:

Also, and pay close attention here, if the Israelis lost one of their nukes in 1973 in the Golan, then that means they lost it in territory they controlled and then annexed a few years later. They wouldn’t even need to do a Mission Impossible style nuke retrieval in hostile enemy territory commando op. They would just need to look around for it while they were actively building new Israeli neighborhoods and communities in the Golan.

Continue reading “The Sum of All Fears shows how a movie with a ton of dumb stuff happening in it can also have profound moments”

Measuring Good: Sabermetrics and Spiritual Insight (originally published online in eJewish Philanthropy)

This article originally appeared in E-Jewish Philanthropy here.

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I’ll start with a story: in the 1970s, while working as a night shift security guard, Bill James developed an alternative set of stats for baseball called Sabermetrics – an unorthodox analytical model worthy of Nate Silver. For many years, James’ ideas were only known to a tiny group of extreme baseball junkies. The story of how Sabermetrics was finally embraced by a major league team’s general manager, Billy Beane, is wonderfully told in Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and the 2011 movie it inspired.

Beane’s dilemma was that the team he was responsible for building, the Oakland A’s, didn’t have the money to compete for the free agents who were the best players. Beane was a Bill James fan with a small budget and nothing to lose. He concluded that if James’ stats were actually better at predicting success than the traditionally used stats, then maybe he could build a winning team by acquiring overlooked players that traditional scouts would miss – players whose Sabermetric stats were cream of the crop. He did, and the A’s went on to become the winningest team in baseball for a good stretch of years.

Finally, there’s Theo Epstein, who’s in the sports headlines these days. He’s the Sabermetrics whiz kid who applied James’ model to the Boston Red Sox, finally ending their long championship drought. He’s spent the last five years doing the same with the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs.

So what’s spiritual about all this? I promise, we’ll get there, but stay with me a bit longer.

Continue reading “Measuring Good: Sabermetrics and Spiritual Insight (originally published online in eJewish Philanthropy)”

There’s more to Smokey and the Bandit than I realized

Amazon Prime is featuring Smokey and the Bandit (Universal Studios, 1977) in tribute to Burt Reynolds, who died this past week at 82. I was 8 when the movie came out, and I remember coming home from summer camp and going to see it in the theater with my childhood friend, Steve K. We counted the cuss words in the movie – I remember that we emerged from the cinema telling our friends that there were 76 bad words uttered in the film. We thought that was awesome. My parents, however, didn’t like the movie. They said it was disrespectful to law enforcement, and they were generally put off by movies about irreverent playboy outlaws being pursued by pathetic and humorless cops.

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In one of the most iconic (and controversial) moments of the film, Carrie (Sally Field) flips the bird to get the attention of a motorcycle cop, so she can lure him away from Cledus’s big rig.

Anyway, I spent this past Saturday night watching Smokey again for the first time in decades, and while I can’t say that there’s anything about this movie that asks to be taken seriously, I was surprised by some of the images and touches in the film. It’s a film whose Southern US world is one where white good ole boys, working class black folk, truckers, prostitutes, and little old church ladies are friends and collaborators in resisting the authority of ridiculous white lawmen, who themselves are the poorly paid errand boys of repugnant Southern white billionaires who have so much money and power that they entertain themselves by placing bets on contests in which the working people try to pull off risky and absurd feats. That’s right: Smokey and the Bandit is a socialist allegory aimed squarely at the capitalist menace. OK, not really. But there’s some surprising social commentary embedded in a movie that is basically a cinematic bag of potato chips. Read on if you’re interested and I’ll explain more 🙂 …

Continue reading “There’s more to Smokey and the Bandit than I realized”

“They call me Mr. Tibbs!” & “E.T. phone home”

I’ve added some new movies, great lines, and discussions to this piece in the past couple months.

The Accidental Rabbi

Screenshot 2017-09-23 at 9.44.27 PM In 2005, the American Film Institute celebrated 100 years of movies, and released its top 100 movie quotes of all time – the result of 1500 experts’ opinions.

What do the famous movie lines “They call me Mister Tibbs!” (Sidney Poitier as Detective Virgil Tibbs, In the Heat of the Night, 1967) and “E.T. phone home” (Pat Welsh doing the voice of E.T., 1982) have in common?

Before someone breaks the internet arguing that the actual line uttered by E.T. was “home phone” and not “phone home,” I really don’t care, the little girl in the movie also says “phone home” in that order right after the Muppet-alien says “home … phone”, so the line in that word order exists in the movie, and this post isn’t about that.

in_the_heat_of_the_night_still_embed.jpg Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier in the 1967 drama, In the Heat of the Night

What the two lines have…

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“They call me Mr. Tibbs!” & “E.T. phone home”

Screenshot 2017-09-23 at 9.44.27 PM
In 2005, the American Film Institute celebrated 100 years of movies, and released its top 100 movie quotes of all time – the result of 1500 experts’ opinions.

What do the famous movie lines “They call me Mister Tibbs!” (Sidney Poitier as Detective Virgil Tibbs, In the Heat of the Night, 1967) and “E.T. phone home” (Pat Welsh doing the voice of E.T., 1982) have in common?

Before someone breaks the internet arguing that the actual line uttered by E.T. was “home phone” and not “phone home,” I really don’t care, the little girl in the movie also says “phone home” in that order right after the Muppet-alien says “home … phone”, so the line in that word order exists in the movie, and this post isn’t about that.

in_the_heat_of_the_night_still_embed.jpg
Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier in the 1967 drama, In the Heat of the Night

 

What the two lines have in common is the number one. That’s because out of all 100 of the greatest lines from a century of movies, there’s only one that’s spoken by a black person, which happens to be the same number that were spoken by extra terrestrials.

Actually, it’s the same number of lines – one – spoken by any Latinos or Latinas too. That distinction goes to Alfanso Bedoya, playing a Mexican bandit in the 1948 film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and AFI ranked it at #36, sandwiched by much shorter famous quips by Roy Scheider and Arnold Schwarzenegger, respectively.

 

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It also happens to be the same number of lines uttered by a disembodied voice (“If you build it he will come” from Field of Dreams) and by a malevolent creature of Middle Earth (“My preciousssssss” by Gollum, voiced by Andy Serkis, in LOTR). Oh and there’s one line uttered by a green witch (Wizard of Oz, 1939) and one by a vampire (Dracula, 1931).

Why am I blogging about this? I’m not really sure. What started me on this path was watching the “Show me the money!” line in Jerry Maguire (awarded #25 on AFI’s list). Now it’s possible to argue that that line is not only uttered by Tom Cruise – who is the focus of the clip AFI used in their broadcast video of the 100 movie quotes – but that Cuba Gooding, Jr. also says the line, which would bring us up to 1.5 total lines out of 100 spoken by black actors. On the other hand, Al Jolson’s line in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” is uttered by a white character who we see performing in blackface, and that kind of cancels out the possible half-credit we might assign to Cuba Gooding, Jr. (For a nuanced and complex take on Al Jolson, check out this short video.)

I have to wonder whether AFI’s panel of cultural and film experts gave enough consideration to some of these famous lines uttered by black actors:

“Bye, Felicia.” – Ice Cube in Friday (1995).

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Creed is lovely

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So, having seen the new Star Wars movie yesterday and enjoyed it, let me say that as much fun as Star Wars: The Force Awakens  was, it is the second best of the “40-years-since-the-original” follow on films that have recently hit theaters. That’s right, Creed, which opened in November, does simple yet wonderful things with the core elements that helped the original Rocky win the Oscar for Best Picture in 1976.

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