Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation: A Review

October 15, 2015

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation character posters released, new ...

 

by Avi Davis

There are a few good questions to ask about the purpose of this review.  For starters, why am I writing it?  Since, as a heavy critic of mass popular culture and its soulless inanity, why should I bother with a movie which could just as well represent inanity at its most fulsome?  And with our world crashing around us, haven’t we other things to distract us?

 

 

 

The answer is simple, if not particularly ennobling.    Tom Cruise is a 50-something guy who is reportedly able, at his advanced age, to cling to the fuselage of a cargo jet in full flight – and not just once, but for as many as eight takes during filming.  He dives into the vortex of a whirlpool and holds his breath for as long as six minutes, while fiddling with, losing and then recovering a key card.  He drives a motorcycle like a mother and survives a crash that would have ripped the skin and bones off mere mortals.  And all of these encounters he performs on his own – no stunt men, no CGI, no body doubles.

And so:  I am also a 50-something guy a couple of years older than Mr Cruise. Personal adventure is something that still swivels my chair and I am unashamed of admitting that I  live for the thrill of doing things like riding bicycles around Iceland or scaling the peaks of  the Grand Tetons, even as those undertakings  become increasingly challenging as the years go by.

I have marveled for years at how aging rockers such as Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and actors such as Sylvester Stallone and Liam Neeson have been able to remain viable action oriented entertainers into their  60s ( 70s in the case of Jagger!)  – sprightly,well-muscled, lean – as if the passage of time means nothing.     If they can do such things at such advanced ages, then surely I can personally handle my rather more modest physical challenges. Right?

 

Well, sort of. No one should be under the illusion that any of these men are able to achieve their physical wonders without the aid of an army of assistants and helpers and physicians and dieticians who monitor everything they put into their bodies and every activity they undertake.

But still – how many stars at similar ages in the 1950s and 60s could have assumed as limber and as dexterous a role as if they were twenty years younger?

So there you have my admission.  I am in awe of Tom Cruise. Or, should I say even more truthfully, I am just plain jealous of him.  This alpha of alpha males takes on roles which actually endanger his life and through mental application, skill and perhaps even a little good luck, survives them.  Given these facts, the whole movie and its asinine plot is almost beside the point.  It is, after all,  merely a vehicle for Mr. Cruise to prove to us that he has still got it.

The Mission Impossible franchise, one that Cruise actually owns, has arguably sustained him as not only a major action figure but as a successful motion picture artist in general. Many of his other films outside of the franchise have bombed so miserably that they alone would not be able to maintain his status as Hollywood’s most bankable star.  But don’t credit the strength of plot, character development or story continuity in any of these films for that success.

And the pattern continues with Rogue Nation which reprises the role of Cruise’s character, Secret Agent Matthew Hunt.  Hunt’s task in the new film, which he never gets to really either accept nor decline, is to identify and then blot out the leadership of ‘ The Syndicate’, a shadowy group of malcontent geniuses seeking to destabilize world governments through assassinations of key political figures. Why it is doing this and what it hopes to gain by undertaking such perverse action is never made very clear.  But the evil consortium (which comes complete with its own German-accented, Aryan-looking leader who even has the obligatory twitching eyebrow) is a daunting foe, seemingly capable of predicting its adversaries’ actions several movie frames ahead.

The trouble is, Hunt’s organization, the IMF ( the Impossible Missions Force – yes, that really IS its name  –  and it is right up there in a contest with unobtainium from Avatar for a Nomenclature Laziness Award) has lost the confidence of the CIA and is being disbanded, its funding cut while Agent Hunt is in mid-mission.

What is more the CIA does not believe The Syndicate even exists. In order for Hunt to reclaim his organization’s good name and its funding, let alone save the world, he must expose  The Syndicate.  And for this he must go rogue –  at risk to his own life and livelihood.

Such nobility of soul of course is highly admirable, if hardly credible.

But OK.  Suddenly Hunt finds himself being hunted by The Syndicate, the FBI and his own erstwhile colleagues at the IMF – who are trying to get to him before all the others do.

Confused yet?  Well, join me, the audience and most of the seemingly befuddled movie cast itself in that category.

But not to fear, it all comes good in the end, even if it never becomes  exactly clear who is hunting who.  Hunt zips in and out of Vienna opera theaters, Moroccan strongholds, the U.K’s prime ministerial residence and a host of other exotic locations, seeking to single handedly ( although eventually joined by some of his ex- IMF pals who similarly go rogue) to bring down The Syndicate and retrieve his honor.

Hunt’s love interest in Rogue Nation is the fetching Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), an agent of no fixed nationality, whose primary role seems to be to rescue Hunt from all manner of disastrous life threatening situations in which he places himself.  And she’s not really even on his side!  Their affair sizzles with all the steam from a fetid swamp.  The closest they get to actual romance is an off hand comment from Hunt at the end of the film about getting  away from it all to live a quiet life on a Caribbean island.

So what makes Rogue Nation so eye-poppingly watchable?  Biometrics, used cleverly in identification devices;  dazzling computer graphics;  disguises that are so inventive that you will wonder how they made them;  action scenes in diving suits, on rappelling ropes, on motor cycles and of course on jets at 5,000 feet – all offering enough entertainment to keep us involved, even we you don’t really know what is going on.

Its all impossible, but so what?  Most of us create fantasies about who we are or who we want to be and Hollywood offers to transform such illusions into celluloid for a few hours of distracting entertainment.  I am no different in that regard. And I loved it.  May Matthew Hunt or Tom Cruise  – whichever one of them is the real human being- go on solving impossible problems on impossible missions for that impossibly named outfit for which he works, for all the forseeable, if impossible, future.  I will be ready to offer my vote of thanks with my $15.00.

 

Avi Davis is the president of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone.

 

 


BEST OF ENEMIES: A REVIEW

August 10, 2015

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Produced and Directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon

Featuring: William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal

Review Date: August 12, 2015

Although it is hard to imagine today, there really was a time in the modern era when public intellectual giants bestrode the Earth.   And from the mid-1950s through to the end of the 70s, two of the most renown  of these collusii  were William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal.  Emerging from opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum – – the first conservative, the latter progressive, these towering figures with their writings, speeches, pronouncements and television appearances were the the stuff of endless public scrutiny and fascination.  Buckley, an overachieving prodigy, practically carved the conservative movement out of whole cloth; he was the founder of National Review, an essayist extraordinaire, a television host,  author of countless books on politics, art and culture, avid sailor and a concert harpischordist.   Vidal, a polymath and a hedonistic aesthete, was the author of such groundbreaking novels as The City and the Pillar(1948)  and  Myra Breckenridge (1968) and a historical revisionist of the first order.  They were born within months of one another; were almost the same height and spoke with the same honeyed, mellifluous accents of the East Coast patrician class.

 

 

So it was not so astounding that ABC, then limping well behind NBC and CBS in national viewership decided, before the Democratic and Republican Conventions of 1968, to enlist both men as commentators on the proceedings.  The antipathy between the two was well known, as was the divergence of views in politics, culture and art. Fireworks were certainly expected, but nothing on the level of what eventuated.

This documentary captures the two men in all  their scintillating, intellectual prime using the actual archival footage of the time to portray not just two men at diametrically opposed ends of the political spectrum,  but two cultures and ideas of America in direct collision. Here we can look into the first shots fired in America’s cultural  civil war –  a war that rages on unabated today, with the the Vidal wing  having gained the upper hand.

Much about the debate would presage the way the two camps would face off in the future.  The film makers go to great pains to reveal how Vidal had no real intention of fulfilling his role as commentator on the Conventions but from the beginning sought to provoke Buckley into revealing what he considered his ‘unbridled hypocrisy’.  The ad hominem attack strategy worked well for Vidal and he used it as bait to lure Buckley into a trap into which he fell helplessly in the ninth debate.   During the raucous and violent Democratic Convention of August that year, Vidal in an off hand comment, referred to his co-commentator as a crypto-Nazi; Buckley, the veins in his neck bulging, leaned close to Vidal and declaimed:

“Now stop calling me a crypto- Nazi, you queer, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and  you will stay plastered.”

The outburst was entirely out of character for the unflappable Buckley who had learned to bear the lances of liberals for decades with considerable pluck and was one of the country’s finest debaters.

The host quickly cut to a break and Buckley stormed off.  But the incident was to take on a life of  its own, leading to years of litigation between the two men and unending public squabbles in the national press.

Clearly the documentary, which is even handed in its review of the life and work of the two men, attempts to portray an America at the crossroads, using the voices of two of its great antagonists as a barometer.

Yet even  more exquisitely it seeks to investigate the impact of the debates and the notorious outburst on the lives and consciousnesses of the two men themselves.  A telling interview of Buckley by Ted Koppel in 1994 is presented in which Buckley, now aged and frail, is shown the infamous clip once again.  His response is an uncomfortable silence and it is clear that he views the event with deep regret, one of the few missteps in an otherwise brilliantly calibrated public career.

Vidal, on the other hand, is shown at his mansion on the Amalfi coast in Italy, a house built on a precipice, which gives him the perfect vantage, he says, to witness “the collapse of western civilization.” Now aged and frail himself, his books out of print and his silver tongued voice no longer in demand in the public square, he bears his own regrets, and although the photos on his wall of the two men in 1968 are presented as a form of trophy, as if he won the scalp of the firebrand conservative, there is a sadness in his voice – perhaps revealing that the events of so long ago had left him with a bitterness he had not yet expunged.

All of us have moments in our lives that we regret – that we long to go back to and make right.  Some of those incidents and events lie buried for decades but occasionally flare up to haunt us.   Buckley and Vidal were no different in this regard and despite their tremendous public careers and famously impregnable intellects, remained sensitive men to the end.  The true beauty of this film is in its revelation of this simple truth  –  that they were gargantuan forces to be reckoned with, no doubt, but in reality mere mortals bearing their humanity with all the angst, pride, ego and sadness of us all.

 

Avi Davis is the President and Senior Fellow of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles.


Boyhood: A Review

February 15, 2015

Featuring; Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Loralei Linklater

Director: Richard Linklater

Running Time:  2 hrs  45 mins.

by Avi Davis

Coming of age movies are not exactly uncommon in Hollywood.  That is perhaps natural for an industry which focuses its steely gaze on an age range somewhere between the years 12 and 18.  So I might then be excused for my expectation that Boyhood would turn out to be just another boy meets girl flick, a rumination on the tawdry and confused sex lives of our over stimulated youth.

As a result nothing quite prepared me for this quiet miracle of a movie – two hours and 45 minutes which offered a sensitive journey undertaken in the company of a young boy who could almost be our own younger brother or son.

Director Richard Linklater took twelve years to film his subjects, using the same actors as they aged through the various time periods and bringing the two children Mason Jr.( Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Loralei Linklater) and their divorced mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) through the trials of growing up.   Through its tender revelations, the children emerge from their mother’s tempestuous 12 year argosy (which includes two disastrous marriages, several hurried moves across Texas, new schools and new loneliness) and into adulthood without being broken or tarnished by the experience.

 

Image result for Images of Boyhood

This is a movie about growing up – that might be true enough; but it is not only the children who we see develop.  Both of the parents also endure the growing pains of maturity- Olivia as she moves from  young and desperate single motherhood to capable provider, doubling as home maker; and the often absent father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) who moves from his free spirited iconoclasm and Disney Dad personality to a recognition of his adult responsibilities and expectations.

Yet the quiet, utter brilliance of the movie is in its subtle examination of children. Rarely do you feel the intrusion of the adult film maker.  The plot moves along in a natural progression and the time lapses, sometimes several years in length, don’t seem to matter; we are so engrossed in the spectacle of seeing a sweet, sensitive young boy mature before our eyes that we can forgive the rough seams needed to patch the story together.  True enough there is a script, but it is a rather loose one and the actors  have been given quite a bit of free rein to ad lib and provide their own dialogue.  This lends the production a lightness and elasticity which takes it well beyond the affectation and casual manipulation that movie audiences are so often forced to endure from over bearing directors.

The subtlety extends to the marvelous use of the actors’ facial expressions to presage the onset of a plot development or of an event which has already happened off screen.   The six -year-old Mason Jr., for instance, upon meeting his mother’s university sociology professor, senses that the teacher’s interest in his mother is more than educational and this sudden realization is caught with a sharp glance at the man himself-  a panicked alarm bell that warns him (and us) of something in his life that is about to change.   Sure enough the next scene has the university professor returning home from his honeymoon with Mason Jr.’s mother in tow.

An almost identical scene plays out several years later when as a young college professor herself, Olivia has invited some of her mature aged students back to the family home for a Thanksgiving dinner; and in one of these guests Mason senses his mother’s more than casual interest.    The next scene, a few years beyond, portrays a family dinner, yet this time it is the contemptuous look in the mother’s eye as she responds to a comment from her beer guzzling new husband that explains all we need to know of what has transpired in the interval between scenes.

As the movie progresses through the various stages of Mason’s life we see him confronting the many challenges all boys must endure at one time or another: the bullying of younger schoolboys; the experiments with drugs and alcohol;  fumbling through the unknown mysteries of sex; the heartbreak of youthful romance and the desperate attempt to latch on to an individual identity. Yet though these changes – which are prefigured by changes in hairstyle, physique, facial hair, the political environment and music, Mason’s inner self changes little; his goal has remained constant –   right into his late youth: the dreamy, sensitive child desperately searching for something real to hold onto.

This perhaps provides the special magic of Boyhood.  It is an argument for the notion that while our environment changes and we move through different styles, fashions and experiences, the inner person within us rarely changes.  Character, Linklater seems to be saying, is formed very early in the human species – perhaps even before we emerge from the womb – and while it will receive heavy bombardment from environmental factors, it remains resistant to change.  As we leave the bearded Mason on his first day of college, sitting shyly and a little awkwardly with a girl he has just met on a rocky outcrop in a national park, his wonder of the world and his sense of his place in it, does not seem to have changed much at all from the moment we had met him two hours and 45 minutes earlier, as a six-year- old, staring questioningly at the blue sky.

Those of us lucky enough to have children of our own also know how the changes in them can be captured by certain occurrences which register within us with something akin to shock:  The day we transform from “Daddy” into “Dad”; the long silence in the drive home from school when all answers to our questions are suddenly monosyllabic; the tendency to reject any advice we might have to offer and the growing contempt for our musical tastes.

But the real changes in our children are often imperceptible because they take place beyond our reach or our observation.  It is Boyhood’s special achievement in allowing a view of the developing mind of a child, which ultimately elevates the film above almost any other coming of age movie I have seen.  It is an education in itself and makes me long for another Linklater film, to appear in 12 years time, which will chronicle the same boy’s struggles through the pains, struggles, mistakes and ultimate triumphs of early adulthood.

 

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone


American Sniper: A Review

February 5, 2015

by Avi Davis

Director: Clint Eastwood

Featuring :  Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

One of the most harrowing scenes in Clint Eastwood’s new film American Sniper should be instantly familiar to anybody who watches the news today. U.S. soldiers in Fallujah enter a home and discover a side room occupied by a bloodied corpse hanging in chains from the rafters.  But as the eyes of the soldiers drift from this gruesome scene they are startled by evidence of  the full extent of the executioners’ handiwork : decapitated heads, severed limbs, sliced off fingers and other dismembered human attachments line the shelves of the room.  The room is a veritable chamber of horrors – and it would make any Hollywood horror movie set (even though this is a movie set itself) look tame by comparison.

It is this searing image, of which there are more than a few in American Sniper, that leaves its audience gasping and punches home one of the main reason claimed for the American presence in Iraq: there is evil in the world that threatens America n interests and which needs to be expunged.  Many critics looking back on the two Gulf Wars in the 1990s and 2000s tend to forget the enemy we confronted at that time: first in the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein- a brutally sadistic regime that subjected the Iraqi people to more than 25 years of unremitting torture; and then the al Qaeda insurgency which terrorized and victimized the urban Iraqi centers. American Sniper makes it clear that the enemy was real, armed, dangerous and a threat.

Exactly to whom though, other than the U.S. soldiers in combat, is one of the perplexing questions the film fails to answer.

This is the story of Navy Seal Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the most lethal sniper in American military history, who undertakes four tours of duty in Iraq which amounts to a total of nearly 1,000 days of his boots on the ground.  The movie, based on Kyle’s best selling autobiography, shows how the future marksman, filled with indignation after seeing news reports of the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 1998 and then the devastating attacks on New York City of September 11, 2001, decides to abandon his career as a rising star on the Texas rodeo circuit to sign up for training as a Navy Seal.  His rigorous ordeal in boot camp is portrayed with all the grunting, heaving chests and waterfalls of perspiration that has become familiar to us in such boot camp ilms as An Officer and a Gentleman. It is however his meeting in a bar with his future wife ( Sienna Miller) which might have set this film apart from other war films, as the romance begins to occupy the mind of the protagonist who must decide whether to leave her and their soon to be born child or take off to  a theater of war from which he might never return.

He chooses duty of course and within months of his deployment to Iraq he has already been acclaimed by his platoon as a marksman of such prodigious accuracy that the protective shield he offers inspires his fellow Seals to increasing feats of valor.

Kyle’s contribution however was not what one would call prosaic.  Each day, it seems, he was required to make a life or death decision, whether to bring down an individual man, women or child who could or actually does threaten his fellow servicemen with Molotov cocktails, grenades and hand launched missiles.  The decision to kill a child who has been goaded by his mother to attack an oncoming U.S. patrol provides the actual opening scene of the film and foreshadows the regularly problematic decisions Kyle has to make throughout his tours of duty in the dusty streets of Iraq.

The film traces Kyle’s and his Navy Seal compatriots’ steadily growing unease with the daily grind of patrols and the necessity of taking rough measures against the local population – to either extract information or else intimidate them into cooperation.  Kyle for the most part remains stoic while in the field as several of his fellow Seals either perish or else begin to question the purpose of their mission and the utility of their deployment.  It is only when Kyle is home on leave that the full impact of what he has been required to do to protect his men rises to haunt him.

Eastwood capably portrays the fatigue that preys on men who have returned from intense periods of military service and the difficulty they have in adjusting to their normal suburban environments and to family life.

But Eastwood also offers very few surprises in his retelling of  Kyle’s account of his experiences in Iraq.  It is a rather wooden and workman like rendering of  a sharpshooter’s career in the army and there is little context given for the war and why the American government sent the men there in the first place.  And, of course, no clarity as to whether the war was actually won  – which would have justified the platoon’s sacrifice. In addition, there is no portrayal of the intense political battles which raged about the war in general and the surge in particular during George W. Bush’s second term of office; The disconnection of the physical war from the political war robs the film of some of its true drama, since that latter struggle took, at times, as much of a toll on the soldiers as did the physical confrontations they endured.

These missing elements tend to strip the film of its location in America’s recent memory for in truth the film could have just as easily been about Vietnam, Korea or World War II and made more or less the same points that many films from Platoon to Full Metal Jacket to The Hurt Locker have already made.  It is of course nothing new to see soldiers being required to make invidious choices on the battlefield which can possibly scar their targets or themselves for life. We could have hoped that Clint Eastwood would lend that story more nuance and perhaps a different perspective given its close proximity in time to our own day.

 

A consistent theme of the movie is the focus on fatherhood. In an early scene at a family dinner Kyle’s father admonishes the young Chris and his brother to protect the weak: there are sheep, the father relates, who are weak and do not know themselves;  there are wolves who prey on the sheep; and then  there are sheep-dogs who protect the sheep. He commands his sons to be sheep-dogs; they must protect defenseless flocks against the ravages of wolves.  Near the end of the film Kyle is seen taking his own seven-year-old son out on a hunt and teaching him for the first time to shoot a rifle – just as his father, in a scene portraying exactly the same event years earlier, had  done for him.    The message is that the sheep dogs should also be hunters and that fathers are responsible to society to impart to their sons the skills necessary to kill, when needed to either protect or feed others.

It is  curious to note that the film was originally set to be directed by Stephen Spielberg and many Spielbergian moments seem to have remained embedded in the script: the presence of several fellow soldiers who question the righteousness of their mission (a la Munich); the soldiers who fight divorced of any real conviction or understanding of why they are fighting ( Saving Private Ryan) and the requisite moral relativism of the discussions among the soldiers as they prepare for battle.

But since this is a film directed by Eastwood it necessarily draws heavily from Western themes.  There are echoes of Unforgiven, Shane, High Noon and Pale Rider in  American Sniper in that a rugged individualist, arriving to save a community from bandits and thieves accomplishes his task, retreats from the scene, resists the social acceptance that his victory confers upon him and then melts away, never to return.  The Western motif is particularly apposite when we remember that Kyle was originally a cowboy, working as a range-hand while attempting to make it as a professional rodeo star.

However, American Sniper disappoints because the hero, unlike the lead characters in these other Western themed movies, is a man whose mission is never clearly defined   – which is because the American mission in Iraq itself is never clearly defined.  Kyle and his men are shown to be in continuous combat – but for what  purpose and to what ultimate end?   Those of us who lived through that time are still asking these questions, particularly in light of the U.S’  recent retreat from  Middle East and its apparent abandonment by our current president to chaos. The movie does not help us solve our own consternation that the sacrifices of the men killed and maimed in the cities of Iraq may have been in vain.

American Sniper is a well made film, with gripping action scenes and terrific performances by the lead characters in Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.  But it is hard to rank it among the great war films.  As a recounting of the story of the sniper Chris Kyle, who in the end died an ironic death from the bullet of a fellow marine – not on the battlefield but on U.S. soil, it is a touching memorial.  But this could have been just as easily accomplished with a documentary.  We expect our most talented film makers, particularly ones of Eastwood’s accomplishments, to provide more subtlety to life stories such as these and burnish them with deeper perspectives, transmuting fairly ordinary tales into chronicles with a universal message to which all viewers can relate.

That American Sniper fails in this may not necessarily be the fault of the film maker as much as it is of the historical period in which  the film is set -a period about which Americans of all stripes are still trying to obtain some form of understanding and a sense of  closure.


Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus – A Review

January 27, 2015

by Avi Davis

Director: Tim Mahoney
Release Date: January 19, 2015
In April  2001, 42-year-old Rabbi David Wolpe, regarded as one of the leading Jewish prelates and thinkers in America, dropped a bombshell.  Speaking before his congregation, Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles, he admitted that he had little reason to believe that there was much historical basis to the Exodus narrative. As reported in the Los Angeles Times he said:
“The truth is that virtually every modern archaeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.”
The fact that Wolpe was speaking on Passover itself – the Jewish festival which commemorates the Exodus  –  and that the Los Angeles Times was there to cover his sermon, goes a long way to explaining the purpose of Wolpe’s sudden admission: he was engaging in an act of political and theological revisionism (some might even say sabotage) –  attempting to bring Judaism into line with modern scholarship and archaeological research, which, he later averred, had found nothing in 200 years to corroborate the Biblical account of the Israelite departure from Egypt.
The characterization of the Exodus as a fanciful myth has of course some telling consequences.  Among them is that many of the greatest events of the Biblical period may never have actually occurred.  It would mean that there was no historical Moses, no Ten Plagues, no slaughter of the first born, no parting of the Red Sea, no desert wandering, no fall of Jericho and no conquest of the land of Canaan.  It could also just possibly mean that there was no ‘ historical’ Ten Commandments at all.
Without sufficient archaeological evidence to corroborate the Exodus, the entire story can be regarded as no more than a heroic narrative woven out of whole cloth by later chroniclers to lend both legitimacy and purpose to the Israelite claim to the land of Israel.  This of course plays into the hands of an assorted range of secularists, atheists, anti-Semites and Israel bashers who are looking for exactly such a quote from a major Jewish leader to either delegitimize the State of Israel, smear Judaism or else deny the Jewish people’s historical claims to the land.
Wolpe’s admission naturally whipped up a firestorm in the American Jewish community but he was quickly supported by many contemporary Biblical scholars who bewailed the absence of an authoritative archaeological record and who had to sadly admit that the archaeologists may be right.
But what if Biblical archaeology has made some fundamental errors about the historical occurrence of the Exodus?
It is almost universally accepted that the Exodus, if it occurred at all, took place in the 13th Century BCE, during the reign of the greatest of Ancient Egypt’s builders –  Rameses II.  And it is true enough that in this period there is scant archaeological evidence to buttress the Exodus story.
Yet is it possible that Biblical archaeologists for the past 100 years have been looking in the wrong time period?  Could it be that they may have been off the historical mark on the Exodus by up to 300 years? And if so, what would they find if they looked there?
That is the starting point for Tim Mahoney’s elegant documentary Patterns of Evidence, a film which records the personal journey of a film maker seeking to uncover the truth about the Exodus. His journey takes him to several countries – to archaeological sites in Egypt and Israel, to the halls of academia in the United States, England and Germany while attempting to maintain an objective mind  -free, as much as possible, of the pitfalls of bias and prejudice which at one time or another afflicts almost every historical academic discipline.

 At the beginning of the film Mahoney outlines his mission: “I didn’t go with a preconceived conclusion, but I was willing to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt as we searched for the truth. I went to the top people in the world and said: ‘Tell me what you know about this story and what does the archaeology tell you.’ I talked with both sides – people who can’t see any evidence for Exodus and people who see the evidence. It became a balanced approach.”

As the film proceeds the evidence mounts that the period of the Middle Kingdom,(2050 BCE and 1652 BCE) if assessed to be the correct chronological time for the Exodus, rather than the New Kingdom (1570–1070 BCE) provides a trove evidence for the existence of a slave tribe which resided in the Nile Delta, its sudden departure from the historical recor , graves which might belong to the twelve sons of Jacob and one grave of which is missing its sarcophagus and might be the grave of the Biblical Joseph.

The film reveals is that there is a body of scholarship – although substantially in the minority, which has found that there is abundant evidence to validate the Exodus, but only if the chronology is shifted back 250 years.  Included in such evidence is a papyrus dated from that time period which recounts an episode of blood in the River Nile and plagues of insects descending on the Nile Delta. In addition to this hieroglyphics on stelae indicating the existence of the Biblical Joseph and  grave sites offering a glimpse into the slave life of the ancient homeland of Azair – the Biblical Goshen  – all of which offer tantalizing evidence to support the Middle Kingdom hypothesis.

So what is keeping archaeologists from making this leap?   Well, first all, this kind of revisionism messes up history big time since the dating of other civilizations is tied to the Ancient Egyptian chronology and calendar. Second, there are reputations to consider since if the key Biblical archaeologists have been getting their chronology wrong all these years what does it say about their credibility as historians?  As we have seen repeatedly in recent years, money, reputation, career advancement and the quest for academic survival can often trump the search for truth in academia. Archaeologists have a great deal to protect in continuing to debunk the Bible as historical fact.

But as I watched the film I was visited by an uneasy feeling.

Arguing that secular scholars are completely wrong or that their opponents are completely right does not serve historical analysis too faithfully.  Could it be that truth falls somewhere in between the position that Mahoney stakes out and the one traditionally advanced by Egyptologists?   It is impossible to either know or to understand this from viewing a two hour film. Real historical research is pounded out in the dialogue between hundreds of articles and papers, and refined in the back and forth of peer review.

By viewing this documentary most people, for instance, would not know that the revised Egyptian chronology is not a new theory at all –  is in fact decades old –  and that it  has been shown to create as many problems for biblical chronology as it solves.

And one thing other thing Mahoney fails to do is to examine in depth the reason Biblical scholarship focuses so intently on the New Kingdom rather than the Middle Kingdom to locate the story of the Exodus.  After all, there is such a thing as carbon dating, as well as comparative literature from the period and other scientific indicators which might justify the time period almost universally accepted by the Biblical scholars.  This question demanded much greater examination.

And of course there are then the philosophical arguments.

In the midst of narrator’s journey Mahoney comes across the writings of Sir Alan Henderson Gardiner – one of the world’s most famous Egyptologists, who admits that all we really have left of the great civilizations that once existed in the desert sands of the Middle East are mere ‘rags and tatters’ –  the detritus of a civilization and not its essential core.

With so little evidence, not only for the Exodus story but for any civilization or event which once existed, how can archaeologists truly be sure of anything?  Is it not true that the findings of archaeologists lead not to the re-creation of historical  facts, but rather the establishment of theories that are rarely ever so water tight that they can never be challenged?

This kind of discussion also leads to some pretty heavy epistemological arguments, namely, how do we actually ever know anything?  Aren’t those who accept the argument that the Exodus never happened merely transferring their faith from one written version of the past to a faith in another’s scientific methods that they can neither personally nor empirically verify nor corroborate?

I have always marveled at David Wolpe’s reasoning on this level: for surely, as a rabbi who believes in the existence of a G’d, he understands the philosophical contortions through which he must pass in order to state so affirmatively that the Biblical story is almost certainly myth. He is, after all, relying on research that he did not personally conduct and on a historical methodology for establishing a chronology with which he is probably unfamiliar. How can he be so sure that the perspective he has so wholesomely adopted was not itself refracted through bias and prejudice and which might be just as determined not to find any evidence of the Exodus as the film maker’s archaeological subjects are to find it?

People of faith don’t require archaeology to corroborate their beliefs.  If we accept that archaeology is a notoriously inexact method of determining historical truth – given the ‘rags and tatters ‘ theory elucidated above, could it not be that the evidence of the Exodus is still waiting to be discovered beneath the mountains of sand and sediment in the Nile Delta?

Why then the rush to judgement when, in the absence of authoritative proof such as a contemporary manuscript, we have what is essentially a written historical narrative, composed many, many centuries closer to the events than we stand today and which operates as at least a tangential guide to understanding this era?  This amounts to giving the Bible ‘the benefit of the doubt’ as Mahoney states in his introduction and it is what the pre-modern archaeologists certainly did.

The eagerness to debunk the Bible’s historical validity is a default intellectual reflex in today’s secular world- a world riven with satirists, deconstructionists and debunkers who gleefully skewer religion at every available opportunity.

But as Mahoney himself states in his book on the subject, the absence of evidence should never be regarded as evidence of absence. That is a credo that both sides of the divide of this important historical inquiry would be well advised to adopt.

 

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone

 

 

 


Wild: A Review

January 13, 2015

By Avi Davis

Wild Movie Poster

 

Twenty minutes into Wild, a film which relies largely on flashbacks to round out its full story, I began to experience a few flashbacks of my own.

There I was in southern England, facing a slope which looked as though it rose at a 70% gradient.  The wind was kicking hard at my back and the rain had begun to pelt. I was alone and my feet, already callused from five weeks of walking, felt as though they were sodden from either sweat or blood. My back, aching from carrying  a 50 lb pack for five hours, didn’t think it could bear any further strain.

But…. I started climbing.

An hour later, drenched and heaving for breath, I reached the top and with an elated whoop looked triumphantly down at the path I had just conquered.   My victory jig though didn’t last long.  That’s because it brought me round  to face the path looming ahead ……… which I saw climbed yet another mountain much like the one I had just conquered- and then three following it.

I think it was the first time I had openly wept since I was child.

Which is all to say, I felt quite an empathy for Caroline Strayed, the heroine of Wild. Played by the diminutive Reese Witherspoon with great pluck, Wild is the story of a woman emotionally and psychologically devastated who seeks redemption by steeling herself to walk solo along the 2,500 mile Pacific Crest Trail on the U.S. west coast – a trek which begins in the arid Sonoma Desert on the California/Mexico border and ends in the damp Cascades of Washington State.  Over its course, paralleling the Western seaboard, the Trail traverses parched desert, sparse chaparral, snow covered passes and deeply forested canyons.  It is one of the most grueling long distance paths in the world and those who complete it are regarded as having reached the top tier of the world’s long distance hikers.

There are two journeys competing for our attention in Wild.  The first is the account of the trek itself which Strayed undertakes as a bumbling neophyte.  The second, and the more interesting, is the chronicle of her descent into drugs, prostitution and self abuse following the early death of her deeply loved and missed mother – all of which precedes and then occasions the trek.

The walk itself starts off in blistering heat along a desert path as Strayed encounters sunburn, rattlesnakes, coyotes and desert foxes.  In her first days she meets with a ranch hand who invites her to stay the night in his house and we can feel her deep trepidation as she accepts.  It turns into a benign invitation and the ranch hand and his wife become her friends. Along the trails she encounters an assortment of men, some of whom seek to befriend her, some to seduce her and one , menacingly to assault her. But as the trek proceeds she gathers confidence and a level of self realization which is only possible when you pass through a monumental struggle alone.

Her mother looms as the guiding light in her life and it is to her that Caroline dedicates the walk.

The second journey in this film revolves around the life of dissipation into which Caroline sinks as her marriage crumbles, her friends and family abandon her and she turns to drugs, junkies and casual sex for fulfillment. It is a harrowing argosy because as she passes through it, she can see the life her mother wished her to live, slowly fading away.   Her ultimate redemption can only achieved, she rightly perceives, by passing through an ordeal  which will test her faith in her self, in humanity and in an unknown future which awaits her on the other side.

Much of the story of the walk I recognized as authentic – the daydreams and dueling conversations held alternately with friends and foes; the endless juke box of music – remembered songs and melodies, called upon to keep oneself entertained and from going mad;  the deep longing for ice cream and anything with sugar;  the constant regrets about not bringing essential camping or walking gear;  the improvisations made when things break or are lost;  the intense anticipation of reaching a destination where letters and food supplies await;  the fear of camping alone on a windswept plain with only the howls of animals as company; the deep camaraderie which develops with others met along the trail and most important of all- the gritty determination to keep going no matter what.

Witherspoon shines in the role of Strayed and gives us an entirely convincing portrait of a woman in deep turmoil but who will let few obstacles – natural or man made deter her. Laura Dern as the mother is not quite as convincing and her on screen conviviality seems at times forced although she projects enough of a life force against which Caroline’s bitter disappointment in herself can be measured.

Can a walk of this magnitude really act as a form of redemption and recast one’s life? The answer is an emphatic yes.  Although I walked with none of Witherspoon’s assorted demons, I similarly began my own trek with a desire to understand myself and my purpose.  The three months I spent walking  across Southern England and into central England  as a 24-year -old , gave me time to think and dwell on the things that mattered to me and the life I wanted to live.

In Wild, Caroline Strayed  emerges from her journey a different woman, someone who has saved herself by dint of  deep personal commitment and sacrifice.   The self -reliance and self -confidence this has engendered now gives her the courage to shape a new life.

There may be few people who can see themselves in Caroline’s sweat sodden boots.  But for those who can they will know that the inner journey can be as brutally long as the physical one and of the two, usually the one fraught with the greater difficulty.

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone


Unbroken: A Review

January 5, 2015

by Avi Davis

Director: Angelina Jolie

Featuring: Jack O’Connell, Domehall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Whitrock

Release Date: December 25, 2014

Review Date: January 5, 2015

In the first scene of Unbroken, we find ourselves floating in a bank of nimbus clouds, watching as what appear to be a flock of birds careen towards us.

A few seconds later and we hear the drone of plane engines, startled to realize that we are in the flight path, not of migrating geese, but of a squadron of bombers.  Almost immediately, the fuselage of a World War II vintage B24 booms past us and we suddenly know we are in a time and place very different from our own.

This is scintillating film making, providing a raw introduction to a desperate era, when American air force pilots were manning drafty, unreliable aircraft that were seemingly held together by tape and glue.   The bomber, on this particular run, releases its payload on a Japanese occupied Pacific island below it but its loading bay jams and will not retract, making it impossible for the pilot to properly descend his landing gear.  As the plane heads for home, the plane’s problems are compounded when flak pounds the disabled plane and a Japanese fighter appears out of nowhere to spray the Americans with a deadly round of bullets.  With two men severely injured, the plane must limp home and attempt a landing almost on its belly.

So begins Unbroken with the promise of a roiling adventure story that is fraught with unexpected dangers and perils.

And so it is.  But the action is fairly short lived and the movie slowly winds down to a gritty tale of sheer endurance  – both for the film’s lead character and for the audience  – in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Its tale of inhumanity, steel eyed determination and an ultimate redemption is a long time in coming.

But first things first.  This is the story of the war time travails of one Louis Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic athlete and competitor in the 5,000 meter dash at the Berlin Olympics, who finds himself, six years later, a bombardier on one of the creaky planes that the U.S. Air Force hastily (and perhaps unadvisedly) commissioned into action in the early 1940s.

His back story, provided via flashbacks, is filled in as he waits anxiously with his other six crew men to land their plane in the hope it does not break apart upon landing.

Here we find  the young Louis, a truant Italian kid in a nondescript mid- western town, stealing cigarettes and getting involved in scuffles with the local gang and thereafter being hauled off  by the local constable to face a dressing down from his father.  His older brother, an athlete, decides that the way to lift the ten-year-old out of his certain destiny as a jailbird is to turn him on to running for which he seems to think he might have some talent.  The scene which follows, lifted straight out of Forest Gump, portrays the young Louis transforming, while running along a country road, into the adolescent Louis who then matures into the 22 -year -old character played ultimately by Jack O’ Donnell.  A later scene will show Louis arriving for the Berlin Olympics and competing in the 5,000 meters at which he places a respectable eighth.

So much for the back story.  Louis and his crew, sans one, survive the crash landing of their plane and engage in some well earned R&R, when they are informed that they must immediately undertake a search and rescue mission for a downed plane.  But no sooner are they gazing over long endless stretches of Pacific Ocean for the missing airmen, than their own plane’s left engines give out and the crew realizes that they must ditch in the sea.

What follows is the most graphic recreation of a crash landing since Castaway.  The plane essentially falls apart upon contact with the water and the crew members are shown desperately attempting to save themselves as the fuselage collapses and quickly sinks.  Louis, trapped, is finally able to pry himself loose as the plane descends to the ocean floor.  Breaking the surface he sees that two others have survived – the pilot and the machine gunner who have managed to inflate two life rafts.  Thereafter the three men must survive searing heat, thirst, hunger, shark attacks, storms, strafing from Japanese fighters and each other as they float helplessly on the ocean for 47 days.  In the course of this harrowing experience they lose Mack the machine gunner, whose corpse they choose not to cannibalize but consign to the deep.

Their ultimate rescue, by a Japanese cruiser, is not exactly a godsend since their immediate internment begins a long period of barbaric confinement and torture.

It is here that the story essentially stops and we are witness to two years of brutal treatment of American prisoners at the hands of Japanese prison guards.  For some obscure reason (it is never entirely explained  in the film) the prison warden, dubbed by the American prisoners “The Bird” takes a particular interest in his Olympian prize and invents all kinds of tests of the airman’s resolve.  The cold Spartan life, which the  POWs are forced to endure is conveyed by Jolie with no attempts to cover up the sheer inhumanity of the experience. Bare, uninsulated barracks, hard board planks as beds, a grueling exercise regimen in below freezing weather and regular latrine duty is the quotidian lot of these men.

Ultimately the “The Bird ” is reassigned, but so are the men of the POW camp as Louis and his nemesis come face to face yet again.

The second half of the film is constructed as a test of wills between”The Bird” (played  by an insouciant Miyavi –  in real life, a Japanese rock star) and Louis, who is constantly reminded in his mind of his brother’s admonition to play to win.  His spirit, unbroken by the violence that is visited upon him, is justly celebrated as the mark of a great American – a brutalized young man who determinedly refuses,  the entreaties of his captors who will offer a modicum of freedom, in exchange for his agreement to turn traitor and send weekly broadcasts of his good treatment over the airwaves back to mainland America.

And of course there is indeed something stirring about this man’s determination to survive and to never give in to the humiliations and privations that are repeatedly visited upon him.  Yet in making this point Director Angelina Jolie loses the soul of her movie, dwelling endlessly on Louis’ pain and suffering without providing any context or understanding for the motivations behind his captor’s endless infliction of pain.  Although this movie should not have attempted in glamorize the life of a torturer and vicious Commandant, some back story as to how this young Japanese man, almost the same age as Louis, became so irretrievably twisted and why he saw in Louis the most fitting target to enact his fearsome crimes, might have been appropriate.

For all that, Unbroken does not fail as a movie.   In places it in fact shines magnificently as a testament to the human will to survive even the most gruesome barbarity – the same point made in the best films about the Holocaust.  Its only true fault is that it gives over this story in a rather prosaic manner which adds very little to the story of survival under Japanese hegemony in such films as Bridge On the River Kwai.

But before leaving Unbroken I must give the movie credit for two areas of film making that are notoriously underappreciated – costuming and make up.  The World War II period uniforms and hairstyles are presented with delicate accuracy and believability – from the parting in Jack O’ Donnell’s quaff to the creases in his fatigues.   They lend the film a stunning immediacy it might not have otherwise have possessed. So too the make up – particularly the scenes of the parched lipped airmen on the floating rafts and later the incarcerated POWs in the Pacific jungles – everything is done to provide authenticity and it goes a long way to highlighting the mens’ desperate quest for survival.

Perhaps the greatest statement of our hero’s determination comes at  the end when we see documentary footage of the aged Louis, now in his 70s, carrying the Olympic torch to be lit – in, of all places, Japan.   Jolie gives little time to  Louis’ post-war struggles, documented so powerfully in the Hildebrand book – to overcome his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and his ultimate embrace of Christianity, which he attributes to saving his life.

Maybe that latter day episode in Louis Zamperini’s  life presents the framework for an  entirely different movie. But meanwhile this film’s impact can be summed up quite simply: I very much wanted to learn more about the man and what drove him to his feats of endurance. Films are really just teasers and we can’t expect them to dole out every piece of information about a real or ficitional character’s life or purpose in a mere two hours.   So if a film is able to leave us with a desire to uncover, through outside sources, more about its hero’s motivations and drive, in order to  find some way to bring his example of  strength and vitality into  our own lives, then we should not hesitate to credit that film a great success.

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of the Intermediate Zone

 


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