Sunday, September 17, 2017

Stalag 17

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Who can you trust? What’s real, and what only appears to be true? When is deception necessary, and when is it a tool used to harm others? Billy Wilder’s 1953 dramatic film with comic elements explores these questions.
The opening shot of the movie establishes a feeling of menace as the camera looks upward at a guard with his dog walking  along a fence, making the two seem larger than real life, and thus very threatening. The camera exaggerates the appearance, but the point is to emphasize the real danger they represent. There is a voiceover, which is delivered by Clarence Harvey Cook (Gil Stratton), known as “Cookie.” He is the occasional narrator, telling a war story after the conflict is over. His opening remarks point to how the depiction of wars in the movies is a deception, only part of the truth. They show “flying leathernecks, and submarine patrols and frogmen and guerillas in the Philippines. What gets me is there never w-was a movie about POW’s.” Cookie stutters, which shows the impact of war on soldiers, the non-heroic side which up to the time of the making of this motion picture was not often explored (The Best Years of Our Lives being a notable exception). This story focuses on prisoners-of-war. It may not show the horrors as were inflicted on those captured in the Pacific, but it does attempt to round out the picture to present a more complete view of what was happening in World War II. For instance, one of the prisoners, Joey (Robinson Stone), has psychological damage due to his brutal war experiences which have caused him to be catatonic.
Cookie lets us know right away that the war story he is telling has to do with a spy in his barracks in the German prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag 17, which consisted of Air Force sergeants. So, not only do the soldiers have to deal with the obvious, overt danger imposed by their captors, but they realize that there is an unseen, hidden threat within their group. They start to smell the rat among them when the Germans thwart all of their plans involving escape and other military activity. The first indication of a traitor among them occurs when guards are already staked out near the forest close to the camp, and shoot two hopeful prisoners after weeks of planning to escape. The soldiers are also deceptive, pretending a radio antenna is a volleyball net, and hiding a radio and later a smoke bomb in the empty pants leg of a prisoner who suffered an amputation due to a war injury. The radio is hidden in a bucket of water with a false bottom, another example of a deceptive appearance. But the Americans are the ones suffering under the oppressive rule of the Commandant (Otto Preminger), and his lackey, Sergeant Schulz (Sig Ruman). And, they are on the side fighting against Nazi atrocities. So, one can argue that subterfuge can be justified if the cause is a just one.

However, there is a prisoner who is not part of any ruses (at least not until the end of the tale). That person is Sefton (William Holden, in the role that won him an Oscar). He is not a likable fellow, as we can see when he takes bets against his wager that the two escaping prisoners won’t make it out of the forest. The other soldiers comment on his coldness, with Harry (Harvey Lembeck) saying Sefton would “make book on his own mother getting hit by a truck.” He is down on any attempts at escape, not liking the odds, which weigh more heavily with him than unreliable patriotism. He cynically says that even if one gets to escape, the Air Force will just put the soldier back in the fight, and then maybe get captured by the Japanese. He acquires food, alcohol, and cigarettes by conducting races involving mice, and making and selling alcohol made from potatoes (this activity shows up in The Great Escape). He uses the goods he acquires to deal with the Germans so he can wait out the war as comfortably as possible. The narrator Cookie is his assistant, helps him with his operations, and even acts like a servant, shaving Sefton. When some judge his attitude, he says in the first week after arriving in the camp somebody stole all the goods in his Red Cross package. He says, “This is everybody for himself, dog eat dog.” He says everybody trades, only his transactions are a little “sharper.” But, when he says that the negative remarks from the others made him lose his appetite, he generously gives the egg he cooked to the afflicted Joey, indicating that there may be a warm spot in him yet.

The man who takes care of security in the barracks is Price (Peter Graves). He says he can’t understand how the Germans knew about the attempted escape. The Commandant coldly displays the bodies of the two men in front of the soldiers to emphasize his order that anyone out after curfew will be shot. One of the prisoners throws Joe’s flute which splashes mud onto the Commandant. When he asks who did it, one steps forward, immediately followed by the others, which undermines Sefton’s statement about selfishness (and which is repeated in the movie Spartacus). The Commandant says the stove covering the escape tunnel (another story device in The Great Escape) will be removed and the tunnel filled in. The hiding of the escape route is another item on the list of appearances being deceiving. The barracks will not have heat as a punishment. Price also questions how the Germans knew about the tunnel. Because Sefton deals with their captors, the suspicion grows among the prisoners that Sefton may be trading secrets for his own gain. One prisoner who is especially hostile toward Sefton is Duke (Neville Brand). When Duke throws something at Sefton, which the latter dodges, Sefton gives a cool and funny response when he says, “Give that man a Kewpie doll.” The line conjures up an escape from what is real in the form of a circus show, where performers play roles that are not their true selves.

Even in the comic subplots, the movie furthers the theme of appearances hiding underlying truth. Harry’s best friend in the barracks is the deep-voiced Animal (Robert Strauss). He has an extreme crush on the sexy actress Betty Grable. One night at a pre-Christmas party, the men dance with other men (defying reality by pretending their partners are women, to give them a comforting illusion). Harry puts on a cap and stuffs straw under it, giving (again) the appearance of a woman, who the inebriated Animal mistakes for Betty Grable. When Animal discovers that it is an illusion, harsh reality crashes in on him, showing that sometimes the ignorance of the truth is more attractive than accuracy (The Matrix anyone?) Another example of the bliss of denial is illustrated when a prisoner gets a letter from his girl back home. She writes that she found a child on her doorstep, and took it in. She writes to the soldier that he’s not going to believe it, but the baby looks just like her. He keeps repeating, “I believe it,” not wanting to accept the real possibility that she was impregnated by someone else. A new arrival is an impressionist, and can do very good impersonations of Clark Gable, James Cagney, and Cary Grant. It is a bit of entertainment placed in the story, but even here we see the theme of how we sometimes buy into falsehood for escapist purposes. Harry receives a great deal of mail, and tries to fool Animal into thinking the letters are all from female conquests. He wants to foster the appearance that he is a great lover, but Animal discovers that the communications are from a company warning of repossession of Harry’s car for delinquent payments. The attractiveness of pretending instead of seeing the things the way they are is demonstrated by the men looking through a make-shift telescope (another of Sefton’s schemes) to watch Russian female prisoners go into a shower. They can’t really see anything through the cloudy windows, but they find joy in their imaginations. Perhaps writer/director Wilder is making a comment about the power of illusion, which is the province of movie-making.

The film presents devious ways in which the Germans distort how others perceive them. One prisoner’s letter states that those at home are making more sacrifices than the POW’s, because the soldiers have nice accommodations, which include ice skating rinks. The German propaganda machine has perpetuated this lie. And, the Germans clean up the stalag and issue warm blankets temporarily, along with better food, while the inspector representing the Geneva Convention visits to check on the prisoners’ situation. The men don’t dare complain, because they know that the Commandant will punish them, so they participate in the lie to protect themselves.

We see how Schulz empties the barracks for various phony reasons, including deviously pretending that there are air raids and wanting to protect the prisoners. He creates these deceptions in order to retrieve the information the spy places in a hollowed out chess queen piece (the piece hiding its true purpose with a benign exterior). The inclusion of the board game in the story symbolizes the larger game that is being played, using the prisoners as pawns in the deceptive strategy to extract information and report it to the Commandant (who by the way is even devious with his superiors, pretending to adhere to strict military protocol, only putting on boots to be heard clicking when he is on the phone with headquarters). Schulz ties the light wire in a loop above the chess board to indicate that there is a communication waiting for the informer, and straightens it out when he has received information.

An American lieutenant, Dunbar (Don Taylor), arrives at the camp. He blew up a German ammunitions train. Sefton has a grudge against him, because Dunbar comes from a very rich family, and he claims that Dunbar’s mother bought his promotion, while Sefton, who was in the same outfit, failed to make the cut. The Germans discover the radio, and Dunbar is held for questioning without sleep, after he spoke about the train incident in the barracks. The men discover that Sefton traded with the Germans so he could spend some time with the Russian women. The prisoners assume Sefton acquired this last favor by giving up the radio and Dunbar. They beat up Sefton and confiscate his foot locker of contraband. The audience now sees Price eyeing the loop in the light wire. While the others sing together, he takes the chess piece and straightens out the wire, whose shadow Sefton sees dangling. Price finds out how Dunbar blew up the train while playing another game, horseshoes (with the game motif repeated), and when he scores, it is noted that he threw a ringer, which is what he is, someone who wins by pretending to be someone he is not.

Sefton also notices that the wire is sometimes tied into a loop. He now also engages in deception, pretending to exit the barracks during a supposed air raid. He hides, and sees Price talking in German with Schulz about how Dunbar set off his explosion. The men, using that aforementioned smoke bomb, snatch Dunbar before the SS can take him away. The barracks leader, Hoffy (Richard Erman) hides him in the water tower, but tells no one about it. They are desperate to get Dunbar out of the camp. Price volunteers, and it is now that Sefton reveals to the men that he is the spy. He removes the hollowed out chess piece from Price’s pocket, and when asked what time was the attack on Pearl Harbor, Price unthinkingly provides the time it occurred in Berlin. It is with the characters of Sefton and Price that the movie most significantly presents its theme of how appearances can be deceiving. Sefton is cynical, selfish, a loner, who has mussed up hair and scruffy beard growth, but he is no traitor. However, the men make that assumption based on factors unrelated to patriotism. Duke, his angriest enemy, has to concede that they really read him wrong. Price is “Security,” the one voted to keep them safe. He is a handsome, clean-cut looking man (maybe the blond Aryan appearance should have been a red flag), who ironically is not there to defend them, but is an infiltrator, a German pretending to be an American and a protector.

Sefton now sees the odds in his favor as he continues to use deception in the form of a diversion. The plan is to tie cans to Price’s leg, and gag him until after curfew. Then, the men will throw him out into the compound. During the commotion, Sefton will rescue Dunbar and they will escape. The plan works. Price is killed, appearing to be an escaping prisoner, and so, he will not be able to be used again to spy on other Americans. Sefton gets Dunbar out. Before he leaves the barracks, Sefton tells the others, in character, that if ever runs “into any of you bums on a street corner, just let’s pretend we never met before.” But, he pops up out of the hole under the barracks, smiles, and salutes them all.” Is he really not as hard-boiled as he pretends, and actually has admiration for his fellow soldiers? Or, is he being sarcastic? I know we would like to believe the former.

Whether it is to do harm, to defend ourselves and others, or to just make life more bearable, deception is a human means used in all aspects of life.

The next film is Dolores Claiborne.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Friday Night Lights

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

I’m from Philadelphia, so I guess it’s sacrilege that instead of Rocky, this 2004 movie, based on true events that took place in West Texas in 1988, is my favorite sports film. Yes, it takes several liberties with the book by former Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Buzz Bissinger on which it is based. But, it not only shows the negative aspects of the extreme preoccupation America has with football, but also balances those observations by presenting the positive rewards of team spirit and the indelible gratifying youthful memories that extreme sports competition can create.
The opening establishing shots show the vast Texas expanse of barren landscape, which suggests why the people in a mainstream town like Odessa turn to the excitement of football to fill up the empty spaces in the lives of its residents. (Much of the cinematography is hand held, not consisting of artistic, staged shots, which gives the film more of a realistic, documentary feel). These citizens close up their businesses to go to the football games. They name their pets “Panther” and “Mojo” after the team’s monikers. The radio stations’ broadcasts are filled with the comments of their listeners who speculate on the chances of the Permian High School football team. The camera moves from the wider shots to focusing on the players’ hands and feet, and football gear that must work together to win. One radio caller shows how the town is totally invested in football when he says that even if they pay the coach $100,000 a year, it's worth it if the team takes the state championship. We begin to see the pressure that is piled onto the minds and bodies of the players from all sides to not only succeed, but to dominate the sport in which they compete. Mrs. Winchell (Connie Cooper) drills her son, the self-doubting, serious senior quarterback Mike (Luca Black), not on mathematics or English, but on football plays. (Mike has conflicting responsibilities, because his mother is sick, and he feels that he can’t go away to college and leave her. He has an estranged sibling whom he calls in a phone booth. Mike looks like he is in a prison, alone, and from whom he gets no help in caring for the mother). Even at pre-season practice, college scouts sit in the stands, as the team members realize that their futures may depend on every move they make on the playing field. Former state champion Charles Billingsley (country music singer Tim McGraw, in a terrific performance), wearing his championship ring, as do many men in the town, marches on the field and humiliates his son, Don (Garrett Hedlund), a running back, for fumbling the ball. In an interview, when asked what it’s like having a football legend for a father, Don conveys a great deal about the burden placed upon him by not saying much when he responds with, “Next question.” He says that in a small town, if you “screw up” everyone knows it. There is no place to hide your failures.
The team has built its whole offense on one player, African American student Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), who has a great physique, and can do it all: run; catch; throw. His abilities make him so egotistical, that his self-absorption does not allow for any room to care about being part of a team. He tells Mike, after the quarterback says Boobie hasn’t lifted weights like the other players, “This is God given. The only thing I gotta do is show up.” He sees himself as chosen by God, and does not have to earn his place as part of the team. For him, he is the team. His boasting is an affront to the oppositely quiet Ivory Christian, aka Preacher Man (Lee Jackson), who exudes stoical strength. On the field, after Don’s father has humiliated his son, Boobie says to Don that he doesn’t have to worry about hanging onto the ball, because he “ain’t never gonna get the ball. Your job is to be blocking for Boobie and I don’t care if your dad is sitting over there crying.” Don goes after Boobie for his selfish insensitivity, which shows how the star player’s attitude divides the team that should be thinking about how to work together.

But, Boobie’s talents only revolve around football. When asked about his grades, he says he gets all “A’s,” because he is an athlete. He has nothing to add about his courses. He says, “Hey, there’s only one subject. It’s football.” His lack of any other knowledge shows when he doesn’t know the word “distinguished” in the college material sent to him, ironically from institutions of higher learning trying to recruit him. Later, he thinks a MRI can fix a knee injury. This emphasis on sports at the expense of academic disciplines, shown in Mike’s session with his mother, is echoed in a radio comment. A man says, “There’s too much learning going on in that school,” a sad revelation of how things have turned upside down, where sports is thought of as the primary part of the curriculum, and academic studies are considered to be extracurricular.
The town will not give the players a moment of rest from the responsibility heaped on them. While they eat in a car, a man drives up and asks them in mid-bite if they are going to win State, be undefeated, get it done. The implication is that if they don’t succeed, their lives are ruined. When they eat at the burger joint, a  thirty-five year old man, driving in his car, yells to Mike, Don, and Chavez (Jay Hernandez) about going to a party with the other football players. The boys comment on his age, which implies how the man is still living in a state of arrested development, not having moved on from his youth. A former title winner wants a picture of his baby with Mike, who he calls the next Texas State Championship quarterback. He tells Mike that he should not waste a second of being on top of the world at age seventeen, because “before you know it, it’s done.” He says, “After this, it’s just babies and memories.” There is this carpe diem feeling that hovers over the movie about how fleeting are the youthful exhilarating feelings of triumph, indestructibility, and freedom.
Don is also trying to have some seventeen year old fun before the grueling football season is to start. He takes a girl home, and starts to make out with her. But, his father, like the town, won’t give him a moment’s escape. He barges in on them, drunk, and starts to wrap Don’s hands around a football with duct tape, yelling at him for not being able to hold onto the ball. His father is a bitter man, who has not been able to make the transition from being a high school hero to being an average,  working stiff. He wants to recapture the idol worship of his youth by vicariously experiencing the accomplishments of his son, who he sees as not being capable of achieving greatness. At one point, after a game loss, Charles kicks out the windows of the car, saying he needs air because Don makes him sick. He takes off his championship ring, presses it into his son’s head, asking him “Can you touch that?” He then throws the ring out of the car window, which implies that his son’s failures, which he shares, has brought him shame, and has invalidated his entitlement to past glories. After he has sobered up, Charles says he didn’t mean half the things he said. But, he echoes what the man with the baby said to Mike. He says that winning is the only thing important his son will have in his life. He says that is not only an ugly fact of life it is the only fact of life. He tells Don that he has only one year to make memories. Don found his dad’s ring, and gives it back to him, trying to show that he doesn’t want his father to feel like a failure because of him.

After the exhortation to enjoy the moment, Mike goes to a party. But, even here peers test him to see if he is worthy of their expectations. A local beauty wonders why Mike doesn’t have a girlfriend, and asks if he is gay. He says no, but she then asks, “Can you prove it?” He then has sex in the bathroom with her, but for Mike the act is more like another challenge on an obstacle course rather than a pleasurable event. At a dinner party where Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) is a guest, wives complain about the size of the players. There is a “size matters” theme here from the females, as even Gaines’ wife later talks about how big the opponents are. The men have to measure up on the macho meter, as did Mike at the party. The team may be called the Permian Panthers, but their nickname, displayed on the side of the high school building is “Mojo,” which is a magical ability, but is often associated with a man’s sexual power.

The man who experiences the full force of the town’s intimidation is Coach Gaines. The radio callers and the community leaders constantly harass him about the team’s efforts. They are like backseat drivers, telling him how he should do his job, and they Monday-morning quarterback like mad. At the dinner party mentioned above, racism (more emphasized in the book) surfaces when one of the women says to use Boobie on defense, too, because nothing will hurt that (n-word). Her remark shows how the white leaders just see the black player as a tool to be used for their own glory, and don’t value him as an individual. Gaines says, in a bit of ironic foreshadowing, that he doesn’t want to use Boobie on defense because he doesn’t want him to get hurt. The coach’s response to the pressure varies as the story progresses. At the beginning, he passes on the weight of the obligations by saying that the team must protect the town’s reputation. He says that they are in the business of winning, and asks them if they can be “perfect” because that is what it will to take to achieve their goals. On the locker room wall, there is a sign that reads, “Whatever it takes,” which doesn’t leave much room for human imperfection.

In the first game of the season, Boobie runs for touchdowns, throws for one, and catches the ball, taking it into the end zone. Permian runs up the score. Toward the end of the game, Gaines sends in the third-string running back, Chris Comer (Lee Thompson Young) to substitute for Boobie. In what appears to be just a humorous moment, Comer is ready to run onto the field without his helmet. He gets called back, and told to find his headgear, which he can’t locate. This funny scene actually illustrates what happens when the exuberance of winning becomes so carried away, a player forgets about his own safety. Gaines chastises Comer, but then recklessly puts Boobie back in the game, putting him at risk for injury that he said he wanted to avoid. Of course Boobie thinks he can’t be stopped, and even wants to kick the extra point after a touchdown. His arrogance and the coach’s negligence have repercussions. Boobie tears a knee ligament when he is tackled. A shot of one of the opposing players quietly congratulating the tackler shows how football can be sadistic when hurting another player is praised. Boobie wouldn’t allow for the possibility of injury, of failure, and he has no backup plan. And, the coach had built his team around one “star” player.
Boobie is in denial. He only wants to hear from the local doctor and the radiologist after the MRI that he can play again. When he is told he can’t, he says it is a conspiracy because the MRI was taken at a hospital in an opponent’s area in Midland. The need to win has been so emphasized that even Boobie’s uncle, L. V. Miles (Grover Coulson), who should be looking out for his nephew’s health, tells Gaines that there was no tear and Boobie is okay to play. The coach keeps asking how Boobie is doing after he seeks medical assessments, but is also in denial because he doesn’t seek verification as to the extent of the injury.

After a devastating second game loss, there is understandable despair on the part of the coach and the teammates. Gaines goes home to a house whose lawn has been covered with “for sale” signs that the fickle townspeople, letting anger overcome loyalty, have placed there. The coach does handle the situation with grace, reassuring his wife by hugging her as she sits looking at the signs. Chavez, Don, and Mike are in a desolate part of town, which mirrors their empty feelings, taking turns at target practice. Chavez is more upbeat, but he, unlike Boobie, has good grades, and has a shot at future success outside of sports. He says that that they are only seventeen, and have their lives ahead of them. But, Don, and Mike don’t share Chavez’s hope, and “don't feel seventeen.” They have been made to endure the wear and tear that usually accompanies the obligations and responsibilities that later years exact.

Gaines at first does yell at his players, telling Mike that he is playing “like the village idiot” at one point. Gaines’ sympathetic side does emerge as he visits Mike at his home. He says he knows Mike knows that life isn’t always fair, but if he doesn’t do something about it, then he will always “get the short end of the stick.” Mike admits that his mind isn’t right. Gaines can see that Mike has a confidence problem, and he tells the young man he will one day have to leave his mother and his home, and become an individual. If he is able to take care of himself, reach back and find his inner strength, then Mike will be able to “seriously fly.”
The injury to Boobie becomes a catalyst that causes the players to discover their individual talents and play like a united team. In the next game, Comer takes a lateral pass and runs across the field to score a touchdown. His action sparks the team, as he scores additional times, the players block a kick for a touchdown, and Don runs the ball into the end zone. The Panthers come from behind to win the game. The team wins four straight games. Gaines wants to believe Boobie when he says he can play. He hesitates, but puts him in the next game. Boobie re-injures his knee and must be carried off the field. The permanent loss of their star player temporarily demoralizes the team, and they lose the game. We see Boobie sitting on his porch, looking at men come by to pick up the trash. He looks at them, and we know he is thinking that he may be looking at his future. When Boobie cleans out his locker, he acts cool, but it is heartbreaking to see him in tears in the car with his uncle. He is a young man who thought he would always be a winner, but now is emotionally defeated.

Permian winds up in a three-way tie, and a coin toss will decide which two teams will advance to the play-offs. After all the work and anguish that the players have experienced, their fate will be decided, not by talent and dedication, but by random chance. On the drive to the coin toss, Mike confesses to Gaines that he feels as if no matter whether they win or lose games, he feels as if he’s going to be a loser in his life. He likens it to feeling as if he has been cursed. Gaines admits that it took him a long time to realize that inside oneself, there isn’t much difference between winning and losing. It’s more external, the way people treat you that’s different. He tries to tell Mike that there are no curses, but what we call curses are really “self-imposed.” He says, “We all of us, dig our own holes.” In other words, we can defeat ourselves because we are our own worst enemies.
Permian survives the coin toss, and goes on to win games in the playoffs and reach the state championship game against the unstoppable Dallas high school team. Even after overcoming many hurdles, Gaines faces intimidation from the local community leaders. He can’t even go grocery shopping with his family and have respite from the pressure. The men drive up in the parking lot and tell him that if he doesn’t win, it won’t be good for him. He sarcastically tells them he appreciates their support. As the players board the bus for the final game, Boobie shows up, asking if there is room for one more. He may be a fallen hero, but he shows character, now becoming a true team player, ready to provide inspirational support for his teammates.
Dallas dominates the first half, overpowering Permian, until the closing seconds, when Comer takes the ball for a long run and a touchdown. At halftime, instead of bellowing out a loud speech exhorting his players, Gaines gives a philosophical, emotional talk. He explains what he meant when he asked early in the season if they could be “perfect.” He says, “Being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It’s not about winning. It’s about you and your relationship with yourself, your family and your friends.” He says if they can be sure that they did everything they could, then they didn’t let themselves or others down. If they can do that, then they are “perfect.” He urges each to hold in his heart what he feels for the other teammates, and Boobie, who would do anything to be playing with them. Gaines tells them that who they are, no matter the game’s outcome, has made him grateful because his “heart is full.”
The team does exactly what Gaines said they would have to do to be “perfect.” They give it everything they have, and battle back to within one touchdown. The film’s play action sequences here are electrifying and involving, and doubts about the negative aspects surrounding football dissolve in the focus on the these battling warriors. Don brings them close to the end zone in a bruising run, and Mike falls inches short of scoring a touchdown as time runs out, and Dallas wins. Don’s father knows that his son played a great game, gave it his all, and shows that he feels his boy is a winner by going down on the field and putting his championship ring on his son’s finger.
The movie ends with Chavez, Don, and Mike basically saying goodbye to the game near the stadium. Don says he will “miss the lights.” He is bidding farewell to that moment in the spotlight that the champions before him were talking about. We read about what happens to the players, going off to college and finding jobs, but that is all aftermath. Gaines is picking out the players for the next team, and we are told the next year Permian was undefeated. Why isn’t that the season Bissinger and the filmmakers zeroed in on? Because the more dramatic tale, the more involving, and edifying one is that which shows how individuals face adversity, challenges, and persevere. Those are the stories that resonate and inspire.

In a couple of weeks, the next film is Stalag 17.

Sunday, August 27, 2017


SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

On the day of the solar eclipse I thought about how sharing this one cosmic event linked all the inhabitants of the United States together at a time when there is so much division among the country’s citizens. I also watched this 1997 film, directed by Robert Zemeckis, again on the same day, and felt the real astronomical experience and the fictional movie story were connected by the the theme of dealing with being alone and the loneliness that can accompany solitude. The title of the movie stresses the need to communicate with others, join with them, by making “contact.”
The film starts with a close shot of the earth from space accompanied by audio broadcasts spanning twentieth century events. There are numerous bits of music and headline stories, including the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, for example. The camera pulls back through the universe and the sound becomes less distinguishable until it is totally lost. The shot ends with a close-up of Jena Malone’s eye, the actress playing the young Ellie Arroway. The ocular globe’s contents mirror the shapes of stars and other stuff that make up the celestial contents of outer space. In this opening sequence we see that the infinite is experienced by a finite, mortal individual, and, thus, how the two are intrinsically intertwined. The beginning also hints at the later explanation in the plot of how aliens heard our radio signals and then responded to them.
Young Ellie never knew her mother, who we discover died during childbirth. It is one of the events that makes her different and cut off from others. She was a science and mathematics prodigy (another fact that sets her apart), and her father, Ted (David Morse) encouraged her in academic pursuits, providing her with a shortwave radio and telescope. These instruments help one to escape being alone by connecting with other people and heavenly bodies. Indeed, we see Ellie talking, in Madison Wisconsin, with someone through her microphone who lives one thousand miles away in Pensacola Florida, a new distance record for her. It is interesting to note that in the bedroom of someone whose entire life will be steeped in science, she has a painting of a unicorn on her wall, a magical creature that some wished really existed. She demonstrates her desire to break the boundaries of science when she asks her father if they could talk to her deceased mother. This question also shows how her life will be dedicated to pushing the limits of science to escape the restrictions imposed by being a circumscribed human confined to the earthly realm.
As Zemeckis did in his Back to the Future movies, he plants words and images that will be revisited later, adding resonance to the story. The reference to Pensacola, Ellie’s dad telling her she must make “small moves” to tune in other radio operators, and his statement that if there is no one else living in the universe then it “would be an awful waste of space,” show up later. After her father’s fatal heart attack when she was nine years old, Ellie is even more isolated. It is difficult for an extremely intelligent, science inclined child to be comforted by religious explanations after losing both parents. After her father’s funeral, the local clergyman tells Ellie that we are not always meant to know the reasons why things happen, and must accept God’s will. Her response is one that denies a grand plan forged by a deity, saying she could have saved her father if she had his medication on the downstairs floor. To not search for answers would deny the basic human desire to want answers. But, conversely, later, we see Ellie again trying to use science to achieve a supernatural goal, as she tries to reach her dad on her shortwave radio.

As an adult, Ellie (Jodie Foster) is working at a huge satellite antenna site in Puerto Rico, still trying to communicate with the great beyond as a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scientist. She is there with another astronomer, Kent Clark (William Fichtner), who is blind, but has, in a cliche narrative device, overcompensated with the loss of the visual sense with amazing auditory abilities (maybe why his name is the reversal of Clark Kent). The main point here is that he knows how to listen to the sounds of the universe, and admires Ellie’s dedication to doing the same. The thrust here is that one learns by hearing, gathering data, being empirical, not forcing the facts to justify a preconceived notion.
Ellie encounters Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) at a local restaurant. There is immediate sexual chemistry between them. He carries a notebook around with him (he seems to carry a book with him most of the time, like a preacher holding a bible). He knows what SETI is, which impresses Ellie, and says he is writing a book about the effect of technology on third world peoples. He wants to meet David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), who is sort of Ellie’s boss because he handles government spending on scientific projects. Palmer pulls a toy compass out of a Cracker Jack box, and gives it to Ellie, who returns it to him, saying how it might save his life some day. This compass shows up several times in the film. Ellie’s last name is Arroway, which implies she wants to aim her intellectual sights on a path in the sky that will allow her to hit her extraterrestrial target. The compass is a directional indicator. It is possible that Palmer’s attempt at giving her the compass is to help guide her in the right spiritual as well as physical direction. She declines a romantic attempt made by Palmer. Although she wants to connect with others to lessen her loneliness, the sting of losing both parents probably causes her to be cautious of close relationships out of a fear of being hurt if that intimacy is lost.
Drumlin, unhappily visiting Puerto Rico, actually doing scientific research instead of working as a bureaucrat, considers attempting to contact alien life to be a waste of taxpayer money, and professional suicide for Ellie. At a reception, Ellie encounters Palmer again, and he questions Drumlin’s advocating that science should be practical and maybe profitable. Palmer says that’s okay, as long as it isn’t at the expense of the pursuit of truth, which is what the term “science” is all about. Drumlin, who has heard of Palmer, says it is ironic that the anti-science theologian is arguing for funding pure scientific research. Palmer says that he is not against science, as long as it is not “deified at the expense of human truth,” which he sees as something the soul needs beyond physical truths. Ellie now realizes the man she finds attractive is religious. He has a Master of Divinity degree, but dropped out of the seminary because he couldn’t handle celibacy. His line is one can call him “a man of the cloth without the cloth.” He tells Ellie that he did secular humanitarian work coordinating with third world countries to help out the people living in those nations. So, he is a person who wants to help people physically and spiritually. They leave the party, and Ellie points out astronomical formations in the sky. She says she became hooked on her field of study when she learned as a child that Venus, appearing shiny and beautiful, actually contained poisonous gasses and sulfuric acid rain. She says she was hooked after acquiring this knowledge. This admission points to Ellie’s desire to not be placated by deceptive appearances, and wanting to delve deep to discover truth.

During their conversation, Ellie tells Palmar about all the mathematical  possibilities that indicate that there should be life on other planets. He then echoes her father’s statement that if not, it would be an “awful waste of space.” Hearing her dad’s words again, she turns lovingly to Palmer, and significantly says, “Amen.” The two go to Ellie’s place and make love, (“knowing” each other in the mental and carnal biblical sense?) showing how the spiritual and scientific worlds can, at least for the moment, coexist. Palmer tells her that he had a religious revelation, an epiphany that was beyond intellectual explanation. He felt God was revealed to him. Interestingly, he says that he no longer felt “alone,” which again emphasizes the theme of wanting to be part of something greater than oneself. She says that she was thrown out of Sunday school because she would ask vexing questions, like “Where did Mrs. Cain come from.” She was not placated with unsatisfying answers. She applied, even as a child, scientific standards to the allegory and symbolism of religious texts which do not hold up to literal scrutiny, but still sustain many people in other ways.

Palmer sees a picture of her father on a shelf, and asks about Ellie’s parents. After finding out about losing both at such an early age, he repeats the keynote line about how awful it must have been being all “alone.” Palmer wants to see her again, but she says she will be busy with work. She tells him to leave his phone number. But, when she leaves him, she looks lost, again seeking direction, wanting to be close to someone, unsure about investing herself romantically with someone who thinks so differently, and maybe afraid of making herself emotionally vulnerable to loss. Kent tells her that Drumlin pulled their funding. They decide to raise money from the private sector to rent time at the antenna array in New Mexico. She tells one of her colleagues to get some Hollywood cash, because filmmakers have been making money off of aliens for years (an obvious inside joke here). As she packs up to leave, she sees the phone number Palmer left, but leaves it behind. He also left her the compass, which she takes, and wears around her neck, a kind of symbol of her need for an old school GPS tool to help her on her scientific quest, which mirrors Palmer’s spiritual one, to find truth, and become part of something grander.
Ellie eventually winds up at the corporate headquarters of industrialist S. R. Hadden (John Hurt), whose name, according to IMDb, comes from an ancient Assyrian king by the name of Esarhaddon, indicating, possibly, pagan power? She pitches for money to fund the New Mexico project. The executives there tell her proposal sounds less like science, and more like “science fiction.” She counters by saying the airplane, breaking the sound barrier, and landing on the moon were once thought of as science fiction. She doesn't say make a “leap of faith,” but in essence that is what she implies when she urges them to pull back, take a look at the “bigger picture” involving the possibilities of scientific research, and adopt some “vision,” to see the positive results to be obtained in funding her project. She notices some surveillance cameras as one of the men there takes a phone call. He says she has her money. She looks up at the camera and mouths a thank you. In a way, her pitch was a prayer, and Hadden is a secular, god-like being, who has all-seeing eyes in the sky, is all-knowing about people’s lives, is very powerful, flies in the air all of the time, and hardly ever lowers himself to land on earth. If not a god, he is Ellie’s guardian angel, who comes to her rescue, or so it seems, several times.  
Fours years pass, and Ellie is at the array in New Mexico. Unfortunately, Kent tells her that her old nemesis, Drumlin, doesn’t want the government to rent them the telescope time anymore, considering that use of the array impractical. So, they have three months to vacate. She sits on her car (a means of transporting you to get to where you want to be, which sums up Ellie’s past and future) at the edge of the Grand Canyon, a vast expanse of area that symbolizes the universe that Ellie wants to explore. She is typically alone, listening to sounds from outer space, when she hears a modulated transmission. The camera zooms in on Ellie’s eyes, echoing the opening of the movie, emphasizing the connection between the individual and the infinite beyond. She excitedly calls the finding into the control room, and she and her fellow workers verify the transmission comes from the star Vega, which is about twenty-six light years away. The transmission alters, sending out bursts that signify prime numbers, which shows the sounds are not natural in origin, but sent by intelligent life, speaking in the universal language of mathematics. It is interesting that this event that turns science fiction, according to the Hadden executives, into science fact occurs close to Halloween, which is a holiday centered on the supernatural. It is a bit ironic that while Ellie is reaching out, listening to the sky to join with something beyond herself, we see a TV interview in the control room with Palmer, who has become a best selling author, and a spiritual leader, saying that despite the internet, technology has not made us happier, and we feel more alone than ever. He talks about how we as a species have lost our sense of direction, which is exactly what Ellie has been trying to find, and which the compass symbolizes.

Ellie must communicate with other scientists around the world to verify the source of the signal. Not only is this act a practical plot action, it also shows, thematically, that Ellie is not only making contact with an alien civilization, but also connecting with the rest of the world, taking her out of her seclusion. But, her discovery and actions create conflict with narrow minded people and envious ones. Michael Kitz (James Woods) is a government security adviser who wants to classify Ellie’s work and militarize it. He represents those who have no vision beyond their egocentric selfish view of life, and become paranoid, believing that those that are different are a threat to their existence. He represents xenophobia. Drumlin, who doubted Ellie’s work, now wants to selfishly capitalize on it. He tries to take over the project, interrupting Ellie continually as he tries to commandeer the conversation.
Kent, with his superhuman hearing, realizes that there are audio and visual components to the transmission. They view Adolph Hitler’s opening remarks at the 1936 Olympic Games. It just happens to be the first strong signal sent into space, but, some pervert the message, considering it a threat, while Neo-Nazis see it as a vindication of their beliefs. Throngs of people visit the New Mexico site to advocate their take on the discovery. Their response to this event is one that thwarts the coming together of a universal community. Added to this mix of self-centered people are those who see the transmission as only between God and people on earth. There is one evangelical religious fanatic (Jake Busey), who stares directly at Ellie as she drives by with anger in his eyes (as opposed to the desire for universality in Ellie’s). He shouts that God has spoken to us from the heavens, and we don’t want scientists, who produced the atomic bomb, and poisoned the air and waters, to talk with the deity. Although he is crazed, he makes a legitimate indictment against the negative accomplishments of science and technology, and seems to represent an extremist, violent version of what Palmer is saying. But, even rational politicians and journalists discuss how the signal has religious overtones, because human religious history has propagated a unique relationship between God and earth, and the possibility that there are others in the mix upsets the theological applecart.
Kent also finds a tremendous amount of scientific and mathematical digital documents on the edges of the transmission, but they do not line up, and the scientists can’t uncover the primer to help translate the language of the messages. Here again is where the capitalist angelic presence of Hadden appears. He invites Ellie aboard his airplane, and shows how much he knows about her personal life. He hacked into the database that contained the alien documents. He says he wants her back in the game that Drumlin has taken over. He comments that he was once “one hell of an engineer.” He says an advanced culture thinks in multiple dimensions. He projects the data pages on a screen and shows how the pages are three dimensional cubes, and they line up when they are joined in that fashion. The translating primer is on the edge of each ‘page.”  The decoding reveals schematics for a machine, which turns out to be a transporter. Of course, people, like Kitz, react with fear, believing it is a means to destroy us, and question the morality of the aliens, advocating, despite our history, that humans hold the ethical high ground.
Palmer is now a spiritual adviser to the president. After being apart for over four years, he and Ellie meet at the White House discussion about the nature of the signal. He says that whether or not the transmission has religious significance, he does not see any reason to take an alarmist view. His words take on extra meaning as he smiles at Ellie, implying that they should try to find a way of finding common ground, which, of course, is the theme of the film. At a reception, Ellie and he discuss his book, and their differences again cause some conflict. She raises the concept of Occam’s razor, which states that, all things being equal, the simplest theory concerning a problem is the preferred answer. She asks which is simpler: that there is a supernatural being that created, and rules, the universe with no proof of his existence, or there is just the physical cosmos that we observe. She says that God may have been created by humans just to provide a feeling that people are not so small and alone (that word again). She says she would need proof of his existence. Palmer counters by asking her to prove the real love she had for her father exists, which of course she can’t, even though she knows it to be true. To be fair, this analogy is a false one. There is a difference between proving the physical existence of an actual, measurable phenomena, and a feeling, like love, which is not a concrete thing. However, suppose, one can argue, that God is not part of the material universe, but is other-worldly; then proof by scientific means will not work. The, religious experience, like the one Palmer says he experienced, is akin to Ellie’s feeling of love, and is then subjective, not objective. The problem comes when religions try to impose their dogma on others based on personal feelings, because religion is, by nature, absolutist in its beliefs. This way of thinking is illustrated by the religious fanatic who haunts Ellie in New Mexico and outside the scientific reception.
The decision is made to build the machine. Palmer is on the committee to choose who should be the traveler. But, Drumlin wants to be the one to go, despite Ellie’s qualifications. Palmer hears warnings from scientists that this mission is an extremely dangerous one with a small chance that the explorer will be able to return to earth alive. Palmer meets with Ellie and asks her why would she give up her life for this quest. She significantly says that she has been searching her whole life for verifiable answers to questions that religion, for her, has not satisfactorily provided. She wants to know why are we here, what is our purpose, who we are. She holds up well at the candidate interview until Palmer asks if she believes in God. Her answer is that there is no evidence establishing a deity, and the panel decides that if ninety-five per cent of the world believes in a supreme being then she is not a good representative to be an emissary to an alien civilization. Of course, Drumlin says that he believes in God, and he is chosen. When Palmer later visits her in her hotel room, she says that she was honest and Drumlin told the panel exactly what they wanted to hear. Palmer says that he couldn’t choose in good conscience someone who thought the vast majority of the world suffered from some kind of mass delusion. Ellie then returns the compass to Palmer, indicating that they are traveling in different directions.

The machine is built at a tremendous cost. At a test run, Ellie recognizes the religious fanatic impersonating one of the technicians on the platform where Drumlin is. She warns him, but the man sets off a suicide vest bomb, killing Drumlin and others, and destroys the machine. After the memorial service, Ellie again gets an electronic transmission from her benefactor, Hadden, who is even higher up in the heavens now, with a god-like view of earth, on the Russian space station, Mir. But, he is all too mortal, since he says the environment there has slowed down the cancer that is killing him. He shows her with a Google Earth type of view that there was a second, backup machine built on an island. The secret site was controlled by Americans, and built by Japanese subcontractors, who were acquired by Hadden industries. He has her ticket, and asks her, “Wanna take a ride?”

Palmer shows up at the ship that acts as the control center for the machine. He tells Ellie that the real reason he voted against her was because he didn’t want to lose her. He now is there to support her, and gives the compass back to Ellie, showing how they are on the same path again. It is significant that Ellie, the person of science, argues against having a secured chair with a harness installed in the pod in which she will travel, because no such construct was mentioned in the schematics. She is placing trust, in a sense faith, without actual proof, that the aliens have provided safe instructions. The pod drops through these revolving power loops and she travels through a wormhole to Vega and beyond. She sees celestial events that move her emotionally, not scientifically, leaving her speechless. The compass she wears comes loose, and she detaches herself from her chair harness. She safely floats after the compass while the chair violently breaks away from its bolts and crashes into the ceiling of the pod. Her faith in the aliens was justified. And, in a kind of twist, the compass, which she jokingly told Palmer to hang onto because it might save his life, actually does saves her, again validating her journey. When she arrives at the destination, she passes out. We again have a camera focusing in on her eyes, which shows her connection to the universe as a whole. She is transported down into an artificial construct that resembles Pensacola, Florida. But, the scenery is stylized, more vibrant in color than normal, yet with no sun out, and the waves moving backward. Also, when Ellie, after waking up, touches the air around her, it distorts the scenery, showing that the environment is a version of reality, sort of like a movie.

She sees some wavering lines approaching her on the beach which coalesce into the form of her deceased father. She realizes that he is not really there. The aliens have downloaded her thoughts and memories to make it easier for her to relate to where she is. But, in a way, she has finally broken the bounds of her early communications exploration, and successfully made contact with her dead father, who lives on in her mind. The alien, however, provides no absolute answers. The machine that transported her was built eons ago by a race that was long gone before the current inhabitants used it. In a way, to search for ultimate answers is a fruitless act, there always being more questions to ask. He does say that there are many other civilizations out there, and many took the same journey to make contact that she did. So, humans are part of a much larger universal community. The alien makes an assessment of humans, which sums up the primary theme of the story. He says to Ellie, “You are an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.” Intelligent beings are driven to seek a connection to something larger, even if they go about reaching this goal in different ways, as do Ellie and Palmer.

Ellie wants to ask tons of questions, but the alien says that she must return home now. He is a bit mired in an almost bureaucratic tradition when he says that this is the way contact has been made for billions of years. But, it is possible that humans are not quite evolved enough to receive the answers yet to all of the questions Ellie would like to ask. Her species has taken the first step, and in time there will be others. He sounds like Ellie’s father when he says she must take, “small moves.” He says there are no tests here, but that is not entirely accurate. She returns back to the pod which drops through the energy hoops, into a safety net close to the ocean. Forty-three cameras show that the pod dropped straight through the hoops. Her recording device showed only static. So, she has no proof of her trip, and the evidence indicates that she went nowhere. The ‘test” is believing in what happened, convincing herself, and others, that her story is true.

Ellie’s position is now reversed. She, like Palmer, must defend her beliefs against skepticism. An inquiry, led by the grandstanding Kitz, throws back the Occam’s razor argument at her. The simpler explanation is that her whole experience may have been engineered by the now dead Hadden, maybe to unite the world, or just to conduct an elaborate hoax, or possibly for his company to obtain lucrative rights to new technology. He gets Ellie to admit that if she were in the the shoes of the members of the inquiry that she would respond with exactly the same degree of “incredulity and skepticism.” Another member, taking on the Doubting Thomas role that Ellie once adopted, says she has no evidence and tells a tale that strains believability, yet expects them to take it “on faith.” She says she can’t withdraw her testimony, because she knows that she had an experience (as did Palmer). Her words again annunciate the theme: “We belong to something greater than ourselves.” And, that none of us is “alone.” As she walks out with Palmer, the press ask him what he believes. He says even though they are bound by a different covenant, he and Ellie both seek the truth. He shows his faith in her when he says, “I, for one, believe her.”

The theme of faith and belief versus empirical proof would have best been left alone, in my opinion, at this point. But, the story shows that there is a “secret” report, its hidden nature not really explained, which tends to verify Ellie’s story because there were almost eighteen hours of static recorded on her camera device. The story skips ahead eighteen months, and Ellie, in receipt of a healthy grant to expand the SETI program, possibly making more “small moves,” repeats her father’s words to group of children, that if there is nobody else out there in the endless expanse of the heavens, then it would be “an awful waste of space.”

IMDb point out that there is a repetition of a star pattern in several places in the movie: in the popcorn on the floor where Ellie’s father dies; the quadruple shining star system Ellie witnesses in the pod; in the few sparkles of sand in the Alien’s hand on the artificial beach; and again at the end of the film, as Ellie imitates the alien by picking up some partial glistening gravel near the rim of the Grand Canyon. This configuration seems to point to Ellie’s words at the inquiry about “how tiny and insignificant and how rare, and precious we all are.” Individually, we may seem minuscule, but together, we approach infinity.

The next film is Friday Night Lights.