Sunday, May 27, 2018

Coming Home

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Since we are observing Memorial Day this weekend, it seems appropriate to discuss this Academy Award winning 1978 film that examines the physical and psychological challenges that war veterans encounter. Although it takes place in 1968 during the height of the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, the personal battles that the characters wage exist for many soldiers and those they love no matter the conflict. “Coming home” should be a happy occasion, but not for those damaged by the ravages of war. The strength of this movie is in not turning it into a vehicle for just an angry argument against the Vietnam War, but instead distilling the conflict’s impact by focusing its effects on the lives of a few people.

Director Hal Ashby and his cinematographer Haskell Wexler many times used long lenses so as not to intrude on the actors’ performances in order to increase the genuineness of what they were experiencing in their roles. There is a great deal of background sound left in to lend certain scenes a documentary feel. The California VA hospital patients shown at the beginning of the film are actual disabled veterans, and what they have to say about whether they would do it all again to fight for freedom, or question the validity of the war is in their own words.
That opening scene is in contrast to the one that follows as we cut from soldiers now confined to wheelchairs to one of Captain Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern) jogging, still able to use his legs, but who can become the next victim as long as wars continue to be fought. The soundtrack is full of 1960’s music, and the song we hear at this point is one by the Rolling Stones. The lyrics speak of being “out of touch” and “out of time,” perhaps an observation about Dern’s Marine, and possibly the country as a whole, as the war drags on with no end in sight and the body counts continue to rise.

Bob talks with his military friend, Dink Mobley (Robert Ginty), as they prepare on the firing rage for their tour in Vietnam. They say they are ready for battle, but it is only practice not based on the realities of the guerilla war they will face. Dink says his girlfriend, Vi (Penelope Milford) doesn’t like the military life. Bob, in a condescending although accurate comment, says that his wife, Sally (Jane Fonda, winning her second Best Actress Oscar for this role), doesn’t understand the war, but is supportive. We then have a scene at the Officer’s Club where Bob and Sally are having drinks with a fellow officer and his wife. Although the first response to Bob may be to think of him as the antagonist in this story, he really is a tragic figure who should be viewed with understanding. He has, as many other young men, been brought up with a macho-infused version of patriotism. He says that he is excited about his upcoming time in Vietnam. He feels nervous in the way an athlete anticipates proving himself by competing in the Olympics, which is such a naive comparison, since losing the contest in war may mean the loss of one’s legs, or life. His officer friend encourages this gung ho feeling by falsely presenting the situation in Vietnam as winnable, saying the enemy made a last ditch effort in the Tet Offensive, and can now be defeated. The wife of the other officer leans over to Sally and says that Bob is very sexy. She embodies the traditional male-dominant view that a man capable of violence is an attractive one. The commanding officer is not there to give Bob and his fellow soldiers an inspiring visit, and he sends his wife instead. She says that night is the evening he plays chess. That is the extent of his combat vulnerability - a board game, while he sends his men into true peril.

The night before he is to leave, Sally and Bob have sex. She is seen on her back, uninvolved in the lovemaking, the satisfaction on her face reflecting what she considers is her role, to provide pleasure for her husband. It is her duty, as he goes off to do his. In the car when they say goodbye, she continues to play the traditional wife, admitting to being afraid for him, but wanting him to know that she is proud of what he doing. She gives him a wedding ring as a gift (not sure why he doesn’t already have one), and she says that he’ll probably take it off at his first liberty. He promises that he will never take the ring off. His vow is an ironic one tinged with foreshadowing given what will happen later.

Sally meets Vi when the two say goodbye to their men, and eventually form a friendship out of their loneliness. (Sally lived on the military base, but as soon as Bob is deployed, she must vacate the residence. This fact does not present the military as caring for the families of its soldiers). The two women initially go to Vi’s place. It is late, and in 1968, television broadcasting ended the day with a shot of the American flag and the music from the national anthem. There is a nostalgic patriotic aspect to the ritual, which does not feel pertinent currently given the heartbreak of the Vietnam War. It is a signing off event, implying that the idealistic perception of what America stood for was also fading away. To add to this feeling, there is a flag hanging across the stair railing, perhaps suggesting the way a flag is draped over a coffin, adding a sense of dread to the scene. (There are references during the movie of what a scary time it was, as we see on TV Robert Kennedy speaking about the recent assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and we hear of Kennedy’s shooting death a couple of months later. There is a bumper sticker on a car saying about America, “Love it, or leave it,” informing us that fifty years ago, like now, the country was deeply divided between those supporting those in power, and those protesting against it).

Vi is more rebellious than Sally, whose appearance is very conservative. Vi wears short skirts, smokes weed, and does not want to go to the Officer’s Club. She not only lives there because of Dink, but also works as a nutritionist at the local VA hospital, where her Veteran brother, Bill (Robert Carradine) is a psychiatric patient, suffering from what we now would diagnose as post-traumatic stress disorder, due to his Vietnam service. Bill says he uses smile therapy to get by, but his sad situation is an ironic contrast to this lame treatment. Vi says sarcastically to Sally that her brother, who is on various drugs, is a model of modern medicine, as The Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick in the background sings the song “White Rabbit,” which talks about how “one pill makes you larger/And one pill makes you small.”
Luke Martin, (Jon Voight, winner of a Best Actor Oscar for this role), is an ex-Marine who is also a patient at the VA hospital. In psychological ways, Bob is the “before” picture, and Luke is the “after” one of the military man prior to and after the experience of being in a war zone. Luke is paralyzed from the waist down, and gets around the ward by propelling the gurney on which he is stretched out with a pair of canes. He is angry because the orderly has not washed him and his urine bag is full, and needs emptying. The film does not allow us to turn away from the uncomfortable aspects of the lives of the wounded, but instead forces the audience to confront the terrible consequences of sending people off to war. The orderly then says that the staff is short-handed, which indicts the government for not taking care of those they put in harm’s way. The hospital employee then complains that he and his wife together don’t earn the amount of money Luke is receiving in disability benefits. Would he be willing to give up the use of his legs and sexual and urinary functions for a bigger check amount?
Sally has decided to volunteer at the VA hospital. In one of the more embarrassing initial encounters depicted between a man and a woman, Sally accidentally bumps into Luke’s gurney, spilling the contests of his urine bag. Luke is so angry at the degrading incident, he lashes out at the hospital staff, wielding one of the canes, smashing objects round him. He is sedated and put in restraints, so now, in addition to his legs, the hospital has compounded Luke’s situation by not allowing him to use his hands. He must endure the humiliation of being fed, like a baby.

Sally begins to realize who she really is separate from her husband. She admits to Vi that volunteering at the hospital is not something of which Bob would approve. After her car breaks down, she buys a sporty vehicle. She also rents out a house near the beach, a move she was not supposed to make without her husband. She admits to Vi that it is the first time Sally hasn’t been in military housing as an adult. For her, and everyone else in this period, the times, they are a’changing. (As the two carry boxes to Sally’s new residence, young boys in backyards carry toy guns, which, given the devastation of war occurring daily, reminds us of how children grow up with violence, playing with it as if it is one of their siblings).
Sally finds her high school yearbook in one of her moving boxes. She was no rebel there, being a cheerleader, and in answer to the question what would she want if stranded on an island she responded, “a husband.” Not just a man, but someone who would fill the role of what society dictated a girl should desire. She remembers that Luke attended the same high school. He was on the road to becoming what was expected of him. He was the captain of the football team, someone she, a female on the sidelines, not a participant in the game, would urge on to greatness. Only thinking about himself, he said on that island he would want “a mirror,” a reference to his egotistical appreciation of his good looks. But, the war intervened, and society’s new marching orders were for him to fulfill his patriotic duty. That changed him, and tangentially the war is changing Sally’s life.
Sally goes into Luke’s room and tells him that they went to the same school. He mixes bitterness with humor. He tells her “I would salute you,” but his arms are tied up. Sally’s pre-marriage name was “Bender,” and he jokes that they used to call her “Bender over,” which adds a sexual connotation to their conversation. He almost gets her to undo his restraints, but staff workers enter his room. He tells her that she “almost got a gold star,” which is playful, but implies he thinks Sally’s volunteering is like a school assignment to her.  But her experience as a cheerleader is actually valuable as she knows how to help those in need of support to overcome loss. At this point he just uses his dark humor to cope, saying, after losing the restraints, “I can crawl again,” and when he bumps into another patient, says, “Ken, I thought you died Wednesday, man.”

The next time Luke is with Sally he is in a nasty mood. He tells her that she probably hangs out with the cripples so she can talk about it over martini’s with the other wives at the officer’s club. Or, her coldly says that maybe she is there to get used to the idea of having her husband come back in a body bag. But, Sally is learning about the plight of the veterans at the hospital. One patient she wheels around tells her that there is no system in place to help returning disabled soldiers to transition back into society. They don’t know how to deal with their disabilities (including those that interfere with their sexual functioning), or earn a living. Sally approaches the wives of the other officers to get them to use their newsletter to publicize the need for more more supplies and help at the VA hospital. She wants photos and interviews of the patients published. But, it’s too upsetting to the women who want to remain in denial about what is happening to the men, and could happen to their husbands. They just want to print activity announcements and military base gossip to take the soldiers’ minds off the war.
Back at the VA hospital, Sally is now changing into an angry activist, venting to the patients about how smug and uncaring the wives were. Luke tells her, “You’re beautiful when you’re excited,” which adds to the element of sexual interest between them. She shoots a quick, interested glance at his almost naked form in the medical center’s swimming pool followed by a shameful look because of her interest. She no longer irons her hair, and now sports a wildly curly appearance, which may indicate the change in her character from a “straight” traditional person to a complicated, unconventional one. She encounters Luke who is now in a wheelchair. He notices her hair and says he likes it, showing approval for the change in her, which he has facilitated. She invites him to dinner, and he is also changing, feeling more positive, which reflects her influence on him. While the soundtrack plays the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” we see Luke’s strong muscles pulling himself up a ramp, the song’s lyrics reflecting his energized, obstacle-defying feelings.
A July 4th observance with patriotic speeches is intercut with Luke and his veteran buddies playing a kind of special Olympics game of wheelchair football, which shows how military zeal can lead to devastating consequences. Luke, who was the football captain in high school, must now play the game in the chair. But, these men are having a good time, which shows their resilience, and possibly Luke’s journey toward moving on with his life. Luke wears a jacket that contains the Marine motto, “Semper Fi,” which means “Always faithful,” which can show that he feels that his faith may have been misplaced. The jacket also has “Hero” written on it, and as we hear in the final speech of the movie, Luke wanted to be a hero in battle, but his heroics are more in evidence by the way he has endured the aftermath of his service, and how he is there for others. We witness his moving away from his own bitterness by consoling Vi’s brother, strumming his guitar, and singing, when Bill breaks down in the middle of a song he is playing, and Luke holds onto him, comforting his damaged veteran brother.
Sally and Luke have their dinner date, which is awkward, as they are not sure how to deal with their feelings for each other, symbolized right from the beginning by how difficult it is for Luke to navigate his way in his wheelchair into Sally’s house. She starts to light a fire even though it is warm out. When she is about to put on some records, she says he probably won’t like her music choices. He says jokingly, but highlighting his insecurity, that she won’t like the way he dances. With Richie Havens singing about being “nothing but a dream,” Luke tells her that in his dreams he has the use of his legs. Inside, he is still what he was before being wounded. Others don’t see him for what he really is, but only focus on the wheelchair, as if that defines him. In her own way, she can relate to that feeling, because she feels others only see her as still being the type of cheerleader she was in school, but now it has turned into the facade of the cheery captain’s wife. With existential insight, Sally says there is danger in allowing others to make you become underneath what only appears on the surface. He now admits that he thinks about making love to her most of the time. Her response is interesting. She says, “I’ve never been unfaithful to my husband.” It is the duty part of the relationship she zeroes in on, not the love that is supposed to prevent the unfaithfulness. She also says she hasn’t been intimate with another in the past, but leaves open the possibility that may change in the future. She takes him back to the hospital later that night, and they do kiss, she reluctantly at first, but more willingly after. He looks downward following the kiss, unsure of what has happened. Without words, the acting here conveys the mixed feelings of the characters.

A complication in the development of their relationship occurs when Bob informs Sally that he will be on liberty in Hong Kong, and he and Dink want her and Vi to visit them there. Vi can’t leave her job and her brother, so Sally must go alone. Luke is feeling up because he will be getting released from the hospital, and he will have an adapted car which will allow him to be mobile. But, her news of the trip to see her husband deflates his optimistic balloon, and although he wishes her a nice trip, his sadness is palpable. The confusion of the situation is accented by the playing of the song “My Girl,” which poses the question as to whose girl does Sally want to be?

In Hong Kong, Bob is distant. Sally (who has ironed her hair so she can play the “straight” role for her husband) says she wants to talk to him alone, and in a chilling tone, he says “We are alone,” which makes it sound like he is talking about the human experience in general. When pressed, he says that he is upset about the “bullshit” that he was been exposed to concerning the war. It’s like a “TV show,” where “reality” doesn’t “play well.” He runs off to find Dink who has left after being upset that Vi didn’t come. Bob is feeling that separation from those who haven’t experienced the truth about what it’s like to actually be in a war, so he seeks out fellow soldiers for that connection. Back in Hong Kong, Luke says he is not happy about Sally’s working at the hospital, possibly because it involves not the glory, but the casualties of war. In their hotel room, he tells Sally about a lieutenant who asked permission to place heads of enemy victims on poles to scare the Vietcong. He looks haunted by what the soldiers “were into.” Sally rubs a balm on his back to soothe him. Bob lifts his left hand up slightly, showing his wedding ring, which emphasizes his suspiciousness about her violating her marital commitment, her domestic version of “Semper Fi,”and asks her if that is the way she massages “the basket cases” at the hospital. Perhaps, also, he is thinking about how he can become one of those “basket cases” and she will have to tend to him like one of those disabled soldiers. Sally pulls back from his sinister tone, as she senses his suspicions, and possibly her guilt about her feelings for Luke.

Back in California, the neglect and pain that veterans experience is dramatized. Now in his own place, Luke, while shopping at a grocery store, can’t get through an isle and is rudely ignored by one of the customers who blocks Luke’s path with her cart. Her behavior mirrors the apathy of some about the needs of disabled veterans, and also shows the desire of some who to live in denial, too afraid to face the horrors of war that they have supported by allowing them to persist. At the hospital, Vi’s brother, Bill, is extremely distraught, banging out discordant sounds which reflect the clashing thoughts in his head. One of the veterans calls Luke, who has previously soothed Bill, to come over and help out. By the time he arrives, Bill has locked himself inside of a treatment room and injected air into a vein, creating an embolism, which kills him. The Rolling Stones’ song “Sympathy for the Devil” is played in the background, telling us that sometimes we are defeated by the demons within ourselves.

The butterfly effect ripples of these losses fan out engulfing others. Sally returns home to the grieving Vi, angry over the suicide of her brother. She asks Sally to go out with her to a club so she can drown her sorrow with alcohol. Vi is drunk and allows the two women to get picked up by a couple of men. They go back to the apartment of one of the guys, and Vi starts to do a striptease, but breaks down in the middle of it. On their way home they see Luke on the television. His response to Bill’s death is to publicly register his anger about the war. He chains himself and his wheelchair to the gates of a Marine recruiting depot, thus blocking entrance to the facility. He is arrested and tells the press that he didn’t want more men to participate in the war effort.

Sally picks him up at the police station, and tells Luke she wants to spend the night with him. They drive to his place, but his anti-establishment activity has drawn the interest of the FBI, and Luke, and therefore Sally, are under surveillance. Instead of the authorities tracking down those who pose a true threat to society, the law enforcement agencies in the country persecuted people because they peacefully expressed their political beliefs that were counter to prevailing government policy. (The worst example was the killing of unarmed protesters by National Guard troops at Kent University in Ohio).
The lovemaking depicted between Sally and Luke is in stark contrast to that between Sally and Bob. Here, Luke’s loss of standard sexual ability does not stop him from wanting intimacy on an emotional level as well as through simple physical closeness. He is able to derive satisfaction by bringing pleasure to Sally. When she reaches a climax through oral stimulation, she admits that it is the first time she has been able to experience an orgasm. The movie questions the standard roles of men and women in a sexual situation, and suggests that the traditional view of what constitutes “a real man” should be revised.
The quick sequences that follow show a period of joy when they build ramps for easier wheelchair access, which also symbolize erecting emotional bridges which help Sally and Luke better connect with each other. They socialize with Vi, which helps her with her healing process. They ride and run along the boardwalk, together flying a kite, which suggests a feeling of soaring above their individual problems. Luke shows Sally slides of his time in Vietnam, and he comments about what an intricate tunnel system the natives there had developed over time fighting the Japanese, the French, and now the Americans. His comment emphasizes that these people are used to fighting on their land, and we are just one in a succession of enemies. The point made is that Americans delude themselves thinking they can beat Vietnamese, because they have the experience and the perseverance needed to defeat invaders.
Sally gets a letter saying Bob was wounded in the foot and was coming home (again what should be a happy time will not turn out to be so). Luke and Sally have already talked about how torn she is between her new feelings for Luke and her many years spent with Bob. Now, she prepares with Vi to give Bob a welcoming home party. She meets him at the military base, which has anti-war protestors at the gates. The divided feelings in the country are illustrated by one protestor flashing Bob the peace sign as they drive through the gate and Bob giving the young man the finger. A billboard at the entrance to the base shows a shaggy-haired young man and the words, “Beautify America - Get a haircut.” It is the regimented military way of saying its uniforms stand for accepted uniformed behavior, while the counterculture’s look is a blight on the country.

Bob is okay with the sports car that Sally bought, possibly because it appeals to the manly preoccupation with a powerful machine, but it also allows him to escape when he doesn’t want to confront his feelings about the war. He is more disturbed by other changes to the status quo, including Sally’s curly hair, and her preemptively moving into a beach house. Sally and Vi ask him about how he was wounded, and Bob finally admits that he accidentally shot himself in the foot (possibly the film’s comment on how America sustained a self-inflicted wound by getting into the Vietnam War). His leg injury is a lesser one than that of Luke’s but it still links them thematically. He is embarrassed about receiving a medal for getting wounded in such a way, and again runs off, wanting to be with fellow soldiers who share his experiences rather than reconnecting with his wife. He returns with a bunch of drunken soldiers to divert him from any attempt to deal with his psychological pain. The next day Sally is scared of what’s become of Bob, because she sees that he has slept with a pistol in his hand.

The FBI calls Bob in and we know that they will tell him what has been going on with Sally and Luke, probably to unleash him against what they consider to be a subversive enemy. Bob shows up at the pool at Luke’s development. One would think there will be a violent confrontation at  this point. However, Bob tells Luke that he should know that the FBI has pictures and recordings concerning his activity with Sally. Bob lies when he says he’s already talked to Sally about it, probably hoping that would elicit an honest response from Luke. Luke awkwardly thanks him for giving him this information. Bob appears shaken and says that is all he was there to say and the rest was up to Sally. But, he appears shaken, almost as if he wanted Luke to deny what the FBI told him. Bob goes home to confront Sally about the affair, but takes his rifle affixed with a bayonet into the house. There is a great deal of suspense at this point as we are unsure how this scene will play out. To the movie’s credit, it does not surrender to a formulaic violent ending.
Sally tells Bob that she needed someone, but he says that is “bullshit, which he has had enough of already concerning the war. He tells her everyone “needs” someone, implying that is a sorry excuse to commit adultery, and it is difficult to argue with him. Of course, what was wrong with their relationship was already there, with Sally playing a role that did not really reflect who she was. Bob thought he knew where he was supposed to be, and now he yells that he no longer belongs in this house as Sally’s husband, and he doesn’t fit in with the military either, given his misgivings about how the war has been fought. He confesses that he doesn’t deserve to be her husband, a heartbreaking admission of his failure as a mate. He also doesn’t deserve to receive the medal awarded to him. He feels his whole life is a sham, and he is lost for the first time in his mapped out life. His last name may be “Hyde” but he can’t “hide” from the truth anymore. Luke, concerned about Sally, shows up. Bob wields the rifle threateningly at the other two. Luke apologizes for making a fellow veteran’s return more painful. But, he tries to tell Bob that Sally loves Bob, and she can help heal him (which he knows is true because that is what she did for him). Luke finally is able to talk Bob down when he says, “I’m not the enemy … you don’t want to kill anybody here. You have enough ghosts to carry around.” Bob puts the gun down and tells Sally he just wanted to be a hero, do something important. Luke releases the bayonet and empties the bullets loaded in the rifle, disarming the situation literally and figuratively. But, in a way he has also taken away Bob’s manliness as Bob defines it, symbolized by the phallic bayonet and rifle, and, unlike Luke who dealt with his inability to function in the traditional male role, Bob does not know how to move forward. Sally and Luke exchange a glance, which we know signifies that they are saying goodbye to each other.
The ending has Sally trying to make Bob feel at home, that is, safe and accepted, as she goes to the market with Vi to get some items for an old-fashioned American barbecue. But, the wordless Bob, dressed in his Marine uniform, goes to the beach. He strips off his clothes showing he no longer belongs in that uniform. He takes off the wedding ring, the one he said he would never remove, symbolizing that he is not a husband anymore. He goes into the ocean, probably to commit suicide, because he no longer feels at home anywhere on earth, and “coming home” to him now is a kind of reversal of birth, as he returns to the liquid world from where he once came.
Luke was invited to speak to high school students, because of his protest at the recruiting depot, to provide the counter argument to a Marine’s advocacy of joining the military. Once a high school hero, who ran in football games as the military-sounding captain of the team, fighting for victory, he now returns to school as a man who lost the power of those legs as part of a different team in a much more dangerous battle. He tells the students that he (like Bob) wanted to be a hero and fight for his country. But after experiencing the horrors of such a pointless war, he tells them there are no good reasons “to feel a person die in your hands or to see your best buddy get blown away.” He is there to try to prevent those tragedies from happening to them.

The film ends with Luke saying, “there’s a choice to be made here.” In that sense this story is timeless, because whenever violence threatens a nation’s citizens, they must take responsibility for saying in which direction the country should go.

The next film is The Accused.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Norma Rae

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
This 1979 film is an appropriate follow-up to last week’s North Country as it too deals with female empowerment in the workplace. Here, the story (also based on a true one) takes place in a small southern American town in 1978, and the industry is textile manufacturing. Although the plot revolves around the attempt to unionize employees, the focus is on a man and a woman who forge a nonsexual bond that enhances both of their lives.
The movie opens to the sweet sound of Jennifer Warnes voice singing the Oscar-winning song “It Goes Like it Goes,” about blessing the hands of the working man as we see pictures of Norma Rae (Sally Field in her first Oscar winning role) as she grows up. But all of this nurturing has occurred within the boundaries of this insulated, poverty-constricting environment. That melodic music is harshly contrasted with the next scene inside the mill where the sound of the manufacturing machinery is deafening.  This counterpoint seems to imply that the voices of the workers are drowned out by toiling under punishing circumstances, and they are rendered unable to hear the voice of another who argues against their way of life. In fact, Norma’s mother, Leona (Barbara Baxley) can’t hear her own daughter speak during a break (yes, the whole family works here, because it is the only industry in the area, and, thus, the company has all of the power over their lives in the absence of choice). And, Norma’s voice is ignored when she complains to the company doctor that the hearing loss will eventually become permanent. In this scene, we do see that Norma is already defiant against unfair treatment as she says to her mother, “They don’t care about you.”
During that work break, as Norma talks with a fellow employee, we immediately get a feel for how the meager income existence has not left much opportunity for enjoyment here. The friend’s only excitement was jarring a large amount of fruit on the weekend. Norma uses humor to cope with her situation. When asked what she did, Norma says, “I soaked my feet.” But, her friend noticed that Norma was with a man with a nice car, and Norma readily admits that she spent time with him at the motel. But, her sleeping around can, at least in part, be understood as wanting to escape the dreary drudgery of the work week. When her father, Vernon (Pat Hingle), worried about her going out to meet men, asks where she is going as she prepares to leave the house, she sarcastically says she is going to buy underwear, some Kotex, and then she’ll be so worn out by all the excitement, she’ll have to come home. We do witness that she cares about her two children as she limits how much “junk” they watch on TV, and instructs them to finish their homework.

There is a switch to the other main character, Reuben Warshowskey, (Ron Leibman, who was robbed of at least an Oscar nomination for his powerful performance). His last name implies that he goes to “war” to help workers and “show” them the need to unionize. Although we learn that he has a great deal of experience as a union recruiter, he is a foreigner to these parts, and is suspect as an outsider. He goes to the door of one of the locals saying he’d like to board with a mill worker. The home owner asks him what kind of name is Warshowskey. There is the suggestion of anti-Semitism, which Reuben deflects when he says that his name is the kind you have to spell out. The scene shows the cultural barrier he must deal with. That negativity toward his Jewish background becomes overt when Reuben inquirers at Norma’s house. Her father, with Norma observing the encounter, is hostile toward union people, telling Reuben they are, “communists, crooks and Jews.” Vernon, like many others, has been indoctrinated to demonize anyone who will challenge the entrenched familiarity of the status quo.

Norma meets Reuben at the town’s motel lobby, where she is waiting for a man for a sexual encounter, and he is looking for a room, since he has been rejected at each home at which he stopped. Although these two are from very different worlds, they share a few similar experiences. Norma tells Reuben to make sure they spray his room for roaches, and he says with a smile, “I am very familiar with roaches.” There are unsavory places in all parts of the country. There is no smile on Norma’s face after having sex, and she tells the fellow that it’s the last time, the situation not making her feel good about herself, given that he is married, and the gossip can get ugly. Her reaction shows how she wants more for herself, but that she gets involved in this type of activity implies that she doesn’t have high enough self-esteem to expect to be in a good relationship. His reaction is demeaning, comparing her to a prostitute, having been paid with a steak dinner and pralines, and she is there to make him feel good, not her. We have the sexual double standard in full force here, as well as later in the film. He says she is a hick, with dirt under her fingernails, and he is outraged that she would have the nerve to dump him. His superior attitude makes him think he has the right to be abusive, and he then hits her as punishment for her even considering that she, a poor woman, is as good as he is. Reuben hears the commotion from his room and offers Norma some ice to put on her bleeding nose. She takes responsibility for her actions by metaphorically saying, “If you lie down with dogs, you get fleas.” By placing these two scenes sequentially we see contrasting ways that men treat women. The local male has an unevolved, closed minded attitude toward Norma, while Reuben, from a metropolitan area, where there is a free flow of ideas to question accepted beliefs, treats her with nonjudgmental kindness.

She enters his room (his world?) where she sees a picture of his girlfriend. The woman, Dorothy Finkelstein, is a Harvard graduate, Jewish, and a hotshot union lawyer.  Thus, the outside world offers a woman the opportunity to actualize her talents. He has a lot of books in the room, unlike many of the people in the area, who have been brought up to only use their bodies for labor, but not to exercise their minds. Norma, who has been so cut off from the truth of what lies beyond her surroundings, admits to never having met a Jew. Bigotry grows in ignorance, and she says that she was told that Jews have horns, suggesting the analogy to the devil. After meeting Reuben she concedes that falsehood, and says that he is just like them. Outwardly yes, but he points out to her that being a Jew makes him different. She asks what makes that so. His response is “History.” He is already expanding her perspective.
Reuben hands out flyers in front of the cotton mill at the beginning of the work day to persuade the workers to join the Textile Workers Union of America. Norma takes one of the sheets of paper, and now she starts to help him. She says that he used too many big words, thus showing that he has to better understand the people there for him to win them over. Inside the factory, a worker tells Norma that a supervisor wants to talk to her. Norma, so used to come-ons from other men, says that she already turned the supervisor down for dinner. The messenger says maybe the other man wants to make it breakfast, implying the desire to sleep with her. As in North Country, we have sexual harassment very much in existence here, where all the power resides with men. The supervisor tells Norma (and informs the audience) that she has already been outspoken concerning changes in the workplace. He says that she has the “biggest mouth,” asking for more work breaks, additional time for smoking breaks, Kotex machines, etc. To shut her up, he says she’s promoted to the position of spot-checker, and she gets a $1.50 an hour raise. She lives with her parents and wants to be more independent in order to take care of her children, so she takes the position. But, she knows it won’t earn her any friends, having to report on how fast the workers perform their tasks. She must even push her own father to pick up the pace of his duties.
Reuben and Norma continue getting to know about each other and their worlds in humorous and serious ways when they meet at a local baseball game. He can’t even eat one of the local hot dogs, pointing out it isn’t anything like one from Nathan’s of New York, and she says that the local hot dogs contain a lot of different food colorings and a great deal of stuff he doesn’t want to know about. Ellis Harper (John Calvin) confronts Norma saying she looks fine, basically making a sexual overture, Norma is a bit embarrassed as we can see by the way she shoots a sideways glance at Reuben. She says that maybe he should show up to see his son. He says he can’t do that and leaves. She tells Reuban that Ellis got her pregnant with her son, and he hasn’t been good for anything since. Despite admitting to her mistake with Ellis, she shows that she exercised some control over the situation when asked by Reuben if she married Ellis. She says, “He didn’t bother. I didn’t bother.” Reuben shares the story of his first sexual encounter which was with his piano teacher. The husband came home, cried, and Reuben felt badly, and the three shared some tea. His sophisticated New York experience is quite different, and amusing in contrast. But it is also significant that he relates a story about how a woman was looking for sexual satisfaction, subverting the typical double standard belief that it is only the male who needs to seek sexual gratification. Norma comments that what must Reuben think of her, always being hassled by some man when they meet. He tells her, “I think you’re too smart for what’s happening to you.” His statement shows that he acknowledges Norma’s intelligence, provides her with validation of her worth, and offers urging for her to escape her situation.
At work, Norma encounters Sonny Webster (Beau Bridges), who acts strangely, jumping from one task to another so Norma can’t track his activities, and clownishly diving into a bin filled with cotton. He later shows up at Norma’s house and apologizes for his actions. He says that he was just served his divorce papers, and it triggered his unorthodox behavior. The two knew each other as children, showing the smallness of small towns, and he invites her out for a drink to make up for what happened earlier. At the bar, Sonny admits that he had a gun and thought about using it against his wife and her boyfriend, but says he couldn’t do that. He admits that his wife was a good person, but somehow she changed. Norma admits to being different now, too, which probably refers to not only what has happened in her past, but also Reuben’s effect on what she wants to do with her life. She hears a song playing that was what she heard when she found out that her husband, the father of her daughter, was killed in a bar fight. The lives of these afflicted people are fraught with sadness. Norma sees Reuben and invites him to join them. This little action shows the resistance to outsiders as Sonny doesn’t want the intrusion. But, it also shows how Norma is more open to inviting someone, and something, new into her life. Sonny is polite though, but says to Reuben that there better be more than just himself to fight the rich guys, who have all of the power. Reuben has only had club soda, so he becomes the designated driver when the other two become drunk. When he has to pull over because Norma is ill, it is Reuben who sticks with her as she becomes sick, again showing how he is there for her.
Norma gets the silent treatment from her friends at work because she has joined the ranks of the supervisors. The only word one says to her is “Fink.” She quits the new job, and realizes that was management’s purpose all along. They wanted to cause ill will toward Norma on behalf of the other workers, and wanted to show her that she couldn’t have it both ways, because being a supervisor means sacrificing congeniality with the other workers. When she returns to working the machines, she is again accepted by her fellow employees.
Sonny proposes to Norma in a very unromantic manner. Because their lives are under such economic strains, Sonny feels the need to compose his proposal in practical terms. He says that he can fix anything electrical, started a new job at a gas station, and will turn over his paycheck. They have brought their children on their date to show what they are getting into together. Norma says it’s been a long time between offers, as if this is a business deal. But, she does ask him to kiss her, although it is to seal the deal, and says if the kiss works, then everything else will be okay. They are married at a tiny ceremony with no frills. Sonny, in a toast to Norma, says he hopes he “can keep up with her.” Just like Reuben, he knows what a force of nature Norma can be, and he accepts it, and doesn’t make it his goal, like other men in the region, to try and break her will.

Reuben speaks to a small gathering of potential union members at an African American church. Blacks in this country know about oppression and are more willing to aid a cause to fight imposed injustice. Reuben’s speech emphasizes the power of people in large numbers, noting that over eight hundred union workers of various beliefs and ethnic backgrounds showed up at his grandfather’s funeral in New York. He comes from someplace else, to bring them alternatives that do not exist in their socially insulated community. Though the workers at the funeral came from different backgrounds, they had fought together and “they were one. That’s what union is.” He notes that the textile industry is the only one that was not unionized in the United States. A lucrative business that has no checks on its economic power means “they are free to exploit you, to cheat you, to lie to you, and to take away what is rightfully yours - your health, a decent wage, and a fit place to work.” It does not seem like a great deal to ask.

Norma witnesses, and is inspired by, Reuben’s inspection of the mill, which is in compliance with a court order that insures that his union notice has been posted inside the building. He has to show strength as he is escorted by intimidating burly management goons who call him by an ethnic slur, and place his notice so high up that, as Reuben says, “Wilt Chamberlain on stilts” could not read it. He threatens them with calling his lawyers to issue a contempt order if they do not comply with the law. He gets them to place the post at eye level. They have also placed obstacles in front of the other bulletin board, and appear to be ready to physically intimidate Reuben until a large African American worker, sympathetic to the union organizer, appears and quietly protects Reuben. Reuben is the outsider, who threatens the company’s way of life by simply providing the workers with information so that they can make an informed choice about their livelihood.

Reuben is the catalyst that ignites Norma’s fiery potential to make a difference. She signs up to help unionize the mill. She goes to the head of her white church, Reverend Hubbard (Vernon Weddle). She wants to use the church for a union meeting that will have blacks as well as whites in attendance. The Reverend does not see that his church should get involved in a secular issue, and says, “This is a house of God.” Norma’s smart reply is, “I’m waitin’ to see whether it is or isn’t.” She is all in in her new found purpose and is willing to leave the church if Hubbard does not comply. For her, and the minister of the black church, God’s house should be open to fighting against unfairness and economic slavery. Reverend Hubbard, however, allows his institution to religiously give a stamp of approval to the entrenched system that segregates the races and keeps the population impoverished. He says to her, “We’re gonna miss your voice in the choir, Norma.” Her witty, defiant reply is, “You’re gonna hear it raised up someplace else.” She is declaring that her female voice will no longer be stifled by white men in power.

Instead of the church, Norma offers her house for the meeting. She does not try to hide this fact, but instead courageously tells her neighbor, one of the mill’s supervisors, what is going on, and humorously says that the he can see what’s going on through recently cleaned windows. Norma is throwing down the gauntlet, and is ready for battle. Sonny, afraid of what the community will do, says she is going too far inviting black men into their home. Norma’s wit again shines, pointing out the false fears that maintain an oppressive system, when she says black men haven’t caused her any trouble. Only white men have done that. Reuben allows the workers to speak now so that they become empowered by giving voice to their concerns. One woman says that she isn’t allowed a break when her menstrual cramps are very bad. One black worker sums up their predicament when he says that their work should not be a “jail sentence.”

Reuben says the small turnouts mean he is not getting the word out. Here is where Norma becomes his mentor. She tells him that if the workers don’t come to him, he must go to them. They hit the countryside, changing ties, whittling sticks, and generally meeting the members of the area. She can relate to the people, and knows about what the moms bake, and whose kids have the measles. Reuben here is the “fish out of water,” as Norma calls him, and at one point falls down in the mud on a local property. The next scene is a meaningful one. Reuben swims in a creek as Norma tries to clean up his clothes. It is very hot and she decides to jump in, too. They are both naked, but sexuality is not an issue with these two. So, there is no gender discrimination involved. They are two equals, stripped of all societal constructs that have been created to use as leverage against each other. He says that on a day like this one back home he would work out, go to an opera, and eat Chinese food. He says that she would like it in New York, as he realizes that she is open to new things. For her part, she tells him it’s safe in the water, and it’s only minnows swimming up against him. She does observe that he has a “skinny build.” She says that Sonny works out with weights, but Reuben says he tried that and dropped one on his foot. She says that he doesn’t have to work out because he has a head on his shoulders and knows how to use it. In a way the watery scene symbolizes how Norma and Reuben are reborn, she into his way of life, and he into hers.

She later comes across a book of Dylan Thomas poems in his room, and asks why should she “bother” to read it if it’s difficult to understand. Reuben says “maybe he has something to say to you,” which is what outside knowledge can bring to expand circumscribed ignorance. She says she will give the book a try, and he says don’t read it while eating because he doesn’t want food on his book. His Jewish influence on her is evident when she comically says, “Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch.”

Another memorable scene occurs when Norma is up late, telling Sonny that she has to make a hundred phone calls to try to sign up people to join the union. He spits out sour milk because she hasn’t gone shopping, and complains about the lack of clean laundry and the eating of TV dinners. Norma jumps up and runs around throwing clothes in the sink with dish soap, tossing a roast in a water filled pot, ironing clothes, and saying “You want” this and “You got” that. She even says that if he wants to make love she can lift up her nightie and have sex while she irons. By acting this way she satirizes all of the numerous chores traditionally assigned to a wife, and shows how she will not fit into that outdated role by giving up her union activities; so, those wifely activities will be compromised. To Sonny’s credit, he gets it, laughs, and kisses her.
The viciousness of the company meanwhile is in full force. They reduce the workers’ days to three a week, but the days are long with less weekly pay. Norma’s dad is not looking well to her, and when he asks for a break at work because he needs to lie down, he’s told to hang in there until his break. In a powerful shot, his arm stiffens up and he drops dead of a heart attack right into one of the bins. Norma is even more committed to the union cause now. However, the film does not show all union officials in a good light. A couple of them come to Reuben’s room while he is at the printer’s, and Norma complains about the lack of supplies and support at the national level. When Reuben returns, the two big shots want to cave into local prejudices concerning the double sexual standard. They say the fact that Norma has an illegitimate child, has a history of sleeping around, and allegedly made a porn movie (a bit of fake news) means she is hurting their cause. Outraged, Reuben tosses them out, showing how he will not be compromised by those with unenlightened beliefs.

The company now tries to stir up racial trouble by posting a statement on the bulletin board that says that the blacks want to take over the union and boss the white workers around. An interracial fight breaks out, and after Norma informs Reuben of what’s happening he tells her he needs her to record what the bulletin says. She courageously defies the supervisors, but at the loss of her job, as her boss says she was using the company’s phone for private use. She stands up in the middle of the mill holding a sign that says “Union” on it. The other workers show their support by turning off their machines, stopping production. Norma is hauled off, kicking and screaming, and booked for disorderly conduct. She calls Reuben, who bails her out. She cries on the way back home but Reuben tells her of much worse stories of those who tried to unionize companies. He talks of a pregnant woman hit in the stomach with a club, a sixteen-year-old boy shot in the back, and a guy who whose car blew up when he started it. His words remind us of how hard it was to earn the rights many workers now take for granted.
At home, Sonny questions Reuben why Norma called him and not her husband. Reuben says she knew he could make bail. Sonny echoes what he said about his first wife, that Norma has changed. But, Reuben, announcing Norma’s liberation, says that Norma stood up on that table, defied what was trying to keep her down, and is a free woman. Either Sonny can accept that or not. Later in their bed, Sonny asks if Norma ever slept with Reuben. She says no, but he’s in her head. Perhaps that joining can be more profound than a physical one. Sonny seems to accept that, but shows his commitment to Norma, and accepts her freedom, by saying that he will stick with her in sickness, bad times, and old age, and nobody else is in his head.
The workers vote to join the union. Reuben’s work there is done, and is ready to move on. He and Norma say their goodbyes, and express their gratitude for what each has given to each other. But, fittingly, they do not give each other a farewell hug or kiss. They shake hands, showing that their coming together was one of mutual respect and admiration, separate from any connections to their genders. The movie ends as it began with Jennifer Warnes singing. The lines from the song are ones that we can all join in on, with one voice: “Maybe what’s good gets a little bit better/And maybe what’s bad, gets gone.”

The next film is Coming Home.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

North Country

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Given the current consciousness raising concerning the mistreatment and empowerment of women inspired by the #MeToo movement, this 2005 film directed by Niki Caro deserves a closer look. (Also, this topic is of personal importance to me, since I have written about it before, and it will be the central theme in my upcoming novel, The Bigger Picture, a mystery that focuses on the depiction of women’s sexuality in movies).

The main character in this story is Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron, in an Oscar-nominated performance). The first name suggests the feminine version of a regular “Joe” (you know, like “Joe the Plumber”), someone who is a regular blue collar worker, trying to make ends meet. “Aimes” can indicate a person who takes “aim” at those who contribute to and allow an unjust system that represses and harms her because she is a woman who wants to make a living in the traditionally male dominated iron mining industry. (One could argue that Theron’s own personal history made her particularly sensitive to male abuse and female retaliation, since her father was a dangerous alcoholic who was killed by Theron’s mother).

We are told that the film takes place in 1989 in Northern Minnesota, and that the first time a woman became a mine worker was in 1975. But, even after thirteen years, the ratio of miners was still thirty to one in favor of the males. The script is based on the true story centering on Lois Jenson who sued the Eveleth Mines for sexual harassment. The first shot in the film is of a very young girl at Christmas, which is supposed to be a joyous time, one of wonder and innocence for children. But, the girl, Karen (Elle Peterson), is playing with a Barbie doll, which shows how society starts early in trying to program females to focus on their appearance to attract men. The merry season is dashed by a car which approaches Josey’s house, obviously driven by someone who is drunk. The scowl on Josey’s face wordlessly tells us that her man is behind the wheel. We next see Josey on the kitchen floor, blood on her face, which we know came from her husband hitting her. Even though we witness these scenes, most of the events are in the past, and Josey describes them in a courtroom (although up until the end, some of what is depicted involves internal flashbacks in Josey’s mind triggered by current abuse).

The Pearson company which owns the iron mine has strategically hired a woman lawyer, Leslie Conlin (Linda Emond), who is questioning Josey. After the assault by her husband, she left with Karen and Sammy (Thomas Curtis), her early teenage son. Josey drives through the “north country” in winter, which seems to mirror the symbolically emotionally cold environment she will encounter in her new home. But, Josey tells Conlin, she “did what I had to do” to survive, which meant not calling the cops about her husband, because presumably that would just have meant more dealings with conspiring men. When Conlin addresses her as “Mrs.” Josey says “There’s no Mrs. here,” which shows she wants to free herself of the necessity of counting on the unreliable and painful attachment to a man. But her new start didn’t provide the liberty she sought. She tells the attorney that Conlin doesn’t know how tough life is “in the pitt,” which is a literal and figurative description of what Josey and other women miners have had to endure.

In a flashback, Josey arrives at the home of her parents. Her father, Hank (the superb Richard Jenkins), instead of considering his daughter’s side of the story, automatically assumes the bruises on Josey’s face resulted in her husband finding out that she cheated on him. There are also judgmental looks at a church service aimed at Josey because of the gossip that she is promiscuous, the double sexual standard being in full force here. At a Catholic Holy Communion reception, (the belief in the Christian attitude of good will to others contrasts with just the opposite behavior in this place), women comment about how Josie was always beautiful, as if that is the most important female attribute, and one which creates envy among other women who may excel more in other areas, but are not admired for those strengths. So, they gossip how Josey is nothing but trouble for her parents, as Josey’s mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek) pretends not to overhear. At the bar, Hank talks to another man who says marriage problems are ironed out by going “out to the shed,” which is where you hit kids in the past to discipline them. He admits that his wife left him several times, and that’s how they worked out the “kinks” in the relationship. This short scene shows how these men see violence as an intrinsic part of a marriage. It’s like a battleground for them.
Josey gets a job at a hair salon, and meets an old friend, Glory (Frances McDormand) there. They become reacquainted, and the dialogue between them is revealing. Josey shows her surprise when she learns that Glory drives a truck at the mine. She has been programmed to think a woman would only do secretary work at a place populated by men. When Glory jokingly asks if Josey left her husband because she found out that he was wearing ladies underwear, Josey says isn’t “wife beating” reason enough? It’s as if violence toward women is accepted in a marriage, but the non-threatening activity of cross-dressing is the real perversion. Glory informs Josey that there are openings at the mine, and the pay there is much better than that of a hairdresser. Josey wants to be independent and the fact that Glory performs a job that was traditionally assumed to be only for men inspires Josey to apply.

When her father hears about Josey working at the mine, he asks her if she wants to be a lesbian now. The prejudicial assumption is that a woman doing a physically demanding job must be more sexually male than female. Hank also says that there have been more accidents at the mine lately, and he blames that fact on the perception that women can’t handle the workload. This is a priori reasoning, where you make an unsubstantiated assumption, and then only look for evidence exclusive of all others to justify a belief.

There are more cuts to the courtroom where Conlin asks who is Sammy’s father. Josey says she doesn't know. By stating ignorance surrounding the paternity of her son, Josey comes off as being promiscuous. But, the real reason, we learn later, is that she is ashamed to admit a childhood assault. Here we get personal flashbacks of Josey when she was in high school, where a boy approaches her and grabs her butt. She smiles, because this behavior was considered permissible as an acknowledgment of physical attractiveness, the predominate way a girl was valued, as opposed to being condemned as a violation. We then witness a lascivious look on the face of a teacher as he watches the two students.

Speaking of violations, Josey, and other potential female mine workers, must undergo a gynecological examination to make sure they are not pregnant before starting their employment. It’s as if the traditional role of motherhood precludes employment in the manly world of the mines. We jump back to the courtroom where Conlin says that Josey freely submitted to the examination, but, it was more like forced submission. Josey rightly tells Conlin she didn’t have to have an internal examination before joining her law firm, which stresses that some types of employers remained unevolved.

Josey’s mom, Alice, reflects her programmed sexism when she tells her daughter that each person has a circumscribed role to play in society. Josey should be a mother and she will shame her father by working at the mine, implying that Josey is defying the natural order by seeking work that should be reserved for men. After this confrontation, Josey moves in with Glory and her husband, Kyle (Sean Bean). Kyle no longer works at the mine after being injured. He is supportive of Glory, and his delicate work with watches shows that he does not need a machismo-infused job to define his manliness.

Glory advises Josey that she can’t be a “cowgirl” while working at the mine, but has to be a “cowboy.” Glory is a union representative and plays ball with the men in order to get some concessions for the women workers. (When she gets port-a-potties for the women and one of the men suggestively asks what do the men get, she has to participate in their raunchy humor by saying they get discounted blow-jobs). Women have come across this problem when working in many professions that were exclusive to men. They are forced to play by the rules that men created, and sometimes must submerge their feminine identity and act like men. This capitulation amounts to a gender surrender.
There are numerous incidents that show sexual harassment and abuse in the film. Some critics have said the movie is heavy-handed. The fact is that the filmmakers had to leave some of the incidents out because there were so many. The Human Resources representative, Arlen Pavich (Xander Berkeley), flat out tells the women that he and the other men don’t want the women there because the job is dirty and physically demanding, and the mine is no place for a woman. But, the Supreme Court ruled against job discrimination, so they have been forced to employ the women. He says to Josey that he was told by the doctor that she looks good under the work clothes. Pavich then lectures the women that they must play along with that type of joking, and have a sense of humor to survive there. Of course that view perpetuates debasement of women under the guise of humor. It would not be tolerated if a person’s religion or ethnicity were openly ridiculed in the workplace. The men here create a hostile work environment (which later becomes the definition for sexual harassment) because, as Pavich says, more steel is imported at cheaper prices, which has compromised American factories, and led to layoffs. The men see the women as taking their jobs, and want them to stay in the homes to take care of the children and do domestic chores, thus keeping the females under their economic thumbs (The Handmaid’s Tale anyone?). So, they write derogatory sexual comments on the women’s locker room and bathroom, make lewd comments, grope them, leave semen on their clothes, and even lock one in a port-a potty, knocking it over and immersing the woman in human waste. After one of the women finds a huge rubber penis in her lunchbox, Josey says “It won’t leave the toilet seat up. It won’t fart in bed. I might just marry it.” Her humorous preference for an inanimate object shows how disappointing actual males have become in her life.

Josey’s primary sexual harasser is Bobby Sharp, (Jeremy Renner). Bobby is the boy who grabbed young Josey’s behind in her flashback. He requests that she be his assistant in the “powder room,” a particularly filthy place that has the euphemistic name for a woman’s bathroom, where the female employees, despite being in “manly” jobs, are told they must do what women do, which is clean up. There are some men who do not approve of their co-workers actions, including Ricky, (Corey Stoll), who intervenes when the abuse gets really oppressive. But, he is sarcastically called a “Boy Scout” by the men, which shows that even the enlightened males working at the mine are intimidated into falling into line with the anti-female agenda. (Later in a bar, Josey dances with Ricky and asks him if he is a “nice” man, which seems to be a type of person that she has found to be rare in her life). Glory tells Josey she just has to take what the men have to “dish out” if she wants to keep her job. And, Josey, who now has a place of her own and can take her kids out for a nice meal, does appreciate the independence that a decent wage can bring her. She admits that for the first time she actually feels like she is “living.”

At the local bar where the miners unwind, Josey and the female workers enjoy an evening together with the male employees also present. This scene shows the complexity of male-female interactions. Glory’s husband, Kyle, is at the bar with a friend, Bill White (Woody Harrelson), an attorney, and ex- hockey star (showing him to be a man of brains and brawn) who has returned from New York following his divorce. He reveals his hurt ego, and sexist bias, when he complains to Kyle that the judge ordered his wife to pay him alimony. Why has he returned to this town? Possibly to get a testosterone transfusion because he feels less manly since his ex-spouse makes more money than he does? One of the inebriated miners, angered by Kyle and Glory giving Josey a place to stay, accuses Kyle of helping Josey just so he can have a “three-way.” For this man, the sexual component is the only way he understands how men relate to women. Bill, trying to be the peacemaker, gets between the other two men, but his evolved, reasoning side becomes undermined in the heat of the moment, and he winds up punching the drunk worker out, reverting to the macho side of his personality. Glory wants to set Bill up with Josey, but he is romantically gun-shy at the moment, after being wounded by the break up of his marriage, and unsure of his role as a man at the moment. One of the women miners, Sherry (Michelle Monaghan, in one of her early roles), a bit under the influence, comes onto the more senior Bill. He awkwardly says that he has “underwear” older than she is. Sherry, being a young, attractive woman, has been brought up thinking that her sexuality is the only weapon in her feminine arsenal, and to have it rejected is very disarming. She lashes out, and questions Bill’s heterosexuality. So she, too, reduces the male-female dynamic to one of sexuality.
At work, Bobby lies to Josey about a conveyor belt being clogged so he can get her way up at the elevated end of the mechanism, isolated. The height is symbolic of the dangerous precipice on which she finds herself by trying to shake up the masculine system. After he orders the operator to start up the machinery, the deafening sound would drown out a person’s yells. Bobby presses himself against Josey and says that they should kiss and make up. She struggles and he lets her go, but he seems to not understand why she is so resistant to him, given their time in high school together. There is a cut back to the courtroom, and we see that Bill became Josey’s lawyer. Pavich, the Human Resources worker, is on the stand and says that Josey was just paranoid and there was no evidence that would make him take action when she reported harassment to him. Pavich says that a man will always try to cross the line when it comes to sexual abuse, and it’s the job of the woman to smack him back over that line. His testimony accepts the notion that “boys will be boys,” and absolves males from responsibility for their actions, as if they have no control over their drives. He places the burden on the women to defend themselves, even though men have rigged the rules so that they have the social and economic power to force their will on the female population.

In the background the film displays on televisions the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas sexual harassment proceedings. This element shows that the unfair exertion of male power over women not only exists in a remote mining town but also at the level of the Supreme Court, which is supposed to represent the highest standard for justice. Alice turns the TV off in the Aimes home, an act that implies that Josey’s mother feels that fighting gender abuse is hopeless. She says that Anita Hill’s action has only brought harm to Thomas’ family, so she does not feel sympathy for him, but her worry is for his wife and children. At this point she feels the same way about Josey, as does Hank, as they both believe that Josey is stirring up trouble by working at the mine and complaining about the men’s behavior, when there is no way to change the way things are. Josey tells her dad that she works just as hard as he does and she deserves her earnings. When he questions that she is saying that she is the same as him, she says no, because she has to perform her duties while being constantly harassed and worrying about being raped.

Those at the forefront of struggles against unfairness and oppression usually suffer the most because they are the first in the line of fire when the entrenched system is still powerful and exerts its resistance to change. Josey’s actions have their fallout. Her son, Sammy, loves hockey, but the boys won’t pass him the puck because the players’ fathers have told them not to do so in retaliation against Josey’s charges. At a hockey game, Bobby’s wife, after he’s told her lies about what is actually happening at the mine, publicly shouts at Josey, accusing her of trying to seduce her husband. This open attack slanders Josey, and undermines her complaints by spreading gossip (the precursor to social media bullying) and making it appear that Josey is the sexual predator. Sammy, at a very vulnerable age when it comes to peer pressure, blames his mother, calling her a “whore.” He feels the pressure of the status quo bearing down on him, and quits the hockey team. He blames Josey, and says that a mother should stay at home, and cook and clean.
The women mine workers are split concerning Josey’s urging for them to be vocal about the sexual harassment. Sherry, who is the victim in the port-a-potty incident, hates the treatment, but needs the job to take care of her sick mother. Peg (Jillian Armenante) is the most resistant to Josey, and later denies on the stand that there was misconduct against the women, despite the fact we see that the men have written under her operating booth references to charging for oral sex. To justify her opposition, Peg buys into the male explanation for “crossing” that harassment line, which is that women are “asking for it,” of which she accuses Sherry. It is like blaming the victim for causing the crime instead of accusing the perpetrator. Big Betty (Rusty Schwimmer) is more sympathetic to the cause. But, no woman is willing to accompany Josey to her meeting with the big boss, Don Pearson (James Cada), who earlier encountered Josey at a restaurant and was encouraging about coming to him if she had any problems. In the meeting, Pearson has three other men with him, including Pavich who already has told Josey she has raised no “legitimate” issues. The room full of men is meant to be intimidating, immediately communicating to Josey who has the power. Pearson shuts her down quickly, saying that since she is so unhappy in her job he will waive the two-week notice period and she can quit immediately. Josey is stunned by how Pearson turns out to be just as hostile as the male workers, again showing how pervasive is the anti-female attitude. She says she needs the job. Pearson then cruelly says she should stop wasting time stirring up the other women and spending time in the beds of co-workers (thus joining in on the slander about her sexual behavior).

The final straw for Josey again occurs in the “powder room” when Bobby literally knocks her down, jumps on her, and grabs her by the crotch. He says to her that she likes “that,” which hints at his wanting to believe that she is sexually available. She breaks away and later confronts Bobby in the cafeteria, now calling him out in public, mirroring what happened to her at the hockey game. But, she is in the right, and refuses to keep the harassment silent, as the other women have. One of the men says that Bobby was with him all day, and even Ricky, although appalled, won’t stand up for Josey, which shows how the status quo hinders the men who oppose sexual abuse from speaking up. Big Betty allows Josey to take her car to go home, and Josey announces that she quits.
Josey asks Bill to sue the mining company. He tells her at first to forget about it. The defense will use the “nuts and sluts” defense, which means they discredit a woman’s claims by either depicting her as deranged, imagining wrong deeds, or else saying that the woman was seductive and encouraged the sexually aggressive male activity. Bill demonstrates the attitude of the times by saying she is beautiful, and Josey knows that he means she can get a man to take care of her. But, Josey’s been through that, and she tells Bill now she wants to take care of herself and her children. Later, after sharing a drink with Kyle, Bill notices all of the animal heads mounted on the walls of the bar. On the one hand, it points to the male desire to validate their manliness by gathering trophies, which extends to the sexual arena. But, on the other hand, Bill realizes that animals are safer in a herd than if they try to go it alone. He tells Josey that he will represent her if they can enlist other women and pursue a class action sexual harassment suit, which has never been done before.

Glory has developed ALS, and her condition deteriorates. Even though she no longer is an employee, she shows up at a union meeting to still be useful in trying to negotiate solutions to some of the problems brought about by Josey’s actions. Again, the intimidating all male gathering politely dismisses her, since now she is no longer a force to be reckoned with. Back in the courtroom, the judge (John Aylward) tells Bill that he will consider his case to be a class action suit if he can get three plaintiffs. Josey approaches Glory later in her hospital room to join the lawsuit, but Glory is so bitter, she dismisses Josey. The company’s lawyer, Conlin, aggressively tries to pressure Glory to state that there was no sexual harassment, even threatening to subpoena the dying woman, which shows to what lengths the company will go to not change their policies. Pearson is even condescending to his own female attorney, saying that he hired her, not because she is the best lawyer, just the best woman attorney, so it appears that he is fair toward women. But he tells her that there are certain jobs, like being a football player or a miner, that are not meant for women. Conlin points out the repercussions of a legal loss. The company has no insurance against “punitive damages,” and a negative ruling means paid leave for pregnancies and the implementation of new sexual harassment policies, which will affect all businesses. Pearson says they will win by depicting Josey as a woman of low morals. Conlin brings in Bobby to get some dirt on Josey so she can present her as a woman with a sordid past.

Alice brought money to Josey to help her now that she is unemployed. When Hank finds out he says he worked hard for that money, but Alice says that so does she. She tells her husband how much would he owe her if she charged him for all the loads of laundry she washed. Hank, still giving lip service to the loose morals argument against his daughter because all of his co-workers plead innocence to him, says that Josey brought shame onto the family. Alice is now angry, and tells him his daughter just had a baby outside of a marriage, she didn’t rob a bank. Her statement points out how unfairly punitive is the gender double standard’s condemnation of women’s sexual activity. Alice, now feeling the need to protect her daughter and lend her support, takes a room at a motel because she can’t abide her husband’s failure to defend his daughter.
The union members have a meeting, which is stoked by a speech by Bobby which urges exoneration of the male workers and praises the women miners for not joining Josey’s lawsuit. Josey arrives with Bill and courageously tries to address the crowd. The men are loudly sexually abusive. Hank finally gets up and tells the gathering that Josey has the right to speak. Hank takes the microphone and tells the workers that he was a miner all of his life, “And I’ve never been ashamed of it until now.” He points out that words like “bitches” and “whores” were never used when they took their daughters and wives to the company picnic. The implication here is that as long as the women stayed in their designated roles, they were exempt from scorn. Hank says some of the words shouted and written at work, and the grabbing of the women’s “privates,” are acts so bad that he deems them “unspeakable.” He indicts the men and praises his daughter when he says, “You’re all supposed to be my friends, my brothers. Well, right now I don’t have a friend in this room. In fact the only one I’m not ashamed of is my daughter.” These words show how Hank has reversed what is shameful: it’s not his daughter’s past, but instead it is the the oppressive sexism of the men. The changes in the behavior of Alice and Frank may be too abrupt in the script, but that fact does not diminish the power of their acts and words.
In order to negate the legitimacy of Josey’s claims, Bobby told Conlin that Josey has always been promiscuous, even having sexual relations with a high school teacher. Conlin brings the teacher, Paul Latavansky, (Brad William Henke) into the courtroom. On the stand, Josey now shares what were her private memories. The teacher, the one previously seen with the lewd look on his face, caught young Josey and Bobby drinking alcohol and kissing, and brought them in for detention. After dismissing Bobby, the teacher raped Josey in the classroom. Josey saw that Bobby could see that the teacher violently pressed her, crying, against the windowed classroom door, but the young boy ran away from the scene. Sammy is the teacher’s son, and Josey kept it a secret. She was like most young people who are sexually assaulted, who wonder why such a horrible thing happened to them. Were they at fault? They are made to feel ashamed and don’t want to reveal the attack, afraid they will be blamed, which is especially how girls have been made to feel. And, they feel powerless to blame an adult for a wrongdoing. After finally hearing the secret that Josey has been keeping about the assault, Hank goes after Latavansky, and is restrained and removed from the courtroom. There are no witnesses to verify Josey’s version of what happened, so Conlin argues that the testimony is self-serving.

Sammy doesn’t want to believe that he is the child of a rapist, and not the son of a soldier who died in the war, which is what Josey had told him to shield him from the truth. While hanging out with Glory’s husband, Kyle, Sammy says his mother is just a whore who is lying so she can win her case. Kyle says that Sammy can accept the truth because his mother could have put him up for adoption, but didn’t, and took care of him, was proud of him, and always went to his hockey games. Sammy goes home and Josey is honest with him about not initially wanting him after the assault. But once she felt him move inside of her, she knew that he belonged to her, not her rapist. She assures him that none of the ugliness that was part of his conception attached itself to Sammy.
It is difficult to accept harsh truths when it is easier lie to oneself and cover up terrible acts. Which is what Bobby did. He couldn’t stand the guilt of not helping Josey when she was being raped, so he rewrote history to put the blame on Josey, and labeled her a slut. When Bill gets Bobby on the stand he uses the rough sport of hockey as a metaphor to break down Bobby’s defenses by saying a real man must bleed, suffer, in order to show his courage. By impugning his masculinity if he doesn’t show courage and tell the truth, Bill gets Bobby to finally admit that Josey was raped. He didn’t report the attack because, he says sobbing, “what was I supposed to do?” Bill sums up the problem and the difficulty of the solution presented by the movie. He says, “What are you supposed to do when the ones with all the power are hurting those with none? Well, for starters, you stand up.” In the back of the courtroom, Glory is there, unable to speak, but making a rattling noise. She has prepared a statement which Kyle reads, and which announces that she’s “not dead yet,” and that she stands with Josie. One by one, many in the courtroom stand up, including some of the women workers, Josey’s parents, and some male miners. Josey has her class action suit.
The ending has Bill giving Sammy some hockey pointers, and we hear that Josey has won the case. The last shot is of Josey showing Sammy how to drive. She is now the one in control of the road ahead of her. A message informs us that in the real case, there was a modest financial settlement, but sexual harassment policy was established to protect the current women workers, and those that followed.
It is important to see where progressive change sprang from and the courageous sacrifice made by many to achieve justice. But this case ended in 1998, after a fourteen year struggle. And, as we see in the headlines daily, sexual abuse of women has continued for many years after the end of this case, carried out by unscrupulous men in the very industry that produced this film, and at all levels of government. We must continue to, as Bill says in the film, “stand up” to make a difference.

The next film is Norma Rae.