The Song Remains the Same

In the wake of the monumentally disastrous and tragic 8.9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan, and with much of the Middle East ablaze or in upheaval, it’s all too easy to get the feeling that the world might just be coming to an end. Chicken Little or no Chicken Little.

But that feeling is really nothing new, unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it.

The term “mutually assured annihilation” is one that once you grasp its weight and significance, it sticks to you like gum on the bottom of your shoe. It’s one of those terms, or realities I should say, that we are better off shielding our children from until they absolutely need to know that such masochistic dangers exist.

I revisited Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide (1995) recently and found it as compelling and thrilling as the first time I saw it at the AMC Santa Monica over 15 years ago. It is a superb example of the magnitude two capable movie stars can bring to a good script (QuentinTarantino doctored the final draft).

Denzel Washington plays an up and coming Naval commander assigned to ride shotgun with the crusty battle tested Gene Hackman, aboard a submarine whose mission is to head off Soviet subs who are more than likely up to no good.

Once they confront the Soviets, their worst fears are confirmed and they receive a transmission from the Pentagon to launch a pre-emptive nuclear missile. But after much commotion and requisite hand wringing, a second transmission comes through – but this one stalls after they lose radio frequency. What did it say? Proceed with launch or abort?

Hackman, a gung-ho military hawk, says never challenge an order and damn the torpedos. Washington questions the urgency to dismiss the mysterious second transmission and insists they err on the side of caution. A mutiny ensues with the survival of humanity at stake. It’s very well crafted and well acted. Once upon a time Tony Scott had a deft touch.

Mutually assured annihilation. We kill them they kill us, no more them no more us. Fun stuff.

The film brilliantly boils the dilemma down to this one moment. Hackman’s stubborn old school Naval Captain stares the defiant “second in command” Denzel square down the pipe and says “If you’re wrong, God help you.” To which Washington says with poetic certainty “If I’m wrong, God help us all.”

My father turned me on to a film during his last visit to Los Angeles that I had never heard of. Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959). Kramer, who died in 2001 at age 87, had produced the Oscar winning High Noon (1952) as well as the Humphrey Bogart classic The Caine Mutiny (1954), so the themes of righteous confrontation and the consequences of pre-emptive aggression were rich in his Brooklyn blood. He went on to direct The Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and ultimately the Sidney Poitier/Spencer Tracy gem, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).

Again we are aboard a U.S. submarine, this time our trusty (not crusty) Captain is played by the wonderful Gregory Peck. But unlike Crimson Tide, the war has already been fought, the nukes have been lobbed, and the deadly radiation is now permeating the globe, one helpless continent at a time.

It is a surprisingly bleak film with an unambiguous ending; unlike Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic film adaptation, The Road (2009) or the campy Charlton Heston flick, Omega Man (1971), which leave us with a glimmer of hope that the best qualities of the human spirit will ultimately prevail.

The film is notable for several reasons. It introduced American audiences to the Australian folk song “Waltzing Matilda.” It paired Peck with screen siren Ava Gardner. It featured a very young and soulful Anthony Perkins. But perhaps most significantly, On the Beach marked the dramatic acting debut of dance icon Fred Astaire.

It is Astaire, this time, that delivers the film’s thesis. As the submarine officers sit in the mess hall, wondering aloud why the war began in the first place if both sides knew what would happen, Astaire, the onboard “egghead,” gives us this:

“Who would ever believe that human beings would be stupid enough to blow themselves off the face of the earth,” Astaire’s ‘Professor Julian Osborne’ delivers with effectively glum resolve. “The war started when people accepted the idiotic principle that peace could be maintained by arranging to defend themselves with weapons they couldn’t possibly use without committing suicide.”

We rented Dreamworks’ Megamind a few nights ago. My kids had seen it in the theatres and loved it, but I was looking at it with fresh eyes. And, again, with the backdrop of what is going on in the world – “fresh eyes” is a euphemism for healthy cynicism.

Megamind is a twist on the conventional good vs. evil formula. ‘Megamind,’ the bad guy, decides he needs to be good to get the girl, so he creates an even worse guy so that he can battle and defeat him, therefore becoming the good guy to impress the girl. Kind of a Dreamworks metaphor for nation building? Well, what happens when the bad guy created turns out worse than expected? Plays by a different set of rules?

“If there is bad, good will rise up against it.” That comes from ‘Metro Man,’ the original good guy who ‘Megamind’ destroys in the first act of the film (or so we think).

These themes go right over most of our kids’ heads. Or do they? 

With dictators like Khadafi, Ahmadinejad, and Kim Jong Il presently in power, we need now more than ever for our leaders to not let this challenge of confrontation be above their pay grade.

The climax of Megamind is motivated by this line of dialogue, from the newly created bad guy, ‘Titan,’ to the damsel in distress, ‘Roxanne.’

“You see the good in everybody, even when it’s not there. This is the real world and you need to wake up!”

In the background of the final battle of GOOD (‘Megamind’) vs. EVIL (‘Titan’), we see unmistakably familiar propaganda posters of ‘Megamind’ that read: No We Can’t.

My kids knew immediately the reference.

2 thoughts on “The Song Remains the Same

  1. Lars, a very thoughtful article. ‘On the Beach’ is a movie that always struck a cord with me. While somewhat overacted by some of the players; the premise of the film focused on was the aftermath of the bomb, the wondering and waiting for your certain death and how each of us might react. Everytime I watch it I find it more thought provoking. But then again, that is part of Stanley Kramer’s magic as a director.

    It seems as if I see each of his films “for the 1st time” with each new review. Something I may have missed the first time or maybe the times we now live in reflect a much stronger messages. Stanley Kramer was so very far ahead of his time on many issues of the day.

    Anyway, keep up the good work Lars! Miss you! My sister and I hope to make a trip out to S.D. sometime in the spring/early summer. Hope to catch up with you then. xoxox to all the Beckermans

    • Thanks, Terry. You really do know your films, don’t you???? Very impressive critique and observation about Stanley Kramer. As you know, I’m a big Sidney Poitier fan, so Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is one of my all-time favorite films. Your friendship (and readership) very valuable and much appreciated.

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