Saturday, April 29, 2006

United Behind "United 93"

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I, like everyone else in this nation, stood horrified, watching the Twin Towers smolder on the television before me. A TV had been dragged to the main lobby of the building where I was on duty at Bolling Air Force Base base, and dozens of us were crowded around it. I was at Bolling because I was out-processing from the Navy—just a few more days of paperwork and I was officially a civilian again. Watching the carnage unfolding in New York, I began to wonder if they were going to let me go anywhere.

A loud crash made us jump and drew all our eyes to the ceiling. “Jeez,” I thought, “did someone on the next floor just knock over one of those heavy-duty filing cabinets?” And then I went back to watching the TV.

A moment later a sailor burst through the front doors, out of breath, his arms gesticulating wildly behind him.

“It’s been hit…the Pentagon…it’s on fire…it’s on fire!”

We all piled out the front doors and there before us was the massive Pentagon structure, a mere stone’s throw from our building. A large quadrant of it was wreathed in flame. Acrid black smoke belched into the sky.

The base was immediately locked down. Those of us living off base were not allowed to leave. For several days, we slept on floors, in hallways, anywhere they could put us. That night I sat alone at a table in the cafeteria, absentmindedly picking at my dinner. On one of the mounted television screens, CNN showed the Congress gathering on the steps of the Capitol, and in a rare moment of solidarity, singing “God Bless America” in one voice. While they sang, I took my eyes off the TV to the large bay windows just below it. The windows afforded me an unobstructed view of the Pentagon, it’s hemorrhaging flames illuminating the night sky.

* * *

Ever since it was revealed that Hollywood was producing films based on the events of 9/11 (Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center comes out later this year) I’ve heard two predominant reactions: “God, do you think we’re ready” and “Hollywood has a lot of nerve exploiting 9/11 just so that they can make a buck.”

The latter concern first…

If I didn’t understand film’s titanic power over our lives and its enormous ability to move us like no other medium, I’d find the exploitative remarks odd. No one complains about books—even fictional books—written about 9/11. Or songs. Or paintings. Or photographs. Or any other artistic medium. That’s because, as powerful as these tools may be, their spheres of influence pale in comparison to the reach, appeal and incisiveness of movies. Film alone has the power to cut straight through our skin and peel back the layers of our hearts. And it can do so faster than we can ever see it coming.

Which leads me to the former concern…

We’re ready. It is not too soon for United 93 because United 93 does not play like a film that is aware of the five plus years of history trailing behind those tragic events. This is a film told entirely in the present tense. Like an episode of TV’s 24, events unfold in nearly real time, rapid yet realistic.

This is a film that borrows more from the world of documentaries than from feature blockbusters. The camera work is uneven and sporadic, even disconcerting at times as if it too is trying its hardest to keep up with the action but is always just one step behind. Once United flight 93 gets airborne, there are no more establishing shots, no computer-generated planes spinning out of control. We are allowed to see only what the characters see—through windows, computer monitors and TV screens.

You probably won’t recognize a single actor in United 93. Director Paul Greengrass has deliberately chosen faces that you cannot identify. Dozens of the flight controllers and military personnel play themselves. There is no effort to tell the human-interest or back-stories of either the passengers or the terrorists. We don’t see them sharing breakfast with their kids or kissing their spouses before they leave for the airport. We learn very few of their names. All we know about the passengers, crew and terrorists is what we’d know had we been sitting in the terminal with them waiting to board or beside them in the plane. Which is to say, we know their faces. The film alternates between the cabin of 93 and the handful of command posts struggling to decipher what is going on. First one plane is hijacked, then another, then another, then another. Soon these planes begin smashing into buildings, one after another, after another, after another. No one knows what is going on. Pandemonium engulfs everyone.

In the film’s final act, the flight controllers disappear, replaced entirely now with the goings on inside the aircraft. The hijackers have seized the plane, killed several people, appear to have a bomb, and are headed for a collision course with the U.S. Capitol. We know what’s going on and what the passengers will do next because of the cockpit voice recorder and the many telephone calls they made before the rushed their attackers, stormed the cockpit and sacrificed their own lives for those of hundreds of others. There are no mustache-twirling villains here, no standout heroes. Just a planeload of terrified passengers who make the bravest and most sacrificial decision of their lives.

We know what’s coming. It’s our history. And still our stomachs are in knots.

United 93 is a film of extraordinary accuracy. There are no true moments of poetic license. While much of the action inside the aircraft has to be imagined and extrapolated through the scant details that survived, everything, down to the exact lines are recreated with pinpoint realism. (One exception is a shockingly beautiful imagined scene when the hijackers realize they are about to lose control of the plane and the passengers are preparing themselves for the inevitable. Both sides find themselves in prayer. The hijackers chant passages from the Koran juxtaposed with the passenger’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.)

The film contains no politics. No patriotic speeches. No finger pointing. No conspiracy theories. No Iraq. No bigger historical picture. There are no mentions of the “War on Terror” or Osama bin Laden or Al-Qaeda. This is a time before anyone found those names on the tips of their tongues. United 93 is a film devoid of any sort of commentary or conclusions because it does not allow itself to have the benefit of hindsight. Anything brought to this film will be the inevitable result of the viewer superimposing his or her own beliefs atop it.

This is one of those rare films where, when the credits begin the roll and the house lights go up, many people find they cannot move. The theater is uncomfortably silent. The sound of crying is the only thing heard.

I’ve seen it twice today already and I cannot assure you enough that this is a masterful and heartbreaking film. It in no way exploits the events of 9/11 or the people involved in them. In fact, many family members of those killed aboard flight 93 were deeply involved in its production. They have publicly stated, and I agree with them, that this film honors the memories of the fallen.

The film has garnered nearly immaculate reviews. Those who are less then enthusiastic admit to its first-rate production values and even its honorable intentions, but are at a place where they are not yet ready to deal with its subject matter. Such may be some of you. But if you think you are ready to wrestle with these demons, again, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. The theaters I attended were packed—people are seeing this film. And they are applauding when it is over. Like other painful and deeply disturbing films such as Shindler’s List, this is not a film you go to for enjoyment, but because you feel you have a duty to endure it.


Before "United 93" begins, the trailer for All the King's Men will be shown. Sean Penn is going to win an Oscar next year. Mark my words. You’ll see what I mean.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Worst President in History?

Is Bush one of the worst Presidents in history? Find out here.

Why Can't I Own a Canadian?

Getting stoned in Monty Python's The Life of Brian. Love those beards, guys...

The following is a letter that was supposedly sent to Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a radio personality who dispenses advice to people who call in to her radio show. According to the source, which may or may not be reliable, she recently said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22 and cannot be condoned under any circumstances. Whether the following open letter, penned by a listener, is real or not is besides the point. The author's points are valid all the same and bring into sharp focus one of Christian Fundamentalism's most troublesome and ignored aspects--picking and choosing its pet sins. I think the piece speaks for itself...

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other specific laws and how to follow them:

When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord - Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness - Lev.15:19-24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination - Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?

Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? - Lev.24:10-16. Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

Your devoted fan,


Wednesday, April 26, 2006


As you may or may not have noticed, I have been pretty silent on political topics of late.

Partly it was because I was starting to piss people off. I had a friend recently ask to be removed from my update list because she couldn't stand my diatribes (never mind the fact that out of 160 some blogs on this site, only a dozen are remotely political in nature).

But the main reason is that it seemed like I'd be flogging a dying horse.

Bush is the third most unpopular President in U.S. history. Everything he touches these days falls apart spectacularly. He's like a drowning man who can't seem to keep his head above water or get a full breath before the next wave pounds him again.

Needless to say, these recent events make me quite giddy. In my opinion, this is a wildly inept and corrupt administration and its behavior proves Newtonian physics—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Bam! Pow! Zowie!

So why am I compelled to write something today? Why make a comment now when I ignored things I felt very passionately about, like the Iraq debacle, skyrocketing oil prices, the immigration debate, the half dozen retired Generals demanding that the Secretary of Defense be handed his walking papers, the President's authorized, illegal spying on his own citizens, the torture amendments and secret prisons, and yes, even the Vice President shooting a 78 year old man in the face? (See what you've been spared the past few months!)

I don't know. Maybe it's just because today's news is so...imbecilic.

Yes boys and girls, the White House has a new Press Secretary. He looks familiar, you say? He should. Let's all welcome Tony Snow, commentator for that bastion of fair, that vanguard of balance, FOX News!

Good grief.

At least he's easier on the eyes than that last feller. (You're free Scott McClellan, freeeeeeee.)

That's it--the political pen is officially in hand again. With targets this big, how can you not take pot-shots?

Friday, April 21, 2006

Eating of the Forbidden Fruit

I'm like Ralphie in A Christmas Story--dreaming, suggesting, plotting, begging until at last it arrives. No, it is not a Red Ryder BB Gun. It's better than that. (No, it's not a lamp shade in the alluring shape of a woman's leg either.)

It's my new Apple Macbook Pro with an Intel Core Duo Processor, 2GHz, 1GB of RAM, 100GB Hard Drive, 15.4-inch XGA TFT Display, 4X DVD+/-RW SuperDrive, Mac OS XTiger v10.4 and a full software Final Cut Studio compliment (Final Cut Pro, DVD Studio Pro, Soundtrack Pro and Motion 2) for the most powerful notebook editing suite available.

This is not normally something I'd blog about. But for some reason, its arrival has made me oddly philosophical. There's something inspiring about holding something in your hands that will play such a large part in your future. It's more than just a metal shell and some wiring. It is a tool for transformation.

With this machine, I will communicate with my friends and family scattered literally on all corners of the globe. With this machine, I will write love letters to my wife. With this machine, I will add to the blogosphere. With this machine, I will compose my Master's thesis. With this machine, I will transform current germs of ideas into muscled, breathing screenplays. With this machine, I will edit movies that exist now only in my head.

It sure as heck better do all those things and more. It cost enough.

Lost in Space!

Holy crap! Variety is reporting that J.J. Abrams, creator of such smash TV shows as Alias and Lost and director of this summer's forthcoming Mission Impossible: III has agreed to write and direct the 11th film in the wildly popular Star Trek franchise, aimed for a 2008 release. And he's bringing Damon Lindelof and Bryan Burk, the creative and producing team behind Lost with him.

Paramount is desperate to breath new life into the series which has struggled of late. The previous film, Nemesis, was a box-office disappointment, despite being penned by Hollywood screenwriting golden boy, John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, The Last Samurai). And Enterprise, the fifth series, ran afoul of both critics and fans alike and was the first Trek series to be canceled in mid-run. Still, the franchise is one of Hollywood's most durable and a cash cow for Paramount, worth billions of dollars.

The premise of the film is the one area I wanted Paramount to steer clear of like the Ebola virus—the early days of the Original Series characters, with new actors playing James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock, including how they met at Starfleet Academy and their first outer space mission.

The idea of going back in time to look at the beloved characters' early lives works well on paper and indeed, several books have been published on the topic. One such book, Best Destiny, literally changed my life a decade ago by rousing me from an induced funk and inspiring me to pursue an incredible job that, in many ways, set the course of my life from that day forward. But in the movies, the premise rarely ever works. In fact, I can think of only one film that pulls it off brilliantly—The Godfather: Part II with Robert DeNiro as a young Marlon Brando. I fear that a young Kirk and Spock will merely play as parodies of the real thing.

Still, I can't help but be shocked and elated that Paramount is making such creative and inspired choices in its effort to patch the holes in what is admittedly one of my life's foremost addictions.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Freeway Faith

It happened just the other day.

Some idiot in an old Buick pulled right out in front of me, forcing me to slam on my brakes to avoid slicing his car in half. He was either too stupid or too occupied on his cell phone to even notice me shaking my fist and uttering a string of profanities long, loud and nasty enough to make even my old Drill Instructor blush. (One time, in boot camp…my fellow inmates and I counted—he used the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge expletive nearly seventy times in the span of one minute).

I can't tell you how many times I've wished for one of James Bond's Aston Martins decked out with a few of Q's stinger missiles hidden behind the headlights.

“Don't you do it! Don't you dare pull out...oh you *&%$#@! Take this! Haha! You're sorry you pulled out in front of me now, aren't ya!? Yeaaaaah...”

I usually only have these episodes when I'm alone. By and large, I try keep my composure when I'm driving with my wife, though she's made enough comments that I know I'm not always entirely successful. An ex-girlfriend said she genuinely disliked me when I got behind the wheel.

It's not that I'm a bad driver. Just an aggressive and intolerant one. I hate it that I always seem to be a magnet for the most incompetent motorists on the road. My brother-in-law has a bumper sticker that gives me grins every time I read it: “Why am I the only only person on earth who knows how to drive?” Amen, brother.

I've been thinking lately that life is a lot like a freeway. You're moving forward, toward a destination somewhere in the unseen distance, which is good, but it's not always swift or effortless. Sometimes you're racing along and other times you're stuck in a traffic jam. Other drivers get in your way. There are detours and roadblocks to hinder your momentum. Sometimes you have to exit one road and merge into traffic on another going in a completely different direction. And sometimes, you're the victim (perpetrator) of a minor fender-bender or a catastrophic accident that destroys your chance to get to where you're going and even that of those around you.

The problem is, I don't like myself when I drive.

I'm at my worst when I'm behind the wheel. I'm my most unforgiving, most angry, most ungraceful when on the road. If the road to wherever is a metaphor for the road of life, I'm in trouble. If there is one situation where my actions deviate the most from the ideals of my faith, it is in my car. And that shames me.

And what happens when Superior Driver Me does something dumb—cuts someone off, changes lanes without noticing that car in my blind spot? “Yeah, yeah, get over it,” I holler aloud to the driver gesticulating wildly behind me. The difference, I tell myself, is that I had a temporary lapse of judgment while everyone else is stuck in perpetual driving ignorance. Yeah, sure keep telling yourself that.

Where is my love for the guy who is going twenty miles below the speed limit on a crowded two-lane road? Where is my forgiveness for the lady who just changed lanes and almost side-swiped me? Where is my grace for the guy who just intentionally cut me off?

If I can't display Christian attributes during something as innocuous and irrelevant as driving my car, how do I expect to apply them when life comes at me with far more vicious and agonizing attacks? Am I really so deluded as to think that the two aren't related—that my responses to the little things will not also rear their ugly heads in the midst of the truly big things?

Can my road rage be anything other than sin?

If so, I desperately need to check my map. I have a feeling I'm headed in the wrong direction. Or worse yet, toward a horrible accident.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Short Cut

I cut my hair the other day.

I'd been thinking about doing it for several weeks now. I enjoyed it long, but thought it was just time to go back to the clean cut me. Especially wandering around the Space Symposium with all of its uptight military, NASA and space contractor types, I have to admit there was a certain degree of peer pressure to fit in.

One of these things certainly didn't look like the others.

And so I got it cut. A good 5 or 6 inches. Far shorter than I had asked for or wanted, but clean-cut nonetheless.

And boy did people notice.

“Thank God!” friends exclaimed loudly and publicly, “I hated that long hair. You look so much better this way.”

In fact, so overwhelming was the relief and praise that I'd cut it that I began to wonder why no one hadn't just pinned me down months ago and attacked me with pruning sheers. While a large part of me missed the long curls (my wife's reaction was singularly unfavorable to the change) and certainly thought the barber had gone too far, I felt good about the decision.

Then came Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, he of recent blogs.

“Didn't you have long hair when we were talking just this morning?”

“Yeah, I just got it cut over lunch.”

“Oh. (Long pause) It's a shame. I liked your long hair. Especially at a gathering like this. It showed individuality. It showed that you didn't care what others thought about you. It showed that you were true to yourself despite others' opinions of you. (Another long pause) Too bad.”

Damn it.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

I Need My Space

A rocket lifts off in front of Pikes Peak

The Space Foundation's 22nd National Space Symposium has been going on this week in Colorado Springs. More than 7,000 commercial, civil and military space leaders decended on the gorgeous Broadmoor resort for the annual event that brings the nation's celestial dreamers together once a year to set America's course in outer space.

This year Tom Hanks was given an award for his contributions to the space industry through his feature films, IMAX films and mini-series'. Unfortunetly, post-production on The DaVinci Code prevented him from attending though he has promised to remedy that very soon.

That the second in command of the Japanese Space Agency will be speaking here is pretty impressive. That the second in command of the Chinese Space Agency will be speaking here is nothing short of revolutionary.

Some of the themes of this year are manned vs. robotic exploration, how space is being used to ensure national security, and the benefits of technology originally designed for space travel that now enrich our lives here on earth.

And in a particularly poignant look at the future, a consultant here has already begun drawing up preliminary designs for the first National Space Symposium to be held on Mars.

A few of the stellar celebrities with whom I've been able to meet:

Elon Musk

Elon Musk left his native South Africa for America when he was only 17. Five years later he graduated from Wharton college with degrees in Finance and Physics. Two days into grad school at Stanford for Energy Physics, he dropped out to start Zip2, makers of media industry software. In 1999 he sold it to Compaq for $300 million. Then he started Pay Pal and just recently sold it to eBay for 1.5 billion. Now he's started his third company, SpaceX with the ambitious goal of launching space vehicles to create a permanent manned settlement on Mars. Additionally, he has begun producing films, his first being this Spring's saterical hit, Thank You for Smoking. Did I mention he's only 34!?

Neil Degrasse Tyson

Neal Degrasse Tyson is one of the world's most recognized and popular lecturers on astronomy. He's the author of six books, a columnist for Natural History magazine, the host of NOVA's "Origins" miniseries, the youngest-ever director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, and People magazine's "Sexiest Astrophysist Alive." And, as he told me, he's soon to be the voice of the human heart on Seseme Street. Now there's a resume builder.

Buzz Aldrin

Buzz hardly needs an introduction. As a member of Apollo 11, he was only the second human being to ever set foot on the moon.

Gatherings such as this are fashioned to inspire the spirit, elevate the soul and realign the human consciousness. Why risk our lives to travel into the void? Because it beckons to us. It is our nature to explore, to push the boundaries of knowledge and perseverance, and indeed go where no one has gone before. In going out there we improve life right here. Journeys into the unknown show us for who we really are and reveal the very values that we, as a species, hold sacred. They remind us of our common humanity, humble us with their monolithic dimensions and invite us to do the one thing that sets us apart from the rest of God’s creation—dream.
Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus