Book Reviews Subscribe Faith-filled Family Links for Learners Ask a Franciscan Editorial Entertainment Watch Saints for Our Lives Contents

By James Arnold

Revisiting Heroes, Ghosts and Saints


We Were Soldiers
Brother Sun, Sister Moon
9/11 (CBS)
The American Embassy
Watching Ellie


WE WERE SOLDIERS (A-4, R) revisits the Vietnam War with 21st-century combat-movie special effects and a slightly revisionist attitude. The war is still hell, but the soldiers (on both sides) are good guys who fight bravely, make few cynical wisecracks and, occasionally, are even heroes.

This stunning, deeply probing fact-based drama follows Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) as he leads a helicopter-borne infantry regiment on the first major American attack mission in 1965. With significant U.S. air support, the fierce fighting is mostly hand-to-hand with light weapons and artillery. The result is heavy casualties on both sides but no clear winner—a symbolic prologue to the decade of attrition yet to come.

The traditional war-movie narrative focuses on the officers as the troops endure their tough, special stateside training, with some attention to individuals, their spouses and families. After the last dance with wives and sweethearts and a brooding departure sequence, the action moves swiftly to combat, with cutbacks to what’s happening at home.

Gibson’s Hal Moore (on whose memoirs the film is based) is a devout Catholic veteran and family man (five kids) with a democratic leadership style (first to land, last to leave). He knows men will die. When they do, he cries and prays for them.

A journalist (Barry Pepper) who goes along to get the story close-up finds more horror than he bargained for. Back at home base, the wives begin to get Defense Department telegrams, and Moore’s wife (Madeleine Stowe) takes on the difficult but compassionate task of delivering them herself.

Director/writer/producer Randall Wallace, who scripted Braveheart for Gibson but got little oomph into his screenplay for Pearl Harbor, offers plenty of emotional moments. The bitterness of the great wave of Vietnam movies (The Deer Hunter, Platoon, etc.) is missing, but there is no glory either.

The random horror and mayhem reflect the in-your-face realism of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. (The specialty here is napalm and what it does.) This time there is no message except perhaps that soldiers have a grim job (not much improved since the days of Braveheart) and deserve gratitude and respect. Sincere but very sad; a cut above average; genre violence and realism, for mature audiences.


DRAGONFLY (A-3, PG-13): One impressive speculation in this movie is that the face of the doctor is the last sight many people see on this earth. Thus, doctors should try to be pleasant, if not beatific. Otherwise, Dragonfly is another nonsectarian afterlife movie in which belief is greatly rewarded.

A hardened Chicago ER medic, Joe Darrow (Kevin Costner) overcomes his skepticism to believe he’s being visited by the spirit of Emily, his beloved late wife. Presumably, she has a message for him. Emily (Susanna Thompson), also a doctor, was on a do-good medical mission (despite her pregnancy) in the Colombian bush. In the opening sequence, we see her and others on a bus being swept away in a rainstorm.

Many of the signals are coming from the young cancer patients Emily had treated at the hospital. Several of these kids have had near-death experiences and draw strange cross-like squiggles. Then there is a Catholic nun (Linda Hunt) who researches such cases. In a spooky chapel surrounded by banks of blue votive candles, she urges Joe to believe and reassures him that he’s not nuts.

Director Tom Shadyac has scored with broad comedies (The Nutty Professor, Liar Liar) and wants to play this story like an X-Files episode. Joe lives in a creepy Victorian house alone with Emily’s parrot, who won’t talk to him but goes berserk on cue. Various comatose patients pass along information.

The shocker scenes are corny and misleading, spoiling a potential supernatural love story. A well-conceived upbeat ending confirms that ghost Emily is as benign as your sainted grandmother. Kathy Bates is helpful as a refreshingly down-to-earth lawyer neighbor. The likable Costner, cast again as a grieving romantic (Message in a Bottle), needs a break. Clumsy supernatural detective story loses its sense of direction.


SHOWTIME (A-3, PG-13) merits some attention as a rare big-budget comedy without sex or bathroom jokes. The concept is very Beverly Hills: A hardnosed, TV-hating police detective is forced to work on a reality-TV cop series.

The casting tells it all: Robert De Niro is the dour, no-nonsense real cop. Eddie Murphy is the hyper foul-up rookie who loves over-the-top acting and TV heroics. Murphy is hired as De Niro’s partner, and Rene Russo is the slick producer who brings them together.

The movie fails to get the most out of its cast and material. But there’s still plenty of fun, with TV as the main target. William Shatner, plugging his experience on that great cop show T.J. Hooker, has a too-brief cameo as a director trying to coach De Niro.

Eventually, Showtime softens its bite with a Hollywood-style chase and a climax involving Russo as a damsel-in-distress. Some cop-show language and violence, otherwise O.K. for laughs at the Tube’s expense.


BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON lingers as a favorite among many who first saw it in theaters in 1973. It was, and still is, quite different from conventional saint movies. This vibrant, idealistic, luxuriantly photographed tribute to the young Saints Francis and Clare by masterful Italian stage and film director Franco Zeffirelli was aimed at the heads and hearts of the 1970s film generation.

Zeffirelli used the modern tools of film art to make accessible not only religious history (Jesus of Nazareth) but also Shakespeare (the dazzling 1968 Romeo and Juliet). In Brother Sun, he visually elevates the subject with sun-filled images of the Umbrian countryside that the saints loved and replaces the usual heavenly-choir music with poignant songs by Donovan, the then-popular Scottish balladeer.

The movie remains true to essential history but also makes Francis, Clare and their companions into beautiful, exhilarating, self-effacing movie heroes—charismatic icons for a world that loves movies. One of Zeffirelli’s great moments is his staging of the arrival of the impoverished Francis and his ragtag band in the richly adorned Lateran palace to talk with the pope (Alec Guinness) about the need for reform and simplicity in the Church. The contrast between the world and the spirit has never been captured so well on the screen.

9/11 (CBS)

9/11 (CBS): This remarkable two-hour documentary describing firefighters caught up in the tragedy of the World Trade Center disaster was watched in March by 39 million (one third of all) U.S. households. It is a kind of miracle that the film was made and that it survived.

It has its share of ironies. Originally, it was to be about the life and trials of a rookie firefighter, who saw no fires for three months. In early September, the rookie attends the funeral of a colleague with hundreds of fellow firefighters and says, “I hope it’s my last one.” On September 11, he was the only member of his station (Engine 7, Ladder 1, lower Manhattan) who couldn’t be located for a while.

This documentary was made by Jules and Gedeon Naudet, independent French filmmakers. The courageous and skilled Naudet brothers became separated on September 11, filming what happened both outside and inside the towers. They worried about each other while getting the images of the rapidly developing horror around them.

Some memorable examples include images of Father Mychal Judge, O.F.M., in the tower lobby, minutes before his death. The sounds of falling bodies striking the façade “was so loud,” explains Jules. Viewers also realize that the men inside the dark, dusty structures never really knew what was happening.

This was true reality television, but the filmmakers refused to show some realities. (The material was cut down from 180 hours.) It ended with soft Irish sounds of “Danny Boy” heard behind the superimposed flag over the sea of snapshots of the 343 lost firefighters. For certain, 9/11 reminds us of the fragility of life and the difficulty of responding to the unforeseen. Carefully handled and powerful; kudo to sponsor Nextel’s minimal intrusions.


THE AMERICAN EMBASSY (Fox, Mondays): Pretty Emma Brody, 28, goes to London “to make a difference” working as a vice-consul. Much fun and play take place with co-workers and attractive 20-something men—both Yank and Brit—including a C.I.A. guy who keeps getting her out of messes, a friendly low-key transvestite and a dashing scion who lives in a castle. Then the embassy is car-bombed.

Newcomer Arija Bareikis has talent and charisma. Her Emma is a resourceful, determined do-gooder helping citizens in trouble. The scripts are not as deep as the good cast (this is not The West Wing). But the camera work and London scenery are first-class. The first few episodes were rated TV-PG, with no debauchery. Not very real, but above average, especially for Fox.


WATCHING ELLIE (NBC, Tuesdays): This new sitcom offers Seinfeld funny girl Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a jazz-club singer who lives in a Los Angeles apartment house with funny neighbors and slapstick, hard-not-to-laugh situations. The first was the classic overflowing toilet nobody can fix. In another show, the dog runs off with the roast for a dinner party.

Interesting trivia: The writer-producer, Brad Hall (The Single Guy), is Julia’s longtime husband and the youngest of six children of an Episcopal priest.

The style of the series is very low-key for a 2002 comedy and has a gimmick of playing in “real time” (a clock ticks in the corner of the screen). It seems a throwback to classic comedy series with Lucille Ball, Bob Newhart and Mary Tyler Moore. (Let’s hope it works.) No laugh track; for refugees fleeing from shows like Friends.


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Ask a Franciscan  | The Bible: Light to My Path  | Book Reviews  | Entertainment Watch
Editorial  | Editor’s Message  | Faith-filled Family  | Links for Learners
Saints for Our Lives  | Web Catholic  | Back Issues

Return to

An Web Site from the Franciscans and
Franciscan Media     ©1996-2016 Copyright