Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Descendants: A Lesson in Christian Love

Despite my trepidation about unduly influencing the Academy’s choice for Best Picture, here is the The Catholic Left’s first foray into film review.

King and his daughters are a motley crew.

Alexander Payne’s beautiful film, The Descendants, is a profound tale of redemption, forgiveness, and selfless love, making its themes apt for Christian viewers—and for anyone else. But don't yawn yet.
The story is predicated upon lawyer Matt King’s recent discovery that his comatose wife had been having an affair with an unknown man—this is after learning that she is about to die. King (played effortlessly by George Clooney) now needs to summon the strength to shepherd his two unruly daughters through the process of saying goodbye to their mother while he simultaneously chooses a buyer for his extended family’s substantial Hawaiian landholdings.
Without giving away any crucial details, a brief sketch of a few moments from this film illustrates the touching, yet utterly un-sentimentalized manner in which Payne treats this emotionally laden material.
Payne knows a lot about the complexities of human behavior—and that traumatic epochs in our lives can achieve there own weird normalcy very quickly. Early in the film, we see that King has brought files and papers with him to his wife’s hospital room. While contemplating his past mistakes and resolving to make his marriage better, he’s seemingly logging quite a few hours of work. At some level, anyway, life goes on.
In the same room, his ten-year-old playfully prances about her mother’s hospital bed. Oddly carefree, she’s become used to seeing her there; for now, there’s no apparent grief or anxiety. Few directors would portray a young girl’s reaction to such tragedy in such an unexpected and understated way, but it comes across as quite authentic.
In a later scene, the hapless father strolls with his daughters down a conspicuously idyllic Hawaiian beach, seeking out the man who has cuckolded him (to do who-knows-what). A mĂ©lange of conflicting, wrenching emotions has been simmering inside of him, sometimes boiling over. But when the younger daughter, who is oblivious to the affair, asks him what his first impression of her mother was, King doesn’t skip a beat: “She knocked me out,” he says with conviction. It’s an unexpectedly happy memory of a woman who’s caused King enormous pain, and so typical of this strange and beautiful movie.

As the comatose woman’s death draws near, King’s father-in-law angrily lets King know that his daughter deserved better than he provided. He doesn’t know that it’s a defense she doesn’t exactly deserve. The dramatic irony is tender. We feel deeply for the father-in-law, even if he’s wrong. King’s magnanimous response (which I won’t share) is priceless.
The secondary conflict, centered on his cousins’ desire to become rich off the sale of their land, is more formulaic but still skillfully told. King's growing awareness of the meaning of the land in question is inextricably bound up with his journey as grieving husband and father.
This is in no outward way a religious film, but the main characters undeniably experience spiritual growth. You’ll have to see the film to find out more, but suffice it to say it’s not earned easily.
            The Descendants is a heart-wrenching movie, but I left the theater in high spirits meditating upon its many laudable traits: gorgeous cinematography, a great ensemble performance, a soundtrack with lilting Hawaiian melodies, and a remarkably honest portrayal of deeply flawed human beings becoming imperfectly heroic for one other.
            In short, The Descendants embodies the illogical, transcendent love that is at the heart of being Christian. It's well worth seeing.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

His Deftness Left Him: Obama's mistake on the contraceptive mandate

Perhaps Obama should have taken the vice-president's advice over Sebelius'.

Six months ago, things looked grim for the president’s reelection prospects. Obama seemed politically impotent after the summer’s lose-lose battle over raising the debt ceiling; speculation was rampant that the U.S. economy might be headed for a double-dip recession; unemployment hovered above 9%; Obama’s approval rating was mired in the low 40s.
            This last fact I take as the ultimate proof of Obama’s enormous political acumen. With such a disastrous set of circumstances, and after having more abuse heaped upon him than any modern president, what else could account for such a relatively high approval rating? I would suggest it was his deft approach to the job: take calculated risks, remain even-keel in the face of setbacks and criticism, know when to press the gas and when to let up.
            Presently, the same equanimity, reasonableness, and patience that kept Obama’s prospects afloat during the worst times make him the presumptive favorite in November. After a steady stream of positive economic data and a bruising fight for the Republican nomination, Obama’s approval is at 50% in some recent polls, and he leads all of the remaining GOP contenders in head-to-head match ups.
            So what explains this preternaturally deft politician’s grave misjudgment on the contraceptive mandate? The administration’s original decision not to exempt Catholic institutions like hospitals and charities gave substance to what had been a reflexive and hollow critique of Obama-style liberalism: any expanded government role in society—even when it helps ensure health care for more people—will inevitably lead to the infringement of your individual liberties. With the announcement of the original HHS rule, even Catholic liberals wholly sympathetic to the goal of expanding access to contraception cried foul—loudly. Could Obama and his team really not see this coming?
            Andrew Sullivan suggested recently in Newsweek that all of this may have been a trap: goad the conservatives into pouncing on an issue ultimately not in their favor, then quickly retreat to a reasonable compromise position that the vast majority of the public finds acceptable. Certainly, if the general election is about culture war issues, Obama will have the advantage. And after reading James Fallow’s thorough and complex analysis of Obama’s first term performance, in which he makes a strong case for Obama as chess master (one he doesn’t himself definitively endorse), it certainly gives me pause.
            But I hope Sullivan is wrong. If this was political gamesmanship, it was archly cynical—even if it worked brilliantly. Did Obama really anticipate the ire this decision would raise among a Catholic left that has defended him so vociferously? Did he really think a modest long term advantage was worth it to so anger a valued group of supporters? It’s unlikely.
            I’m inclined to think Obama simply misread the tea leaves. He probably thought that with studies showing a vast majority of Catholic women using birth control, and the public broadly supporting access to the same, he couldn’t really lose. His miscalculation was that, while for the Catholic Bishops this was about contraception, for most of us who were shocked by the original policy, it was about religious freedom—or even more, a basic respect for religious institutions and their guiding principles. Catholic hospitals and charities do copious good. Let them operate according to the dictates of their consciences.
            One nice upshot of the contraceptive mandate imbroglio is that a broad coalition, transcending ideology, party, and even sect, was able to effect change quickly and decisively. (Even if the Bishops aren’t satisfied, most of us are.) My regrets about this campaign are these: first, that it doesn't happen more often on issues of social justice, and second, that a president I admire provided the impetus with a shocking lapse of deftness.