In Praise of Hope and Unity
When a group takes on a formidable task, it helps to have a sense of solidarity in tackling it. It’s also beneficial to have a suitable attitude toward it, one full of optimism and hope. And, of course, a healthy dose of commitment can cement the effort, taking events in the desired direction. Achieving those results may not be easy and there may be disappointments or even tragedies along the way. But success tends to multiply itself, an outcome that leads to uplifting, inspiring results, an approach that has given new life to the people of Ukraine in their conflict against aggressor Russians, a development chronicled in the compelling new firsthand, on-the-ground documentary, “Slava Ukraini” (“Glory to Ukraine”) (web site, trailer).
Most media coverage about the war in Ukraine – where most of us get our news about the combat – comes down to a recitation of facts and figures, with the biggest and most dramatic stories receiving virtually all of the attention. But how does the war impact the nation’s citizens at the personal level? What’s more, we hear so much about the unity of Ukraine’s residents in combatting their Russian foes, but in what ways does that commitment actually materialize? Those are the questions that French writer-director-philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy has sought to address in this thoughtful new film.
As a sequel to a previous work, “Why Ukraine?,” which was created for European television, this latest effort seeks to dive deeper into what has been transpiring in the war-torn nation since the conflict’s onset in February 2022. Told as a sort of travelogue through the nation’s various hot spots, including many on the front lines, Lévy chronicles what has happened across Ukraine from the start of the war, oftentimes brought down to a touching, intimately personal level. We witness the pain that the country’s citizens have endured through the brutal, often-relentless Russian attacks. But we also see the utter joy and relief that many have also experienced as a result of the liberation of many areas once held by the enemies brought about by tenacious Ukrainian forces determined to maintain their sovereignty and take their nation back. Such moments frequently prove bittersweet, though, particularly when the liberated are still uncertain about the fates of loved ones who were caught up in the fighting on the way to the restoration of their freedom. There’s hope in these developments, though nevertheless tinged with sadness and doubt.
The filmmaker’s journey begins in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, which he contends has more or less returned to “normal,” save for the rubble of bombed-out buildings and the occasional air raid sirens, thanks to troop initiatives that have kept Russian forces at bay, often prompting hasty retreats and desertions by the invaders. From there he travels across Ukraine, visiting various large and small communities, many of which have also been reclaimed. He even ventures into the contentious Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, home to many ethnic Russians, where the area’s residents have been embroiled in conflict, often with interference from across the border, for nearly a decade. This region’s communities were among the first to fall into Russian hands when the current war began, but even many of them have now been retaken by Ukrainian forces, in many cases without much resistance.
Following these travels, the film crew returned to Kyiv before heading south to the Oblast region, home to the warm water ports of Odesa and Kherson on the Black Sea, both of which came under attack by Russian forces because of their strategic nature and were still considered hot spots at the time of filming in November 2022. However, by the time of the crew’s arrival in the area, both cities were in Ukrainian hands, despite periodic bombardments of infrastructural targets by Russian missiles and the positioning of snipers across the Dnieper River, which runs through Kherson. Such measures were looked upon as scorched earth initiatives, designed more than anything else to harass and inconvenience in retreat, but they were nevertheless dangerous, as the filmmaker found out when he and his crew were hurriedly shepherded out of harm’s way when they came within the snipers’ sights.
The crew’s filmed escape from the snipers illustrates one of the key elements characterizing this picture – its content was all real, no editing, staging or alteration of any kind, a genuine, firsthand chronicle of what actually happened to Lévy and his production team while on their visit to Ukraine. The compilation of this footage thus calls to mind the work of US television crews that were present on the ground to film what happened during the Vietnam War. While this film didn’t capture as much battlefield footage as what happened in Vietnam, there are segments that illustrate the bona fide threats that the filmmaker and his staff faced while compiling their account of this all-too-real story.
Perhaps the most pertinent theme that runs through this documentary is its depiction of the unparalleled (and much publicized) sense of unity among the Ukrainian people in battling this ordeal. What’s unique here, however, is the way that this is illustrated through the film. The solidarity of Ukraine’s citizens is so pervasive that it touches virtually every element of society, with everyone working concertedly in tandem, each doing his or her part in their respective milieus to help ensure victory. They truly understand the bigger picture at play here, and they give their all to execute their various tasks to see its goals fulfilled.
The director organically captures the stories of those involved in this effort. There are, of course, numerous accounts of soldiers and sailors diligently carrying out their missions with courage and precision. Then there are the stories of everyday citizens doing everything from collecting, assembling and distributing food and supplies to those affected by the conflict to the caregivers watching over the children to see that they’re protected and still receiving an education, even during a time of war. The roles of laborers are not overlooked, either, such as the workers at a former Soviet steel mill who are processing product necessary for carrying out the war effort. This even includes the country’s coal miners, who continue to extract this precious resource to fuel the mill’s blast furnaces. Indeed, everyone has a role to play in this immense undertaking, and the film brings them all to light.
The film also makes a point of highlighting the part that foreigners are playing in this conflict. While it’s well known that Ukraine has been receiving ample international assistance from the West in terms of weapons and supplies, the country has also been benefitting from the direct involvement of foreign nationals in country on the ground. Soldiers-for-hire from 32 nations have been participating in the war, as exemplified in an interview with a French infantryman who volunteered to fight, not only because he saw it as the right thing to do, but also because he has a personal vested interest: to help find and protect his Ukrainian wife and family, whose fate at the time of filming was unknown.
Of course, perhaps the most important foreign national in this story is the filmmaker himself, French writer-director-philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. His humanitarian activism in Ukraine dates back to the 2014 Maidan Revolution, when the country’s citizens clashed over the future direction of the nation – one with closer ties to the European Union or the continuation of its affiliation with Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation. Lévy saw the handwriting on the wall if Russian influences were to be allowed to continue unabated, jeopardizing Ukrainian freedoms and its desire to align itself more with the West. And, as the tensions escalated in the time since then, he has made it one of his goals to draw attention to the situation and what it could mean, not just for Ukraine, but also for the West in general.
I had the pleasure of seeing this film at a special screening featuring the director in person for a Q&A session after the picture. In that session, he discussed some of his activist efforts, many of which weren’t covered in the film. For example, he noted that the proceeds from the film will be donated to charitable organizations assisting in the war effort. Moreover, Lévy added, in shooting the picture, he and his colleagues amassed roughly 200 hours of footage (which, remarkably, was pared down to an economical and well-organized runtime of 1:35:00). Amongst the unused footage he shot were the stories of many Ukrainian citizens who suffered tragic losses at the hands of the Russians, material that he is convinced could be used as visual testimony in war crimes trials when they come to pass (not if they come to pass) in what he foresees as a certain victory over the invaders, especially given the unified spirit of the nation’s citizens and the way in which the conflict has been progressing. Now that’s commitment.
In telling the stories of the Ukrainian nationals who he interviewed for the film, the director narrates these tales by drawing from his own philosophical background, presenting them with a poetic touch (which, admittedly, can get a bit flowery at times but is nevertheless quite admirable for taking a decidedly different approach to this material). He waxes expressively in speaking about what has happened to Ukraine’s citizens, none of whom asked for any of what has happened to them. Simultaneously, he draws from the history of previous international conflicts, such as the Spanish Civil War and World War II, to draw parallels between those events and what has happened in this engagement. For instance, Lévy compares Putin’s ill-timed, poorly considered invasion of Ukraine to that of Adolph Hitler’s invasion of Russia during World War II, proving once again that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
When all of these factors are taken together, “Slava Ukraini” paints a comprehensive, inspiring picture of a people who are willing to do whatever it takes to overcome the atrocities that have been inflicted upon them. To the Ukrainians, the question of reaffirming their sovereignty has itself never been a question to begin with, and this documentary brings that notion front and center. And Lévy doesn’t deny that this is, by its nature, a partisan film. But, in making the case for this nation and its citizens, he has put forth an important picture that anyone who truly believes in the preservation of freedom and democracy should see (and tell others about). There’s more at stake here than just one nation’s autonomy. The people of Ukraine understand that, and it’s time the rest of us did as well.
In a conflict like this, no matter what firepower a contingent of combatants may have, perhaps the most powerful weapon those forces possess is their beliefs, specifically those related to their outlook, their objectives and their confidence, resources that the Ukrainians obviously have in abundance. And those beliefs are important, for they have a direct line to what manifests in the reality of those who adhere to them. It’s unclear how many of Ukraine’s troops and citizens are aware of this school of thought, but, considering the success they’ve experienced thus far, it’s obvious they’re well acquainted with its principles – and how to put them to use.
This thinking is also particularly true in light of the views held by the Russians, who have been abandoning their posts in droves. This is apparent in the huge numbers of invading troops who have simply walked away from their assigned tasks, despite whatever consequences they might face. This is also evidenced by the success of a Ukrainian program that has enabled Russian soldiers to safely defect by calling a special hotline in which the foreign troops can arrange to meet with their opponents to be escorted out of danger and retribution from their own commanders.
So why has this been happening with the enemy? According to Lévy, it’s because the Russians don’t believe in the supposed cause they’ve been coerced into fighting for. They don’t see the purpose, so they can’t get behind it, and this, coupled with the focused tenacity of the Ukrainians, has led to the Russians’ demoralized attitude, sagging support and declining success on the battlefield. And who says our beliefs don’t create our reality?
The Ukrainians’ efforts have been further bolstered by beliefs in specific areas, notions designed to enhance their basic will for success. For instance, as events have unfolded, it’s become obvious that the Ukrainians have tremendous faith in their convictions, a belief that they’re certain about the justness of their cause, a powerful add-on to the convictions supporting their basic intents. Likewise, as the film illustrates, the Ukrainians have been inventive in their approach to this venture, such as the aforementioned hotline. They have successfully made use of whatever is available to them to carry on the fight, including in undertakings not directly related to combat (such as improvised infrastructural and transportation systems), even if these solutions are anything but conventional. This represents a pronounced willingness to think outside the box, to draw upon beliefs in such areas as innovation and resourcefulness that set aside any fears, doubts or limitations that might otherwise hinder their efforts. These may seem like small and simple steps in themselves, but, when combined with the Ukrainians’ other beliefs, they add up to quite a lot. Indeed, who in their right mind would want to take on an opponent with an arsenal of intent like that?
Most importantly, though, the Ukrainians have embraced a belief that victory is theirs to be had in the end. It may take some time to reach that point, and there may be more setbacks along the way. But the outcome, in their minds, has already been determined, a result that Lévy shares as well. In fact, as noted above, sharing that notion widely is one of the main reasons he made this film. Given Ukraine’s geography, situated squarely between Russia and Western Europe, the nation is seen as a transitionary bridge between these two opposing forces, and the war is as much about protecting the West against Putin’s aggression as it is about protecting the country’s sovereignty. The Ukrainians understand that, and they want their Western allies to grasp this, too. That’s why those who live outside its borders should care about – and believe in – the importance of their victory as well.
“Slava Ukraini” may not fit the standard documentary mold (especially in its eloquent voiceovers), but it nevertheless enlightens us to a far greater degree than many other films about this conflict, not to mention the subject of warfare in general. Admittedly, there is some footage that sensitive viewers might find disturbing, so those prospective audience members should take this into consideration when making a screening decision. However, in light of what this film has to offer, I’d be curious to see what else the director captured in the other 198 hours of filming that didn’t make the final cut. “Glory to Ukraine” provides valuable insight into an event that has the potential to leave a significant and long-lasting impact not just on the residents of Ukraine and its neighbors but on the totality of humanity as well. And, if a spry 70+-year-old can take up the cause to bring this story to the public’s awareness, the least we can do is watch and spread the word about it. The film is available for screening in limited theatrical release and can be found online from multiple streaming platforms.
For Westerners on both sides of the Atlantic, the war in Ukraine is one of those stories that can’t be ignored, much like what happened in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. However, maintaining public interest in it – especially in a country like the US that has grown war-weary after its involvement in places like Iraq and Afghanistan – can be difficult, especially when the relevance of this conflict is rarely made sufficiently clear. “Slava Ukraini,” however, is a vehicle that can help to change all that. By playing up its importance, as well as by illustrating the hopes, challenges and inspiration of the Ukrainian people, the film has the potential to change (and reinvigorate) the hearts of minds of outsiders whose support the war-torn country’s citizens can desperately use – before it’s too late.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
More New Movies for May
Join Good Media Network Movie Correspondent Brent Marchant and show host Frankie Picasso for looks at five new films on this month’s second movie review edition of the Frankiesense & More video podcast! The show, to begin airing Thursday May 25 at 1 pm ET, will examine two new foreign offerings and three new compelling documentaries. Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!
Celebrating Flexibility and Resourcefulness
When we take on challenging, risky or dangerous tasks, it usually helps to have a back-up plan in place. No matter how well we might plan for all conceivable contingencies, there may be times when things still slip through the cracks and need to be addressed. But, even with such a Plan B option, there may yet be occasions that defy even our best projections and sincerest intentions for trying to identify solutions for the unexpected. In these cases, we’re often dumbfounded and left scratching our heads. So what do we do then? That’s what a team of intrepid problem-solvers seek to deal with in the wry, insightful new French Canadian sci-fi comedy, “Viking” (web site, trailer).
In 1976, NASA launched the Viking program, which consisted of two unmanned space probes sent to Mars to conduct various forms of research. The probes each consisted of two components, an orbiter and a lander, a highly sophisticated design for the time, And, because of this level of sophistication, a special ground-based troubleshooting team was organized to investigate and address any technical problems that might arise. This special team was credited with solving any issues that emerged and played an important role in the success of those missions.
Skip ahead to the present day, as humanity prepares to embark on its first manned mission to the Red Planet. Considering the even greater complexity of this venture – one that, despite extensive crew training, would still need to account for the unpredictable nature of human beings – the space agency decided that it needed to organize a psychological troubleshooting team to address unforeseen issues involving the astronauts, one whose essential mission would be patterned after its technological counterpart established during the Viking missions. It was believed that an Earth-based team of doppelgangers living under conditions similar to their Martian colleagues could be employed as a sort of test kitchen to analyze the problems at hand and to come up with solutions that could be recommended to the space-faring explorers.
Organizers of this undertaking sought to accomplish this by screening applicants whose personalities, likes, interests and character most closely resembled those of the mission members. These metrics were seen as the most important considerations in selecting candidates, with other concerns, like gender and ethnicity, assumed to be secondary. These “surrogates” would stand in for the astronauts as part of the ground-based team, essentially assuming the personas of their Martian colleagues. They were expected to play the parts of the crew members except when being officially debriefed by the organizers. It was a plan that all seemed so very logical and well thought out. However, given the aforementioned unpredictable quality of human nature, could such rational thought realistically be applied in a way that would guarantee success in troubleshooting problems?
As the film opens, the last of the Earth-based screening is under way. The story focuses on David (Steve Laplante), a high school gym teacher who applied for the program as a way to vicariously live out his long-cherished dream of becoming an astronaut. He has been designated as the stand-in for crewman John Shepard (Eric Davis). Joining “John” are his co-horts Steven (Larissa Corriveau, standing in for her Martian counterpart (Francis Lamarre)), Gary (Hamza Haq, standing in for his double (Kevin Sin)), Liz (Denis Houle, standing in for his colleague (Mélanie Elliott)) and crew leader Janet Adams (Fabiola N. Aladin, standing in for the real mission chief (Adrienne Richards)). Supervising the ground crew is the lead organizer, Christiane Comte (Marie Brassard), and her trusty assistant, Jean-Marc (Martin-David Peters). And, after an inspiring motivational speech about the importance of this Earth-based project given by Roy Walker (Christopher Heyerdahl), head of the American space agency in charge of the Mars mission, the five surrogate astronauts are off to their remote desert base to begin their 2½-year task, a momentous occasion for David as he finally realizes the fulfillment (sort of) of a long-held ambition.
The counterparts each live in quarters fitted with a device that prints out a daily briefing noting the mood and condition of his or her Martian colleague. This information, coupled with a summary of issues compiled by Janet, are presented for discussion at a morning breakfast meeting. But David soon finds out that the topics brought up for debate are anything but significant. The five team members discuss mundane matters like one of the crew members (John) flagrantly exceeding his daily sugar ration for use in his morning coffee – two lumps instead of the designated one. And, because David is standing in for John, the onus of coming up with a solution to this Mars-shattering issue is thrust upon him, a situation in which the simulated ridicule of the other astronauts is heaped upon him by their earthly stand-ins. This is followed by similar discussions involving the length of shower times, the promotion of suitable body hygiene and a borrowed but long-unreturned ballpoint pen, issues that get beaten to death during the morning meetings.
David soon begins having doubts about this Earth-bound mission. He speculates that such a disproportionate focus on these kinds of minutiae might be undermining the enthusiasm and effective functioning of their Martian counterparts, a suggestion that’s viewed as supposedly coming “out of character” for what the real John might say. To complicate matters, David begins to think that the criticisms leveled against his ideas are arising directly from the minds of his terrestrial colleagues and not from those of the astronauts they’re supposed to be portraying. In essence, the lines between David and “John” are becoming blurred, as is the case with all of his other earthly associates. He can’t help but wonder, what’s really going on here?
Turning to Christiane and Jean-Marc for guidance provides little clarity. They often communicate in what appears to be a circular, ambivalent form of double-speak. On the one hand, they encourage David to openly express his concerns to them, but, on the other hand, they continually assert his need to stay “in character.” But at what point is he to employ each approach? That’s something that’s not made especially clear. It’s almost as if Christiane, Jean-Marc and everyone else involved in this project are winging it as they go along, and that becomes more apparent the longer the mission goes on – and the issues up for examination and resolution grow progressively more ludicrous and, in some cases, extremely serious. Plan B, it would seem, just doesn’t exist, both for the organizers and their crew, as well as for the astronauts themselves. Devising practical, meaningful answers seems to become progressively more difficult, particularly when the astronauts themselves grow ever more leery of, and resistant to, the proposed solutions.
So what’s to become of all this? That’s hard to say, given that it appears everyone is increasingly flying by the seat of his or her pants, especially when issues related to such matters as leadership, communication, cooperation and staying in character grow ever more dubious and seemingly unsolvable. Will the hoped-for purpose behind the ground crew be fulfilled? Or will it begin to crumble over a lack of focus, guidance and logistics? And what will that mean for the astronauts and ground crew? Stay tuned.
As much as we might like to think that we can plan things down to the smallest of details, surprises still seem to have a way of turning up, leaving us to figure out what to do for the unexpected. We might well question this, asking ourselves, “How could we have missed something like that?” Moreover, we could well add to that by asking why it happens. There must be a purpose behind it, but what is it?
When we embark on such grand planning schemes, we generally approach them from a standpoint of comprehensiveness and inclusivity, with these exercises being tests of our flexibility and resourcefulness to address all of the issues that arise. But what of the overlooked items? Why have such oversights become part of these plans? Perhaps it has to do with the foundation underlying such efforts – a belief that we possess the necessary flexibility and resourcefulness to address whatever issues come our way. However, that thinking implies we already have all the answers in hand, and that conceivably might prompt us to ask ourselves, “How much of a test of our flexibility and resourcefulness is that?” It’s akin to knowing all the questions on an exam before we take it. Is that really a meaningful assessment of our knowledge and wherewithal to solve problems?
If we’re to be truthful with ourselves in testing our abilities in these areas, it would seem that the only fair way to do so is to build in the unexpected up front. When confronted with such unforeseen circumstances, we’re forced into throwing out the rulebook and coming up with innovative approaches to resolving these unplanned-for issues. What’s more, if we’re truly convinced that we’re as flexible and resourceful as we think we are, that means we must also incorporate a belief that maintains we can indeed succeed at such tasks. And that’s important considering the role that our beliefs play in manifesting the reality we experience.
Understanding this should be inherently crucial to undertaking a task like the one attempted in “Viking.” However, considering how often conditions go awry on so many fronts – both on Earth and Mars – it would seem that the organizers and participants in this venture have overlooked this consideration. While it’s true that they’re often thrust into having to tap into their flexibility and resourcefulness, they often experience assorted errors and conundrums when they do so, suggesting that, on some level, they might not be as sold on their level of expertise as they’d like to think they are. And that kind of intrinsic doubt can torpedo one’s efforts, no matter how seemingly convinced we are of their viability.
It goes without saying that thinking outside the box – surpassing fears, doubts and limitations – is essential in situations like this, especially when far-flung unexpected developments arise. This becomes apparent in the film, for example, when “John” and “Steven” embark on an outdoor assignment involving a Martian ATV in the surrounding terrestrial desert. First, the vehicle gets seriously stuck in the sand. And, while attempting to dislodge it, they have an unexpected encounter with a pair of local cowboys on horseback (Sam LaBrie, Spencer Streichert), a situation assuredly unlike anything the real astronauts might experience. How are the surrogates supposed to handle a scenario like that while remaining in character? (So much for replicating authenticity.)
Then there’s the matter of having to figure out when the Earth-bound crew members are supposed to be “themselves” versus when they’re supposed to stay in character. It’s a question that the organizers don’t seem to have figured out very well. The original plan called for the crew to remain true to the personas of their Martian counterparts at all times except during debriefings, but that plan goes out the window quickly and often, and Christiane and Jean-Marc don’t appear to have any viable solutions for addressing what should be a core component for carrying out this mission.
On top of this, the lack of clarity on this point creates confusion for the ground crew. They’re often left asking themselves, “How far do we take this?” For example, what’s supposed to transpire when a gender-related issue comes up for one of the surrogates who’s portraying a member of the opposite sex? That can be a seemingly insurmountable (and often quite hilarious) predicament for the woman playing Steven and the man playing Liz.
Similarly, what’s to happen when the Earth-based crew receives important news affecting their counterparts, such as developments affecting the well-being of the astronauts’ family members? Do they say something and cause potentially serious disruption of the Mars mission, or do they stay silent on these issues? What’s more, should the surrogates try to come up with solutions for their space-faring colleagues in these situations by staying in character and trying to imagine how their Martian doubles would react? And what if they’re wrong in their assessments and proposed solutions? Couldn’t that lead to devastating psychological harm for those trapped on a faraway planet and unable to get home? Suddenly, these matters don’t seem so funny anymore.
Meaningful solutions could be hard to come by under circumstances like these, especially if the underlying confidence needed to devise them is lacking due to insufficient belief support. This is where the power of discernment comes into play. When faced with such challenges like these, the astronauts, surrogates and organizers (as well as the rest of us for that matter) must learn how to tap into this skill to devise the means for carrying on. This can be tricky enough for those well versed in it, but it’s particularly critical for those who are flying by the seat of their spacesuits, as all these individuals are.
This is an important point for viewers, too, as this aspect of the film serves as a poignant metaphor for audience members. In many regards, the scenes in which the characters are working out their discernment issues serve as potent parables for what those sitting in the theater or in front of their computer screens need to be doing when it comes to resolving such similar matters in their own daily lives. This is especially true when it comes to analyzing the pertinence and relevance of things like official dictates handed down by authority figures, symbolized here by some of the dubious suggestions of the project’s organizers. We all went through our share of this, for example, with the many draconian measures implemented during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, we’re seeing this coming through in matters related to free speech on the internet and social media, out-of-control political correctness, and even such areas as what kinds of cars we can drive and what kinds of stoves we can cook on. In essence, these measures are pushing us to assess these conditions and ask ourselves a number of questions: How far are we willing to allow ourselves to go when it comes to these kinds of matters? Are these orders being issued for our genuine well-being, or are they exercises in social conditioning to see how far we can be pushed (and controlled)? And what kind of long-term impact will they have on us, our sense of self and our aptitude for self-determination? That’s quite a lot to think about, especially coming from a comedy.
If nothing else, “Viking” should be seen as a cautionary tale about our need to preserve the means to chart our own paths, lest we lose our ability to ultimately do so. Maintaining that sense of independence, individuality, self-awareness and personal self-confidence is crucial if we hope to manifest the existence of our dreams. And keeping sight of the flexibility and resourcefulness necessary to make that possible can’t be overemphasized enough. Otherwise, our mission just might get scrubbed.
What would you do if you encountered problems while serving as a member of the first mission to Mars? Well, for starters, you’d probably want to watch this movie to figure out what not to do. This comedic what-if offering from writer-director Stéphane Lafleur is one of the most inventive and inspired films I’ve seen in quite some time. Its wry (and sometimes quite dark) humor is simultaneously hilarious, insightful and metaphorical, not to mention astoundingly original, with some of the best writing I’ve come across in ages. The film’s intriguing foundation and telling narrative speak volumes to us on multiple levels (some of which have nothing at all to do with space travel; in fact, one could think of this as a fusion of science fiction and a Stanley Milgram behavioral experiment). All of this is backed up by the picture’s fine performances, superb score, gorgeous photography and outstanding art direction/production design, along with more than a few cinematic homages to such otherworldly classics as “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). It’s so heartening to see a film these days that’s highly intelligent, raucously funny, supremely thoughtful and eminently entertaining all at the same time. This feature may not have received much fanfare thus far, but this truly is a picture well worth seeing (thankfully it’s available for streaming on multiple platforms). It’s sure to put you into orbit.
Considering how much “Viking” has going for it, it should come as no surprise that it has received more than its fair share of accolades. The film was nominated for a whopping 10 Canadian Screen Awards, including its achievements in sound editing, sound mixing, art direction/production design, costumes, hair and cinematography (for which it took home the top prize), as well as nods for its original screenplay, director, lead actor (Laplante) and best picture. And, in my view, it was a deserving candidate in all of those categories.
As this film so clearly illustrates, under the right conditions, it can be easy to lose oneself if we’re not vigilant. There’s much at stake if that happens, too, some of which might feel just as emotionally and psychologically devastating as being left out to dry far from home. Confidently preserving our sense of identity, remaining flexible and resourceful, and shrewdly applying our discernment skills can see us through, whether we’re tackling an everyday challenge or participating in a grand extraterrestrial adventure. In either such case, that could truly represent one giant leap for both man and mankind.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
An Icon’s Journey of Celebrity and Challenge
As a society that worships those in the celebrity spotlight, we tend to place these icons on pedestals, imbuing them with almost superhuman attributes. We often look on them as leading seemingly perfect lives. We may even wonder, “What problems could they possibly have?” But, given their seemingly larger-than-life accomplishments, we frequently lose sight of the fact that these luminaries are people just like the rest of us, subject to the same issues and challenges that we all face. We forget that they must ultimately respond to these matters just as we do. And, like us, they might approach them in some of the same ways as us, such as willful denial. That’s why their eventual revelation of these circumstances can carry tremendous weight, reminding us of the common ground that binds us and them. Those kinds of connections can leave a lasting impact on us, as explored through the highly publicized experiences of one such celebrity, a story chronicled in the riveting new documentary, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” (web site, trailer).
In the 1980s, actor Michael J. Fox burst onto the entertainment scene as one of the decade’s mega-stars with the success of his hit TV show, Family Ties (1982-1989), a series whose focus he almost single-handedly changed and earned him three Prime Time Emmy Awards for best leading actor in a comedy. This led to a string of popular movies, most notably the iconic sci-fi comedy, “Back to the Future” (1985) and its two sequels (1989, 1990), as well as such other offerings as “Teen Wolf” (1985), “The Secret of My Success” (1987), “Bright Lights, Big City” (1988) and “Casualties of War” (1989). Fox also became a media darling and high-profile Hollywood celebrity, appearing on a variety of TV talk shows like Donahue and The Tonight Show.
In short order, Fox was seemingly everywhere all at once, a fitting development for someone who had lived his life like that from the time he was a child. This frenetic pace of living had followed him for so long, in fact, that he never learned how to be, as this film’s title suggests, still. He admits that he never really took the time to stop and take stock of his life, particularly looking inward to examine who he was. And, with all of his success and the buildup he received because of it, the once-struggling actor came to believe that he could do anything, that he was virtually invincible.
In 1990, however, Fox received a medical diagnosis that nearly stopped him in his tracks – he was discovered to be suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, an illness that usually strikes in old age, not someone on his late 20s. He had difficulty accepting the news, often asking himself, “How could something like this happen to me? I’m Michael J. Fox!”
Having never learned how to be still and at peace with himself, he didn’t know what to do. His first reaction was denial, a mindset that prompted him to try to escape. He sought refuge in drinking, something that turned from a pastime into an addiction. It didn’t help the management of his illness and placed a strain on his marriage to wife, actress Tracy Pollan. And, even though he eventually succeeded in kicking the habit, he still hadn’t come to terms with his diagnosis.
Fox next sought to conceal his condition, something he did rather successfully for a number of years. He learned how to cleverly mask his Parkinson’s symptoms through a combination of medication, sustained sobriety and throwing himself into a steady work routine, returning to television in the series Spin City (1996-2001) for which he won a Prime Time Emmy Award for best lead actor in a comedy on top of three additional nominations in the same category. But, try as he might to keep things under wraps, he eventually reached a point where he felt he had to openly acknowledge his circumstances, which he did at a high-profile press conference.
With the burden of this secret removed, Fox started work on changing his life. He began focusing on his treatment, which included regimens for his physical symptoms and guidance on how to slow down, look within, and place his personal and professional lives in perspective. He also devoted more attention to his family life, spending more time with his wife and four children. In 2000, he began actively engaging in philanthropic work, establishing The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which has since become the world’s largest charitable organization devoted to this cause, having raised over $1 billion in research funding. And, along with former boxer Muhammed Ali, he testified before a Congressional committee to lobby for increased financial support for this condition.
Through these efforts, Fox has brought a new sense of meaning to his life. He has come to terms with his illness, and he has refused to shrink away into the shadows, remaining in the public eye and continuing to work as a writer and actor. He has brought greater attention to the effects of this debilitating disease. And he has strengthened his relationship with those he cares about most. But, perhaps most importantly, he has finally learned how to be still, a development brought about in an unexpected way but with an undeniable impact, both for himself – and for so many others.
Drawing from Fox’s writings about his life, director Davis Guggenheim’s latest documentary feature tells the title character’s story using an inventive combination of archive footage, interviews with Fox, actor-based re-creations of incidents from his life and footage from his treatment sessions that candidly depict how his condition has progressed. There are also a number of sequences in which Fox’s story is told through fittingly appropriate clips from his movie and TV projects, enhancing the themes that have run through his life and ironically reminding us that art can indeed imitate life. The result is a unique biographical composite that provides an insightful look at one of the entertainment industry’s biggest stars who just happens to be wrestling with issues that extend beyond the boundaries of celebrity.
It’s been said that, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. It’s also been suggested that the “teacher” may not take an expected form, perhaps not even that of a human. Indeed, as many such students have discovered, their best teachers have not at all been what they imagined, coming along at a seemingly unexpected time and disguised in a form far from what was anticipated. However, in those instances, the lessons taught – and learned – proved to be among the most powerful and meaningful those pupils have ever experienced.
Michael J. Fox can certainly attest to that. His illness brought him the “teacher” he needed in so many respects. And drawing those circumstances into his life proved valuable in helping him learn the lessons he needed to get. Such are what’s possible when we draw on the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents in manifesting the reality we experience, especially the elements needed to teach us valuable life lessons. Fox may not have been aware of this school of thought nor of the timing or form of the teacher that materialized in his life, but its appearance nevertheless helped to bring about the education he needed.
As many of us have discovered, adversity often has a tremendous impact on us. It forces us to slow down and take stock of ourselves and our lives, giving us the time and attention needed to turn introspectively without distraction. And, with such intangible resources available to us during these periods of convalescing – elements that may well not have been available to us previously – we can focus on what we may have heretofore ignored, avoided or not taken the time to address. It can be quite the learning experience, one taught to us by the unlikeliest of teachers.
By his own admission, this was very much the case with Fox. As a child, he had trouble keeping still. And, once his professional life began to take off, he didn’t have the time to examine this issue. In describing the development of this jam-packed career, he talks about the period when he was simultaneously shooting “Back to the Future” and recording episodes of Family Ties. His days were filled with work on his TV series, and his nights were spent on the movie set, leaving him with little time for virtually anything else. Subsequently, his life was swamped with other projects, having made five movies in three years. And, all throughout this period, he was busy with doing publicity work and interviews to promote these projects. Whatever “free” time he had was spent “relaxing,” which largely consisted of hedonistic pursuits, activities that flew by at almost the same frenzied pace as his work life. This left Fox with little time for introspection and looking into long-ignored life lessons.
Parkinson’s changed all that. It imposed changes on him, some of which Fox was slow to accept. But, with the passage of time, he had to reconcile himself to his new normal. And, gradually, he did so, finally seeing what this experience had to offer him. It may not have been what he was expecting, but it provided him with what he needed.
Ironically, the illness that many would say trapped him ended up liberating him in some very important and meaningful ways. It taught him how to become still. It helped him to develop a greater appreciation for spending time with his wife and children. It enabled him to see the gift that life is. But, perhaps most importantly, it provided him with an opportunity to give back through his philanthropic work, most notably through the establishment of his charitable foundation. His celebrity also made it possible for him to draw highly visible attention to his condition, lending credence to such initiatives as his testimony before Congress. And who says there’s nothing good to come out of seeming misfortune? Talk about silver linings.
Fox’s journey may have been an unexpected one. And, even though it might have taken him some time to discover the underlying meaning of his circumstances, his experience proved to be a valuable wake-up call. The realizations to come out of it managed to surface and had a profound impact, both on him and on others in the Parkinson’s community. Better late than never.
Director Davis Guggenheim’s latest documentary feature presents viewers with a compelling and touching tale, one that goes beyond the bounds of celebrity and coping with a debilitating disease. It shows us what can come out of conditions like these and the impact it can leave. And it accomplishes these goals in an inventive way through its intriguing mix of elements, content that’s blended seamlessly to drive home its messages. Admittedly, the film has some initial difficulty finding traction to tell its story, but, once past these minor stumbles, it proceeds smoothly, growing ever more insightful and compelling as the narrative plays out. “Still” offers us an honest look into the life of a very public figure who has been fighting a very private battle and the effects that effort has had on shaping and evolving his professional, personal and philanthropic pursuits. Most of all, however, it shows us how we can identify what’s been missing from our lives and take steps to implement it, no matter how unusual the means may be for showing us the way. The film is playing in limited theatrical distribution and is available for streaming online.
When we first look at an oyster, we may have a hard time envisioning the pearl within. Yet, when we open it up and gaze upon what’s been hiding inside, we’re often overwhelmed at what we see. So it can be when we examine experiences like those depicted in this film. At first glance, we may be shocked, saddened and appalled at what we’re witnessing. But, when we look more closely, we can see the gift that awaits us. Michael J. Fox has been fortunate enough to discover this for himself through his introspective journey, and we’d be wise to follow his lead if we were ever to find ourselves in circumstances like his. Recognizing what it has to offer us can give us a whole new outlook on life – and what it may have to offer us as we move forward into the future.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.