The Torment of Moral Dilemmas

Working through conflicted feelings can be difficult, if not unfathomable. And the greater the stakes involved, the more maddening the process can be. It may be so daunting, in fact, that it might not be overstating things to liken it to psychological and emotional torture. So how does one live with oneself under conditions like these? That’s one of the thorny questions addressed in the gripping new film biography, “Oppenheimer” (web site, trailer).

Theoretical physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) (1904-1967) could arguably be considered one of the most influential individuals in the history of mankind. At the very least, he could be looked upon as having been one of the most preeminent figures in shaping the course of world affairs in the second half of the 20th Century, impact that has carried forward to the present day. As the director of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer oversaw development efforts that led to the creation of the world’s first nuclear weapons during World War II, an undertaking that earned him the dubious distinction as “the father of the atomic bomb.”

While writer-director Christopher Nolan’s biographical opus chronicles the events that were part of this epic venture, it goes much deeper, exploring the complex character of the man who led it. The film not only details the work of a brilliant scientist, but it also examines the complicated views of the man who was seriously torn about what he was doing. Oppenheimer understood the need to develop the bomb, given that Nazi Germany was already doing the same and that he couldn’t bear the thought of what might happen if an enemy as perversely evil as the Third Reich got its hands on such a weapon first (feelings no doubt stirred by his own Jewish heritage). At the same time, though, he was also cognizant of the massive destructive power that could be unleashed on humanity if the device were to be used as part of an active combat engagement, raining death and devastation down upon both military forces and innocent civilians. That left him with a profound quandary: How do I resolve these feelings for myself?

While heading up the Manhattan Project, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, right) conferred with celebrated physicists like Edward Teller (Benny Safdie, left) on the design and construction of the atomic bomb at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, as seen in writer-director Christopher Nolan’s latest opus, “Oppenheimer.” Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

While heading up the Manhattan Project, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, above right and below right) conferred with military figures like Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon, above left) and physicists like Edward Teller (Benny Safdie, below left) on the design and construction of the atomic bomb at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, as seen in writer-director Christopher Nolan’s latest opus, “Oppenheimer.” Photos by Melinda Sue Gordon, courtesy of Universal Pictures.


To understand where these sentiments came from, the film opens by exploring Oppenheimer’s background, revealing him to be a multifaceted thoughtful humanitarian. His interest in science was undeniable, having extensively studied the work of celebrated peers like Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) and Werner Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer), particularly with regard to such cutting-edge subjects as quantum theory and the nature of black holes. But Oppenheimer also had a significant philosophical side, especially when it came to using one’s talents to make things better for mankind, an initiative he believed was not limited to technological advances and the use of scientific principles and practices. This inclination inspired a strong interest in what he saw as progressive politics and social movements, such as the work of labor unions and the American Communist Party. He was also an unapologetic donor to the left-wing rebel forces who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

Because of these somewhat unconventional and contradictory leanings (for the time), Oppenheimer was often seen as an enigma, a wild card who officialdom didn’t feel it could completely trust. This suspicion was fueled not only by his political and social views, but also by the fact that he studied overseas in the 1920s, earning his doctorate at Germany’s University of Göttingen, and by his circle of associates, including Communist Party member Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), with whom he was having an indiscreet affair while still married to his wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt).

Nevertheless, despite the doubts that swirled around him, Oppenheimer developed quite a reputation for his expertise, especially at the University of California, Berkeley, where his theoretical physics work attracted considerable widespread attention and a full professorship in 1936. This pedigree made him the leading candidate to head the Manhattan Project when it was launched in 1942. But, given his background, he was placed on a short leash by the military under the auspices of Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), a no-nonsense commander who was responsible for the construction of the Pentagon. Groves was seen as someone who could keep Oppenheimer on track and under surveillance, fully aware of the physicist’s questionable background.

Throughout his career, theoretical physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, right) consulted with many noteworthy figures active in the scientific community, including celebrated scientist and philosopher Albert Einstein (Tom Conti, left), as depicted in the new biographical blockbuster, “Oppenheimer,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Throughout his career, theoretical physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, left) consulted with many noteworthy figures active in government and academia, including Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr., right), as depicted in the new biographical blockbuster, “Oppenheimer,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon, courtesy of Universal Pictures.











As Oppenheimer launched into this venture, he surrounded himself with many of the brightest minds in the physics community, such as Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), Isidor Rabi (David Krumholtz) and Edward Teller (Benny Safdie). He was given relatively free reign to explore various possibilities at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, the principal research and development facility for the Manhattan Project. But, as work proceeded, he began to have doubts about the implications of his efforts. He was also skeptical about certain areas of research, such as Teller’s advocacy for the development of the hydrogen bomb, a weapon believed to be many times more powerful than the uranium- and plutonium-based devices that were being built at the time.

Needless to say, Oppenheimer’s mixed feelings caught the attention of government and military officials, prompting Groves to crack down on the project leader. In turn, Oppenheimer made his feelings known to the General, suggesting alternative proposals, such as conducting a demonstration of the weapon’s power on a neutral target, one specifically aimed at sparing the lives of military figures and civilians. And, later, as the war in Europe began drawing to a close, he even suggested not using the bomb at all, given that there would no longer be a need for it. But Oppenheimer’s reservations fell on deaf ears; after all of the money that had been spent on the bomb’s development and the desire of the US to become the world’s leading military force in the post-war era, the powers that be wanted to proceed as planned, using the weapon to end the war in the Pacific by dropping it on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer was particularly troubled by this decision, given that Japan had no nuclear ambitions or corresponding weapons programs in place, making the use of the bomb there little more than a case of military-based premeditated murder, regardless of the fact that such a move would assuredly bring an end to the war.

Women played a pivotal role in the life and career of celebrated scientist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, right), including his wife, Kitty, as seen in writer-director Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Women played a pivotal role in the life, career and reputation of celebrated scientist and director of the top secret Manhattan Project Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, right), including his mistress (and suspected security risk), Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh, left), an openly avowed member of the American Community Party, as seen in writer-director Christopher Nolan’s latest feature presentation, the superb biographical drama, “Oppenheimer,” now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.










Despite being hailed as a hero for his accomplishment, Oppenheimer was uneasy with the emergence of the new nuclear age. He actively advocated for international cooperation in the regulation of this new technology, especially in military applications, hoping that such mutual efforts would help to curtail nuclear proliferation and the beginning of an arms race, especially with the Soviet Union. But those hopes were dashed as the USSR developed its own weapon and the US proceeded with its plans for building the hydrogen bomb. He hoped to counter these developments by becoming director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University and by being named to the General Advisory Committee of the newly created Atomic Energy Commission.

Through these new positions, Oppenheimer became acquainted with Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a relationship that started out well but became strained in the early 1950s. Because his views about nuclear technology ran afoul of official sentiments during the rise of the Cold War, combined with his past associations with “radical” political and social movements, Oppenheimer came under increasing scrutiny, even raising questions about his patriotic loyalty and whether he was entitled to retain his government security clearance. He was subjected to intense interrogation by an investigatory committee, enduring hours of unceremonious grilling by “prosecutor” Roger Robb (Jason Clarke) while desperately being defended by attorney Lloyd Garrison (Macon Blair).

The hero celebrated for bringing an end to World War II thus suffered a devastating fall from grace. And, as this process was playing out, Oppenheimer’s colleague Strauss was undergoing a Congressional confirmation hearing with respect to his proposed Cabinet posting as Secretary of Commerce in the new Eisenhower Administration. Ironically enough, these two proceedings soon collided with one another, revealing an array of dirty little secrets about how that fall from grace came about – and how one man’s conscience was distorted all out of proportion simply because he adhered to views that were publicly out of favor at the time.

While directing the Manhattan Project in the New Mexico desert during World War II, theoretical physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) inspects “the gadget” (as it was called) prior to the device’s initial test blast in July 1945, as seen in “Oppenheimer,” now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Despite all of the foregoing, in the end, Oppenheimer still had to wrestle with his ghosts, thoughts that were never far removed from his everyday life. They lingered like a haze that would never lift, no matter how his fortunes ebbed and flowed for better or worse. He had significantly changed the course of history, forever haunted by the chilling words of a passage from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Those words have echoed in the global consciousness since 1945, when the bombs were dropped on Japan. And, with the nuclear genie now out of the bottle, threats to the safety and security of the globe escalated, leaving us all on the precipice of annihilation at any given time. Oppenheimer felt responsible for this, and it was a concern that he could never shake. Like Prometheus giving mankind the gift of fire, Oppenheimer, too, was comparably tortured for the deed he carried out, tormented every day for the rest of his life – only this time, the punishment doled out to him was not that of a divine being but by that of his own hand.

Moral dilemmas – even of a comparatively minor scale – can be hell to deal with. But, when the magnitude is upped to the level that Oppenheimer was facing, it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to contend with it. And, for Oppenheimer himself, he had to wrestle with the reality that it involved his creation, that he was at the center of the predicament and that there were no easy, readily available answers to help him find his way out of it.

Like virtually every American at the time, Oppenheimer wanted to see an end to the war. Simultaneously, though, he also had to ask himself, “At what cost?” Use of the weapon would undoubtedly bring the conflict to a close, but what consequences would that carry? How many would die? In particular, how many innocents would be killed? And what about afterward – would the bomb’s deployment set off a chain reaction prompting further use of nuclear weapons by the US and the development of comparable devices by other nations, both friends and foes? There were also chilling doubts that lingered during the prototype’s development, such as the possibility that some theoretical calculations showed a nuclear explosion might lead to an unending, uncontrollable reaction capable of burning off the earth’s atmosphere, leaving the world with a cure more deadly than the disease it was meant to treat.

To resolve this conundrum, Oppenheimer had to engage in some profound soul searching, examining his heartfelt beliefs to devise a solution. That’s crucial given that our thoughts, beliefs and intents play a crucial role in the manifestation of our existence. It’s not clear whether Oppenheimer was aware of this school of thought, but, considering his in-depth knowledge of related scientific subjects like quantum physics and his familiarity with analogous metaphysical studies like those found in ancient Hinduism, there’s a good chance he might have been cognizant of this discipline’s principles and their implications.

If that were the case, then why did he struggle so much with his conflicted feelings? There are several possibilities that come to mind. To begin with, Oppenheimer was genuinely attempting to reconcile contradictory beliefs, and that’s important to remember, given that such paradoxes are one of most significant impediments to our creations materializing as desired. Contradiction can cause our desired manifestations from being realized in their hoped-for forms (frequently tainted by unexpected and often-devastating side effects), or it can even prevent those creations from appearing at all.

While directing the Manhattan Project in the New Mexico desert during World War II, theoretical physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) inspects the tower on which the first atomic bomb was positioned prior to the device’s initial test blast in July 1945, as seen in “Oppenheimer,” now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

On top of that, Oppenheimer had to contend with the fact that this undertaking was a joint effort, an act of co-creation in which all of the participants had a stake in how things turned out, each of them seeking the fulfillment of their own respective agendas. Even though Oppenheimer headed the Manhattan Project, there were thousands of collaborators working under him, most of whom were unaware of what their peers were doing, a product of the rigid compartmentalization that had been implemented to maintain the secrecy of the endeavor. Then there were the “outsiders” who had a vested stake in the project – those who made up the emerging US military industrial complex, most of whom already had their sights set on how they could benefit from the development of nuclear technology after the war, even before the current conflict was over.

Despite Oppenheimer’s considerable influence, he was only one voice in this chorus. What’s more, he had his past clinging to him like a millstone, something that those with agendas could use as a weapon against him if necessary. He thus often found himself manipulated into making compromises – despite what his conscience was telling him – in order to stay in the game in hopes that he could make his views known and, in turn, a difference.

But, as Oppenheimer’s story played out, as this film shows, he continually had to wrestle with the many challenges that arose out of this scenario, often manifesting in ways that went against his fundamental humanitarian views, especially during the Red Scare and Cold War of the 1950s and ’60s. It was an unenviable position, to be sure, one that truly mirrored the story of Prometheus (and, in some ways, that of Sisyphus, too). His odyssey could thus be seen as simultaneously heroic and tragic. He gave the world his own version of the gift of fire, but this one was – as the Irish rock band U2 once wrote – truly unforgettable.

Telling the story of a larger-than-life individual truly calls for a larger-than-life film, and that’s precisely what writer-director Christopher Nolan has come up with in his latest feature outing, handily the best work of his career. Nolan’s three-hour opus provides viewers with a comprehensive biography of this brilliant and thoughtful yet often-inscrutable and surprisingly naïve physicist who took on a patently dangerous venture that left him morally conflicted about the nature of his creation. The story, which spans several decades of the scientist’s life, chronicles his development of “the gadget” (as it was called) and the fallout he suffered as a consequence of his left-wing pacifist political leanings and his efforts to keep the released nuclear genie from getting out of control. The film is admittedly a little overlong and probably could have used some editing in the opening and final hour, but, in the interest of telling the whole story of Oppenheimer’s journey, its length is understandable (and, consequently, justifiable).

With the detonation of the atomic bomb over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagaski, World War II was brought to an end, and the credit for this was given to celebrated scientist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, center), who was hailed as a hero, a label with which he was noticeably uncomfortable, as seen in “Oppenheimer.” Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

The picture’s production values are all top shelf, especially its brilliant cinematography, stirring original score and superb sound quality, an element that truly leaves audiences with a bona fide visceral experience. Moreover, the narrative is skillfully and eloquently brought to life by this offering’s outstanding ensemble cast, including Murphy, Damon, Conti, Safdie, Blunt, Pugh, and, especially, Downey, who delivers a stellar, award-worthy supporting performance showing acting chops that I never knew he possessed. “Oppenheimer” is easily the best film of the summer movie season, if not all of 2023 thus far. It packs a potent punch and delivers a message that we can all never hear too often, poignantly reminding us all of the importance of not falling prey to the same Promethean burden that Oppenheimer was forced to shoulder.

Oppenheimer’s circumstances could readily be looked upon as intolerable, a task that virtually all of us might have been unwilling to take on, and it certainly took a toll on him, especially when his voice was effectively drowned out. However, despite these difficulties, perhaps his efforts were meant to get the ball rolling on a larger, long-term discussion that has carried on to this day – the dangers of mankind’s reckless inclination toward wanting to destroy itself. Throughout history, we as a species have often blindly allowed ourselves to head down a variety of self-destructive paths, all of which we’ve managed to successfully stave off thus far. But how many times must we continue doing this? When are we ever going to stop? And what will it take for us to come to that realization? Perhaps the potency of the nuclear threat may finally end up being the last straw in this regard. But, to reach that conclusion, we must first be collectively convinced of the deadly ramifications of pursuing this possibility so that we can at last dispense with the prospect of self-annihilation as a viable path to follow. For his efforts, it could be argued that Oppenheimer got that ball rolling, even if it came at a terrible cost to himself. But, if it eventually achieves the sought-after result, then perhaps it can be viewed as worth it in the end. Let’s just hope it’s the end we need and not the one we’re trying to avoid.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

New Movies for August

Join Good Media Network Movie Correspondent Brent Marchant and show host Frankie Picasso for looks at five new films on this month’s movie review edition of the Frankiesense & More video podcast! The show, to begin airing Thursday August 3 at 1 pm ET, will examine an array of releases, along with a few special announcements. Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!

Life in Two Worlds

Living one’s life in two disparate worlds can be quite a challenge, perhaps even perpetually confusing to some making the attempt. Having one foot firmly planted in one existence and the other ensconced in another means always having to be “on” and aware of which reality one is in at any given time. That can be particularly demanding if the differences between them are significant, especially if one of them involves harboring and maintaining a potentially volatile secret. But, with practice and a dedicated commitment to keeping up appearances, it’s entirely possible to pull off such a feat successfully, as was the case with one of Hollywood’s most noteworthy celebrities, a story captured in the new HBO documentary, “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed” (web site, trailer).

For four decades beginning in the 1950s, actor Rock Hudson (1925-1985) personified the image of Hollywood matinee idol. As the prototypical tall, dark and handsome leading man, he embodied everything that most women craved – a strong, sexy, attractive, heroic figure who could turn heads on a dime and make everything work out right in the end. At the same time, men admired him as the charismatic role model they wanted to emulate, someone whose exploits they could mimic and someone with whom they’d readily ride off into the sunset. He launched his career with a string of Westerns, crime dramas and war pictures playing cowboys, detectives and military heroes. He then moved on to more serious fare, like director Douglas Sirk’s romantic dramas “All That Heaven Allows” (1955) and “Written on the Wind” (1956) and filmmaker George Stevens’s grand, sweeping epic, “Giant” (1956), for which Hudson received his only Oscar nomination. And then he became the leading man in a trio of successful wispy romcoms with co-star Doris Day, “Pillow Talk” (1959), “Lover Come Back” (1961) and “Send Me No Flowers” (1964). And, all the while, Hudson’s handlers, like agent Henry Willson, and the Tinsel Town movie machine carefully cultivated his persona to live up to the image of a pristine, well-mannered gentleman, both onscreen and off. But there was just one problem with that strategy: While Hudson may have lived up to it in the characters he played, he was a very different individual in his personal life.

Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson led a dual life – one public, one private – for many years as one of the movie industry’s biggest celebrities and a closeted gay man, as chronicled in the new HBO documentary, “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed,” currently playing on cable TV and streaming online. Photo by Photofest, courtesy of HBO.

To put it simply, Rock Hudson was gay, and, in those days, coming out about it publicly would have destroyed him professionally. For the sake of his career, Hudson had to keep his personal life a secret, and his handlers worked diligently to keep it under wraps. They carefully shielded his offscreen life from public scrutiny, advising him not to engage in activities that could expose him and even going so far as to discreetly arrange companionship for him. At the same time, his managers made a point of setting up public appearances with Hollywood starlets to reinforce the impression of his supposedly heterosexual orientation. This grew increasingly important as he approached 30 and was still single, prompting tabloids to speculate about the validity of his eligible bachelor image. It ultimately led to an alleged cover marriage with Phyllis Gates, the secretary of Hudson’s agent Henry Willson. And, as implausible as it might seem by today’s standards, Hudson’s cover story was never officially compromised, despite a number of whispers among skeptics and widespread knowledge about the truth of his lifestyle throughout much of the movie industry.

As a consequence of the foregoing, little was publicly known about the truth behind Hudson’s personal life. His handlers never hinted at what was going on, and a number of the actor’s co-stars, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Piper Laurie and Doris Day, never divulged a word about it, staunchly defending him and his privacy throughout his life. Yet, considering how much speculation swirled about Hudson’s private life (particularly after his marriage ended in divorce after less than three years), many have long wondered what his private life was really like.

That’s where this film comes in. It chronicles the two worlds in which Hudson lived – his carefully crafted public life and his intensely private personal life. Through interviews with friends like author Armistead Maupin and former partners, such as Lee Garlington, viewers learn about the “hidden” side of Hudson’s life and how well he was able to step back and forth between it and the public side of his existence. It’s the kind of life that, thanks to increasing tolerance of alternative lifestyles, has become less common (and less “necessary”) than it was in the past, especially for high-profile individuals like artists and entertainers.

While Hudson may not have been able to bring himself to enjoy the freedom of being “out,” he nevertheless appears to have enjoyed a fulfilling personal life, despite it being kept secret. He enjoyed the company of many good friends and companions, and he relished his sizable comfortable home, a hacienda-like residence commonly referred to as “the Castle.” And those who knew him often said that Hudson was one of the kindest, nicest, most loyal and most generous persons they had ever known.

However, meticulously managing the two sides of his life also had its drawbacks. In addition to his inability to open up about his personal life, Hudson’s professional image had become so ingrained in the public’s mind that fans often couldn’t bring themselves to envision him outside of the roles that had so solidly become associated with his persona. For example, when Hudson opted to star in director John Frankenheimer’s sci-fi thriller “Seconds” (1966), he delivered what many now regard as his best screen performance. But, given that this was a type of role that the actor was not accustomed to playing, fans and critics summarily rejected the picture and the portrayal, primarily because it didn’t come across as a typical Rock Hudson part. Because of that, he became principally relegated to roles more like those he had been playing throughout his career, both in movies and, increasingly in later years, on television.

As time passed, though, Hudson’s physical appearance slowly began to deteriorate. He lost weight and his signature good looks started to vanish, and, by the early 1980s, the public took note of the change. And then, in 1984, he was officially diagnosed with AIDS, again significantly fueling speculation about Hudson’s personal life. Despite the diagnosis, however, no official declaration about his sexuality was divulged. His illness raised considerable concern, though, when he appeared on the prime-time soap opera Dynasty, where he engaged in a kissing scene with co-star Linda Evans. Because so little was known about the transmission of this new illness at that time, there was much public furor over what was perceived as Hudson’s irresponsible behavior, given that he went ahead with the scene knowing that he already had the disease. (It should be noted, though, that Evans observes in the film that she knew Hudson was trying to keep her safe during the scene, considering that the kiss lacked passion, not the kind of embrace that would have been necessary to prompt transmission of the virus.)

Actor Rock Hudson (left) enjoys a vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico with former partner Lee Garlington (right), as seen in director Stephen Kijak’s new HBO documentary, “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed.” Photo courtesy of HBO.

Hudson’s appearance in nine episodes of the TV series were to be his final ones as an actor. His health slid quickly thereafter, leading to his passing in October 1985. However, before his death, Hudson’s illness drew widespread attention to the disease, which had largely been ignored by the Reagan Administration at the time (an irony given that Hudson and Ronald Reagan were longtime friends). As one of the first high-profile individuals to contract AIDS, Hudson unwittingly became the face of the illness. When his diagnosis went public, research funding skyrocketed, in large part thanks to a sizable Congressional allocation and Hudson’s inaugural $250,000 donation to the nonprofit organization amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research.

Even though Hudson may have never openly stepped forward about his personal life, he nevertheless contributed significantly to the LGBTQ+ community, even if in an unintended way. The tragedy of his illness helped bring AIDS out of the closet and put it front and center on the stage of public dialogue. It’s unfortunate how that came about, but it made a mark, one whose contribution to the well-being of society is as noteworthy as any of those he made to the arts. This film pays homage to that contribution, showing us that Hudson was more than just a pretty face. In his own way, his efforts proved even more heroic than any of the characters he ever played.

I find it truly amazing what we can sometimes come to believe, yet that’s important since our beliefs directly impact the reality we experience. Many of us, including Rock Hudson and his friends, companions and associates, may have never heard of this school of thought, yet it nevertheless could have contributed significantly to the unfolding of his most unusual life.

Given how Hudson’s life played out, he followed a truly unconventional path. But it’s the one he needed to pursue to fulfill the objectives and experiences he felt he needed to get out of his existence, both professionally and personally, even if that meant making some difficult choices and compromises that many of the rest of us may have been unwilling or unable to make.

Consider the actor’s professional accomplishments. He created the conditions to make him one of Hollywood’s most sought-after celebrities for decades. Granted, he may have so expertly materialized an image that kept him from straying too far afield from the well-defined persona he manifested (an outcome reinforced by the beliefs of his handlers, fans and studio colleagues), but what he managed to create ended up bringing him fame and fortune, outstripping that of many of his peers. And, personally speaking, as this film reveals in depth for the first time, he apparently did the same in his offscreen life, amassing an array of friends, companions and experiences, even if he couldn’t be open about those relationships and pursuits. To be sure, the dichotomy that emerged from having to straddle those two separate worlds may have called for making some significant concessions and shuffling of priorities on his part, but, as this picture indicates, he appears to have adjusted to these conditions relatively successfully.

Matinee idol Rock Hudson (left) enjoys a rare beach outing with friends, as depicted in director Stephen Kijak’s new HBO documentary, “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed,” currently playing on cable TV and streaming online. Photo courtesy of HBO.

But, the foregoing successes aside, one can’t help but wonder how and why he drew AIDS into his life. Illness can often be a profound, insightful teacher, despite its often-debilitating consequences. Also, it can frequently serve as a means of drawing attention to an issue in dire need of it. And, in its own way, those qualities were very much associated with AIDS at the time.

This naturally raises the question, “Were these reasons behind how Hudson became afflicted with the illness?” No one can really know for sure except the actor himself; whatever reasons were behind his experience with the illness were his own, and it’s not our place to question them. However, when we look at what came out of Hudson’s experience with AIDS, it’s easy to see how his diagnosis could conceivably be looked upon as a reflection of the notions raised above. The attention that his illness achieved in raising recognition about the condition was far greater than what virtually anyone else had attained prior to that time. The increase in research funding alone was truly significant. It’s indeed unfortunate that it took something like this to make that happen, but the importance of the silver lining to emerge from this cloud can’t be denied.

In this context, it’s also interesting to note the nature of AIDS as an illness – a condition affecting the immune system that leaves its victims powerless against a host of other diseases. And, when one considers the four target groups that were initially most readily affected by the illness – hemophiliacs, IV drug users, Haitian immigrants, and, most notably, male homosexuals – the one trait they all had in common was that they came from groups whose constituents often felt they had had their personal power taken away from them. What more drastic way is there to draw attention to their plight than to contract an illness that itself embodies the concept of powerlessness? It’s regrettable that it may have taken something so severe as this to make that point, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility, especially when one considers the beliefs that might readily underlie the emergence of a development such as this – and what its impact might ultimately yield.

The existence of an illness like this could thus be seen as a form of social protest. The fact that the initial target groups were communities that were often ignored or looked upon with disdain by the rest of society illustrates how they may have had to resort to such drastic measures to get attention for their needs, such as funding for their care and recognition of their social and civil rights. In that vein, it’s curious how both of the foregoing concerns received far greater attention than they had previously. And, to a great degree, the appearance of high-profile victims like Hudson did much to help achieve that.

So was Hudson part of this protest? That’s hard to say, but, given the developments that emerged in the time after his diagnosis and death, it could be argued that he may have been an unwitting, unconscious participant in this initiative. He may not have been able to bring himself to come out during his lifetime, but that also doesn’t mean he didn’t have some degree of care, compassion and interest in veiled activism for his community. In his own way, he was thus able to give something back. It may not have been an open or overtly visible contribution, but it had impact nevertheless. In a sense, it could have been Hudson’s way of at last bridging those two separate worlds in which he dwelled, even if he hadn’t been consciously aware of it himself. And who says gay folks can’t be heroes?

Actor Rock Hudson enjoys life at his palatial home, “the Castle,” a hacienda-like residence at which he frequently entertained friends and guests, as seen in the new HBO documentary, “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed.” Photo courtesy of HBO.

Clean-cut All-American Boy Roy Scherer Jr. probably never envisioned the life he would eventually lead when he was growing up in Winnetka, IL. But, once he transformed into rugged, handsome matinee idol Rock Hudson, it all came together, even if it was not how and what he imagined. Director Stephen Kijak’s new HBO documentary presents a comprehensive look at Hudson’s professional and personal life, with ample film clips and interviews with those who worked with him and those who knew him privately. The film’s previously undisclosed insights about his personal life mark a significant change in how the actor is viewed. And, to bolster those impressions, the filmmaker has incorporated considerable irony in the choice of movie and TV clips included here, with many of them serving as quietly telling observations about the actor’s personal life. When viewed in this new light, these video segments represent muted but informative inside revelations about Hudson at the time these works were made. In fact, some of the content (particularly in the interviews about Hudson’s private life) could be seen as sexually explicit (though not gratuitous), but sensitive viewers should take heed nonetheless. In all, though, this insightful, respectful look at Hudson’s life as both a gifted entertainer and as an unlikely hero delivers a well-rounded biography of a man who toiled to strike a delicate balance in his two worlds, both for his fans and for those who shared his secret, an effort that ultimately yielded a lot of good in both areas.

We can be thankful that the days of having to keep up the kind of façade Rock Hudson felt compelled to maintain are largely behind us now. The threat of exposure and the career-ending disgrace that would inevitably follow must have been maddening to cope with, prompting one to constantly look over one’s shoulder. However, Rock Hudson believed that he could carry off this way of living and make it look comparatively easy, so much so that he was never convincingly outed to the public. But, despite this, in the wake of his passing, he nevertheless made his own signature contributions to his community and his people, helping to enable the wave of changes that arose in the years that followed – and that we’ve all benefitted from as a result. Here’s to Rock – and all that he allowed.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Chronicling a Spiritually Evolutionary Journey

Contrary to popular belief, experiencing the breadth and power of the divine is not something necessarily limited to civil, sedate, well-mannered, rigidly choreographed rituals conducted in ornate indoor settings by individuals decked out in costumes not unlike what one would find in a Las Vegas floor show. Rather, in its purest state, it’s more of a wild, untamed force that unleashes its raw, unrestrained energy in potent, unexpected ways that often leave witnesses awestruck as to its sheer magnitude and expression, particularly in natural surroundings. It’s not exactly what most of us were taught in Sunday school or what we heard in sermons from the pulpit. Indeed, it’s something that can easily leave us shocked, inspired and perhaps even overwhelmed, especially when it works its magic through us, for better or seemingly worse, but always with its celestial fingerprint clearly etched on it. Such are the lessons imparted through the new religious drama/ecclesiastical travelogue, “Godland” (“Vanskabte Land”/“Volada Land”) (web site, trailer).

In the late 19th Century, Father Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), a young, idealistic Lutheran minister living in Denmark, is about to embark on a grand undertaking – building a new church in a small colonial community in Iceland, which at the time was under Danish rule. He approaches the assignment with great enthusiasm, looking upon it as a bold adventure, an opportunity for discovery and a chance to practice his hand at his personal passion, photography. He’s heard tales of the wild, untamed Icelandic landscape and its colorful people, both of which he’s eager to see firsthand. In fact, he’s so inspired by the prospect that he passes up the opportunity to sail directly to the community where he’ll be carrying out his mission. Instead, he seeks passage to a remote location on Iceland’s southeastern coast, poised on the opposite side of the island from where he’ll end up. He uses this impromptu port of entry as a jumping off point to cross the vast and diverse expanse of his new homeland so that he can see everything it has to offer while making his way to the stage where he’ll meet his destiny. He sees it as a chance to survey the land, meet the locals and document it all with his camera. Little does he know, however, what he’s in for.

Idealistic young Lutheran minister Fr. Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) arrives on the southeastern seacoast of Iceland after sailing from his native Denmark, embarking on an adventure to build a church for Danish settlers on the island, as seen in writer-director Hlynur Pálmason’s latest feature, “Godland” (“Vanskabte Land”/“Volada Land”), now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Janus Films.

Fr. Lucas soon discovers that the moniker “Godland” is a fitting name for his new home, at least as God is described above. In many ways, the unrestrained nature of the Icelandic landscape is more than he bargained for. As the cleric crosses the island with his translator (Hilmar Guðjónsson) and guide, Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson), he soon finds that the diverse, challenging terrain and environmental conditions test his endurance and resolve. In his experience of nature (i.e., “God”) in its unleashed state, he finds that the wild character of this place is far different from the more genteel way of life that he had grown accustomed to in Denmark. In his arrogance, he also soon learns that life in Iceland can’t be “tamed” in the same way as back home; in Godland, the unconstrained will of the divine can’t be made to bow to man’s whims in the same way as it may be within the civil confines of a lavish parish on the European mainland, sometimes with dramatic or even tragic consequences.

In addition to the environmental conditions, Lucas soon finds that the residents aren’t quite what he expected, either. While some are genuinely friendly, caring and compassionate under trying conditions (especially the women), many of the men are cold, gruff, and not especially sensitive to the preacher’s needs and more worldly outlooks. In large part, this attitude is attributable to the Icelandic way of life, one in which the residents’ resilience and fortitude is frequently tested by the challenges of everyday life. Fr. Lucas also soon learns that the Icelandic natives aren’t particularly fond of being under the thumb of Danish colonialists. They’re reluctant to embrace Danish culture and often deliberately and defiantly speak in their own tongue to keep settlers in the dark as to what they’re saying. Needless to say, it’s not the warm welcome the minister expected.

Crossing the island proves to be more challenging than Lucas ever expected. In fact, by the time he arrives at his destination, he’s in a seriously depleted and sickly state. He’s taken in by one of the settlers, Carl (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann), who lives in a comfortable farmhouse with his two daughters, Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne), an unmarried young woman who serves as a sort of surrogate wife and mother, and Ida (Ida Mekkin Hlynsdóttir), a teen who attends to many of the farm chores and is an aspiring amateur musician. The family attends to the minister’s needs, nursing him back to health so that he can get on with the business of building his church.

But, as Lucas heals and regains his strength, it soon becomes apparent that he’s begun to experience the effects of living in Godland. The preacher’s demeanor begins to change, showing signs of coming under the influence of the wild, untamed nature of the divine in this unrestrained and often-unforgiving land. He’s more prone to giving in to his emotions, something he was once far more reluctant to do. And, as feelings begin to emerge that he’s unaccustomed to, he finds himself torn in terms of trying to understand himself and this new expression of God that has begun to take over his life. It’s something with which he’s obviously uncomfortable, probably because it’s so unfamiliar to him, testing his faith in ways he’s never experienced. He’s unsure how far he should let himself go: Should he hold on to what he knows, or should he give in to this previously unexplored aspect of God that’s apparently an accepted way of existence in Iceland? Indeed, when in Godland, should he do as the Godlanders do? It’s a spiritually evolutionary journey for which he was unprepared, and now he must decide what to do about it.

Icelandic wilderness guide Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson, left) poses with his crew for a photo taken by a new arrival to the island, as depicted in the new religious drama/ecclesiastical travelogue, “Godland” (“Vanskabte Land”/“Volada Land”), available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Janus Films.

With all due respect and no offense intended, I find it curious that the followers of many of the world’s religions (like the Danish Lutheran immigrants depicted and referenced here) are comfortable with settling for such a limited impression of God. Compared to the native Icelanders, their view seems much more restricted, as if the divine fits neatly into some compartmentalized aspect of existence, one whose impact is confined to just the hypothetical spiritual component of their lives. This is unlike the view of the island’s natives, who see God as a much more expansive part of life, touching every aspect of it and infusing it all with its influence in how events and materializations pan out, a decidedly more comprehensive take on the nature of this interdimensional relationship. In this regard, the connection is more of a partnership than a mere arm’s-length association.

This represents a fundamental distinction in the beliefs held by the locals and the colonists. The Icelanders understand that their God is a wild, untamed force, one filled with an infinite number of possibilities available to it for helping mankind work out its challenges and aspirations. The solutions may not always be easy, as evidenced by the Icelandic way of life, but the residents are confident that things will work out in the end. They have a quiet, unspoken faith in the process. And, by viewing this relationship as a partnership, they see it as a means for cooperation and collaboration.

This is one of the key principles driving the philosophy that maintains we draw upon our thoughts, beliefs and intents in conjunction with the power of God/the Universe/All That Is in manifesting the reality we experience. The locals may not be fully conscious of this way of thinking, but it seems that they accept it as an underlying assumption about how life works and how they relate to the divine (and vice versa).

Fr. Lucas and his immigrant countrymen, by contrast, have yet to fully understand and embrace such thinking. And, in their supposed desire to learn more about the outlooks of the locals, they tend to be somewhat dismissive of these “simpler” views. (After all, how could those perspectives be taken seriously, given that those who adhere to them don’t even have churches, scriptures and other religious trappings to define their spiritual existence?) In that sense, their arrogance and allegedly “superior” mindset prompts them to discreetly look down their noses at the island’s native residents. This becomes apparent, for instance, in one scene when the usually-crusty Ragnar – typically a man of few words, especially those of a personal nature – seeks to confess his failings to Lucas, who pays him little mind and even tries to flippantly silence this obviously “inferior” individual.

Residents of a 19th Century Danish settlement in Iceland pose with their community’s latest addition, a new Lutheran church being built by a young minister sent from Denmark, in writer-director Hlynur Pálmason’s latest feature, “Godland” (“Vanskabte Land”/“Volada Land”). Photo courtesy of Janus Films.

However, accepting this alternative spiritual view is at the heart of what’s playing out in this story. Fr. Lucas, like many of his fellow colonists, is learning how to view God in this same new light, a cornerstone of his spiritual evolution, one in which the divine is an integral, incorporated element of daily life and not something exclusively reserved for Sunday mornings. It’s about how someone lives his or her life every day, an integration of the divine and the terrestrial in harmony on an ongoing basis.

To fully grasp this, there are several key principles these new disciples need to understand. To begin with, the Universe cooperatively helps make everything possible, for better or worse. The seeds of every conceivable possibility are contained within its makeup, and we have access to all of those resources, without limitation, in determining how things ultimately unfold. What we do with what we’re provided plays an important role in this, given that the divine supplies us with the means to achieve our goals, whether or not we recognize (and embrace) them as such.

These are key principles for Fr. Lucas to examine. It often proves difficult, however, given that he comes from a “sophisticated” and “civilized” society, one that has grown impressed with itself and its accomplishments, most of which have come to be perceived exclusively as the result of mankind’s own handiwork. In adopting that attitude, however, the minister and his peers have lost sight of how these manifestations actually came into being as divine/human collaborations, a perspective the islanders have retained.

As a result, when things don’t seem to work out, Lucas often tries to force results into existence, often with less-than-satisfying results. This is known as “pushing the Universe,” and it seldom works out as hoped for. In the fulfillment of our ambitions, God (as viewed in Icelandic terms) may appear to have thrown us some curve balls on the way to reaching our destination, developments that might be easily disregarded. However, there may be elements imbedded within those unexpected twists and turns aimed at taking us where we want to go – provided we have faith in those notions and are willing to follow through on them to see where they lead us. Human arrogance can indeed thwart the divine’s plans to help bring us what we’ve asked for, and those unwilling to take this to heart may wind up paying a high price for such conceit.

Applying culturally and environmentally based considerations can have a tremendous impact in these situations, too. For example, the differences between Iceland and Denmark in these areas are considerable. In some respects, the Icelanders live lives more tied to their surroundings. In some ways, this has left them more open-minded (and, consequently, somewhat more liberated) than their Danish counterparts in such areas as the pursuit of romantic relationships. As Lucas attempts to assimilate into island culture, he finds himself increasingly drawn to Anna, something he resists as it represents what he believes to be falling prey to the temptations of the flesh, inappropriate behavior for a cleric. Meanwhile, Anna – even though Danish by background – has had some time to fit in and has grown more comfortable with the local culture, including a more relaxed view of romantic matters, even with a supposedly forbidden prospect like a priest. Accordingly, relationships in the Icelandic view are seen as a natural part of life, one of the joyous and wholly acceptable gifts bestowed by the Universe, so why not pursue them when the opportunity arises? Anna thus feels free to engage in something that’s assumed to be perfectly natural while Lucas struggles with the cultural baggage he’s brought along with him from home. This, of course, raises the question, “Does God really want one of His own children to needlessly suffer the pain of loneliness, or does the divine truly want us to experience the joy of love and companionship?” (I’ll go with the Icelandic view on this one.)

While falling under the influences of the wild, untamed nature of Iceland, idealistic young minister Fr. Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove, left) finds himself drawn to Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne, right), a young unmarried woman living on a farm in a 19th Century Danish settlement in Iceland, in “Godland” (“Vanskabte Land”/“Volada Land”). Photo courtesy of Janus Films.

Lucas also needs to understand – as the Icelanders apparently do – that life is meant to be lived in the moment, that the point of power is in the present, not some past that’s already gone or a future that’s yet to arrive. The local residents, for example, realize that it’s fruitless to think about tomorrow when confronted with solving a problem that’s at hand in the present. Worrying about what might happen in the afterlife when faced with figuring out how to traverse a mountain peak or avoid an erupting volcano (with the divine’s guidance, of course) is comparatively trivial when such present challenges arise.

Similarly, it’s important to recognize that the present is a fleeting moment, one that goes almost as quickly as it comes and one that’s impossible to capture forever. Lucas seems to have some difficulty with this, too, as evidenced, somewhat ironically, by his passion for photography. As admirable as this pursuit may be, it needs to be properly tempered. In some ways, his interest in this subject almost seems to be based on the idea of wanting to create an enduring record of the moment, freezing it as if it will somehow last for eternity. But will it? The photo may live on, but the moment won’t, and the distinction between the two needs to be recognized. Again, this is another lesson that Lucas could learn from the locals.

All of the foregoing notions are meant to provide the young minister with an experience of spiritual evolution, learning how to engage in an existence with a practical, accommodating partner, not a remote abstract concept, one that is a wholly integrated part of everyday life. It’s about learning how to let go of human hubris and to become a full-fledged collaborator with the divine that allows both of us to come to know ourselves, an equal partner in the grand experiment of reality creation. In essence, it’s all about seeing God in a new light. It would indeed be in Lucas’s best interests if he could come to see the difference between this option and the one he has long known and followed. For my money, if given the choice between a joyful, fulfilling experience and one riddled with limitations and perceived capriciousness, it’s not too hard to figure out which one I’d choose. For his sake, let’s hope Lucas does the same.

What is God? Is it a reasoned, rational civilized entity or a wild, untamed force full of unbridled power in search of becoming a willing collaborator with us? And, in light of that, then, what kind of relationship are we supposed to have with this elusive divine enigma? That’s one of many unexpected challenges raised in this fact-based story from 19th Century Iceland. Life in a new land composed of unfamiliar elements tests the wits, patience, and, above all, faith of a young, idealistic immigrant cleric as events unfold in unforeseen and potentially disturbing ways. It’s an evolutionary journey for which he’s unprepared and often unable to fathom, prompting him to question much of what he believes and how he conducts himself. The result is a thoughtful meditation on these issues, featuring positively stunning cinematography, fine performances and superb production values. The pacing is surprisingly well balanced, too, especially for a film with a 2:23:00 runtime (though some of the picture’s montages – as beautiful as they are – probably could have been dialed back somewhat without significantly impacting the finished product). Writer-director Hlynur Pálmason’s latest is arguably his best work to date, but be sure to give this one the time that it deserves to develop in order to thoroughly appreciate and enjoy it, both for its sheer beauty and for everything it has to say about the divine and the place it occupies in our lives.

Idealistic young Lutheran minister Fr. Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) sees his journey to Iceland as an opportunity to practice his hand at his personal passion, photography, in writer-director Hlynur Pálmason’s latest feature, “Godland” (“Vanskabte Land”/“Volada Land”), now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Janus Films.

“Godland” has been showered with numerous accolades at various film festivals, receiving multiple awards and nominations in myriad categories. Most notably, this multinational production captured an Un Certain Regard award nomination at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. In addition, at the 2022 Chicago International Film Festival, this release received the Gold Hugo Award for best feature and the Silver Hugo Award for best cinematography. And, thankfully, even though this offering has primarily played the festival circuit, it’s now available for streaming online.

While our impressions of and relationship with the divine are ultimately highly personal matters, it’s comforting to know that we have a huge array of options available to us in determining what forms those issues will take. We can follow conventional interpretations that have been prefabricated for us in terms of beliefs, liturgies, dogma and strictures, and that may genuinely be enough for some of us. But, for those who are captivated by the wonder of existence, it’s possible to embrace a limitless view, one in which restrictions have been removed, leaving us to determine for ourselves what best suits our innate sensibilities. Getting to that point often involves a spiritual journey, one that grows and evolves over time but that offers the potential of enhanced satisfaction and fulfillment. That’s something to behold – and something even greater to experience.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.