Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ a small-town triumph
Imagine what a movie showcasing an ordinary, lukewarm existence might look like. One without mobs or crooked cops and the only color in the characters’ lives is the blue on their collar. Worse still, life is totally ordinary and you live in Billings, Montana. Your great romantic tragedy is a Billings, Montana girlfriend calling it quits because you’re unsure about a Billings, Montana marriage. She’s pushing 250 lbs. You’re content selling Bose speakers in Billings, Montana to “Ja-neece, not Janice” and your physically and socially mangled father convinced you to drive 850 miles because of a promotional scam. Then you drive back to Billings, Montana.
But Nebraska is welcome proof that not every movie demands glorified escapism found in storied timepieces, fluorescent boxing rings and Ryan Gosling. Grounding films that don’t titillate our grandiose visions of a sexy, high-flying fantasy where we’re permanently 32 and going to dinner parties with 40 of our closest friends, or defending Father’s honor by slaying a Smaug with hellfire swords. What about the simple, the archaic, the white bread? What about the stripped down story of people being people? There is a home for the acoustic version, and as the great sushi maestro Jiro says, “There is purity in simplicity.”
Illuminating the subtle details of human framework is a tough skill to hone and a tougher one to sell. Even with his stellar resume, Alexander Payne had some trouble getting the measly $13 million to fund Nebraska, an unassuming movie with immense gratification. Pitching a screenplay about a washed-up alcoholic Korean War vet driving from Montana to Nebraska wouldn’t exactly scream goldmine, and adding his black and white plans for the film certainly didn’t help. But Payne had long wanted to make a black and white movie; in fact he says most of the movies he watches are in black and white. “Chroma” as he calls it, allowed Nebraska’s colors of human honesty to shine through without the distraction of a color scheme pulling from the more subtle senses. Employing non-actors as well as actors for added authenticity, they shot the route – from Billings to Lincoln – in less than six weeks.
Nebraska is a film that appreciates the subdued spots in life, the no-glitz all-salt moments. It’s a place in our hearts everyone knows, whether it’s visiting a great uncle with hearing problems and a 1960 RCA TV or remembering how your grammy pronounced “fooleeshness.” There are only more of those moments to come as the years go by, and a reminder to celebrate the tender silences of egg salad and Miracle Whip sandwiches is appreciated. Nebraska brings us home. It’s also relentlessly funny.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an 80-something malcontent with a passion for trucks, sauce and brevity, is hell-bent on getting to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash in a notice for a $1 million sweepstakes prize he received in the mail. “We are now authorized to pay one million dollars to Woodrow T. Grant, Billings, Montana,” he reads with stubborn pride to his youngest son David (Will Forte). He keeps the winning letter in his front shirt pocket at all times, bearing his dentures to anyone who tries talking him down from his pre-hatched million dollar throne. But his wife (June Squibb) and eldest son (Bob Odenkirk) aren’t interested in entertaining Woody’s naïve delusions (“They can’t print it if it isn’t true!”), so nourishing his father’s wide-eyed hopes of a new truck and new air compressor with cash to spare falls on David’s hesitant shoulders. An impromptu visit to Hawthorne along the way, his parents’ hometown, paves the way for father and son to reconnect … kind of.
A known Payne mantra is that 90 percent of directing is casting, and that percentage really held up its end of the deal. What Forte and Dern lack in on-screen chemistry is made up in the fluidity of and devotion to their performance. It’s not easy for actors to downplay their acting, but you won’t find grand demonstrations of dramatic emotions or outrageous situational gimmicks in Nebraska because they aren’t called for. We’re undersold, which is what closes the deal. Forte drops a couple gleefully sarcastic one-liners to curb tension, but for the most part MacGruber keeps the funny business to a minimum. The revered Stacy Keach as Woody’s boyhood frenemy doles out his usual powerhouse prominence, and Dern won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his role. Squibb as Woody’s harping wife Kate, the self-described “only sane one in this family,” delivers a hoot of a performance, combining endearment and raunch with minimal effort.
One scene, however, garnering a fair amount of attention has her visiting family headstones at a cemetery with Woody and David, gossiping about the late loved ones’ more regrettable qualities. All light and harmless until, while standing over the headstone of a man she claims (as she often does), wanted to get in her knickers, she pulls up her skirt and hollers about what might have been.
All right, I get it. How fun, how silly coming from a cute old woman. And had intuitive subtlety not reigned supreme in Nebraska, the gratuitousness of the scene might not have bothered me. But looking at that scene, then looking at the sensitive acting and directing footwork of David with his dad at the car lot, for example, I felt the chumminess didn’t quite belong. It’s morsels like the disarming “C’mon, have a beer with your old man. Be somebody!” and the damaged “I was there” after Woody is asked about a family loss that epitomize the integrity of Nebraska. It shows a trust in the audience that far too few movies do. The spectacularly candid scene in Hawthorne with the extended family men watching football, humming lazily about the ’79 Buick a brother used to own is another one of many that celebrates the honesty in mundanity.
“Those cars never stop running … what happened to it?”
“Yeah … They’ll do that.”
I’ll just say it, this is one of my favorite movies in a long time. There’s an almost therapeutic quality to it – watching the pair drive down long stretches of black and white road, not saying much; listening to gray-haired Hawthornians talk foot afflictions and court-ordered community service; reveling in Woody’s laughably indignant nature brought on by decades of drinking. (Fortunately he’s not drinking anymore, though. Beer ain’t drinkin’.)
Its patience is calming, and its heart is pure. Amid the Secret Ron Burgundy of Wall Street Hustle, don’t let this one get away.
Adelson: Nuke Iran to get it to talk business
Sheldon Adelson, a top backer of Republican and right-wing pro-Israel causes, advocated bombing Iran with a nuclear device as a means of negotiation.
“You pick up your cell phone and you call somewhere in Nebraska and you say ‘OK, let it go,’ and so there’s an atomic weapon goes over, ballistic missiles in the middle of the desert that doesn’t hurt a soul, maybe a couple of rattlesnakes and scorpions or whatever,” Adelson, a casino magnate, said in a rare public appearance on Oct. 22 at Yeshiva University in New York. “And then you say, ‘See? The next one is in the middle of Tehran.’ ”
Video of the event was posted on the Mondoweiss website.
Adelson, a lead backer of Republican candidates in the 2012 presidential campaign, was criticizing the Obama administration’s readiness to negotiate with Iran’s leaders toward undoing the country’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
“So, we mean business, you want to be wiped out? Go ahead, take a tough position and continue with nuclear development,” said Adelson, who owns a major Israeli newspaper considered close to the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“You want to be peaceful, just reverse it all and we will guarantee that you can have a nuclear power plant for electricity purposes, energy purposes,” he said.
Adelson and his wife, Miriam, are major contributors to the Birthright Israel program.
Senate committee advances Hagel nomination
Sticking strictly to party lines, the Senate Armed Services Committee referred the nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary to the full Senate for confirmation.
The tally favoring Hagel, a former U.S. senator from Nebraska, was 14 in favor, all in the Democratic caucus, and 11 opposed, all Republicans.
One Republican, David Vitter of Louisiana, was not present.
Much of the debate Tuesday afternoon focused on Hagel's past statements expressing skepticism of Iran sanctions, his past wariness of a strike on Iran to keep it from obtaining a nuclear weapon and his past criticism of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) devoted much of his opening remarks to addressing these issues.
“Much of the time and attention at our committee hearing was devoted to a handful of statements that Senator Hagel made over the course of his career that raised legitimate questions about his views on Israel, Iran, and other issues,” Levin said. “Senator Hagel explained or clarified these statements and placed them in context. He apologized for one remark and told the committee that he would say other things differently if he had the chance or were making them over.”
President Obama nominated Hagel, a Vietnam War hero, to succeed Leon Panetta.
Nation World Briefs: Peace Process, Interfaith Campus
American Jews Want U.S. to Engage in Peace Process, Poll Reports
American Jews favor an active U.S. role in the Middle East peace process even if it means exerting pressure on Israel, according to a poll.
The survey by J Street, which backs assertive U.S. engagement in the peace process and markets itself as an alternative to the more hard-line views that it claims dominate many other pro-Israel organizations, also found that Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman is not popular among American Jews and that President Obama and his policies on the Middle East garner more than 70 percent approval in the American Jewish community.
The survey of 800 self-identified American Jews by Gerstein Agne Strategic Communications was conducted Feb. 28 to March 8 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.
One issue on which the community was evenly split was how to deal with Iran. Forty-one percent did not favor a military attack on Iran “if they are on the verge of developing nuclear weapons,” while 40 percent supported such a strike. And 39 percent favored “direct negotiations” with the Iranians while 37 percent supported international sanctions.
According to the poll, 88 percent of respondents favored the United States playing “an active role” in helping the parties resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, with 64 percent of those favoring an “active role” saying they would continue to back it even if it meant “exerting pressure on Israel.” Overall, 57 percent of those surveyed would support such pressure.
In addition, 69 percent said that if Hamas and the Palestinian Authority form a unified government, it would support the United States working with such a government to achieve a peace agreement with Israel.
The poll also found high name recognition for Lieberman, with 62 percent of American Jews saying they know who he is. After being told that he has “called for the execution of Arab members of Israel’s parliament who met with Hamas and whose main campaign message called for Arab citizens of Israel to sign a loyalty oath to the Jewish state in order to prevent their citizenship from being revoked,” 32 percent said that their “personal connection” to Israel would be weakened because Lieberman’s positions “go against my core values.”
During the election campaign, Lieberman called on all Israelis to sign the loyalty oath, but it was not part of the coalition agreement he signed with Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu.
Meanwhile, 75 percent of respondents backed Israel’s recent military operation in Gaza, although just 41 percent said it made Israel more secure. And 60 percent did not support the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.
Coalition Plans Interfaith Campus in Omaha
An interfaith coalition in Nebraska is testing the viability of what is believed to be an American first: a joint campus to house a Jewish, Muslim and Christian house of worship.
The plan, under development by a local nonprofit called the Tri-Faith Initiative, would join a mosque, a Reform synagogue and an Episcopal church in a suburban Omaha location. No site has yet been found, but organizers are hopeful the project will come to fruition.
“The first week we thought about it, we put the odds at a million to one,” Bob Freeman, the chairman of the Tri-Faith board, said. “I think now there is a real possibility — and I don’t quote odds anymore per se — but I think there’s a real possibility it could work.”
The plan, which has been under discussion for years, will receive a significant boost Friday, when national leaders of all three faiths join together for an event being billed as “Dinner in Abraham’s Tent.”
The evening will begin with worship services for each of the three faiths followed by a panel discussion, “Conversations on Peace,” featuring Rabbi Peter Knobel, past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America; and the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. Mark Pelavin of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center will moderate.
Hundreds are expected to attend the event, which will be held at a convention center in Omaha and broadcast live on the Internet.
“The question that you need to ask me is why not to do it,” said Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, whose synagogue, Temple Israel, is the Jewish partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative.
“It’s something that needs to be done,” Azriel said, “and I really believe that there is no time to wait to establish a peaceful relationship among the three groups.”
Founded four years ago, the Tri-Faith Initiative is a joint project of Temple Israel, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture, an organization founded in 2006 principally to be the Muslim counterpart in the initiative.
Though the viability of the campus is still being determined, some members of the Omaha Jewish community have not waited to voice their concerns about the plan.
In a recent letter printed in the Omaha Jewish Press, Phil Schrager, a Temple Israel member and major donor to local Jewish charities, expressed “strong reservations about the efficacy” of the plan because a Palestinian-born member of the Tri-Faith board had signed on to a cultural and academic boycott of Israel.
“I think that Rabbi Azriel ought to be applauded for the time and effort that he’s putting forth to try to promote peace among the religions and promote dialogue and conversations,” Schrager said. “But I separate that from the Tri-Faith campus, which I have concerns about.”
Both Freeman and Azriel said they were pained to learn about the boycott, but nevertheless they vowed to continue the dialogue.
“I’d never met a Muslim until three years ago,” Freeman said, “so I had the same prejudices and stereotypes and assumed there were bad things about their faith and region and they all believed them. And I don’t think that’s the case anymore, based on my personal experiences.”