When Your World Is Turned Upside Down
In "No Reservations," Kate Armstrong (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a world-class cook. She's the executive chef of a swanky restaurant in New York City, where the patrons expect consistently superb quality. She closely supervises every dish that leaves the kitchen. She's a demanding taskmaster to her loyal crew, who remain not because they feel appreciated, particularly, but because they know they're with the best, and they enjoy being part of a top-notch operation. Kate is not very much fun to be around. She works all the time, and is always tightly wound, highly driven, and a stickler for details. When she goes home, it's to an empty apartment. The guy on the floor below her keeps trying to strike up a conversation, but she isn't interested. She really only talks to two people: her therapist, whom, of course, she pays for conversing with, which still leaves her in charge, and her sister, who fusses at her about being a workaholic, and trying new recipes on her day off. It's while her sister was driving up for a visit that Kate's world suddenly turns upside down: her sister dies in a car wreck, but her niece (Abigail Breslin) survives. So now our never-married-and don't-know-anything-about-children career woman is suddenly a single Mom. Her niece's Dad is so far out of the picture she doesn't even know where is. So it's just her and this little person she doesn't know very well. Yet.
Predictably, they start off very awkwardly, but eventually warm up to each other. Naturally, this takes some adjustment for both of them. What saves this gentle film from choking on its sautéed clichés is the old-fashioned reticence of its characters. Nothing really over-the-top here, even with the predictable "love interest" (Aaron Eckhart). Romances are restrained, and non-explicit. We never even see the mangled automobile; or even the yawning hole in the ground at the cemetery, though the psychological reality of grief is taken very seriously. A relational film comprised of tranquil understatement feels refreshingly old school. Oh, and don't go hungry.
"Rescue Dawn" is another scenario where the main character's world is turned upside down, but this is based on a true story, and it's every bit as grim and gritty as "No Reservations" is refined and genteel. Dieter (Christian Bale) is a brand-new US fighter pilot, who signed on because he'd always wanted to fly a plane, and this seemed to be the best way. Yes, there was this trouble over in faraway Viet Nam, but the conflict seemed contained, and had not yet escalated into full-scale war. We still naively believed that we were coming to the aid of a beleaguered popular regime attempting to quell a troublesome uprising instigated by foreign communist insurgents. Our German-born first-generation immigrant is immediately assigned to an aircraft carrier, from which they are conducting secret bombing missions over Laos (secret because Laos was officially neutral, and we weren't supposed to be there). He's shot down on his first mission. He's captured immediately, and when he refuses to sign a statement refuting the imperialistic aggression of his adopted country, he's thrown into a prison where he's surprised to find other American pilots who have been there for several years already. Talk about your world being suddenly turned upside down. The other inmates appear to be beaten down and disheartened. They haven't attempted an escape, and weren't planning for one. They were just trying to survive with their sensibilities intact, but they're losing the struggle by daily attrition. Dieter tries to lead them into at least being aware of such obvious things as changes of the guard, and where the rifles are kept while the sentries are eating lunch together. By the time he presents a bold but workable plan to the rest of them, some are not even sure they have the energy, and many of the rest have already taken too much leave of their senses to survive as a fugitive in the jungle, navigating toward the border with Thailand. Dieter is determined. Deprivation hardly describes his ordeal. But he obviously lived to tell about it, and perhaps, 40 years later, we are now willing to simply accept one man's story about his Vietnam. We probably aren't ready, still, to hear the many thousands of other stories.
Both of these movies feature main characters whose world was suddenly turned upside down. Both are affected greatly, and yet survive, if not unscathed, then more emotionally layered for the experience. We always want for our adversities to teach us something. Well, in both these stories, there are plenty of opportunities to learn.
Questions For Discussion:
1) What death in your family has had the greatest impact on your daily routine?
2) Should we have been in Vietnam? How about Iraq?
3) How many years later is it OK to confirm that we, as a nation, engaged in illegal combat operations?
4) Do you know anyone who was adopted by relatives as a child? How did that experience impact that person emotionally?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Terrell, Texas