Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
There's nothing more deadly to a film's success than being shelved by its studio, for whatever reason. Blue Sky was released in 1994, and Jessica Lange was voted an Oscar as best actress the next year. But the movie had been finished almost four years before. Three more Lange movies filmed after Blue Sky, had been released first. It happened because Orion Pictures went into bankruptcy just as they were finishing a pile of quality movies, some of them big hits: The Silence of the Lambs, Dances with Wolves, Love Field, Little Man Tate, The Addams Family. Lambs and Wolves were released under the Orion banner, but not before potential profits had been sold off. Addams Family had to be sold
at a loss, to Paramount. When Orion no longer had the cash to release anything, Blue Sky went on the shelf. By the time Orion could put it out its director Tony Richardson had been dead for over three years. Considering the handicap it did fairly well, joining other underperforming but respectable Orion releases like Miami Blues, Woody Allen's Alice, Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot and Roger Donaldson's Cadillac Man. 1
The very good picture Blue Sky takes on interesting material from an unusual point of view. It's a terrific relationship movie, and Jessica Lange must have felt gratified to have her great performance recognized by the Academy, three years later. Some critics think other aspects of the movie aren't as successful. Its scathing indictment of the Atom testing program seems a little late, considering that the era depicted is thirty years in the past. Just the same, few liberal movies analyze modern military arrogance with such accuracy or effectiveness.
It's the very early 1960s. Major Hank Marshall (Tommy Lee Jones) is a nuclear engineer and also a soldier in the U.S. Army, helping gather data and measure radiation after nuclear tests in the Pacific. Hank has two pressing problems. He disagrees with his superiors about the safety and wisdom of the tests. His recommendations against above ground testing go against the Pentagon, which is bullish on bigger bombs for defense, and tolerates no dissent in the ranks. Second, Hank's wife Carly (Jessica Lange) is a major career risk. Bored, an exhibitionist, and perhaps borderline disturbed, she puts Hank in social and official hot water with her narcissistic and provocative behavior. Hank loves her dearly and understands her personality, but can't keep her behavior in check. He also helps keep the peace with their lively, understanding daughter, the teenage Alexandra (Amy Locane) and the slightly younger Becky (Anna Klemp). The girls resent
Carly's unpredictability but love her as well. Transferred to an Alabama base, the Marshalls find themselves in what Hank recognizes as a 'David and Bathsheba' situation: the arrogant C.O. Colonel Vince Johnson (Powers Boothe) gets the hots for the flamboyant, unstable Carly. Vince ships Hank to the top secret Operation Blue Sky test project in Nevada, possibly to get him out of the way. Meanwhile, just as Carly is making herself unpopular with the base wives, especially Vera Johnson (Carrie Snodgress of Diary of a Mad Housewife), Hank is hit with double whammys. Civilians are irradiated in an underground blast test, and when he asks that they be notified and given a medical assist, the Army orders him to shut up and forget it. Then Carly calls to say that she's gone too far with Vince Johnson. Hank comes back demanding satisfaction, prompting Vince to takes extreme measures to keep the scientist silent -- about both the test accident and his wife.
It's tempting to let a cursory look at credits tell us who contributed what to any given movie. Story and screenwriter Rama Laurie Stagner has titles in her resume dealing with social injustice, and a credit or two on shows about military families. The screenwriting team of Arlene Sarner and Jerry Leichtung surely knew something about the time period of 1960 after writing the screenplay for Peggy Sue Got Married. Blue Sky has the most insight about the life of military
dependents of the time, in any movie I've seen. 2
The movie is constructed of fresh, interesting elements. Carly Marshall has a tenuous hold on reality, a very bad thing for the spouse of a man in a high security position. She fibs about her plain background and imagines herself the equal of glamorous sirens like Ava Gardner and Brigitte Bardot, whose hairdo and coquettish manner she seems to be channeling of late. She can't help swimming topless where Hank's helicopter patrol can see her; although deeply in love with Hank, she needs to be admired by lots of men. At the new base, she volunteers to do a sexy number in a production of The Pajama Game; and she makes a spectacle of herself at a base dance.
The film's charming miracle is that Hank understands this. He's a scientist-engineer but neither an egghead nor an egotist. Hank tries to accept Carly as much as he can and successfully intervenes in most of her tantrums. At the party he has to dump her in a pool to cool her off. Instead of their marriage blowing up, Carly just needs him more. She knows she's out of control. She's a desperately needy woman, feeling beautiful and afraid of getting old, crazy-worried that life is passing her by. Carly would seem another unstable atomic element that Hank must keep under control. That's his job in life, and he likes it. He's an original character. The relationships in this show are fascinating.
For anybody connected with the military, the most powerful and righteous scene happens early on. The Marshalls drive to their new quarters at the Alabama army base, first passing typical "Generals' Row" mansions, then less lofty residence quarters for top officers, and very quickly into a run-down, poorly maintained slum for everybody else. Carly's tantrum at the sight of their dirty, ramshackle new place almost turns into a psychotic episode. How can she be a great lady or a glamorous movie star in these surroundings? But Carly also shows what a sweet and understanding wife and mother she can be. Yet we know that disaster looms the moment the loathsome Vince Johnson sets his eyes on her.
The screenwriters make the daughters the adults in this situation, as often happens when a parent is unstable. Alex has a lot of insight with her mother, even if she resents her somewhat; she loves and understands her father, who she considers a genius and a saint. She's also picked up his humanistic attitude, which will get him in trouble with the brass. The movie sketches but insufficiently develops Alex's flirtation with Vince and Vera's son Glenn (Chris O'Donnell of NCIS: Los Angeles). He's West Point- bound, at least until his eyes are opened about his father's true character.
The movie's last act loses some viewers, and probably the entire audience segment with no use for liberal storylines. Sex and nuclear potency are a joke in Dr. Strangelove but have a very real relationship here. Hank won't stay quiet about the criminal handling of the nuclear accident, and he takes his personal differences with his treacherous commanding officer public. This leads to a sequence of events that kick the story into a higher level of controversy. Having screwed up in every possible way, Carly decides to do what she does best -- draw attention -- to rescue her husband and redeem herself.
At this point I also wonder if some trimming was done to the script. Blue Sky has no major problems, but what happens to Hank, happens altogether too quickly. Still, the finale is more than satisfying. 3
Both Tommy Lee Jones and Jessica Lange are magnificent. She's really good at selling the sex, making Carly an alarmingly dangerous wild woman who means well but can't possibly stay out of trouble. Wouldn't a sequel have been marvelous?
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Blue Sky looks really good, rescuing the film from twenty years of so-so transfers for TV and disc. Colors are gorgeous, with Jessica Lange's various fashion and hair choices standing in great relief. These women exist -- they immediately draw the jealousy and spite of other women, often for the wrong reasons. The handsome transfer shows Ms. Lange achieving this flashy glamour and still coming off as a class act. Yep, Carly's dangerous.
Even in widescreen the movie often has a too-tight feel, as if Tony Richardson thought he were directing for TV. There's nothing wrong, exactly, and we don't see this done because of any production limits. But the camera doesn't often back off to see an entire room, observe an action from afar or get an establishing view of anything, even the Nevada test site. I'll be curious to hear if anyone agrees with this.
There are no extras, and no subtitles. I'd have loved to hear from the screenwriters, some of whose credits hint at an effort to promote more liberal themes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Blue Sky Blu-ray rates:
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
No; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 4, 2015
1. I know this history well because in 1991 I was cutting trailers for an outfit that handled a lot of Orion product. We did some great work on Blue Sky. I remember seeing B&W film cuts on a KEM but I don't know if the job was pulled when the release was canceled, or because it was given to another trailer boutique.
2. I'm an Air Force dependent; like the kids in the movie, I lived in a Hawaiian military base. Some parts of the movie feel like walking into my past.
3. (Serious spoiler.) Not only does Carly's infidelity provoke the patient Hank into a career-ending criminal act, she foolishly allows Vince to trick her into signing a paper to put Hank under psychiatric observation, as a way of avoiding a criminal charge. (Spoiler, really now.) That's all Vince needs to involuntarily throw Hank into a military asylum and keep him tranquilized into a zombie state. It's a more realistic version of the Fess Parker scene in the atomic sci-fi movie Them!
The transition from smart dad to babbling vegetable is too fast, but the implications are wild. Even if Hank's plight is the action of one renegade S.O.B. trying to cover his rear, the movie gives us the all-too credible idea that the military, a non-democratic institution, would routinely handle dissent this way. Of course, there are all those insane medical and radiation experiments they performed on enlisted 'volunteers', not to mention the cavalier way they threw radiation around during the atomic testing years, repeatedly ducking responsibility for reckless accidents.
The story of Carly getting her act together and using the threat of publicity to free her husband could have been the second half of a two-part story. Here, it's all resolved awfully quickly. Everybody wins, but not in a fully satisfactory way. Carly gets free of the stifling military dependent life. Hank will be teaching in California, where he guesses that people might be a little more open-minded. Ha! I can see the whole family dropping acid together! On the other hand, the military rightly dumps an unprincipled Colonel, but also gets to keep its dirty laundry under wraps. It's not quite the whitewash of From Here to Eternity, but it's getting there.
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
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