In 1995, the movie “Braveheart” became one of the highest-rated movies in history. Part of its popularity came from the idea of popular resistance to political tyranny. “Braveheart” was a stylized telling of the First War of Scottish Independence, and the film centered upon historical figure Sir William Wallace. (Critics, especially in Scotland, claimed that the movie played loose with historical facts.) Many people in modern conservative American politics drew parallels between “Braveheart” and actual resistance to the Socialist machinations of the Bill Clinton regime. Now, the new TV series Falling Skies — produced by Clinton friend and supporter Steven Spielberg — brings the resistance theme into the modern age. Hold that thought. More later about the show’s real-world implications.
In the case of Falling Skies, the oppressors are spider-like aliens* from outer space. (* The aliens are derisively nicknamed Skitters, after their method of mobility.) And, it appears that the victims are all of the citizens of Earth. But, that would be too broad of a scope. So, the series focuses upon one group of people in eastern Massachusetts — the same area where the American Revolution changed from rhetoric into rifle volleys. The parallel is by design. According to a recent TV Guide interview with Spielberg, the original name of the series was Concord — the place where the British tried to seize a cache` of American weapons, and thus sparked “the shot heard ’round the world”. (Unfortunately, that nuanced title might not have resonated with a populace that has been dumbed-down by a Left-tilting public school system. Thus, the name Falling Skies makes more sense – especially commercially.) So far, resistance against the space aliens seems to be more about being human than about being American, but there is still an element of shiny patriotism amongst the smell and grit of long-term insurgency. Expect to see the Concord story expounded in a later episode.
So far, only four episodes of Falling Skies have aired. Yet, already, the TNT network has announced that the series has been renewed for a second season. There are likely several reasons for the show’s popularity. (With an estimated 5.9-million viewers, Falling Skies had the largest premier of any program on cable television this year.) Casting seems to have played a big role in the show’s chemistry. The supporting talent is as important as the main characters, because an underlying theme of the story is the teamwork among the resisters.
One character, Captain Weaver, seems to be cast as “the guy you love to hate”. Portrayed by veteran supporting actor Will Patton, he is the commanding officer of the 2nd Massachusetts Militia Regiment. Patton played pivotal supporting roles in the movie “No Way Out“, and in the TV series The Agency. There is some tension between Captain Weaver and the main characters — history professor Tom Mason and pediatrician Anne Glass. True to his long-term career as a supporting actor, and quite like a good tuxedo, Patton’s talent is powerful understatement. There are other actors that could have played the main roles, but no one could have portrayed Captain Weaver in quite the way that Will Patton has. In almost every one of his scenes, there is the essence of a build-up of latent energy — much like watching a rattlesnake slowly coil into a ready position, while never taking its eyes off of its target. Viewers know that, at some future point, Patton will unleash that latent energy, and it will change the direction of the story. Camera angles provided a glimpse of Patton’s supportive power at the end of Episode 103, “Grace”, when young medical student Lourdes is praying. In the background, we see Captain Weaver silently joining in the prayer, even though he had declared in a previous episode that he had lost his faith when the aliens invaded.
The same story-enhancing power is true with another of my favorite supporting actors: Dale Dye. “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride” seems to be the saying that describes Dye’s movie and TV career. But, the fact that he is never the main character does not diminish his on-screen power. (This was proven in the movies ”Firebirds” and “Mission: Impossible“.) In the current TV series, Dye portrays Colonel Porter, who is in charge of a larger resistance and intelligence operation that has so-far remained off-screen. Captain Weaver apparently has a history with Colonel Porter. In the few scenes where Colonel Porter has a role, Dye’s rich baritone provides the command presence that the role requires. No wonder. Dale Dye was an enlisted Marine Corps combat correspondent, who earned a commission and later retired as a captain. (He is also the founder of Warriors, Inc. — a company that hires former military people for roles in movies. *) Like the role of Captain Weaver, the story suggests that later we will see Colonel Porter in a much higher-profile role. And, judging by Dye’s previous roles in other projects, his character will also provide powerful inputs that alter the direction of the story. My guess is that professor Tom Mason will come up with a plan, Captain Weaver will nix the plan, and then Colonel Porter will override Captain Weaver. (* In response to my inquiry, Dale Dye told me that he did assist writer Robert Rodat [writer of "Saving Private Ryan"] with the military aspects of the pilot episode. And, he still informally assists with some of the military details of the series. But, on this project, Dye is not the military technical advisor – a job that he has worked on many other movie and TV projects.)
Episode 104 (“Silent Kill” — which prompted this column) brings in another veteran supporting actor: Henry Czerny — originally from Canada, he is the son of Polish immigrants. Czerny was partnered with Dye in the first “Mission: Impossible” movie — in which together they track down Agent Ethan Hunt (portrayed by Tom Cruise) on the high-speed Chunnel train, building the movie’s tension toward climax. (Earlier in that movie, Czerny’s character narrowly escapes death when Agent Hunt uses explosive chewing gum to escape from a capture-or-kill set-up.) Czerny’s talent, as seen in several key movie and TV roles, is the ability to portray a stony-faced ally that suddenly turns into a stony-faced enemy. His characters are almost always powerfully stealthy, like a panther at night. (Perhaps it’s fate, as his name comes from the Polish root word czarny, which means “black”.) That is all that I should say about him and his character, in case a reader has not yet watched the series.
I’ve said very little about the main characters, because I don’t like them as much. Professor Tom Mason (portrayed by Noah Wyle) is fairly believable as a reluctant hero, who is the tactical squad leader under Captain Weaver. He is a family man, whose wife was killed in the Skitter invasion. His three sons survived, but the middle son was captured by the Skitters. We learn that the Skitters use a bio-mechanical device, attached to the spinal cord, to control and to communicate with the teenage children that they have captured. Mason’s middle son, Ben, had become one of the “harness kids” — who are used as slave laborers, and even as proxy guerillas against the humans. Much of the tension in the first three episodes is over the fact that strategic and tactical considerations prevent Mason from being able to rescue his son, even though the father has seen the son while on missions in the field. The fact that Mason — who was a professor of military history — is able to subject his emotions and desires to the larger mission is a testimony to his character, despite his lack of actual military field experience. (And, it is precisely this citizen-soldier aspect that gives the show its “macro-chemistry”. That is why I consider the program to be “a study in resistance”. It is a theme that modern Americans should study well, before the harsh lessons arrive at one’s front door.)
It is precisely this theme of resistance that surprises me about the fact that Steven Spielberg is the producer of Falling Skies. Like many people of my generation (I’m 53), I’ve enjoyed many Spielberg films. One of the things that I enjoy is the effort that he puts into realistic details. That trait first caught my eye while watching “Close Encounters of the Third Kind“, about a week after it was released. At that time, I was considering going into Combat Control, and had been hanging out with USAF buddies in the control tower and the RAPCON of my first base. In the movie, an air-traffic controller — responding to a UFO near-collision incident — gives a series of high-speed, precisely-worded radio commands to the pilots of various aircraft. The details of this brief encounter were technically perfect. (I used to think that the controller was portrayed by actor Carl Weathers, but a close look at this photo proves otherwise.)
After watching the pilot episode of Falling Skies, I really began to wonder whether the graphic designers at TNT had accidentally put Spielberg’s name on the promo materials. The chemistry and underlying themes seemed more like the conservative tones of the TV series The Unit, which was written and produced by David Mamet — whose public conversion from liberal to conservative was a real-life Hollywood shocker. (I tried to write for that series, and learned that there are more gatekeepers in Hollywood than there are at The Pentagon.) Both producers insert intensely realistic details into their works. But, the types of details present in Falling Skies — specifically lots of guns, in the hands of militia members, who are the good guys! — did not strike me as the works of Steven Spielberg. That said, the ways in which disparate aspects of the story are complexly integrated are the hallmarks of a master movie-maker of the Spielberg class.
And, it is those integrated details, coupled with Spielberg’s well-known penchant for expositing the personal relationships of the characters, that leads me to call Falling Skies “a study in resistance … and more”. In the preview for Episode 105, we already see that some of the bonds among the civilians, and between the civilians and the group, are beginning to break under pressure. Spielberg is a master of exposing those pressure points, and of examining the ways in which the bonds will break. Some will snap like a tow rope pulling a tractor out of a ditch, while others will fracture slowly over time – like the spider-web cracks in a car’s windshield. Those that believe our economy will soon do likewise should study the various sub-stories in Falling Skies, because those could soon become the stories unfolding upon the streets of America.
Another surprising aspect of Falling Skies is the realistic, positive, and technically-correct portrayals of the Christian faith. People are shown praying, and it is neither shunned nor ridiculed by the characters around them. In fact, at the very end of Episode 103, “Grace”, several of the characters join in a prayer led by the optimistic Lourdes. I am a bit surprised, and even disappointed, that there has not yet been equal air time for representations of the Jewish faith — especially considering that Spielberg is Jewish, and given his outstanding representations in the film “Schindler’s List“. (This was also true of the religious details in “Raiders of the Lost Ark“, in which those Nazis that tried to open the Ark even went so far as to wear a linen ephod with a gold breastplate with twelve stones for the twelve tribes of Israel — exactly as prescribed in the Holy Bible.) In the TV series, the resisters are boarded in a school building. On a large bulletin board in a main hallway, there is a shrine dedicated to the missing/captured children. There is a small wooden Cross, and representations of items from various Christian denominations, but there is no Star of David. The prayers said aloud by Lourdes are in the Roman Catholic style, but no character has uttered a Jewish prayer. The important point, though, is that religious belief is being presented as a positive aspect of normal life. (This must be sending most of Hollywood into apoplectic shock.) Even on the official fan message board, those being critical of the portrayal of religion are being rebuffed by the majority.
While most of this column suggests that the plot and details of Falling Skies make good lessons for the average citizen, this last point should make a good lesson for people in leadership positions across society. Although I’m quite aware of my own sins and weaknesses (as was King David, when he wrote Psalm 51), I still want to publicly proclaim God’s presence and works, and to acknowledge the truths of the Holy Bible. (That said, though, I try very hard to avoid even the appearance of “shoving my religion down other people’s throats”. I have found that a “just the facts” approach is powerful in itself.) The fact is that most people in America do have at least some degree of belief in God, and endeavor to apply that to their lives. Some are more successful than others (perhaps because they try harder). But, the idea that God must be eradicated from public discourse is a concept that is actually offensive to the majority. That is the exact opposite of what the vocal minority tries to proclaim. So, perhaps even those in Hollywood, even if for no other reason than to expand their bank accounts, should learn a lesson from Falling Skies about the importance of honoring God. In the process of doing so, they would begin to learn lessons about resistance to the ways of the world.
And, that would be a more valuable lesson than resisting space aliens.