Blue Sky
Reviewed in August 2005
Director: Tony Richardson. Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Jessica Lange, Amy Locane, Anna Klemp, Powers Boothe, Carrie Snodgress, Chris O'Donnell, Dale Dye, Annie Ross. Screenplay: Rama Laurie Stagner and Arlene Sarner & Jerry Leichtling.

Photo © 1994 Orion Pictures
The first sequence in Tony Richardson's Blue Sky finds U.S. Army Maj. Hank Marshall (Tommy Lee Jones) helicoptering over Hawaii with his support team of military scientists. As the copters swoop around the shore of the island, they spy Hank's wife Carly (Jessica Lange) lazing half-naked on the blazing beach, summoning herself into an impromptu dance of the veils for her airborne audience, very self-consciously filtering Salomé through the prism of Brigitte Bardot. The other flyers are worried that Hank will be humiliated or angry when he realizes who it is they are all whooping at, while she parades her bare breasts and her bruisingly naked dreams of impossible stardom. But Hank just laughs it off, jocular in his enjoyment of the show. But that's a lie. He is angry, and ashamed, and he's made himself expert at concealing those feelings.

We'll learn these things soon enough in Blue Sky, but not in the immediately following sequence, which supplies more atmosphere than narrative information. In the blinding, waving heat, a nuclear emergency squad combs the beach for radioactivity, a nightmare vision of faceless scientists taking risks way out of their depth. Debates over nuclear weaponry, research, and health risks will prove very important to the storyline of Blue Sky, but the film sure takes its sweet time merging all of its themes. For a long time, the vague parallels between lethal uranium and the trembling dysfunction of the Marshall family seems like the kind of startling inexact, quixotic analogy that only exists in the mind of a questing screenwriter (or, in this case, a team of screenwriters). The fact that Blue Sky flips so often and so quickly between registers—plot-heavy scenes alternating with pure evocations of wild mood and feeling—doesn't make the movie any easier to follow. This movie about madness and radioactivity is its own sort of unstable system. The photography and the editing follow very irregular patterns, the coop of supporting characters make strong but inconsistent impressions, and Jessica Lange, gives one of her trademark portrayals of unhinged, erotic indignation, sometimes with the sure hand of the professional and at other times indulging an improvisatory fury that borders on the scattershot.

For all of these reasons, Blue Sky barely holds itself together, though it never settles into anything comfortable. It's an easy movie to push away or shrug off, if you quit, either literally or just mentally, at an early point in the movie. At a certain, imperceptible point, however, the various hooks and tremors in the material earn your interest. There is so much going on in terms of adulterous scheming, generational divides, and public-health catastrophes that the film keeps implying a strong bent toward narrative that it doesn't really have. Blue Sky more truly works as a kind of atonal visual music, like one of those modernist pieces that constricts itself to a harsh and nearly arbitrary set of notes but casts them into enough eerie, flexible, and surprising combinations that they yield surprising emotion. It's the rare film about 1950s America that has no interest in ramrod conformity, even as a couterpoint to the romantic central action. Even the battened-down control of Tommy Lee Jones' performance, easily the best in the film, is an obvious indicator of Hank's own unique, even troubling personality. Ironically, Hank's attempts to live by the book and maintain order pose as much of a threat to his community as Carly's wildcat sexuality and ungovernable, exhibitionist urges. The Army itself is pictured here as a gaggle of neurotics, conspirators, and desperate men, and their wives gambol away in cheap community-theater productions at the Officer's Club, while making clear throughout that they have seen and understand a good deal while playing their roles in the strange microcosm of the American military machine. Even the tract houses on the base are all disheveled, weather-worn, and overgrown in their own unique ways. No one and nothing is the point of normalcy, even though there are clear degrees of non-conformity, with Carly tarting herself up at the very teetering edge.

I grew up on American Army and Marine Corps bases, and as much as Blue Sky occasionally jumps the shark with its feverish figurations—a shadowy complicity between the Army and a mental hospital, the Carmen-as-Lone-Ranger image of Carly protesting nuclear cover-ups by riding her horse through a desert—I can't say that the basic, introverted, murmuring climate of base life in Blue Sky felt unfamiliar. In none of its techniques is Blue Sky a groundbreaker, and the screenplay is too disjointed to suggest any unified style or dexterous theme. Still, Tony Richardson uses the inconsistencies of this strange, distinctive, and clearly personal screenplay as an opportunity to preserve that kaleidoscopic uncertainty, that proximity of different anxieties—martial, marital, adolescent, social—so that they combine into something mutually resonant, and persuasively alive. The movie is sufficiently at odds with itself to be both frustrating and intriguing.

Did Lange really need an Oscar for her efforts here? Probably not. The only reason Lange won for such a marginal and eccentric movie is that her fellow contenders were so uninspiring, because no one had the good sense to nominate Juliette Lewis for Natural Born Killers or Julianne Moore for Vanya on 42nd Street in their stead, and because Lange had never won a leading Oscar before despite having one of the most exciting and mercurial careers of any major American actress of the 1980s. I love Lange, partially because she freaks out or freezes up just as often as she flourishes, and when she does flourish, she does it like nobody else. In an admittedly more measured way, you could say the same for Blue Sky. B–

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress: Jessica Lange

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress (Drama): Jessica Lange

Other Awards:
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Actress (Lange)

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