TV miniseries review: Godless

Heralded as the best Western since Deadwood, Godless piqued my interest. The seven-episode series stars Jeff Daniels. Must be good.

I was not disappointed. The episodes weave present time with flashbacks. Through the interplay of them and dialogue among the characters, the full story and individual characters’ back stories come into view.

The West is still a male-dominated venue, and Godless has its share of male characters—the central story focuses on outlaw Frank Griffith (Jeff Daniels), his motley crew, and the split with his adopted son Roy Goode. Griffith, a religious zealot, brings danger wherever he goes. Roy, who grew up under his tutelage, splits from him and steals the bootie from a robbery. In retaliation, Griffith and crew destroys a town and all its inhabitants who shielded Roy. Lawmen seek out Griffith to varying degrees of failure (some culminating in death). Roy gets away but faces Griffith at the end.

This male tale plays out in La Belle, a mining town like every other one except for the fact that the inhabitants are almost entirely women. A mining accident took eighty-some odd miners in a single swoop. The only men left were the non-miners—the sheriff, the deputy, the storekeeper, the saloonkeeper, and a few other random older men. The women were left to fend for themselves and run the town.

The women react to the lack of men in various ways. Some don the clothes of their deceased husbands, freed from the long skirts of traditional female garb. A former prostitute becomes the schoolmarm. A German woman running from her husband calls town home and sets up an artist studio. (She later shoots, ties up, and then initiates a relationship with the Pinkerton agent that her husband hired to find her.) The hardened types thrown themselves into work that needs to be done. The more genteel types seem to tread water until other men enter the town. None approach the mine to work it.

Men enter the town in the form of a mining company seeking to make a deal with the women of the town to work their silver mine. Mary Agnes, the sister of the sheriff, sees through the men, their ploys, and the danger they represent. But she is outvoted by other women who want the mine worked, some income, and frankly, men in their lives again.

In the end, these men will prove worthless. The women band together to protect themselves, their children, and the town itself in what is a classic Western gunfight. Godless is a testament to the power of women, their strength, and their resilience. All of the women arm themselves and hole up in single building waiting for the inevitable attack by Griffith and his gang. Some women had the strength all along. Others discover it in the firefight. Those who survived might have felt emboldened, as though they could control their own destiny and take on whatever the West could throw their way by banding together.

In addition to the Griffith/Moore and La Belle stories were a couple other stories that threaded through them. The nearby town of Blackdom was home to many families of freed slaves, not just any slaves but fierce warriors. Blackdom is a town apart, intentionally separate from other communities and famous for their brutality in war. Many groups try to court them: the deputy who was interested in a daughter, the men from the mining company who wanted to make sure that the inhabitants of Blackdom do not side with the women of La Belle, and finally Griffith who wants them not to come to La Belle’s aid. In the end, Griffith does what he does with all towns that cross him—he razes it to the ground.

And then there is Alice Fletcher who lives outside of La Belle and is not welcome there. She lives on a ranch with her Native American mother-in-law and son. She shoots Roy one night when he approaches the house, allows him to heal from gunshot wounds (hers and others), and then hires him to tame wild horses that she has. Any romance is doomed—and the sheriff is trying to court Alice, though she is clearly less than enthused.

Godless is an engaging story with good acting and beautiful scenery. I wonder about some loose story lines. (What happened to that woman that the deputy was interested in? And what about the German artist and the Pinkerton agent that she tied up?) My favorite is Mary Agnes (though the German artist is a close second)—a straight talking strong woman who isn’t afraid to be herself. She cares for her brother’s children (the sheriff’s) and brings food to the scrawny deputy yet wears pants and gun belts and takes up with the former prostitute/schoolmarm.

Like Deadwood, I would love for more episodes. A coworker asked if they ended the series in a way that could lead to additional episodes. Well, maybe. But in reality, Roy rode off into the sunset (OK, not really, but he did go west to California) and it doesn’t look like he is coming back.

TV movie review: The Lincoln Highway

Having grown up near Highway 30, which nominally was the Lincoln Highway, I was excited to see a documentary about the highway, which spanned from New York City to San Francisco.

I was a bit disappointed.

The documentary focuses on Wyoming. (To be fair, the documentary is located in a section of the PBS website about Wyoming.)

The Lincoln Highway begins by discusses the history of the highway, why and how it came to be. Carl Fisher, a businessman in the early automotive industry and a founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, appears as the impetus behind the first national highway.

In 1912, Fisher proposed a Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway and sought to get the leaders of the auto industry to join him in creating the national road. All but Ford joined in the endeavor. (Ford thought that the government, not private industry, should be responsible for building roads for the increasingly popular cars. He was apparently a little bit ahead of his time.)

Up until this point, roads consisted of muddy tracks that led to markets and towns. Nothing really connected towns to towns or states to states. The Lincoln Highway, conceived in 1912, was dedicated on October 31, 1913.

Highway might be too generous a word. From the clips in the documentary, the highway looked like a collection of hard dirt roads, not much of an improvement for cars, which continued to get stuck when the roads turned muddy.

The route of the highway constantly evolved. Bits were bypassed with better or more direct routes. Businessmen in small towns in Wyoming battled to have the highway pass through their town. The highway meant the economic prosperity or the ruin of small towns. The documentary shows many small towns with abandoned buildings, long dead after the route of the highway changed.

Interestingly, in 1919 a military convoy traveled from one end of the Lincoln Highway to the other to test the roads, proving that roads like this one were essential for national defense. This test of a military convoy directly led to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, which granted federal matching funds. The Act marked, ironically, the beginning of the end of the Lincoln Highway.

One of those in the convoy was Eisenhower, who decades later as President of the US, would sign the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Thanks to this Act, federal highways, such as I-80, replaced the Lincoln Highway.

Now only bits and pieces of the Lincoln Highway remain. In 1992, a new Lincoln Highway Association formed (the original association ceased operation in 1927), and in 1913, historic car and Lincoln Highway enthusiasts drove what remains of the Lincoln Highway in celebration of its 100th anniversary.

In 1928, the Boy Scouts placed 3,000 markers along the route of the highway to help those trying to traverse it. Few of these concrete markers with colored arrows, the colored letter L, or medallions of President Lincoln’s profile exist. What a hoot it would be to discover one of those during back roads wanderings.

TV movie review: John Lewis – Get in the Way (2017)

Get in the Way. That is John Lewis’s advice. The famous civil rights activist encourages others to get involved in order to change things. His entire life has been about getting in the way.

This documentary covers his activism, his foray into politics, his family—looking at different points throughout his life.

His six brothers and three sisters all seem to recount the same stories about him. He wanted to be a preacher and he loved the chickens he cared for. He would preach to the chickens, even baptize them, and, to the family’s amazement, they had funerals for chickens that died.

His parents raised him to treat others fairly and to be kind. And to stay out of trouble—the direct opposite of John’s modern advice of getting in the way. He went off to seminary and started getting in the way.

In 1957, he left for American Baptist College in Nashville, the first time he was in an integrated environment. There he met Jim Lawson at a nonviolence workshop and started his journey in nonviolent protests. After participating in protests, he described feeling free, as though he had crossed over. For him, “nonviolence is love in action.”

In 1960, the Supreme Court banned segregation on transportation, but the law was not enforced. John participated in the famous Freedom Rides, attempts to ride buses from DC to New Orleans. The rides ended in disaster. At one depot, a bus was met by a mob of hundreds who attacked and beat the riders. In 2009, one of the attackers, Elwin Wilson, apologized to John, an apology that John accepted.

John was a powerful force in the early years of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and went on to chair it from 1963 to 1966. Nonviolence was at the heart of all SNCC and John did. The documentary quotes lines from the SNCC Constitution: “Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overcomes injustice.” .

John was also one of the Big Six who organized the 1963 March on Washington, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He coordinated efforts in 1964 to register voters in Mississippi. And in 1965 he joined—when SNCC wouldn’t—the march from Selma to Montgomery with King.

The documentary then shifts gears and focuses on Lewis’s role in politics. Active in community organizations, he was encouraged to run for office. John has continued to be active in fighting for civil rights and against discrimination in whatever form it takes. He has actively supported immigrants, LGBT rights, people with HIV/AIDS. A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

He does not seem to lose hope but realize that the fight is ongoing. Getting in the way never ends. He spoke up when the Voting Rights Act was gutted in 2013. He spoke up when voting hours were reduced and voter ID requirements passed across the country, pointing out that they were aimed at suppressing the vote. He spoke up against efforts to limit or repeal gun control.

The documentary covers the highlights of John Lewis’s commitment towards securing people their rights and fair treatment. For a more in-depth look at his role in the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, I highly recommend the recent movie Selma. For a look at his early life and the activism he took part at, check out the graphic novel trilogy March. Both will inspire you to get in the way.

Bless you, John Lewis, the conscience of the Congress. Thank you for the decades of service to your brothers and sisters of all persuasions. May you get in the way for many more decades.

TV movie review: The Ultimate Gift (2006)

I did things backwards. Maybe that’s not all that unusual for me.

The Ultimate Gift is the first in the trilogy of the Ultimate movies. I saw it second. I saw the third one—The Ultimate Legacy—first, at the 25th Heartland Film Festival. In some ways the first is similar to the third, in other ways different.

The premise is similar: young man from uber wealthy family needs to find himself, and a deceased relative developed steps that the young man has to take in order to access his inheritance. Along the way, the young man learns what life is truly about, learns values, and develops into the man he should be.

Many central characters in the third movie appear in the first (or vice versa). The young man, Jason, in the first movie (The Ultimate Gift) appears as a mentor of sorts in the third movie. His love interest in the first movie is his wife in the third movie. Circumstances in the first movie help explain why his young daughter in the third movie means the world to him and why he devotes such time to his wife and daughter.

Mr. Hamilton and Ms. Hastings (re)appear, a constant legal presence in this series of movies. Instead of a wealthy grandma (Raquel Welch), the benefactor who turns Jason’s life around is his wealthy grandpa (James Gartner). Brian Dennehy appears in both movies as Gus, a gruff Texan rancher who tries to get the young men to man up through manual labor.

In The Ultimate Gift, after the wealthy businessman Red Stevens dies, his family gathers not to mourn but to learn what parts of his assets they will receive. All go away disappointed. They are all beyond redemption, but Red placed his hope on being able to save his grandson Jason. He couldn’t do it in life—Jason clearly had cut him off and not responded to scores of letters that Red wrote him—but perhaps he could do it beyond the grave.

To receive his inheritance, Jason is forced to work through 12 steps, referred to as gifts: work, money, love, friends, laughter, giving, family, problems, learning, dreams, gratitude, a day. By going through each of those steps or receiving these gifts, he learns and grows. He discovers what really matters. And through them, he heals from the knowledge of how his father really died and forgives his deceased grandfather.

What becomes most important to him is six-year-old Emily, the daughter of a woman that he is falling in love with. But ultimately he has to learn that there is nothing he can do to save Emily from her leukemia. Instead, he directs his efforts, his connections, and his money toward creating an environment and services that could help others in a similar situation.

The Ultimate Gift is a great feel-good movie, one that the family might enjoy over any holiday. It is a bit divorced from the average person’s experience—how many of us have a wealthy relative that forces us to re-evaluate our values and the meaning of life?—but makes us look at values that make life meaningful.

TV special review: The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Year Without a Santa Claus is a stop motion animation that is a must-see during the holidays. Created a decade after Rudolph, the social norms are a bit different. Santa isn’t a patriarchal jerk and Mrs. Claus has some spunk and independence.

This holiday special stars Mickey Rooney as the voice of Santa and Shirley Booth as the voice of Mrs. Claus. Like the other special, this one is full of holiday songs.

I love this Christmas special because it includes appearances by the Miser Brothers. These sons of Mother Nature do not get along. The Heat Miser rules over the warm climes and Snow Miser over the cold ones.

Mrs. Claus needs them to get along: Heat Miser to allow snow in Southtown, USA and Snow Miser to allow some heat at the North Pole. Of course, they will never agree. As a result, Mrs. Claus was forced to pay a visit to Mother Nature herself.

All of this is so the elves Jingle and Jangle can convince the mayor of Southtown that they spoke the truth: they are elves on a fact-finding mission and the “dog” in the dog pound is really a sick baby reindeer.

Why were the three of them in Southtown, USA? Well, to find Christmas cheer to convince Santa that people would miss him if he cancelled Christmas.

In the end, children around the world send their well wishes and gifts to Santa. Touched by these gestures, Santa decides that he is well enough for another Christmas of gallivanting around the globe: Christmas is on!