Posts Tagged ‘Martin Sheen’

Two Cathedrals

The West Wing – Season 2, Ep. 22, “Two Cathedrals”

Original Air Date: May 16, 2001

Today, the day after the anniversary of the JFK assassination, it seems fated that the concluding chapter of my “Five Hours” series should cover “Two Cathedrals,” an episode which deals with a death in the White House family and the political ramifications of a potential change at the top of the Executive Branch. The difference is that nobody killed the President this time, although his spirit has been put to the test, if not broken. NBC’s “The West Wing” was an award-winner for much of its run, and always deservedly so, but it was particularly good in Season 2. “Two Cathedrals,” the season finale, was a culmination of that year’s hard work from cast and writing staff alike, and represents “The West Wing” at peak efficiency.

President Josiah Edward “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) begins “Two Cathedrals” in the midst of a scandal, having covered up the fact that he’s been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Even fellow Democrats are advising him not to seek a second term. Bartlet has also been rocked by a recent personal tragedy. His personal secretary and surrogate big sister, Dolores Landingham (Kathryn Joosten) had recently bought her very first car. At 18th and Potomac, a drunk driver struck Mrs. Landingham’s vehicle, killing her. News of this incident has Bartlet in a funk, reflecting back on how the two first met when Jed was a student at a school with a rather stern headmaster: his father (frequent “The West Wing” writer & producer/MSNBC news anchor Lawrence O’Donnell). Kudos to the casting department: Actress Kirsten Nelson instantly makes you believe you’re looking at a thirty-something Mrs. Landingham.

What these flashbacks are a reminder of is just how important a figure Mrs. Landingham was in the life of the President. Even in his youth, whenever he was unsure of himself, there she was to deliver a swift kick in the pants to help keep him motivated. In this particular case, she’s using the agenda of equal pay for female staffers at the school as an excuse to get Jed to stand up to his father. That the ensuing conversation never allows an opportunity for Jed to bring up the issue isn’t important; that he’d made up his mind to actually try to talk to the man is.

“Two Cathedrals” is named so for the two buildings in which Bartlet, at different points in his life, summed up the strength to talk to a father figure, only to have his words fall on deaf ears. The second such scene takes place in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where Mrs. Landingham’s funeral is held. After the service is over, President Bartlet asks that the doors to the church be sealed so that he might have a private conversation with God. Angry, Bartlet really lets Him have it. A learned individual, he slips into Latin once he crosses over the altar. After making his point, he informs God that He’ll have to rely on Vice President Hoynes, because Bartlet intends not to run for re-election.

It might have ended there but, in the midst of an out-of-season tropical storm, Bartlet again faces a crisis of conscience. Talking to himself (though, in his mind, talking to Mrs. Landingham), Bartlet argues a point/counterpoint on whether or not he should seek re-election. Similarly to her younger self, the vision of Mrs. Landingham suggests that his decision on whether or not to run for a second term should not be based upon how hard he thinks it will be. Contrary to his posture throughout the episode, as though a weight has been lifted from his shoulders, President Bartlet now stands up straight and walks with confidence towards the awaiting press room to make his official statement. In a nod to the earlier flashbacks, the President stands tall in front of the podium, stuffs his hands in his pockets and smiles, indicating that his mind is made up. That the President’s final decision is not definitively stated at the end of the episode is not a problem. The implication is that he will run for re-election.

Martin Sheen has long been one of my favorite actors, and his involvement was in large part the main factor which drew me into watching “The West Wing” during its original run from 1999 to 2006. With “Two Cathedrals,” and in Bartlet’s conversation with God in particular, Sheen delivers one of the best performances of his career. Showrunner Aaron Sorkin (who bowed out after Season Four) was also up to the task as this episode’s writer, proving just why he continues to be highly sought after by television and film studios alike. I’m also very pleased with the choice of music during the episode’s final scene. Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” is the title song of one of the top five best albums of the 1980’s. The song itself may specifically be about the Falklands War in 1982 between the United Kingdom and Argentina, but this episode makes great use of its “unity in the face of adversity” message.

This great hour of television has so much going for it that one would do well to tune in. One would also do well to come in already familiar with everything that’s going on, but it wouldn’t be a total crime for this to be your introduction to the show if it makes you interested in seeing all that came before and after. If you decide not to watch because politics are a turn-off, I can respect that (politics being one of my two least favorite subjects).  But if you skip out on this show because you think you can’t be entertained or think it a waste of your time, then, as Mrs. Landingham would say: “I don’t even want to know you.”

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Apocalypse Now (1979)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Larry Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, Scott Glenn

It was madness that sent thousands upon thousands of young American men halfway around the world to “make the world safe from Communism.” It was the Draft which ensured that many who never would have entertained the possibility of military service would never come home from this war. Back home, it was lies and deceit coupled with the horror stories reported on the news that inspired anti-war protests. Lyndon Baines Johnson could have been regarded as one of the greatest U.S. Presidents of all time for certain key accomplishments, but the tragic mistake that was the Vietnam War will forever tarnish his legacy. Those who survived and returned home would often wind up so emotionally scarred that the madness only deepens as time goes on. Though their tour may have ended, Vietnam never truly left them.

Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) faces quite a conundrum. When he is in Vietnam, there is only the mission, otherwise he can’t wait to get out. But on the occasions when he is returned home, all he can think about is getting back. So, while in Saigon with nothing to do, the special ops soldier drinks himself half to death until someone hands him official papers telling him which way to jump. This time, he’s been summoned to his most unusual mission yet, a top secret assignment which will have him traversing into Cambodia, where he is to locate and “terminate” the rogue Special Forces Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who is said to have gone insane and has been carrying out his own “missions” without any authorization from the U.S. Military. Willard has been sent on missions where he’s had to kill specific people before, just never an American. Never an officer, and certainly not one who at one point was being considered for promotion to the rank of General. Willard hitches a ride on board a Navy Patrol Boat, along with its crew of four. On several occasions, they run into trouble, once inadvertently murdering the innocent passengers of a civilian boat while checking it for hidden weapons. Each successive obstacle causes further paranoia among the crew, with some resorting to hallucinogenic alternatives to the reality of their situation. Willard himself, although bothered by these events, remains focused on his mission. There are casualties among the crew, but eventually Willard reaches his destination, finding the previous soldier sent to do the same mission (Scott Glenn) and an American civilian photo-journalist (Dennis Hopper), both seemingly worshipping the Colonel, and finally Kurtz himself.

Despite changing the location of the story, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella “Heart of Darkness,” from the African Congo to the jungles of Vietnam, the question raised by the source material of what defines civilized behavior is every bit as well-represented. “Apocalypse Now” features one of my favorite opening scenes of any movie. As the song “The End” by The Doors plays on the soundtrack, we know even without considering the Vietnam setting that this is a story which is not destined to end well for anyone. Terrific use of the rotating blades of the ceiling fan in Willard’s room in mimicking those of the helicopters flying outside. I also love the way Martin Sheen instantly lets us in on his character’s state of mind. Willard may be good at what he does, but he’s also prone to flying off the handle, which leads me to suspect that it was no accident that he was picked to go after Kurtz. I find myself in complete agreement with the actor in that my two favorite film roles of Sheen’s are this one and 1973’s “Badlands.” Laurence Fishburne, then 14, lied about how old he was in order to win the role of the 17-year old “Clean.” By the time production was finished, Fishburne had reached his character’s designated age. Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper are all masters of their trade. Bizzare as it may sound, Col. Kurtz sits somewhere around fourth or fifth in my top five of Brando’s film roles, but he’s still an absolute joy to watch… even when the things Kurtz has to say don’t really make much sense. Dennis Hopper has always been a scenery-chewer, owing a lot to his ability to play characters of questionable sanity. He turned his manic meter up to 11 for this one, and I love that about him.

The behind-the-scenes account of “Apocalypse Now” is almost as intriguing as the film itself. I’ve yet to see the documentary “Hearts of Darkness” for myself, though what I have heard really makes me want to check it out. Tensions between Brando and Hopper were such that Brando refused to be on set as the same time as his co-star. Martin Sheen nearly died for this movie, suffering a heart attack after the first 12 months of the film’s arduous production. The story also goes that, for the opening scene which I love so very much, Sheen had just celebrated a birthday and did not have to act like a man who’d had one too many drinks. “Apocalypse Now” wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for director Francis Ford Coppola, either. In addition to playing referee between an overweight Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper, Coppola also had a typhoon to deal with, unreliable Filipino extras,  nervous breakdowns, rising production costs and having to replace his original lead actor, Harvey Keitel, after just the first two weeks. That he ended up creating one of if not THE greatest war movie of all-time is a miraculous sign of just how much blood, sweat and tears went into piecing this masterpiece together.

All of that being said, some directors just don’t seem to know when to leave well enough alone. Of all those who release special extended director’s cut editions, James Cameron easily has the best track record. Francis Ford Coppola has thankfully never attempted to “improve” his “Godfather” movies, but 2001’s “Apocalypse Now Redux” was a bitter disappointment, and a clearly inferior film to the more familiar 1979 cut. I have no problem criticizing this version with extreme prejudice! Nearly an hour’s worth of footage was added, and none of it makes anything resembling a welcome contribution. Especially puzzling is the decision to reinstate the French rubber plantation scene. This scene does so much to slow down the pacing of the movie that it would be like if Peter Jackson had integrated the much-talked about “Tom Bombadil” scene from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” into 2001’s “The Fellowship of the Ring.” The crew can get where they’re headed just fine without having to make that elongated pit stop. The first time I saw “Apocalypse Now,” it was on a fullscreen VHS copy from my local video store. It made such an impression on me that I had not returned the tape before running out to purchase my own copy, this time in widescreen as it is meant to be viewed. If you haven’t seen “Apocalypse Now” and have been unsure as to which version is the best one to watch, I’m telling you now that the original version is the only one your eyes should ever witness. To do otherwise would be madness.