Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch:
‘White Cascade’ tells of the courage of ordinary people; movie choices offer youthful idealism, personal heroism

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Nov. 15, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Book Review

Around 45 years ago, Father Joe Weitensteiner led a group of seminarians from the old St. Thomas Seminary up Stevens Pass to the location of the Great Northern avalanche, which took place in February of 1910. I don’t know walking around the area today, if you will find remains of the train that was swept down the mountain. But when we were there you could see the remains of toilets and metal pieces that were part of the train. Nearby was the long tunnel that the train spent some of its time within until it was moved out onto a side track for what were thought to be safety reasons.

Maryland author Gary Krist has written an engrossing account of that fateful event in his book The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche.

The White Cascade goes beyond the actual catastrophe to tell us the stories of railroad baron James Hill; the railroad’s staff, led by its supreme snow fighter, James H. O’Neil; the immigrants from around the world working on construction and maintenance of the line; and the passengers from Spokane and the Inland Empire on their way to Seattle and points south.

Using historical records, Krist crafts a thriller of a story. We identify with the riders on the train Number 25 to Seattle. We have their letters, some written from the disaster site during the days the passengers were waiting for rescue before the main avalanche descended. It is this research that puts flesh and blood on the some 96 or more people who died at the Wellington Railroad town. This figure includes unidentified laborers trying to dig the train out of the snow and individuals who died in the earlier beanery slide.

The White Cascade is a fascinating story of courage, determination, fear, and panic of ordinary people like ourselves as they face Nature at its most devastating. These people deserve to be remembered. Gary Krist magnificently makes sure we do not forget them.

The White Cascade is published in hardcover by Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2007, at $26.

Movie Review

The fall season of movies, looking toward end of the year film awards, has been disappointing so far. We’ve had Jodie Foster’s film The Brave One with its total lack of a moral center that argues vengeance and murder are good. Eastern Promises has an intriguing thriller of a story with wonderful acting, but the bloody violence is unwatchable. The Kingdom continues the violence in a traditional action-picture way and adds pretty pedestrian acting.

In mid-October the new George Clooney film Michael Clayton arrived. It is about a troubled lawyer in New York City who cleans up mistakes and messes for a large firm. Clooney is terrific in the title role as a man who carries the weight of the world. He struggles to keep everyone else happy as he finds himself in the middle of evil deeds done by an agricultural corporation his firm is defending.

With its total lack of trust in the institutions of large corporations or government, Michael Clayton has the feel of a 1970s movie. Yet it doesn’t have the complete cynicism or darkness of that time. Step by step, the overwhelmed hero can push through the nightmare.

Tom Wilkinson plays a top litigator of the New York firm of Kenner, Bach and Ledeen, who has been working for years defending a multinational conglomerate called U/North. He suddenly finds a key piece of evidence that directly ties known malfeasance involving death and illness of ordinary people to the highest levels of the company. But at the same time he seems to be suffering from a mental breakdown that will not allow the truth to be heard.

As he tries to be the “fixer” of what his company sees as a complicated mess, Michel Clayton slowly comes to believe that the Wilkinson character is correct in his beliefs that corruption is spreading its tentacles out from U/North to the highest echelons of his own firm.

The panicky chief counsel for U/North (Tilda Swinton) unleashes a series of events that seem to endanger Michael and the people he holds dear.

Clooney, Wilkinson, and Swinton are picture perfect in their superb acting. Director/ writer Tony Gilroy creates a menacing world filled with isolation and terror without using the gory violence of other films this season.

The expansive landscapes that are said to be suburbs of New York City look too broad and unpopulated. The credits tell us that what is presented as New York State was filmed in Iowa. Early on a scene from the streets of New York City has spring blossoms while the rest of the film takes place in winter, sometimes with snow. The problem is that the story is only four days long.

And yet Michael Clayton is well deserving of nominations and awards. Let us hope more such films come down the pike this fall and winter.

Michael Clayton is rated R because of language by the Motion Picture Association of America. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates the film A-III – for adults.

New Movies: Short Takes

Tommy Lee Jones is the reason to see the searing Iraq war film In the Valley of Elah. Jones is one of our finest actors and he convincingly gives gravitas to Hank Deerfield, a retired Army sergeant seeking his missing son at Fort Rudd in New Mexico. Eventually, he finds that his son Mike has been murdered. With the help of a local town detective, played by Charlize Theron, Deerfield seeks those who have brutally killed his son, who had just recently arrived home from a tour of duty in Iraq.

Paul Haggis has written and directed a thought-provoking movie. But I came out at the end finding it hard to believe that the killers really committed the crime in such an incredibly horrible manner. The very talented Susan Sarandon is way underused in this film.

In the Valley of Elah is rated R by the MPAA and A-III – for adults – by the USCCB Office for Film and Broadcasting.


Rendition is the heavy-handed story of an Egyptian national with a Green Card, living in Chicago, who is taken off a flight from Capetown that lands in Washington D.C. He is then sent to an unnamed Arab country to be tortured for information about a possible connection to terrorists.

Reese Witherspoon plays his pregnant wife who fights with all her might to find out what has happened to her husband. But her part is very small.

Meryl Streep stands out as the personification of evil, playing the CIA administrator who sends the Green Card Egyptian overseas for forced interrogation. Jake Gyllenhaal has little to do as the CIA agent present for the various forms of torture. Peter Sarsgaard is terrific as the administrative assistant of a U.S. Senator.

Sadly, Rendition is less than satisfying.

Rendition is rated R and A-III – for adults.


Into the Wild is the expansive, lyrical film of Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book of the same name, based on the true story of Christopher McCandless’s journey to Alaska. It is directed in almost epic fashion by Sean Penn. It took roughly 10 years for Penn to get the rights to make the film from the McCandless’s family.

Emile Hirsch is on screen almost the entire film, playing Christopher, who gives away his college fund to the charity Oxfam and hits the road across the United States. Hirsch is excellent at the young man in his early 20s.

Christopher stops all contact with his parents and sister for the two years of the journey. The journey is heavily about the vast expanse of nature of our country and the people Christopher meets who become family to him. Vince Vaughn is memorable as a South Dakota wheat rancher who teaches Chris to run combine. Catherine Keener plays a ’60s-type traveler on the road with her beloved. Hal Holbrook is a feisty widower who climbs mountains with Chris and becomes like a grandfather.

By reading Tolstoy, Chris realizes that in the end, life demands a sense of relationship with others in order to be meaningful. Into the Wild is a film that will play over and over again in your mind.

Into the Wild is rated R and A-III – for adults.


Gone Baby Gone is based on a Dennis Lehane novel and is superbly directed by Ben Affleck.

Ben’s real-life brother Casey Affleck gives an award-winning performance as the Boston private detective Patrick Kenzie. With the help of his girlfriend and detective partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) he takes on a case involving the disappearance of a 4-year-old girl. The plot is layered and surprising until its final moral-dilemma ending.

If you liked Lehane’s Mystic River, then this a film for you. Viewers need to be warned: The language is very rough.

Besides incredible acting by Casey Affleck, the mother of the missing girl, played by Amy Ryan, is certain to bring a best-supporting-actress nomination.

The darkness of some human choices is combined with moral decisions that are raw and unforgettable.

The film is rated R and L – limited; films with problematic content that many adults would find troubling.


Ron Hansen’s novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has been brought to the screen with loving care by director Andrew Dominik (“‘Jesse James’ novelist is professor, campus minister, and deacon,” IR 10/4/07). Jesse James is played with violence and tenderness by Brad Pitt. Robert Ford is played wonderfully by Casey Affleck. You can see the depth of his acting ability by comparing this role with the detective in Gone Baby Gone. The contrast of the roles shows Casey Affleck’s greatness as an actor.

The Assassination of Jesse James is over two hours in length. It is purposely slow and elegiac, and yet it is filled with tension.

The film is rated R and A-III – for adults.

(Father Caswell is Ecumenical Relations Officer and archivist for the Diocese of Spokane, and a frequent contributor to this publication.)

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