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:
‘Great Debaters’ is ‘food for the soul,’ ‘Juno’ is ‘one of the best films’

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Jan. 17, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)

Christopher Hampton has done a superb job as screenwriter of Ian McEwan’s powerful novel Atonement. With so much of the novel being from the interior of the characters, it is amazing that Hampton was able to avoid using a narrator. Instead, he shows the external action in a understandable, cinematic way.

Atonement is the story of objective truth versus the subjective understanding of it. It is the story of sin and attempts at redemption. It is a story in which the plot is heavily based on words and mistakes with words. It is a mysterious love story that surprises and haunts.

It is a hot summer day in 1935 at a beautiful palace-like home in southeast England. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Roman) sees two major events between her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the son of a servant, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) that scare and anger her. The movie is able to show these events twice, so we clearly see how Briony views the actions. Later that evening, a visiting relative is raped by a mysterious figure whom Briony identifies with certainty as Robbie. So Robbie is separated from Cecilia and sent to jail for years. He is able to get out of jail roughly five years later by serving with the British Army on the Continent. He eventually finds himself trapped with tens of thousands at Dunkirk. As nurses in London, Cecilia and an older Briony (Romola Garai) do not see each other until Briony attempts a meeting to atone for her sin. At the very end of the film an old Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) tells a television interviewer how she finally achieved a sense of atonement.

Atonement is a beautiful film with sound, whether ambient or musical, that totally enhances the stunning visuals. The four- or five-minute ongoing shot at the beach of Dunkirk is breathtaking. It is incredible that that all-embracing shot was done all at one time. Director Joe Wright is to be congratulated for making a movie equal to or better than the book.

Keira Knightley has a relatively small part, but makes it come alive. James McAvoy surpasses his acting in the film The Last King of Scotland. He is terrific. Saoirse Ronan as the youngest Briony is able to pull off a very difficult part.

If you like the epic love story, you definitely will enjoy Atonement.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rates the film R – Restricted, because of sexuality and language. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates the film A-III – for adults.


Back in the late ‘60s Msgr. James Ribble started the Debate and Speech program at Mater Cleri Seminary, which was the diocese’s high school seminary at Colbert. In the early ’70s I was a debate coach at Mater Cleri, and one year, a debate team from Mater Cleri represented Washington State at the High School Nationals.

So I am a pretty biased observer as I watched Denzel Washington’s new film about a small black college’s debate team who in the film gets a chance to take on Harvard in 1935. I loved The Great Debaters. Sure, it is melodramatic, a familiar Rocky-type genre, and it pushes every emotional button known to humans. But it is a wonderful remarkable film that should be seen by the widest possible audience.

Melvin B. Tolson (Washington) is the debate coach at Wiley College in Jim Crow-segregated Texas in 1935. He also has another secret life: as a radical labor organizer. Tolson’s debate team is made up of the serious Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams); a smart ladies’ man named Henry Lowe (Nate Parker); a very bright 14-year-old James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker); and the beautiful and rare female debater Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett). Tolson challenges and molds them into a team that begins to win one round of debate after another among the black schools against whom they are able to compete.

Along the way the team finds itself lost on a highway and in the midst of a lynching that endangers their lives. As Tolson runs out of teams his Wiley team can debate, he sends several letters to Harvard, asking for an invitation. There are many complications along the way, but the climax of the film is Wiley’s first chance to debate a top white elite school. Bring a few Kleenex tissues along for this rousing section of the film.

Besides acting in the film, Denzel Washington is the director. Yes, historically, Wiley never debated Harvard. It was USC. Yes, debaters must be ready to debate both sides. The film always presents Wiley debating the most liberal and tolerant side of the question. But for me, in an autumn of often well-acted movies that are filled with violence and blood, The Great Debaters shows the way for us to remember that film can fill us with hope, teach us some history, and show us something about simple love of neighbor. The Great Debaters is food for the soul.

The film is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for adult situations and sexual overtones. It is rated A-III – for adults – by the USCCB Office for Film and Broadcasting.


Screenwriter Diablo Cody has taken a very serious and life-changing event in the life of 16-year-old teen and made a very funny and charming story that touches the heart. The movie Juno stands as one of the best films of the year because of its wonderful script. New actress Ellen Page delivers a performance that knocks your socks off.

Juno (Page) is a bright and precocious teen in the greater St. Cloud area of Minnesota who early on in the film finds she is pregnant. She tells her Dad (J.K. Simmons) and Step-Mom (Allison Janney) right away of the crisis in her life. She makes it clear she intends to have the baby and give it up for adoption to a husband and wife who do not have children.

Her Dad goes with her to meet the couple she has chosen from an ad in the local PennySaver. The couple are upscale and played very well by a nervous Jennifer Garner as Vanessa and Jason Bateman as her self-centered husband, Mark.

All this sounds very serious, but it is laugh-out-loud funny, mainly because of the incredible script.

So we go through the seasons of autumn through spring as Juno prepares for the birth of her child. During that time we begin to realize that she does care for her very geeky boyfriend Bleeker (Michael Cera). We begin to understand more about Vanessa and Mark as Juno has some contact with them. But I would say there are lots of surprises on the way to the birth of the child.

All the small roles in Juno are terrific. It is great to see a teen film where the parents are thoughtful, human and caring persons and not baboons. Allison Janney, from The West Wing, shows that a stepmother really can be wise and loving toward her stepdaughter. J.K Simmons, seen in various incarnations of Law and Order, is a father who walks with his daughter through some of the most difficult moments of life, offering guidance and support. Michael Cera as Juno’s school friend and natural father of her child is strange, unique, and kind. Jason Bateman shows he is more than a TV situation comedy mainstay. Jennifer Garner plays the worried Vanessa perfectly.

Director Jason Reitman has just the right touch to make Juno thoroughly entertaining but much deeper than the typical romantic comedy confection. Juno is a movie to remember.

The MPAA rates Juno PG-13, for sexual situations and language. The USCCB Office for Film and Broadcasting rates Juno A-III – for adults.

Short Takes: Movies

• Two years ago a parishioner at Assumption Parish in Walla Walla said I had to read the novel The Kite Runner. I did. And now I have seen the film adaptation of Khaleid Hosseinni’s 2003 novel about Afghanistan before and after the Soviet invasion, on up through the Taliban period.

To me, the film is better. It lessens the violence of the book and sticks with the basics of the main plot. The two boys who play Amir (Zekiria Ebra-himi) and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mah-moodzada) are absolutely terrific.

Hassan’s heart-breaking story is unforgettable. The adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla) underplays his role that works well as, from San Francisco back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, he seeks redemption.

The kite flying scenes in Kabul are beautifully portrayed with majesty and triumph. The tragic scene of Hassan’s nobility and sacrifice is perfectly shown.

The Kite Runner is a morality play that director Marc Forster richly details. Yes, it is based on a novel, but the movie stands on its own. You need not be familiar with the original book to appreciate this film.

The Kite Runner is one of the best movies of the year.

The Kite Runner is rated PG-13 by the MPAA – Parents Strongly Cautioned. There is strong thematic material, including the sexual assault of a child, violence, and strong language. The USCCB Office for Film and Broadcasting rates the film A-III – for adults

• Mike Nichols directed and Aaron Sorkin from The West Wing wrote the screenplay for the comic-historic film Charlie Wilson’s War.

Tom Hanks stars as Congressman Charlie Wilson of Texas who, upon seeing Dan Rather reporting from Afghanistan as the Soviets take over, decides to begin appropriating secret funds through the CIA to help the Afghan tribal forces. The result is the fascinating story of the crippling of Russia’s efforts in the Cold War and, at the same time, sadly laying the groundwork for 9/11.

Tom Hanks seems miscast in the film. His “everyman” persona does not transfer well to Charlie Wilson, a womanizing abuser of alcohol and drugs. I don’t think Hanks pulls the character off. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the CIA operative with whom Wilson deals. Hoffman has the acting skills to play the main character, but he just isn’t of the same star quality as Hanks. By the way, some of Hoffman’s speeches as the CIA agent are absolutely terrific.

Julia Roberts has a small part as Houston socialite who pressures Wilson to funnel weapons to the Afghan mujahideen. Her fans will be disappointed.

Charlie Wilson’s War is rated R – Restricted, by the MPAA, because of strong language, drug use, and some sexual content. The USCCB’s Office for Film and Broadcasting rates Charlie Wilson’s War A-III – 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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