Thursday, October 25, 2012

‘Dream Team’ scores big on inspiration

“The Other Dream Team” (2012). Featured Interviews: Arvydas Sabonis, Šarūnas Marčiulionis, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Jonas Valanciunas, Vytautas Landsbergis, Jim Lampley, Alexander Wolff, David Remnick, Bill Walton, David Stern, Chris Mullin, Donnie Nelson, Mickey Hart, Greg Speirs. Director: Marius A. Markevicius. Writers: Jon Weinbach and Marius A. Markevicius.

Movies with sports themes are often some of the corniest, most predictable and yet also most inspiring films that find their way into release. Their outcomes seldom come as any surprise, but we watch them all the way through, if for no other reason than the ample good feelings they fill us with. Those that recognize the efforts of underdogs, like “Hoosiers” (1986), “Cool Runnings” (1993), “Breaking Away” (1979) and “Secretariat” (2010), easily get our attention. But those that celebrate unlikely champions competing under extraordinary extenuating circumstances, such as “Glory Road” (2006), “The Express” (2008), “A League of Their Own” (1992), “Miracle” (2004) and “The Blind Side” (2009), captivate us. Such is the case with the recently released documentary, “The Other Dream Team.”

The world was a rapidly changing place in 1992. The Cold War had recently ended, the Berlin Wall had just fallen and the U.S.S.R. was in the process of breaking up. Several once-occupied nations, such as the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, had declared their independence and emerged from Soviet domination. Indeed, the global geopolitical stage was shifting in ways no one would have thought conceivable just a few years before.

The implications of these changes were seen in many aspects of life. One of the most visible areas was in the world of sports. This became most apparent at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, where a number of new nations competed for the first time or after protracted absences. Among the new entrants were the aforementioned Baltic states, countries that, although small in size, were formidable as competitors. This was particularly true for Lithuania in the sport of basketball.

Lithuanians have long loved basketball, and the tiny nation had been a powerhouse in the sport in European tournaments as far back as the 1930s. However, when Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944 and vanished as a sovereign state, so did much of the world’s awareness of the country, its culture and its traditions, including in the world of sport. What’s more, because of this loss of independence, Lithuanian athletes were prohibited from competing internationally under their own flag; they now had to do so under the Soviet banner.

Lithuanians contributed significantly to Soviet sports accomplishments in the five decades that they competed for the U.S.S.R. This was perhaps most obvious in the basketball tournament at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, when the Soviets beat the heavily favored U.S. team on their way to winning the Gold Medal, and they did so by fielding a team on which four of the five starters were Lithuanians. However, despite such success, Lithuanian competitors resented having to represent themselves as “Soviets” rather than as “Lithuanians.” They grew especially irate when erroneously referred to as “Russians,” particularly since only two members of the 1988 medal-winning team actually fit that cultural label.

When Lithuania gained its autonomy, its athletes were anxious to compete under their own flag at the Barcelona Olympics. They wanted to show the world what they could do. They were also anxious to settle scores with representatives of their former occupiers on a leveled playing field. But getting to the Olympics took money, something the bankrupt fledgling state seriously lacked. Raising funds to pursue this goal thus became a priority.

After achieving only meager results in its initial fundraising efforts, the team got a big boost from a very unlikely source, the American rock band, the Grateful Dead. The band members were big fans of both basketball and underdogs, so when they heard about the team’s struggles, they wrote a huge check to support its efforts. They also supplied the players with tie-dyed tee shirts featuring the band’s infamous skeleton logo and printed in the colors of the Lithuanian flag. Grateful for the Dead’s support, the team enthusiastically embraced the band’s assistance, ubiquitously sporting their donated gear both before and during the Olympics.

As colorful as the Lithuanians’ odyssey had been, however, the overarching story of the Barcelona tournament was the U.S. team. The 1992 Olympics marked the first time that professional players were allowed to compete, and so the Americans assembled a team featuring such NBA all-stars as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and David Robinson, a lineup that became better known as “the Dream Team.” It was a team that lived up to every bit of its billing, too, handily defeating all of its opponents (including the Lithuanians in a semifinal game) on its way to nabbing the Gold Medal.

But the Lithuanians were not to be denied their moment of glory. Despite their loss to the Americans (which honestly came as no surprise), the Lithuanians, as one of the tournament’s final four teams, qualified to compete in the Bronze Medal game against the Unified Team, a squad made up of players from the remaining Soviet republics at the time. The Lithuanians would thus get an opportunity to redeem themselves against representatives of their nation’s former occupiers, an event whose ramifications clearly went beyond just sports.

The story of the Lithuanian basketball team was one of more than just its proficiency on the court. It was a tale of personal and national pride, the significance of which becomes apparent in the film’s back story about life in Lithuania under 50 years of Soviet domination. The picture presents detailed documentation of everyday life, as well as the rigidly regimented routines imposed on Lithuanian members of the Soviet national team, during that period. It’s easy to see how such pervasive oppression took its toll – and how anxious Lithuanians, from all walks of life, were to pursue the dream of freedom when the opportunity finally presented itself.

Viewers are thus treated to a moving tale of courage, character, justice and inspiration, as well as the inherent power of beliefs. We witness the resolve of a team – and a nation – that knows what each is truly capable of manifesting for itself, a hallmark of conscious creation expertise. The film also documents the lasting legacy of such valor on contemporary Lithuanians, as told through the experience of Jonas Valanciunas, an aspiring basketball phenomenon and NBA prospect born in 1992 who grew up with the legend of his national team’s Olympic success.

“The Other Dream Team” is an engaging documentary from start to finish, conveying its material with heartfelt emotion and uplifting vision in both its political and sports-related narratives. It successfully avoids the temptation of getting too technical, presenting clear, concise explanations without resorting to superficiality or empty platitudes. It incorporates a wealth of archival footage and a wide variety of recent interviews, including team members Arvydas Sabonis, Šarūnas Marčiulionis and Rimas Kurtinaitis, as well as sports journalists Jim Lampley and Alexander Wolff, basketball analyst Bill Walton, Dream Team member Chris Mullin, NBA commissioner David Stern, former Lithuanian head of state Vytautas Landsbergis, Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, and tee shirt designer Greg Speirs.

On the surface, a documentary about a basketball team from a little-known European nation might not sound like an especially noteworthy topic for a feature-length movie, but “The Other Dream Team” defies such thinking. It shows us how one need not be famous to be a superstar, that greatness is something we’re each capable of achieving – as long as we believe we can.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Truth and deceit take center stage in ‘Argo’

“Argo” (2012). Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishé, Rory Cochrane, Chris Messina, Kyle Chandler, Željko Ivanek, Bob Gunton, Page Leong, Sheila Vand. Director: Ben Affleck. Screenplay: Chris Terrio. Source Materials: “The Great Escape: How the CIA Used a Fake Science Fiction Film To Sneak Six Americans Out of Revolutionary Iran,” by Joshuah Bearman, Wired magazine, and The Master of Disguise, by Antonio J. Mendez.

Truth can be an elusive commodity, especially when intentionally tainted with deceit. It can be even more nebulous when the underlying intentions are being directed toward the fulfillment of a noble cause. Navigating the minefield of truth and deception is one of the tasks put to the characters in – and the audiences of – one of this year’s most anticipated new releases, director Ben Affleck’s historical thriller, “Argo.”

In November 1979, militants protesting the ongoing American presence in Iran seized the U.S, embassy in Tehran, an act in support of their country’s recent Islamic Revolution and in retribution for various grievances with their Western foe, some of which had been smoldering for decades. The protestors took 66 Americans hostage, 52 of whom would end up being held captive for 444 days. Their actions thus sparked a protracted, volatile diplomatic exchange between the two countries, one whose ramifications were wide-ranging (and whose impact has been felt ever since).

While the world’s attention was focused on events at the embassy, however, another incident involving Americans was quietly playing out in the shadows of Tehran. And, although this second crisis was smaller in scale, it nevertheless carried implications potentially as significant as those unfolding at the captured diplomatic compound.

At the time the embassy was overrun, six Americans managed to elude the protestors by escaping through a back entrance. They eventually made their way to the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), who agreed to take them in while plans for their escape from Iran were developed. But, after weeks in hiding, and with growing concerns about the Americans’ continued safety (not to mention that of their Canadian hosts), Taylor contacted U.S. government officials for help.

Intelligence officials in the U.S. debated a number of options, all of which proved unworkable. It became apparent that getting the six Americans out of Iran would take a miracle, a rescue plan that would clearly involve thinking outside of the box. That’s where CIA “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) came into play. As a specialist proficient in hatching deceptive schemes to extricate individuals from dangerous situations, Mendez was charged with developing a convincing ruse for safely and clandestinely escorting the Americans out of Iran. His plan was, to say the least, unique.

Mendez proposed that he visit Iran posing as a producer from a Canadian film production company that was scouting locations for a science fiction movie, titled “Argo,” to be shot in Tehran and its surroundings. While in country, he would meet with the Americans, provide them with fabricated Canadian identities and professional dossiers (as members of a fictitious film production crew), and then quietly usher them out of Iran on a flight bound for Zürich, Switzerland.

But to make the plan work, it had to appear credible in case anyone decided to investigate the cover story. And so, in advance of his trip to Iran, Mendez worked with Hollywood professionals to set up a phony production company for the bogus film and to generate publicity for it. Mendez tapped one of his longtime associates, Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to head up the newly created Studio Six Productions, giving the project an air of seeming legitimacy. With the dummy company in place (and the Hollywood press buying every word of its trumped-up promotion), and with the official (but secret) blessings of both the U.S. and Canadian governments, the stage was set for Mendez to embark on his journey, one that was fraught with twists, turns and perils right up until the time of the Americans’ flight to freedom.

Questions of truth and deceit, to a great degree, rest on the issue of believability, the driving force in conscious creation, and those considerations certainly take center stage in “Argo” in numerous ways. For instance, those behind the rescue plan – most notably Mendez, Siegel, Chambers and Mendez’s boss (Bryan Cranston) – understand what’s at stake and what’s needed to carry it out successfully. And even though an intentional deception may be involved, it’s an integral part of the plan, one necessary to formulate the beliefs required for manifesting the trapped Americans’ safe return.

Indeed, the very workability of the plan depends on the Iranians believing as truth the deceit being put forth by Mendez and company. For that to happen, the participants in the deception need to accept its validity just as fervently as those being fooled. The trapped American embassy workers ultimately must follow Mendez’s lead in thoroughly buying into their contrived identities as Canadian nationals employed by a film production company. To do less would place them in jeopardy, especially in light of the intense scrutiny that Westerners leaving the country were subjected to by Iranian security officials.

The inherent difficulty in this should be obvious, especially for those who genuinely embrace the role of integrity in belief formation and reality creation. This becomes most apparent in the doubts expressed by Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), one of the six Mendez is charged with rescuing. He’s initially convinced he won’t be able to pull it off. But Stafford’s attitude quickly changes when Mendez reminds him that his life depends on being able to carry out the deception. When faced with the virtual certainty of execution if caught and captured by the Iranians, Stafford goes along with the plan, the painful “truth” of the inevitable alternative outweighing whatever belief compromises he must make in carrying out the ruse. When the continued viability of one’s existence is threatened, it can become remarkably easy to adjust one’s beliefs to accommodate the prevailing circumstances.

Of course, truth and deceit figure into this film in ways other than just its narrative. They play a significant role in the picture’s historical accuracy, and it’s on this point where “Argo” lets its viewers down. This film brings new meaning to the phrase “based on a true story,” mainly because of its glaring deviations from how events were said to have unfolded. Several events are presented out of historical sequence, Siegel’s character is a fictitious composite and the film’s concluding segment, when viewed in light of the Wired magazine article upon which the screenplay is based, is a complete fabrication.

While I understand that “Argo” is meant to be entertainment and not a documentary, I nevertheless object to the filmmakers taking such license with the facts. As one who spent years studying and working in the fields of journalism and history, it’s troubling that the picture’s creators felt the need to alter the historical account to such a degree just to sell movie tickets. To be fair, this film does give due credit to the previously unrecognized American heroes who participated in this endeavor. That’s important because, for years after the rescue, CIA involvement in the affair was classified, and all of the accolades went to the brave Canadians who sheltered the trapped Americans (as was widely depicted in press reports at the time and in a 1981 made-for-Canadian-TV movie, “Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper.”) However, such overdue recognition, in my opinion, has been unduly tarnished by the embellished treatment given to the American heroes’ story.

So what’s the bottom line for this film? In my view, it depends on what you hope to get out of it. If you’re looking for an entertaining thriller, go see it; you won’t be disappointed by its taut level of suspense and its well-crafted action sequences. The performances by its ensemble cast are stellar, too, especially those of Arkin, who turns in some of his best work as the wise-cracking producer, and Affleck, who successfully resists his usual temptation to mug for the camera and gives one of the most mature portrayals of his career.

However, if, like me, you’re a stickler for authenticity, you’ll likely come away from this film disappointed. In addition to its historical narrative problems, “Argo” also suffers from extreme mood changes that don’t mesh well with one another. The tension generated by the dramatic segments set in Tehran and Washington contrasts sharply with the more light-hearted humorous sequences shot in Hollywood. Each is done well by itself, but, regrettably, they don’t integrate effectively. Admittedly, successfully fusing life in two very different worlds is a challenging undertaking, but it can be done, as was the case, for example, in “The Crying Game” (1992). “Argo,” unfortunately, doesn’t measure up in this regard.

Most critics have been favorably impressed with this offering, and the picture has received considerable awards season buzz. But, considering both the film’s strengths and shortcomings, it’s hard to say exactly how truly deserving it is of the praise it has received. In the end, it all probably depends on one’s expectations. And that’s the truth.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Creation's Yardstick

What's the true measure of our success? Find out by reading my latest Master Heart Magazine post, Abundance: Creation's Yardstick, available by clicking here.