Love Madness

It's gratifying to see that the late Tony Richardson's final film, Blue Sky, is so complex, adult and moving. To see, in other words, that Richardson remained true to his vision of what film should do, and how. Despite the fact that Richardson was already sick nearly unto death during filming, he gets his story off to a compelling start when a topless sunbather named Carly (Jessica Lange) performs a kind of fan dance for her husband, Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), an Army scientist, as he and another soldier hover over her in a helicopter. Much of the scene's sexiness and sense of daring comes from the fact that Lange is no longer a starlet. In today's film and flesh markets, the idea of a wife and mother of two being sexually powerful enough to threaten American military preparedness, circa 1962, feels downright foreign.

After that initial frisson, the movie becomes even more complicated. Carly is dazzling, but unstable. Hank is apparently passive in the face of his wife's wildness (wildness unto frequent infidelity, we're told), but, given Jones' inherent feistiness, nicely modulated here, we know that his acceptance of his wife is more about a very wise love than it is about weakness. The couple's two daughters, especially 16-year-old Alex (Amy Locane), see right through their parents' foibles. "One's crazy and the other one is blind," is Alex's take on the situation. This is as rounded and fully developed a handful of characters as the movies have offered in a while, and the sense that Richardson is giving their rough humanity full rein, rather than pulling back on the throttle, is exhilarating.

Because of Carly's impossible-to-ignore, and quite unmilitary, behavior, the family is transferred from Hawaii to Alabama. Perhaps this is meant as punishment, not only for Carly's topless dancing but also for Hank's refusal to play ball when ordered to doctor reports on atmospheric nuclear testing. Carly takes it as such. She's a character who seems to have escaped from a Tennessee Williams play, and once forced back into the South, she simply becomes Blanche Dubois.

Lange is given an emotional obstacle course to navigate here, and she responds with a performance that makes the Williams comparison a compliment. Jones, meanwhile, wisely underplays his role, a relief after the mannerisms that have accompanied his other recent performances, and becomes a perfect foil to Lange's wrenching and brave character. These characters seem so real that their tribulations hurt. When Hank is sent away to monitor an underground nuclear test in Nevada, he warns his wife that his commanding officer (Powers Boothe) is following King David's example and sending the husband of his object of desire off to battle. Hank is too proud -- or too afraid of being ignored -- to beg his wife to resist the other man. Maybe he's afraid he'll be wasting his breath. But Carly's dance into the CO's arms is all the more painful to watch because Hank saw it coming, and the only thing he could do about it is the one thing he simply will not do: give Carly up.

There's a rather large and unwieldy subplot about a nuclear cover-up, and Carly's improbable efforts to use a kind of nuclear blackmail against the Army after her husband has suffered a terrible injustice, but everything that has preceded the film's slightly hokey denouement is so strong that its momentum holds to the end.

-- David Theis

Blue Sky.
Directed by Tony Richardson. With Tommy Lee Jones, Jessica Lange and Powers Boothe.

Rated PG-13.
101 minutes.

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