January, 2018

The Definition of Insanity

January 28th, 2018 27 Comments


It is axiomatic that whenever a government, Federal, state, or local, bans anything—Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses, alcohol, and drugs are all good twentieth century examples—the immediate and inevitable result is a brisk black-market trade in the banned item. And whenever the banned item is a source of significant revenue (you can forget Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses), immense black-market profits result in a proliferation of cunning and ruthless people elbowing their way to the trough.

The most obvious example of this would be Prohibition, which transformed a bunch of small-time petty gangs into fearsome and murderous organized crime families and the legendary names associated with them: Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel… The list goes on, and while the names have changed, those organized crime families are still thriving.

Peripherally, many purportedly respectable people benefited yesterday and benefit today. Yesterday, it is estimated that Al Capone alone paid out the equivalent in today’s money of six million dollars ($6,000,000!) every month to the Chicago police department to turn a blind eye to his bootlegging operations. Today… Who knows?

The profits made today in the drug trade make Prohibition’s profits look like chump change, and some of the players in the drug game—not the street dealers, but the men who make the real money—seem very respectable; some of them may be very famous public figures.


I have probably written about this incident before, but about twelve or thirteen years ago I was hunting Coues deer with some friends in the mountains of Sonora, Mexico. Coming home, we crossed the border in Agua Prieta (dark water—what a great name!), Douglas, Arizona’s Mexican sister. You have to cross there, at that particular Sonora/Arizona border crossing, because that’s where both the United States Department of Agriculture and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service have officers on duty. The US government, for reasons of its own, is making it more and more difficult for American hunters to bring trophies into the country from abroad, and the rules and regulations, the forms required by both agencies, become more labyrinthine each year.

We were the only party returning from Mexico that day, but the dread might of the USFWS was in no particular hurry to do its job, so I passed the time by chatting with one of the over-worked and underpaid Border Patrol agents. He was a canine officer with a Belgian Malinois. It’s a dog I happen to know a little about, so we talked about the breed’s strengths and weaknesses, why it is replacing German shepherds on many police departments, and about various dogs we had been fortunate enough to share our lives with. Then he was called away and my friends and I stood by our Suburban, cooling our heels as we waited for our forms to be brought back to us.

About twenty minutes later the canine officer reappeared. He walked in from the inspection area with another guard holding a man in handcuffs, and three or four other guards carrying boxes, each about the size of a wine carton, wrapped in layer after layer of black plastic and duct tape. I hailed him.

“What happened?”


“In those boxes?”


“Wow. What happens to the smuggler now?”

“He’s an American, so we’ll send him north.”

“You mean you hand him over to some other police jurisdiction?”

“No, we just turn him loose.”

“What! He had all that hashish and you’re going to turn the son of a bitch loose! Why?”

“We have to. It costs too much to prosecute, and it’s almost impossible to get a conviction, so we’ve been ordered, unless it’s 250-pounds or more, don’t bother. Under 250, we just turn them loose and send them home.”

That was twelve years ago. If my cursory research is accurate, that 250-pound weight limit has been dramatically increased since then, but that was the first time I realized the government’s war on drugs was, shall we say, somewhat less than serious.

Let’s take another anecdotal look at drugs in America.

In the early seventies, when I first moved to New York to pursue an acting career, I lived on the Lower East Side, well-known at that time as a violent, drug-infested, crime-ridden hell-hole. Bobby Driscoll’s body was found in the rubble of an abandoned tenement just down the street from where I lived. (He was the child star of, among many other movies, Treasure Island, and I used his death in the novel, Return to Laughter.) It happened before I moved there, but the tenement was still there and still abandoned and still used by what were then called junkies.

But when I traveled up to the tony Upper East Side, to rehearse scenes for acting class with some of the beautiful models who were successful enough to be able to afford to live there, drugs and their concomitant violence faded away as I rode north on the subway. On the rare occasions I was able to afford to travel up to Vermont to visit my mother, I traveled to a serene and drug-free rural paradise where small family dairies still dominated the landscape, and men prided themselves on their ability to be taciturn in their responses to city folk. “Yup.” “Ay, yah.” “Can’t get there from here.” That paradigm has changed.

Seven or eight years ago, I was sent to write about a hunting lodge in central Missouri. As I always do on such assignments, I did some homework in advance and read about a little village nearby that had most of its houses on the National Register of Historic Places. The first morning, I was sitting in a blind with my guide, who happened to the manager of the place. He was a nice man, knowledgeable, courteous, and accommodating, so I was a little stunned by what happened next. It was still dark out, well before sunrise, and I could see the lights of a small town in the distance, about ten miles away. I asked my host what I was looking at, and he named the village I had read about.

“Oh,” I said, “I’d like to go see that place. I’ve read about it.”

“You can go,” he replied, as if he were shutting a door, “but I won’t take you there.”

It turned out that it was the local methamphetamine production center, and he considered it so dangerous he wouldn’t even drive through.

I could give you a dozen other examples of similar scenarios I have encountered, but the bottom line is that drug addiction in America has transformed itself, in less than half a century, from a dirty and shameful thing in the poorest and most disreputable inner-city neighborhoods, to something found in historic villages in bucolic rural landscapes, on the streets of upscale shopping areas in certain especially drug-tolerant cities, and in affluent, well-educated suburban neighborhoods.

That’s the result of America’s war on drugs.


Politico, an online magazine that is considered to have a pronounced liberal bias, recently published a lengthy article detailing, in considerable depth, the extent to which the Obama administration delayed, hampered, stymied, and ultimately derailed an extensive, long-term, and very dangerous Drug Enforcement Agency operation that linked together the elements of an extraordinarily complex and labyrinthian merging of drugs, terrorism, money laundering, and weapons smuggling. It involved the Iranian government, their proxy terrorist organization Hezbollah, Mexican drug cartels, organized crime, the Russian government, various South American and Latin American governments (primarily Venezuela), an international consortium of arms dealers, and multiple murderous Mexican and Latin American gangs, all of whom have joined hands in an elaborate scheme to smuggle drugs into the United States, carefully launder their vast profits, and for Hezbollah to use said profits to buy a variety of arms, from assault rifles to missiles to weapons of mass destruction, all intended to be used against the United States and Israel. It’s actually very clever, if you look at it the right way. Use America’s weakness to make the money to buy the weapons to attack an already softened-up and weak America. Good thinking.

That the Obama administration did this primarily to protect their Iranian nuclear arms treaty is undeniable; even some former Obama administration officials do not deny it. What is unclear is the extent to which that administration was influenced by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Justice, Department of State, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Again, it is undeniable that all of those agencies colluded with the Obama administration to derail the DEA’s covert operation (code-named “Cassandra”), but where it gets a little murky is in the reasons those agencies give to excuse their allowing Hezbollah to smuggle drugs (primarily cocaine, in Hezbollah’s case) into America across the Mexican border, the same border that President Trump and deplorables like me only want to see closed because we’re racists.


One of the results of having many friends in many different law enforcement agencies is that I get told a lot of intriguing stories. Almost always, these are told simply in the vein of personal anecdotes intended to show the many and varied aspects of the law enforcement game: danger, stupidity of criminals, intelligence of officers, occasional stupidity of officers, intended comedic effect, unintentional comedic result, unbelievable courage, icy fear, bumbling idiocy, dumb luck, true heroism, comradery, venality, honor, the whole range of experiences and variations of behavior the human animal is prone to. But just as all intelligence agencies gather endless amounts of information over long periods in order to draw conclusions, so too, after forty years of anecdotes, I have been able to isolate certain recurring themes.

One recurring theme is that certain banks—I mean American banks, with household names—have long been involved in what is vulgarly called laundering (the banks have more refined names for it) drug money for cartels with impunity because said cartels are assisting the CIA, and the CIA shields both cartels and banks.

Another recurring theme is that certain highly placed American politicians have closed down specific drug operations in specific cities at specific times for unknown reasons. I would like you, Gentle Reader, to think of me as an imaginative genius writing books that flow solely out of the creative soil of my fertile brain, but in The Horseman at Midnight¸ the story Sheriff Esquivel tells Matt, about why he had to leave San Diego, that story is, almost verbatim, the story I was told by a small town police chief, now deceased, in a California county I prefer not to identify.

And that brings us to the theme that recurs most often, indeed consistently, from completely unrelated sources (DEA officers, both active duty and retired, in different parts of the country; Border Patrol, active and retired in different states; officers in major metropolitan police departments, active and retired, in different cities in different parts of the country; sheriffs and deputy-sheriffs in different rural parts of the country; even once a military intelligence officer) and that theme is that the CIA has, for a long time, been thwarting DEA operations both overseas and along the Mexican border in exchange for information and even occasional assistance (the imagination boggles) from drug cartels.

Does any of this rise above the level of rumor and gossip, the kind of yarns told by some very tough guys after a few beers? Of course not; but when you hear variations on the same theme, many times over the course of forty years or more, from many varied and disparate sources, none of whom have anything to gain, most of whom are retired now, you begin to wonder. And a few years ago, trying to do some research for a magazine article, when I asked an active DEA agent if he knew anything about a certain event, I heard something close to fear in his voice as he told me he could not discuss any activity of the DEA, current or past. End of conversation.

Again, none of this amounts to anything more than hearsay, but there are two conclusions I can draw from it: one is that America’s almost half century-long war on drugs is an epic and costly failure; and the other is that none of us should hold our breath waiting for the United States government to do anything about today’s drug problem.


Recreational marijuana is being legalized by more and more states, in direct violation of the federal law classifying marijuana as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. I have no problem at all with the medical use of marijuana, but I have a problem with states flouting federal law, that problem being Article VI, Clause 2, which grants supremacy to Federal law. I am a firm and committed believer in the Tenth Amendment (states’ rights), but as the situation now stands, marijuana remains illegal under Federal law, and until the issue is resolved in congress by a change of the law, one way or the other, it will remain illegal at the Federal level, and for individual states to ignore that law creates a confusing and potentially dangerous situation for both users and law enforcement alike.

What to do? The war on drugs ain’t working, so what other options are there?

As I see it, there are three possibilities to do something about the egregious drug-death rate and the egregious violent crime rate associated with gangs in drug distribution hubs (think Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Oakland, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Cleveland, Cincinnati).

One is to quit trading one set of American lives for information to save another set of American lives, which is what the CIA appears to be doing, and really and truly crack down on all illegal drugs. If I were a CIA or FBI intelligence officer tasked with that little thing—so frequently laughed at and disregarded by our public servants today—known as my oath of office, namely to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, I might ask myself if a vague goal of thwarting potential terrorists who might attempt to cross our porous southern border or attack our sole reliable ally, Israel, is of greater or lesser value than a goal of having a nation sentient enough to be able to protect itself and, indeed, be worthy of protection.

Another option is to legalize marijuana, but crack down on everything else. That option is mitigated by the argument that marijuana is considered a gateway drug. I suspect it is a gateway drug, but it also has legitimate medical uses, and recreationally, I have yet to hear a serious case that can prove it is more dangerous than alcohol. Marijuana and certain other so-called “soft” drugs are legal in the Netherlands, and it might be beneficial for the US government to study what the results of that legalization have been. The advantage to having the government regulate and tax marijuana, the way alcohol is regulated and taxed, would be much-needed revenue in the federal coffers, and a drop in crime.

The third option would be just to legalize everything and have the government regulate and tax it all. This would reduce all violent crime, but especially murder, to insignificant levels (any law enforcement officer will tell you that about 90% to 95% percent of all murders are drug related) and provide fantastic revenues, but… But it does seem a cold-blooded and Machiavellian way to run a country. The certain percentage of the population that is prone to addiction would just have to be written off as the cost of a safe society, and most of those are good and decent people who are unfortunate enough to have an illness. I think most of us would have a hard time living with that.

I’m neither wise enough nor arrogant enough to decide what the best solution is, but I’m also not so stupid that I would waste another half century doing what has proven to be insanely ineffectual.

Book Review: Stoner

January 22nd, 2018 10 Comments


“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn…”

That’s Merlyn (we usually write it “Merlin,” just as we spell it “honor” instead of “honour”) in The Once and Future King, by T. H. White, a man who knew a thing or two about both sadness and learning.

In Stoner, by John Williams, the novel described by author Tim Kreider as, “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of,” that theme of learning as the ultimate restorative, the sole salvation of the human animal, the anodyne for evil or sorrow, is taken to an extreme.

Most of us have multiple passions. T. H. White, for example, channeled much of his unrequited passion for human love into writing, hunting, fishing, falconry, aviation, and probably other activities I know not of. But John Williams has created a character, William Stoner, who has only two passions in his life: human love, and learning. In one, he is thwarted; the other becomes his salvation.

Stoner follows the whole life of its eponymous character. (Thank God the title didn’t refer, as I thought a novel published in 1965 might, to the lugubrious dreams and feckless self-destruction of some long-haired, tie-dyed, bell-bottomed type on Manhattan’s lower east side.) Stoner is, as was the author, a farm boy who discovers literature at the hands of a professor in the college where Stoner is supposed to be studying agriculture. There is a scene where the professor reads Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet and then asks Stoner to say what it means.

“Mr. Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years, Mr. Stoner; do you hear him?” (When you read this novel—and you must—take note of the seventy-third sonnet; it was not chosen at random.) And Stoner does hear him, hears him deeply; but like the rest of his classmates, like many of us under similar circumstances, he is unable to articulate in his own words what Shakespeare’s words have meant to him. He has, to quote another passage from the book, “experienced the epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put into words.” And in that inarticulate moment, raising his farmer’s hands helplessly into the air, Stoner is transformed from a farm boy into a lover of words and ideas, and he understands that the best literature—books like Stoner—can change the world. He quits the farm, and throws himself into the lifelong pursuit of learning.

“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time in life he had to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

Echoes of A. E. Houseman’s, “Never lad that trod on leather/lived to feast his heart with all.” It is true of every human endeavor, whether that endeavor involves books or machines, plants or animals, world travel or your own hometown, the human spirit or human depravity; the unknown is and always will be far greater than the sum total of puny man’s puny knowledge.

Stoner is not a traditional hero in the popular sense of that word. However, he is very much a hero in the sense of man who doggedly fulfills his obligations and the sole passion allowed him, with patience and dignity, without whining or raging, supporting his wife and daughter, teaching his students, and always learning.

I have a good friend, one of the deplorables in a small town in one of those Midwestern states too many people won’t deign to visit, who was cheated and bankrupted by a relative. Like Stoner, he too never whined or complained. What he did was move to another town and start over. He worked long and hard all year long for many years; he deprived himself of many of the little pleasures he relished as he supported his family and raised two fine young children (middle-aged and parents themselves, now); he earned the trust and respect of everyone who knows him; and he made himself into one of the wealthiest men in his little town. He did it all quietly; I am one of the very few who knows his story. That man is a true hero in the same way Stoner is a true hero. There is nothing big and newsworthy in his life, nothing glamorous or glorious, no accolades, no reporters camped outside his door; just a quiet, dogged, honorable persistence in the face of adversity, a quiet, dogged, honorable meeting of his obligations, loving his family, and being the good and decent man he has always been. Men like that, like Stoner, are the true heroes of this country.

But why is Stoner denied his only other passion, human love?

The only negative review of Stoner that I have stumbled across reviled both hero and author as misogynists, and Professor Stoner as a narrow-minded pedant. The author of the review (in the Washington Post) is a woman who is an ivy-league professor emerita, and feminist writer on social and cultural issues, and I could make a good argument that living a life within the walls of academia, and looking at the world through such a singular prism, can promote a very narrow-minded vision of the world.

Her complaint about misogyny is predicated on John Williams’ unelaborated portrayal of Stoner’s wife, Edith, as a wildly neurotic, possibly bi-polar, shrewish, extraordinarily selfish woman, who denies her husband love, who turns their daughter against him, who devotes her entire life to trying to reduce Stoner to a non-entity in their shared lives and even within his own professional life.

Unlike the angry woman reviewer, I immediately recognized the behavior of Stoner’s wife, based on my experience with a very similar personality type, but don’t trust me. Instead, pay attention to my brother-in-law, a Harvard educated and trained—and practicing for nearly three-score-years-and-ten—psychiatrist who has considerably more knowledge, objectivity, and sensitivity than the angry female reviewer. My brother-in-law also immediately recognized the behavior of Stoner’s wife, and he identified it as the classic acting-out of a victim of childhood sexual abuse. It isn’t something that is spelled out in the book, in part because that isn’t the focus of Williams’ story, in part because such things were not discussed back then. The book takes place roughly between 1910 and 1956, and in the time period of Edith’s childhood, the late 1800’s, sexual abuse took place just as frequently as it does today, but it remained, as Tennessee Williams once wrote about a related topic, “something unspoken.” So the causes are not delved into by John Williams, but the results, the symptoms, are described in sometimes painful detail. The description of Edith and William Stoner’s honeymoon, and some of Edith’s subsequent behavior, made me put the book aside for a while. But none of that is due to misogyny by author or protagonist.

The same reviewer criticized Williams for portraying both of Stoner’s antagonists—one a fellow faculty member, the other a student—as physically deformed, dismissing that device as a nasty and outdated symbol of evil. But one of the things a fiction writer tries to do is give the reader clues to the intentions and motivations of his characters, to try and provide a context for their actions. Just as the harrowing and depressing description of Stoner making love to his wife for the first time gives you a pretty good clue as to what her problems are and what the causes of them might be, so too the shared infirmity of a physically deformed professor and his favorite student gives them an understandable bond which turns the professor against Stoner for flunking the student. They are not deformed because they are evil, nor evil because they are deformed; they are deformed because it a writer’s device to give them a shared bond, just as in a more modern novel they might share ethnicity, or country of origin, or a particular religious belief, or anything else that might cause them to bond as a minority in a predominately homogenous world.

Nor is Stoner a narrow-minded pedant. He flunks the student, as Williams writes, because even after being granted an extension on a deadline, the student does not do the work and then tries to bluff his way through a presentation by being argumentatively inimical. If that scene were written exclusively from Stoner’s perspective, it might be open to debate, but this is how Williams sums it up:

“…it was clear even to the most inattentive students in the class that [the student] was engaged in a performance that was entirely impromptu.”

That is not Stoner’s point of view. That is an omniscient point of view, and as such has to be taken as factual. It is also supported by other actions and statements by that student, but the reason I am dwelling on it is because it sets in motion one of those nasty, inter-faculty feuds that occur with dreary regularity in universities where we might expect the men and women teaching our children to know better and behave better. And it is that feud that leads ultimately to Stoner’s final chance at human love being torn away from him.

Stoner falls in love with a young graduate student who is already in love with him, and for a brief time, until the angry professor manages to break it up, he knows what true human love, true human passion is.

This is a sad book. But it is also one of the wisest, and most beautifully written books I have ever read. Consider the following:

“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end, but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

Much like the process of learning.

Paul Cajero

January 13th, 2018 12 Comments


There were certain faces that got you off to a good start:

Sweet Dick Dawson, who had such extraordinary sensitivity to mood that he could pick up on how you were feeling the moment you stepped into the make-up trailer, either working quietly and comfortingly, or if you were up to it, unleashing his wicked, razor-like tongue with comments that could leave you howling helplessly with laughter;

Bobby James, always full of beans and bounce and endless enthusiasm, almost childlike in his joie de vivre, cheerful in such an infectious way that only a corpse could not immediately feel better, laying out the countless wardrobe changes with such good humor it almost made tying the forty-seventh necktie of the day enjoyable;

And Paul Cajero. Paul always reminded me of the very best cops or doctors: he had that calm, unruffled competence that made you feel there was nothing, no emergency or disaster that could or even might occur, that he couldn’t quickly and effortlessly deal with. If North Korea had dropped the big one on Los Angeles, Paul would have been able to decide whether it would be better to finish the scene or go home immediately. And you would have trusted his judgement.

They were all wonderful people, the guys and gals (the guys and dolls, to get Runyonesque about it) who made up the crew of Simon & Simon. It is something Mackie and I have talked about many times over the years—the decades—since: how blessed he and I were to have had the privilege of working with such talented, patient, competent, good-humored, nice, and decent people. But always, in any group, there are some with whom you resonate more than with others, and Paul was one of those.

Disasters occur when filming. Things go wrong, mistakes are made, accidents happen, people screw up—not least the two so-called stars of the show, who were known to indulge themselves and get a lot crazier than they should have. It takes someone at the helm to keep things running, and that can be hard enough to do when things are going well. But when the light is fading, the clock is ticking, equipment is failing, tempers are fraying, when all about you are losing their heads and blaming it on you (to flagrantly steal a phrase), it takes a special kind of person to stay calm, stay organized, stay focused, and to keep everyone else at their posts, also calm, organized, and focused. Paul was one of those.

And he did it all with humor, good cheer, grace, dignity, and that special kind of humanity that keeps some people floating above the fray, never judging, never losing their nerve or their tempers, never indulging in the childish ugliness so many of us are guilty of all too often.

Wynton Marsalis once said that when life got you down, when everything seemed to be falling apart, and you didn’t know how you could keep on going, that Louis Armstrong’s music was always there to remind you everything was going to be all right. When I saw Paul Cajero on the set, I knew everything was going to be all right.

I only just found out about Paul’s passing this past October, but he is remembered with great love and great respect.

At the Movies: Only the Brave

January 7th, 2018 7 Comments


I wrote a review of the movie Dunkirk, where I delineated my disappointment with that movie. Briefly, Dunkirk failed as a movie because it failed on all the basic levels of story-telling: there was no one character in the movie for the viewer to invest in emotionally; there was no understanding or explanation of the critical historical importance of that extraordinary event; and the movie failed to convey the unbelievable scope of the rescue effort, let alone the miraculousness of its success.

All of those are the reasons why Only the Brave works, and that’s an understatement. Works? My God, it reduced me and Darleen and our friends to sodden pulps, and it did so because, first and foremost, it gives you any number of characters to invest in.

The way you make your audience identify with a character is to let the viewer know something about him. You can do it directly, showing him doing good things or bad things, making wise choices or bad mistakes. Or you can do it indirectly, having the character, or a third person, say things that reveal who that character is, his strengths and weaknesses, his human graces and his equally human frailty.

Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, and Jennifer Connelly are the three primary characters in Only the Brave, and the writers (Sean Flynn, Ken Nolan, and Eric Warren Singer) and the director (Joseph Kosinski) use both of those techniques to give us three fully-fleshed, very real, very complex, yet understandable characters. Not good, not bad; not heroes, not villains; not saints, not sinners. Just very real, very human, which in turn means very loveable in their humanity. Because we know them, we understand them, and because we understand them, we care passionately about them and wish them well.

But those are the leads, the most important characters, so of course any decent movie maker is going to spend time letting us discover who his protagonists are. Where Kosinski and the three writers excel is in giving us thumbnails about subsidiary characters, the guys and gals with just a few lines here, a small scene or two there. When those subsidiary characters spring to life on the screen, you know you have a great movie, and spring to life they do. Of those secondary characters, the only ones known to me were Jeff Bridges and Andie MacDowell, but all of them turn in breathtaking performances.

As for the events that inspired the movie, and the unbelievable courage of those young men, again, Kosinski makes it very clear what they were up against, what it meant both to them personally, and to the towns of Yarnell and Prescott and…

Ah. That is what makes the young firefighters—in this case, the Granite Mountain Hotshots out of Prescott, AZ, but also every other young man or woman who risks his or her life to fight wildfires anywhere—such incomparably courageous human beings: no one knows, no one can accurately predict what a wildfire will do or where it will go next.

Many years ago, Darleen and I were the last vehicle, literally the last in line, allowed through on the 395 in Mono County during a wildfire. For those of you unfamiliar with that part of California, think the high eastern slope of the Sierras more or less near Mammoth. (Tom’s Place was the nearest community.) The fire was on the western side of the 395, moving east down the mountain, toward the highway, and what stunned me was the speed with which the wall of flames traveled, virtually leapfrogging down that rugged slope faster than any living thing could run. How far away it was and how high the flames were, are things impossible for me to guess, but I remember thinking that if anyone broke down in front of us, we would all be crispy critters in short order. We were miles away, in a truck, and I’m sure the firefighters and law enforcement involved would never have let us through if we had been in danger, but it got my attention, big time. Now think of being out there on foot, fighting such a monster, up close and personal. Like law enforcements officers and soldiers, those young men and women are the best of the best of America. Some are ex-convicts; some are college graduates; some are clean and sober former drug addicts; some are high school athletes who are adrenaline junkies; some are the lost looking to redeem themselves; some have always known who they are and where they belong; all deserve our unreserved respect and gratitude.

All of that is made clear by Kosinski: the dangers; the unpredictability; the varied characters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots; the critical importance of being able to depend, completely and absolutely, on the man standing next to you.

The one thing the director of Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan) did exceptionally well was to convey, visually, a taste of the terrifying horrors of war. In Only the Brave, Director Joseph Kosinski somehow combines actual footage of real forest fires and computerized special effects, in ways I’m nowhere near smart enough or knowledgeable enough to understand, and the effect is overwhelming. The shocking and devastating wall of flame Darleen and I saw all those years ago was just a tiny soupçon of what Kosinski exposes his audience to, and—again—it gives you respect upon respect for those extraordinary young men and women who risk their lives to save our homes.

Finally—I’m not giving anything away here; everyone knows the tragic outcome and unspeakable loss caused by that fire—it is sometimes the unseen that conveys certain emotions more eloquently and viscerally than the seen can do. In a scene at the end, Jennifer Connelly is waiting to find out if her husband is alive or dead, and there is a late afternoon/early night-shot of the barn where she and Josh Brolin keep their beloved horses. Just a shot of a barn, with its interior lights on, backlit by a blood-red, fire-red, Arizona sunset. And from that barn comes the most agonizing howl of pain the human animal can make. Those of us who have lost loved ones to sudden violence have made that sound and know it too well.

Jennifer Connelly, Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Joseph Kosinski, and Only the Brave deserve every award there is. Take a box of Kleenex with you when you go to see this powerful film. Take two. And doff your hats, my darlings, as the firemen pass by.

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