Double Feature

Blue Sky & Country

Reviewed November 12, 2019


Two Jessica Lange vehicles


lue Sky (1994) is a melodrama in heat. Thrashing and foam-mouthed, it hurtles from jarring tonal shift to out-of-place narrative development to iffy

character beat like an astronaut who leaps down into the annals of space and pings against floating rocks along the way. It’s like five vintage soap operas thrust into a cinematic juicer, pressed into one weird-tasting product. But even if it tastes sort of funny, the flavor’s at the least interesting. Then we’re eventually glad to have tried it. Blue Sky is a throwback to old Hollywood, when melodramas were often similarly bananas and one typically thought nothing of it.


The movie is set in 1962, and centers around the dysfunctional Marshall family. They’re a military clan. Dad, a major named Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), is a nuclear engineer. Mom is a wild woman-child named Carly (Jessica Lange) who perpetually acts like a deranged Marilyn Monroe character come to life. At almost any base the family relocates to, Carly dependably causes dramatic scenes and often embarks on casual

Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones in 1994's "Blue Sky."

Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones in 1994's Blue Sky.

affairs with other military men, much to the understandable chagrin of her husband. Hank and Carly have two kids, Alex and Becky (Amy Locane and Anna Klemp). Despite the marital dysfunction at the top of the household, they’re well-adjusted girls. Alex is strangely pragmatic, and Becky, though a few years younger, has a similar realism to her. As the film opens, the often-messy dynamic within the family is roughed up again when the Marshalls have to relocate again, this time from Hawaii to Alabama. The home they have to move into is sort of shantyish, which entails that Carly erupts into a tantrum that’d rival Faye Dunaway’s famed Mommie Dearest (1981) fits. (Thankfully, no children are hit in the process.)


Blue Sky tries to be a lot of things, though in the end those tries never materialize into full-blown breakthroughs. It’s a dilettante of a movie. But we admire the attempts. It’s a whistleblower thriller; it’s a study of a woman on the verge; it’s a meditation on asymmetric family life; it’s a movie about institutionalization; it’s a movie about young love. A lot of the storyline is taken up by Hank wanting to launch an initiative called Blue Sky (wink, wink), which would result in nuclear testing being done underground and therefore not having above-ground consequences. Only his aspirations are thwarted. The military, the movie says, just doesn't care about who might get radiation poisoning or die flat out. When a couple of cowboys appear on one testing site in the middle of the film, no one seems to much care besides Hank, who’s outraged. When he gets too fussy, his superiors throw him in a psychiatric institution, where he's unable to cause trouble with so many reality-obfuscating pills forced into him.


When not focused on Hank’s troubles, Blue Sky turns to Carly, who’s the movie’s biggest asset. (Lange won an Oscar for her performance.) Carly is stormy and self-destructive; her behavior only moves in extremes. The movie seems to want to call her crazy, but after just getting the “cr” sound out, it decides that she’s merely free-spirited to a potentially damning degree. It’s fun to watch Lange here, who’s basically an aging bombshell who wouldn’t be out of place in a Tennessee Williams play. She’s loud and doesn’t think before she loudly speaks and at some point in the movie loudly has an affair with the base commander (Powers Boothe). It doesn’t matter that the commander is above Hank, that Alex eventually starts dating his son (Chris O’Donnell), or that one of Carly's few friends on the base (Carrie Snodgress) is the commander’s wife. When Carly and the commander are caught in bed by Alex and her new boyfriend, Carly doesn’t seem so much embarrassed as much as sorry for getting caught. Alex doesn’t understand — this shit doesn’t mean anything. This is just part of what it means to be Carly Marshall. The movie doesn’t meaningfully delve into why Carly is the way she is. It sort of blames her increasingly flightiness on her worries over aging, but that's a sort of thin conclusion.


Carly doesn’t seem to possess any sort of common sense, but then toward the end of the film, when she realizes what Hank’s superiors are doing, she acts focused — then very boldly — as the most calculated of a whistleblower. This shift in character seems to suggest that this is the Carly that Hank fell for, before knowing that the wit he saw was backed by a lot of daytime-soap bullshit. But it doesn't make a lot of sense in the context of the movie holistically. Carly is not delineated as someone who goes from being completely thoughtless to so thoughtful that she seems to transform into someone else entirely. But Lange plays her with such brass and engaging self-seriousness that I concluded, later into the movie, that the chaos of Carly and the movie surrounding her was part of what made it compelling. 


You never have any idea where it’s going. Blue Sky moves toward a new plot development or character evolution with a short-distance-runner eagerness that makes it unconventionally enthralling. It’s doing so much at once, all the while remaining conspicuously in love with itself. Kind of like Carly.


n antidote to the constant adrenaline of Blue Sky is Country, another Lange vehicle that came out 10 years earlier. (Technically, though, Blue Sky is from 1991: the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures, its production

company, forced it onto the shelf for three years.) Country is a muted and introverted-until-it-can’t-be-anymore drama partly about the farm policies enacted by the Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter administrations, which increased the rate of foreclosures, among other livelihood-ruining problems.


Country imagines what it would be like being part of a farming family catastrophically impacted. (To top their problems off, a tornado hits as the movie opens.) The family in question here is the Ivys, who live in the midwest. For years they’ve depended on their acres-big property, which has been in the family of the matriarch, Jewell (Lange), for generations. Country covers the sudden decline and the ripple effects it has on the family dynamic. It's a bumpy movie, to be sure. It sometimes feels didactic, especially during scenes with FHA personnel and the requisite what-are-we-going-to-do breakdowns; it goes fully for on-the-nosedom during a later scene where the Ivys and their neighbors try to take a stand in the middle of a soul-crushing auction. The arc given to Jewell’s husband, Gil (Sam Shepard), is unconvincing. He goes from capable farmer to good-for-nothing alcoholic so quickly and hastily that the man feels like separate characters. 


But Country has an emotional lift, and is anchored by Lange, whose interior approach is quietly moving, and Levi L. Knebel, who plays the Ivys’ teenage son with a poignancy so unaffected that I sometimes wanted the movie to progress from his perspective. His earnestness and surprising-for-his-age moral compass, paired with his naïvete (best encapsulated by the way he almost always dresses identically to his father, wishing he were him in some ways but not all), makes him magnetic. Country has dated in the last few decades — namely because it often goes with an expositional approach to make sure that its points get across. There's a you-had-to-have-been-there-ness. But the anger that drives it remains affecting, and the performances stir us up.


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