'Blue Sky' does everything right, but it's still by the numbers

September 30, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

How nice if the last film of the late Tony Richardson contained at least an echo of the movies that made him legendary. He was, after all, responsible for no less than five great ones: "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," "Look Back in Anger," "The Entertainer," "The Loved One" and, of course, the unforgettable "Tom Jones."

But "Blue Sky" is nowhere near that level of accomplishment. It's just OK. Respectable, certainly, and well-acted, well-crafted, well-thought-out, a grown-up movie to the nines. But still . . . just OK.

The movie, which was made in 1991 and is only now seeing the stuff of the title after three years in a vault in the wreckage of Orion's bankruptcy, follows a twisted military family in the early '60s, its ups (few) and its downs (many). "Blue Sky" has a minor political meaning, turning on a by now long-forgot issue of policy ethics, but for the most part, it chronicles one of those ill-considered marriages that by its very nature guarantees agonies for everybody.

But where the usual erratic-parent film features a dark and twisted father, in this version it's Mom who's the shaky grown-up and whose echoes of instability vibrate through the entire family unit. Jessica Lange plays Carly Marshall, who is beautiful, willful, seductive, dramatic, alcoholic and quite possibly nuts. She loves attention, she loves to flirt, she's occasionally (but not chronically) promiscuous, she just doesn't have a grip. Probably no culture could have been worse for her than that of the male-dominated, conformist-driven professional Army officer corps, but that's the one she's in, and that's the one she cannot cease scandalizing.

And who bears the brunt of her shenanigans but her husband, poor schmo Major Hank Marshall, who, having chosen nuclear science as his specialty rather than night infantry assault, is already on the slow track to nowhere. Hank, played with doughty integrity by the always convincing Tommy Lee Jones, is the long-suffering anchor of the family, the one who does the dishes and cleans up the messes. But it's not easy, particularly on their two kids, Alex (Amy Locane) and Becky (Anna Klemp).

To make matters worse, Hank, a physicist, is not only having troubles with his dysfunctional wife but with his dysfunctional occupation. He's connected with a new underground nuclear testing program, and is convinced that radiation security isn't up to par and that innocent civilians will die as a result. The rest of the Army, being in the business of killing people anyway, doesn't seem particularly concerned.

The movie tracks back and forth between major and minor story arcs that follow upon the family's arrival at a new post in Alabama, after a bad career move in Hawaii. Hank is trying to get along by going along, while Carly is insinuating herself into the officer's wives, even as the post commander (Powers Boothe), a more flamboyant officer, is taking an unhealthy interest in her. Hank, meanwhile, is concerned that an underground test in Nevada may have irradiated two cowboys.

Richardson has an exquisite grasp of family politics, the subtle squabble for power between husband and wife, the currents of forgiveness and the limits of forgiveness. And, for an Englishman, he's seamlessly entered a most peculiar culture and manages to re-create it convincingly and even sympathetically.

What ultimately brings "Blue Sky" down is the by-now overly familiar third-act trouble, in which the movie, which has been naturalistic, turns to absurd melodrama and seems to become a blowhard Oliver Stone expose. It can't have bite, because it doesn't have credibility.

Every performance is first-rate, even faded star Timothy Bottoms in one scene as one of the radioactive cowboys. The movie just gives up what it has at the end for the unbelievable. It could have been so much better.

"Blue Sky"

Starring Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones

Directed by Tony Richardson

Released by Orion

Rated R

** 1/2

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