Greetings all and sundry!
Several months have passed and it’s time to accept another gracious invitation from Paula to break out my miner’s cap and excavation tools. And add my perspective to the ever growing and exceptional list of hard-working, though often unknown, professionals who fill an essential niche in the fine art of story telling.
Those who work their way from the background of crowds and scene fillers. To the realms of comic relief. Or sidekick, best friend and selfless uniformed partner. Their numbers are legion. And are rarely recognized at first glance. It take a few moments of noticing how they move about a set or location. The furrow of a brow. A smile. Until it all comes together with the addition of spoken words. Often not loud. Sometimes conspiratorial. Often friendly. And the light bulb of recognition glows brightly. Rarely giving up a name. But subtly revealing the presence of a Character Actor!
And into the deep end of the diving well we shall plunge. Reveling in the decades long work of one such master craftsman. Who started out on stage. Became a “discovery” of John Sayles and his film, Matewan. Went on to Perform yeoman’s work on many episodic television series (‘Miami Vice, ‘The Equalizer’) of the later 1980s. Before filling the character of Kansas sheriff, July Johnson in ‘Lonesome Dove’ and ‘Return To Lonesome Dove’. Opposite Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall and Danny Glover. Where a sun-baked, deeply-lined face and a dust-dry, rasping voice gave presence and added immensely to a long riding, vengeance seeking lawman.
Supplying the confidence and wherewithal to take the lead in another small John Sayles project that put beaucoup talent on the map. So, allow me a few moments of your time. To wax poetic and meticulously into the inner workings of…
What A Character! Chris Cooper Easily Reaching Beyond His Grasp
People’s Exhibit 1: Lone Star (1996)
From 1996. Its director is proven past master of creating and executing vast, yet intensely intimate independent tales for fractions of what larger major players would spend on a day’s catering, John Sayles.
And this offering has those virtues writ large! Focusing on a once strong and prosperous town and county of Rio. Southwest of Laredo and close to Mexican border. One-time recipient of many military contracts and training bases that have had funding pulled. While the community strives to hold onto its identity opposite the rising tide of Mexicans. Who staked their claim decades ago. Have prospered and wish to make names for themselves. As developers swoop in and wish to cash in on Uncle Sam’s abandoned tracts of land. Trading money for influence.
In other words, an American Melting Pot. With all its attendant rivalries and small-scale deals and conspiracies just under the surface. Seen and acknowledged by Mr. Cooper as Sheriff Sam Deeds, son of the town’s beloved Deputy, afterwards Sheriff, Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey in a surprisingly quiet, humane, mature role). Who had spent his years keeping Rio’s racist, bigoted and flatout scary law-unto-himself, Sheriff Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson portraying evil incarnate. And rarely better!) in check through the 1960s.
There’s an election coming up. Sam’s a law & order kind of guy, and the townfolk like him. but he isn’t his father. And some in town keep reminding him of that, as there is a dedication of a county court house coming up in Buddy’s name. Creating the need to go out amongst the people and perform between pressing flesh and keeping interlopers busy. If not in check. And crossing the path of a long-lost and recently widowed high school sweetheart, Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Peña), whose mother, Mercedes (Maria Colon) is a rather affluent and influential pillar of the community.
Into this slice of Southern Texas Americana arrives Colonel Delmore Payne (Sayles stalwart Joe Morton), who is the estranged son of after-hours club owner and town historian, Otis “Big O” Payne (Ron Canada). The Colonel has the unwanted duty of going over the inventory, Table of Operations and Equipment (TO&E), of a closing Army base before housing contractors break ground. Creating a small, delaying hiccup when the excavation of one of its rifle ranges reveals skeletal remains, a Masonic ring… and a Rio County Sheriff’s badge.
Sending Sam to ask questions of the town’s elders. Otis and Hollis Pogue (Clifton James). Who would rather have sleeping dogs lie than go digging around bad history and childhood nightmares. Some answers are revealed as the badge is traced back to Charley Wade. And Sam starts exploring the legend of Sheriff Wade and his mysterious disappearance after being beaten and run out of town at the hands of dear old dad, Buddy Deeds, decades before.
Since there is statute of limitation for murder, Sam settles into his Gary Cooper niche of asking the right questions and being an extremely adept listener. As forensic evidence unearths a large caliber bullet from what could be his dad Buddy’s revolver. Or an Army .45 ACP.
Which sends the film into sublimely scarily edited flashback into the many sins of Charley Wade, who despised Mexicans, and went out of his way to torment, harass, shake down and brutalize them whenever the opportunity presented itself. The deeper Sam digs, the more is revealed about his father’s womanizing ways. And how they will intersect and insert themselves toward the tale’s denouement. Which I won’t reveal, for these details are the succulent meat upon which most of the tale hangs. As Sam takes in small morsels for deeper investigation. Letting his still, lined face speak volumes as clues are fleshed out. And dots are silently, sometimes tragically connected during a final sit down with the town elders.
I’ll leave it right here, for spoilers’ sake.
Now. What Does Mr. Cooper Bring To His Role?
The dust, dry grit and sweat-stained perseverance to work the case. No matter where the evidence and clues lead. Hesitantly at first. As the tossed net is expanded. And tales are told to expand the quest even further. Even if they initially point in the wrong direction. As the twists and turns of lies and legend slowly straighten out and lead back to past sins of the fathers.
And Mr. Kristofferson and McConaughey excel in their respective characters, with Kristofferson blatantly, frighteningly going over the top at times. While Mr. Conaughey sits in the background. Taking it all in and patiently waiting for the proper moment. Unaware that their actions will swing back decades later.
Adding to the weight Mr. Cooper bears as old wounds are reopened. Amidst the busy and slowly expanding town. And sprawling outback near the border as Sam explores past windfalls and re-establishes his relationship with schoolteacher and administrator Pilar. Creating a solid foundation for an expansive tale that travels at its own speed. In a wide and neatly tucked in tale written, directed, edited and produced by Mr. Sayles. Backed by superb cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh. And a rustic, suspenseful soundtrack by Mason Darling. Creating the definition of a critically acclaimed and later, criminally forgotten personal project.
Which clears the decks for a small, compact and very worthwhile family tale and period piece, focusing on the world-changing events of 1959. Russia’s launching of Sputnik and its orbiting above post war U.S. soil. Witnessed by a young Homer Hickam as the gauntlet of what would be known as the “Space Race” was thrown down.
Peoples’ Exhibit 2: October Sky (1999)
The place: Coalwood, West Virginia. Coal Country USA, in the waning years of the Eisenhower administration. One of dozens of “company towns” throughout the state. Owned and operated by a large industrial corporation, profits of which provide the housing, police, fire department, schools and church. Producing a meager living for the families, whose men work in the mines.
A township in the valley of two mountain ridges. And a place where most would like to leave. Though the only way out for those young men coming of age is a sports scholarship. Not a great list of options for teenager, Homer (surprisingly good Jake Gyllenhaal), whose older brother, Jim (Scott Miles), has just won a football scholarship out of town.
Overshadowed by the launch, very early in the Cold War, of the first orbital satellite, Sputnik, property of the Russians, the ENEMY. And its ability to be seen in the night sky by Homer and other townspeople. Sending Homer to seek out his friends, math geek Quentin Williams (Chris Owens), inspired machinist Ray Lee Cook (William Lee Scott), and Sherman O’Dell (Chad Lundberg) to take the pulpy science fiction novels and illustrations they love to the drawing board and their next steps. First as a hit-and-miss hobby, as early launches blow up before launching from Homer’s front yard, to a later attempt that launches beautifully, then crashes miles away and sets fire to distant acres of forest.
And through it all, Mr. Cooper’s John Hickam watches from a discreet distance. Not sure what to make of his son’s latest fascination. As small accidents in the mines slow extraction and production. Going the extra mile to keep the workers together as the first whiffs of interest from Unions make themselves known. Uncovering and dealing with small, sometimes innocuous, acts of sabotage.
One that may have caused a small cave-in. And sent John to the hospital after rescuing several men deep in the main mine. Looking toward a bleak future while trying to avoid arguments between his wife, Elsie (Natalie Canerday), who wants the best possible future for Homer. And Homer, who has the grades and the backing of his teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern). Who knows the ins and outs of academics and its scholarships. And supplies Homer with several books on advanced mathematics and aerodynamic design.
The books come in handy in helping Homer prove that his and his friends’ earlier rocket did not cause he forest fire. Calculating the exact location of the rocket in a stream miles from the disaster. Getting the town folk behind the team. While garnering a very positive story in the local paper. And beyond in the process.
The winning of a Science Fair propel Homer and his friends to new heights. And a much more sophisticated venue in Indianapolis, Indiana. Where their model’s thrust nozzle is stolen. And a new one is machined and delivered early the next morning after a tense all night refinement session. I’ll leave it right here. Lest I tip my hand on one of the better no-frills family films of the 1990s!
What Does Mr. Cooper Bring To This Role?
One of the most complete and fully fleshed-out Dads of the 1950s. Hard-working and -loving. Though acutely aware of his family’s situations. And its slim odds of something, anything better, who goes to the mines every morning to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. Though, while convalescing after a cave-in, not really sold on the idea of his youngest taking up the baton and riding the cage down.
Pulled in several directions at once. Amidst anger from fellow miners, The disruption of life long friendships over a tragic mistake. And its following retribution. Mr. Cooper does what he does best! Adds depth, shadow and presence to a roughly sketched character. Embodies it with his worn, lined visage and slow, never hurried gait. And makes it his own.
Creating a believable foundation for Mr. Gyllenhaal to lash out with teen angst in discovering he is good at and enjoys its pursuit, no matter how harebrained to may seem to his Dad. Also notable for how reined in and respectful Mr. Gyllenhaal’s Homer is in this regard. Explaining a future he and his father cannot fully comprehend. And how he wants to fit into it.
Very high marks for Joe Johnston for fluidly juggling the main story. Which is Mr. Gyllenhaal’s to carry. As well as so many subplots that swirl about. And reel themselves in so nicely long before the final credits. A capability that will pay off so well in later films, Hidalgo and Captain America: The First Avenger. Aided by cinematography by Fred Murphy. Editing by Robert Dalva. Superb hardscrabble and dirty art direction by Tony Fanning, making parts of Eastern Kentucky look so much like the smoky hills of West Virginia. Aided by a memorable, period-tinged soundtrack by Mark Isham.