`Blue Sky': Richardson's Dramatic Farewell

Movie review

XXX "Blue Sky," with Jessica Lange, Tommy Lee Jones, Powers Boothe and Amy Locane. Directed by Tony Richardson, from a screenplay by Rama Laurie Stagner, Arlene Sarner and Jerry Leichtling. Alderwood, Aurora, Everett 9, Metro, Metro, Newmark, Renton Village, SeaTac Mall."PG-13" - Parental guidance strongly suggested; mature themes, profanity, brief nudity. -----------------------------------------------------------------

A three-star rating for "Blue Sky" is an act of forgiveness for the film's final 15 minutes, which threaten to undo an otherwise engrossing and flawlessly acted melodrama. What precedes the disappointingly pat conclusion provides a fitting farewell to one of England's finest filmmakers.

Completed several months before director Tony Richardson's death in November 1991, this powerhouse showcase for Jessica Lange has been held in limbo as one of the "dusty dozen" films shelved by the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures. Fortunately, the film's 1962 setting doesn't date its story.

Cold War's still raging

The Cold War is in full swing, and Hank Marshall (Tommy Lee Jones), a nuclear engineer for the U.S. Army, has been assigned to Project Blue Sky, a secretive nuclear bomb-testing program based in Alabama. He's good at his job, so the real reason for his unwanted relocation is his wife Carly (Lange), whose mental instability manifests itself in extreme mood swings and sassy exhibitionism punctuated by moments of clarity, wit and vivid intelligence. In the Army's eyes, she's not exactly a model wife.

She's a blessing and a curse for her family, as likely to ignore her two daughters (teenager Amy Locane and younger sibling Anna Klemp) as she is to lavish thoughtful gifts upon them. For Hank, his marriage is a co-dependent's dream come true: His passion for Carly is unconditional, and his love is her strongest defense against insanity.

Bold performance from Lange

It's that delicate balance that allows Lange to give yet another bold and brilliantly mercurial performance, and as a family drama, "Blue Sky" bristles with the kind of emotional detail that Richardson brought to his now-legendary "angry young man" dramas (including "Look Back in Anger") of the late 1950s and early '60s.

With his focus on character, Richardson was a peerless director of actors, and his confident guidance is evident in each of the film's many fine portrayals, particularly from the sorely neglected Carrie Snodgrass as the wife of the base commander (Powers Boothe) who antagonizes Hank while pursuing an affair with Carly.

Under Boothe's devious command, the film's military subterfuge is a melodramatic accelerator, giving "Blue Sky" its mainstream pizzazz (the film's preview trailers are deceptively pitching it as an all-out military thriller), but also predictably detracting from the dramatic repercussions of Carly's defiantly unpredictable behavior.

By the time the final scenes unfold with a jarringly sudden switch in tone (and probably writers), the film is almost working at cross purposes. As Boothe's teenage son, Chris O'Donnell faces up to his dad with a speech so poorly written (when an absence of words would've sufficed) that it almost makes honor and virtue seem unappealing.

Luckily, these brief drawbacks cannot nullify the firm grasp that Richardson had on this material. His touch was unique, and with only Karel Reisz remaining to carry on their particular school of cinematic thought, Richardson will be sorely missed.