Congress' Last Good Deed

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Inspired by a zeal for liberty, and by some very large political contributions, Congress has finally voted to stop the military’s harassment of gays. It would be churlish not to congratulate our legislators for doing this. Therefore, congratulations, legislators.

While burning this incense, I would like to recall some other good thing that the 111th Congress has done. I don’t mean a good thing with a lot of bad things attached, such as temporarily maintaining lower tax rates for people who are actually paying taxes, while increasing the amount of tax money diverted to people who aren’t. And I don’t mean failing, from sheer incompetence, to do a bad thing, such as passing out billions of dollars in gifts to congressmen’s friends, hidden in an “omnibus spending bill.”

I just mean something good.

Something that lets people live their own lives.

Something that lets people plan their own futures.

Something that lets people spend at least one day of their existence not worrying about what the government may do to them.

I’d like to think of something good like that, something that this Congress has done.

Well. I’m trying.

Still trying.

Can you think of anything?




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Bush's Revenge

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I have always felt somewhat better about George Bush than many libertarians apparently do. Two recent events have reinforced my feelings.

The first is the very recent ruling against Obamacare in the U.S. District Court. When pressed for things I think Dubya did right, I have had two quick replies: “Sam Alito” and “John Roberts.” He should be proud of his two appointees to the Supreme Court; they have been superb. Without them, it is doubtful we would have an explicitly recognized individual right to keep and bear arms. But I now have a third quick reply: “Henry Hudson.”

U.S. District Court Judge Hudson was the one who ruled that Obamacare’s key provision, requiring all people not covered by health insurance to purchase it (called the “Minimum Essential Coverage Provision”), exceeds the commerce clause of the Constitution. He was placed on the court in 2002 by Bush.

As Hudson put it, “The unchecked expansion of congressional power to the limits suggested by the Minimum Essential Coverage Provision would invite unbridled exercise of federal police powers. At its core, this dispute is not simply about regulating the business of insurance — or crafting a scheme of universal health insurance coverage — it’s about an individual’s right to choose to participate.”

If Obamacare is ruled unconstitutional, it will be largely because the judges Bush put on the Supreme Court uphold the ruling of one of the judges he put on the district court.

This just seems obvious. It is one thing to regulate interstate commerce, it is quite another to mandate it universally, i.e., to require individuals to engage in commerce (here, buying insurance) if they don’t want to. The argument given by proponents of the bill, that people who don’t buy health insurance wind up requiring the public’s support when they get sick and have to go to the emergency room, is very feeble. Hospitals can and often do bill people without insurance directly. And if Congress had been worried about those who can’t afford health insurance, it could have passed a voucher scheme for healthcare. In that way, anyone who wanted to participate could accept the voucher and go buy at least minimal health insurance, and anyone who didn’t could just refuse the voucher.

Moreover, if you take the pro-Obamacare argument seriously, there is no end to what it would sanction the feds to force us to buy. If I refuse to purchase a car, I will have to use public transportation, so doesn’t that mean that the government can make me buy an American car? No doubt Obama, who nationalized GM and Chrysler to pay back his financial supporters in the UAW, would love that idea. But it is sheer moonshine.

It now seems likelier than not that this issue will make it to the Supreme Court. And it is quite possible that the Court will side with Judge Hudson on the mandate issue. Considering that the wise solons who passed Obamacare forgot to include a severability clause, it is even possible that the Supreme Court could declare the whole bill unconstitutional. If that happens, it will be largely because the judges Bush put on the Supreme Court uphold the ruling of one of the judges he put on the district court.

The second area in which Dubya’s ghost haunts Obama is tax policy. During the present lame-duck session of Congress, Obama reached a surprising last-minute compromise with the Republicans — a compromise that renews Bush’s tax rates for two years. Obama had spent more than two years bashing Bush’s tax cuts “for the obscenely wealthy” and blaming the cuts for our lingering economic difficulties, but he was finally forced to compromise.

He did so very ungracefully, claiming that the Evil Republicans were holding middle class tax cuts hostage, and that while he normally wouldn’t negotiate with terrorists, he had to save the hostage. This was as ludicrous as it was infantile. What was held hostage was the rest of Obama’s presidency, which would have been annihilated had the rates gone up, tumbling the economy back into recession. Obama had to pitch his leftist supporters and his congressional myrmidons on the merits of tax cuts as a way to stimulate the economy, after denying that claim all through his presidency.

But perhaps the most farcical turn came when Obama had to call in Bill Clinton to lead a news conference justifying the compromise to outraged congressional Democrats. Farce devolved into pure camp as the ex-prez, who had jacked up the tax rates to begin with, endorsed the compromise that would preserve the lower rates his successor managed to enact. Dubya must have laughed at that one.




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Pen and Paper

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I love reflecting on stories that seem to confirm my admittedly quirky personal preferences. It’s the egoist in me, I suppose.

One such quirk is that I don’t feel I am writing unless I actually put a pen to paper. Yes, I will use a word processor to put the final version in order, but there is something about seeing words on paper that enhances my composition skills — which, Lord knows, need all the enhancing they can get.

A report in the Wall Street Journal by Gwendolyn Bounds, “How Handwriting Boosts the Brain,” discusses some new research by cognitive scientists using MRI technology and other tools. There is rapidly growing evidence that teaching children handwriting helps them not just to learn letters and shapes and develop motor skills but also to improve their ability to compose and express their thoughts.

One study tested children in the second, fourth, and sixth grades and found that they wrote more quickly, using more vocabulary, and conveyed more ideas when writing by hand than when word processing their essays. Adults who learn new symbols (such as Chinese characters) by writing them by hand seem to master the recognition of these symbols more quickly. Some doctors now recommend handwriting for aging patients as a way to ward off dementia.

Prof. Virginia Berninger (an educational psychologist) notes that when writing by hand, people have to execute “sequential strokes” in forming letters, as opposed to selecting whole letters by pushing keys on a keyboard. In so doing they activate large areas of the brain associated with thinking, language, and working memory.

But there is bad news for me in this flurry of research. One ed psych researcher notes that “people judge the quality of your ideas based on your handwriting.” Beautifully scripted letters are presumed to convey beautiful thoughts. As someone who was unceremoniously ejected from parochial school by angry penguins for both bad handwriting and impiety (the two failings thought to reinforce each other, I suspect), I must confess that to this day my penmanship is virtually indecipherable.




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Climate Change — from Slagle's Slant

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Climate is always changing, but telling us how much of the change is attributable to human activity is one spot where science is woefully inept. By extension, there is no way to predict what effect climate change legislation will have on the climate.

To date there has been no legislation proven effective in mitigating climate change. If such legislation were labeled medicine, the FDA would never approve it, nor would any legitimate scientist endorse it. Yet there is a great clamor inside the scientific community to get it passed. Power, like any other seductive influence, renders most mortals incapable of rational thought.

 

Representative John Shimkus recently created a stir by saying that he's not worried about global warming, because God promised Noah he would never flood the earth again.

I don't share Shimkus’ faith, but I understand his intention. Some people believe that God has a plan for us all; others believe in a fable about a big boat and pairs of animals; others simply believe that the earth is too enormous for mortals to destroy. These are all different versions of the same basic idea, one with which I agree.

People who believed in the literal version of the fable ran this nation for the better part of the past 234 years, and I don't see it doing any harm now. Atheists had the chance to demonstrate their superior governing abilities during the last century, and it really didn't work out so well.

 

According to Reuters, Al Gore recently admitted he was mistaken in his support for ethanol subsidies. He explained that he supported the original program because of his political ambitions.

Great. How many other things did he support for such reasons? Did he lie about the effects of global warming because of his ambition to win an Oscar and a Nobel Prize?

Vanity is a sin that is rarely committed only once.

 

Are environmentalists considering the depletion of forests and the production of toxic ink involved in manufacturing all the money required to keep Green Energy subsidized?




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Very Green, But Not So Jolly

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Several recent stories indicate anew just how green the Obama administration is, and how much harm it is prepared to inflict on the country to further its environmentalist agenda.

First is the report that the administration is yet again reversing course on offshore drilling. Back in March, weeks before the BP oil spill, Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the administration would finally open the eastern Gulf of Mexico and parts of the Atlantic coast (in particular, the coast of Virginia) to oil and gas exploration. This marked a change of position for Obama. While campaigning for the presidency he said he would allow expanded coastal exploration and development (this as McCain was getting traction in the polls with “drill, baby, drill!”); but once elected, he reversed his position and refused to allow it.

So now we are back to no new offshore drilling (and a continuing moratorium on deepwater drilling). Karen Harbert, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, put the situation aptly: “The Administration is sending a message to America’s oil and gas industry: take your capital, technology, and jobs somewhere else.”

The absurdity of this policy is underscored by the fact that gasoline nationwide is edging back toward $3 a gallon, and by the news that unemployment just went up to 9.8% nationwide, marking the longest period of over 9% unemployment since the Great Depression.

The second story is a study in contrast. It’s a report that China plans to spend over $500 billion to build 245 new nuclear power plants. This would mean adding nearly two and a half times as many as the U.S. has in total. As Zhao Chengkun, vice-president of the China Nuclear Energy Association, put it, “Developing clean, low-carbon energy is an international priority. Nuclear is recognized as the only energy source that can be used on a mass scale to achieve this.” While our administration dithers about constructing just one new reactor, the Chinese barrel ahead.

A third story concerns the ever-frisky EPA. It has just announced a dramatic increase in regulations on energy industries aimed at reducing greenhouse gases. Among the new EPA diktats is the requirement that the maximum allowable ground-level ozone level be dropped by up to 20%. Hundreds of American municipalities are struggling to comply with the existing maximum level, so tightening the standards still further will just bury those places financially. The Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI estimates that this new EPA regulation will cost America on the order of 7.3 million jobs and about a trillion dollars in regulatory costs within a decade.

It is doubtful whether this reduction in ambient ozone would result in any measurable gain in public health, much less in a gain big enough to justify the huge economic and human costs. But the Obama administration is full of green ideologues for whom such considerations matter little.

To be green means that you worship all life forms — except human beings.




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Terror at 30,000 Feet

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The old joke about the statistician who drowned in a lake with an average depth of one foot is a reminder that while the mathematics of probability theory are rock solid (er, within a certain range of error), the questions that the numbers attempt to illuminate are a bit more slippery. To put this in another way, a statistic is only as valid as the manner in which the question it tries to answer is framed. And there’s the rub: a question can be spun in such a way that the answer will confirm any sophistry.

This insight was recently brought home to me by Tyler Cowen’s wonderful Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting and Motivate Your Dentist. But even libertarian economists can fall prey to their inner biases. (I haven’t discovered whether Cowen calls himself a libertarian or not, but following Rush Limbaugh’s opinion that all economists worth their salt are libertarian, I suspect he is.)

At one point, Cowen briefly discusses fear of flying, citing various statistics that “prove” that flying is, hands down, much safer than driving a car. When one compares mortality rates per mile traveled and per passengers involved, the conventional figures decisively prove their point.

So why am I not scared of driving? As Ayn Rand famously stated, “Check your premises!”

Having taken flying lessons (and having had to land a single-engine plane that lost power), I have a slightly different take on the matter. A Cessna 150 with a perfectly centered dead engine practically lands itself, slowly gliding down at the proper angle, needing only a steady hand to keep it from diving into a stall. By comparison, a multi-engine jet with the reduced glide ratio that results from swept-back wings, and the out-of-balance weight and thrust from an off-center, suddenly faulty engine, almost requires a miracle to land safely.

Cowen, along with many others, believes that fear of flying is irrational. Now, I consider myself a rational empiricist, but when facing a flight, I gird my loins and make sure my affairs are in order. And I don’t think my fear is irrational. Yet I had never really tried to work out the problem until I read Tyler Cowen, who skewers popular fallacies as only a libertarian economist can. My conclusion is that he may have embraced a popular fallacy himself.

A stalled car engine is an inconvenience for, perhaps, half a dozen people at the most, while a stalled jet engine is a likely death sentence for hundreds of passengers. Having a pigeon fly into a car’s grille is startling, but it has far from the same consequences as having a pigeon fly into the cowling of a Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine.

The questions I would pose to determine the safety of flying vs. driving would be: What percentage of mechanical malfunctions in cars result in fatalities? And how many fatalities? But what percentage in planes? I’m willing to bet that mechanical malfunctions (or operator errors) in an airplane cause way more fatalities than the same problems in a car. Different premise, different conclusion.




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Clever, Not Cutesy

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Last week, producers at CBS's perennial bottom feeder, The Early Show, decided to shake things up with a clean sweep. Out went veteran anchor Harry Smith, co-anchor Maggie Rodriguez, and weatherman Dave Price. In came an astounding new idea to boost the ratings: The team of benchwarmers who used to host the Saturday version of The Early Show are now moving up to the majors. Say what?

As the New York Times pointed out in its article about this little revolution, CBS News might as well give it up. Humans are creatures of habit, and never more so than in the morning. Hit the snooze, stretch, scratch, shower, brew, and flip on the TV to hear the banter of familiar voices while getting ready for work. GMA, Today, and Fox & Friends already have a lock on the morning shows, and nothing short of something completely different from the competition — infomercials, game shows, or reruns of Mary Tyler Moore — will bring them back to CBS. Say . . .Mary Tyler Moore. Now there's an interesting idea!

Fittingly, a film about the inner workings of a morning news show hosted by geriatric veterans Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) and Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), opened the same week in which the anchors of The Early Show were given the boot. Morning Glory presents the story of Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams), the young executive producer of a morning show for the thinly disguised "IBS" network, calledDaybreak. Daybreak's ratings are so low that it is about to be cancelled. Becky has six weeks to turn the ratings around.

Despite being young, perky, prone to babble, and endearingly klutzy, Becky is totally focused on her job and has an inborn knack for successfully producing a morning news show, with its mix of entertainment and hard news. She directs the weatherman to engage in daredevil stunts and encourages the anchorwoman to let loose as well. Her only holdout is Pomeroy, a curmudgeonly Dan Rather-type who has been demoted to the morning hours against his will. He refuses to banter.

Becky's biggest problem is not the show, however. It's the lack of balance in her life. Like many newspeople, or any young professionals for that matter, she can't let go of her BlackBerry or her TV remote. Her nose is always in the air, sniffing for a story. Even when she gains the romantic interest of Adam Bennett (Patrick Wilson), a hunky producer from another show on the network, the relationship is more physical than social or emotional. In a gender role reversal that seems to be growing in popularity (watch for my reviews of Love and Other Drugs and No Strings Attached later this month), it is the modern woman who wants a "Slam, bam, thank you, man" relationship. It makes me sad just to watch.

Morning Glory is cleverly written without being cutesy, and reflective without being preachy. It offers several honest moments to ponder the importance of balancing work, play, and friendship, and redefines family in an uplifting way. A definite yes for a date night movie.


Editor's Note: Review of "Morning Glory," directed by Roger Michell. Bad Robot, 2010, 107 minutes.



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Pride and Prejudice

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A theme has been growing steadily in the statist-liberal media that the recent congressional election results were the effect of Americans’ ignorance. Examples easily come to mind.

In the recent issue of The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg rationalized Barack Obama’s various political fumbles and concluded: “Another part of the problem, it must be said, is public ignorance.”

On the cover of its November-December issue, Mother Jones continued the fetishizing of Sarah Palin, photoshopping her face into the iconic poster for the B-movie classic Attack of the 50-Foot Woman and slapping on the subtitle “A Confused and Frightened Citizenry Votes Against Its Own Self-Interest.”

This line of thinking traces back to the 2005 book What's the Matter with Kansas?, which offered the thesis — compelling to self-appointed elites — that Americans are stupid peasants, easily mesmerized by right-wing lies and distortions.

It’s inconceivable to statist twits that the peasants in flyover country might have an intuitive sense that overzealous government programs are bankrupting the United States (an intuition shared by a growing number of our lenders in Berlin and Beijing). That buncombe about “confused and frightened” may be more projection than analysis.

Recently, I spent a couple of days in Chicago in the company of my 8-year-old daughter. Near the end of our trip, we went for a walk and some window shopping along Michigan Avenue. The Holiday Season vibe was just beginning. Sidewalks and stores were fairly full. But something seemed different. Outside the American Girl store (in what used to Marshall Fields’ flagship location), a chic-looking woman having a smoke studied my daughter, looked up at me, smiled shyly, and said “hübsch” (“pretty”). I smiled back and led the 8-year-old in to gawk at hundreds of Kit Kittredges.

The woman’s compliment clarified the change for me. The urban white noise — agreeable, in small doses — didn’t just include foreign tongues; it was dominated by them. German. Spanish. French. Even some dashes of what sounded like Russian. Our currency is weak, so coming here is cheap.

America’s decline doesn’t affect the peasants living in the outlying villages so much. If they are simple, they’ve always been so; their concerns are for basic security and stability. They’re skeptical about silver-tongued promises, but they’re susceptible to moral hazard — if everyone else is elbowing up to the public trough, they will too. If everyone else minds his own business, they’ll mind theirs.

The “confused and frightened” ones are people like Hertzberg and Mother Jones. They pretend to welcome a cosmopolitan world in which American shopgirls promote nostalgic dolls to middle-aged women from Dusseldorf. But really they fear it. Bien pensant strivers are terrified of America being reduced to shopkeepers peddling kitsch. They don’t realize why, but the truth behind their fear is simple. A second-rate economic power doesn’t have much need for brainy magazines and precious pundits.

Fearful people who condescend to their fellow citizens for being fearful are the ugliest Americans of all.




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Toy Story 4

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Sunday night I saw Toy Story 3, the year’s No. 1 hit, with more than $415 million already earned at the domestic box-office. When the movie was over, my first thought, apart from how wonderful it was, was that it had a political message. There were other messages about loyalty, about not being deluded, about sticking up for yourself, and even about the proper attitude toward death. But being interested in political messages, I saw one of those as well.

I wondered what other people had seen in the film. As I read the articles and blogs, it seemed that lots of people saw a political message. Those on the Right tended to like the movie’s message, but those on the Left either viewed it unfavorably or denied there was any message at all. And as you might expect, the message was described very differently at the two ends of the spectrum.

Start with the hard Left. Here is Carl Nyberg, writing on July 1 at PrairieStateBlue.com about the plight of the toys, the major characters in the story,now that their friend Andy has grown older and is about to leave for college:

“The dilemma facing the toys is the dilemma facing industrial workers in the era of globalization. . . . Andy represents the capital class. Andy is going to college. The capital class is moving on to new investments that don't need the quantity of American labor they formerly needed.”

This seems goofy to me, but then, so do most of the views of the hard Left.

Continuing, this author declares that the message of Toy Story 3 “is that the working class squeezed by economic globalization needs to stick together, but not turn to socialism. The working class should continue to stay loyal to its political leaders, but press them to address the issues American society faces.”

The idea of Andy as a capitalist and his toys as workers never crossed my mind. Their relationship is not economic. They aren’t workers. The toys can be very energetic, but only when Andy’s not looking.

Here is another leftist, Owen, posting on Aug. 1 at TheThirdEstate.com. In a post called, “Why Toy Story 3 is evil,” Owen sees the toys as slaves of the capitalist bosses:

“You’re bought and sold, and your duty is to stay loyal to your owner, no matter how badly he treats you, how many of your friends and loved ones he gets rid of because they no longer interest him, or how long he neglects you for. If he wants to abandon you in the attic, you should be grateful — he could be throwing you out, after all. Oh, and if anyone tells you that this isn’t the way things have to be, if they tell you that maybe if you had some autonomy then you’d be able to live a decent life not dependent on the whims of those more powerful than you, then that person is a lying wannabe Stalin who’d imprison and torture you without a second thought. The continued goodwill of your private owner is the only guarantor of happiness and security. There is no freedom. There is no alternative. There is no hope.”

I guess Owen would have liked a story in which the toys revolt against the capitalistic boy, escape his oppressive house, and maybe set it on fire besides, and join the daycare center, which is really a worker’s cooperative. That wasn’t Toy Story 3.

I also found a conservative Christian interpretation. On June 20, Drew Zahn argued on WorldNetDaily that the toys represent humans and Andy represents God, and that Andy’s plan to put them in the attic “leads them to doubt Andy’s faithfulness,” which is a “parallel to people in trials doubting God’s faithfulness and love.” And when the toys are donated to a childcare center instead, and the boss toy says, “We don’t need owners; we are our own owners, masters of our own fate,” to Zahn it’s “the Snake” speaking. This promise of freedom, Zahn says, is “the so-called ‘freedom’ of atheism and/or hedonism.”

I guess you could see it that way.

A few conservatives and libertarians loved the movie so much that they went over the top. Novelist Andrew Klavan, writing on Nov. 2 in the Los Angeles Times, was one. He started his commentary with an obvious attempt to hook readers on election day:

“If indications hold true, voters Tuesday will deliver a powerful rebuke to the Obama administration and its plans to transform America. Also, ‘Toy Story 3’ will come out on DVD. These two events are not unrelated.”

That was a stretch, and the progressives lost no time in hooting about it. Wrote John Cole that same day at Balloon Juice: “The reason I am a lowly blogger and not a big time columnist is because I am not creative enough to make this shit up.”

All right; Toy Story 3 is not a political movie as such, and it is silly to tie it to the election. But when the progressives argue that there is no political message in the film, they are wrong.

If you can get past Klavan’s first paragraph, he has a strong argument.

First he recognizes that the leaders among Andy’s toys “are two iconic figures of American culture, a cowboy and an astronaut,” each of them embodying traditional American values. At the child-care center, “they meet the modern American paradigms: Lots-o'-Huggin’ Bear, Big Baby and the shallow, metrosexual Ken doll.” These promise an egalitarian society in which the toys have no owners, but “own themselves.” But the toy society is quickly revealed to be a dictatorship — and feels very much like a leftist dictatorship.

Klavan notes that at one point the shallowest of the characters — the Barbie doll — says, “Authority should be derived from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force!”

John Boot of PajamasMedia.com called this the “single funniest joke” in the movie. I guess it made him laugh. But it isn’t a gag line. It sounds artificial coming from Barbie, and I’ll bet that some of the moviemakers argued against putting it in the script. But clearly somebody wanted it in, and I’ll hazard it was for a political reason.

It is possible that it wasn’t — that the moviemakers picked up these ideas without thinking about them. Maybe — but I don’t think so. Toy Story 3 could easily have been done a much different way. The toys could have arrived at the daycare center and fomented a revolution there, creating a world kinder and more toy-centric than Andy’s.

Toy Story 3 doesn’t end that way. It ends on a theme of loyalty to the private family as a place where toys have owners and can be what they’re made to be. It is an implicitly antisocialist movie — which both sides of the political divide quickly perceived.




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127 Hours: It’s Not What You Think

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If you've been avoiding 127 Hours because you're squeamish about the subject matter, wait no longer. Yes, it does tell the story of Aron Ralston, a 28-year-old mountaineer who had to amputate his own forearm after being trapped by a huge boulder that fell on his hand in a canyon in southern Utah. But this is not a film about a man who cuts off his arm; it is a film about a man who stops at nothing to figure out a way to release himself from a life-threatening situation.

The film opens as Aron (James Franco) prepares to go bicycling in Utah’s canyon lands. As he tosses supplies into his backpack, his hand reaches for, and just misses, the Swiss Army knife stored at the back of a cupboard. Later in the day, that loss will come back to haunt him.

Riding his mountain bike at full speed toward a canyon, he hits a bump that sends him flying over the rocks, but laughingly picks himself up and gets back on the trail. Pounding techno-music at the beginning of the film mimics the throbbing adrenaline rush he seems to crave as he barrels pell-mell through existence.

But he is not a jackass adrenaline junkie. He simply has a zest for life. He is equally thrilled by the quiet spiritual rush he receives when surveying the canyon from atop a plateau (accompanied by an appropriate switch to a gentler acoustic guitar), and by the playful serendipity of meeting a couple of girls and showing them around. Entering the slot canyon that would nearly become his tomb, he caresses the smooth stone. Clearly, he feels at home. And after plummeting down the canyon wall and discovering that his hand is pinned by a huge boulder, he issues a gigantic expletive — then sets to work.

Too many people waste precious time crying over their problems or waiting for "someone" (read: the government) to fix them. But the key to success is to assume that no one is coming to bail you out.

Resourceful and self reliant to the core, he doesn't just wait for someone to save him. His two greatest assets are hisindomitable will and his problem solving instincts. Quickly he opens his backpack and sets its contents on a rock, assessing his assets. How can they become tools for his release? Soon it becomes obvious that the film is more like Apollo 13 (1995) than like the claustrophobic Buried (2010) or Saw (2004).

One of Ralston’s most urgent needs is support — physical support. The boulder didn't set him neatly on the canyon floor; he is suspended a few agonizing feet above the ground and has to press his feet and body against the canyon wall in order to keep from dangling by his trapped hand. After several futile attempts, he manages to use his climbing ropes to create a hammock that allows him to rest. At night, he wraps his bungee cords around his arms and neck to create a kind of blanket from the cold. In the morning he leans his face and body into the rocks to gather warmth from the sun that briefly enters the narrow canyon and then passes on its way. Even his dexterous toes are used as assets, foreshadowing his "new normal."

Aron's decision to give up his arm is not an example of giving up in general. Instead, it is a powerful example of his resourcefulness as a problem solver. He has calculated how many hours he can exist without water; he has accepted the fact that no one is going to come for him; he realizes that the hand is already dead and useless to him, whether it is attached or detached. He doesn't give up his arm so much as he lets go of the thing that is holding him back from his goal of going home.

Two stars emerge in this dynamic film. The first is James Franco as Aron Ralston. Franco throws himself into this role the way Aron Ralston throws himself into the canyon: with total commitment. His alternating expressions of agony, fear, determination, joy at little victories, and even ironic humor create dramatic action in a tiny, static space. Despite the horrifying story, what one remembers most about the film is Franco's plucky, exuberant smile.

The other star of the show is writer-director Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire"). He's never on camera, of course, but he enters every scene with his creative camera angles and storytelling techniques. For example, he will focus in closely on Franco's gritted teeth or bloodshot eyes, and then pull out to remind us of the desolate yet beautiful scene that is his living tomb. Tilted camera angles, dreamlike flashbacks, overwashed processing (to indicate Aron's videotape of himself), and split-screen projection of multiple realities convincingly portray Aron's mental state as the hours melt into days. The film could have been a tedious, claustrophobic trudge to the finish line, where Aron makes the gruesome decision to amputate his arm. Instead, it is a thrilling, uplifting, agonizing, and even joyous retelling of a man’s heroic determination to live.

In many ways, this film is a powerful metaphor for life in the new millennium. We hurtled our way through the go-go ’90s, pumped up by a soaring stock market and roaring real estate investments, only to get pinned down by boulders that were, as Aron philosophizes, "there all along, just waiting to meet me in that canyon." Too many people waste precious time crying over their problems or waiting for "someone" (read: the government) to fix them. But as Aron Ralston's story clearly demonstrates, the key to success is to assume that no one is coming to bail you out. Instead of worrying about the Swiss Army knife you don't have, assess the tools you do have. Keep a positive spirit. Be resourceful and self-reliant. Be a problem-solver. Remember to thank the people in your life and tell them that you love them. And don't be afraid to let go of the thing that is holding you back, even if it is as precious as an arm.


Editor's Note: Review of "127 Hours," directed by Danny Boyle. Fox Searchlight, 2010, 93 minutes.



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