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A Director's Swan Song

If BLUE SKY looks like a throwback, it's not because the film was finished in 1991, just before the death of director Tony Richardson, and it's not because the story is set in 1962, on a military base in Alabama. What makes it feel like a Hollywood film from another era is its belief that character can drive a movie; that there is nothing more fascinating than the complexities of the human heart. If that's now considered old-fashioned, too bad for us.

In the movie, held up by Orion Pictures' financial woes, Jessica Lange plays the difficult heroine, Carly, a beautiful, unstable army wife whose mood swings are dangerously volatile. Tommy Lee Jones is her patient husband, Hank, a military scientist studying the effects of radiation in A-bomb testing. He adores her, but she pushes him to the edge with her exhibitionism, her rages and the affairs she rushes into and regrets. Ever the scientist, he holds to the belief that "love is the exchange of energy over time." Their kids are less philosophical. "He's blind and she's crazy," the older of their two daughters (the excellent Amy Locane) bitterly observes, fed up with their marital flare-ups. She's a wise child, but there's more to her parents' marriage than pathology; in the remarkable, unlikely chemistry between the combustible Lange and the steady, conscientious Jones we come to see why this tempestuous relationship endures. Richardson oversaw many great performances (Olivier in "The Entertainer," Tom Courtenay in "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," Jack Nicholson in "The Border"), and the work of Lange and Jones is in the same, very major league.

Against this portrait of a manic marriage the screenplay (by Rama Laurie Stagner, Arlene Sarner and Jerry Leichtling) weaves in -- not altogether smoothly -- the military's attempt to cover up its criminal negligence in atomic testing. The private and public stories merge when Carly has an affair with her husband's commanding officer (Powers Boothe). Wanting her for himself and determined to prevent Hank from blowing the whistle on a Nevada test that recklessly endangered lives, he commits Hank to a mental institution. This is powerful stuff in its own right, but it's resolved in a pat, perfunctory, melodramatic rush. Richardson's heart is in the relationship, and he seems so eager to get the plot points out of the way that the final 20 minutes of "Blue Sky" are a bit of a shambles.

Yet the melodrama can be forgiven. What lingers in the mind is Richardson's hard-won, grown-up humanism. Most filmmakers today think their job is done when they've created lovable (or hateable) characters. He pursued tougher, more ambiguous insights, and "Blue Sky" is filled with them. It's the rare love story that's not about the first flush, but the long, much harder haul.

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