Blue Sky Blu-ray Review
1962. Major Hank Marshall (Tommy Lee Jones) moves with his wife Carly (Jessica Lange) and their teenage daughters Alex (Amy Locane) and Becky (Anna Klemp) to an army base in Alabama. Hank is working on a nuclear test programme called Blue Sky. Meanwhile, stuck at home, Carly finds herself suffocated by the proprieties of military life and the expectations set on her.
When production began on Blue Sky in 1990, it’s doubtful that Tony Richardson thought it would be his final feature as director, and that he would be dead when the film was finally released in 1994, but so it proved. His career had had its ups and downs, but with an Oscar-winning performance from Jessica Lange, Blue Sky was a good send-off.
The film originated with Rama Laurie Stagner, who is credited with the story and jointly for the screenplay with Arlene Sarner and Jerry Leichtling. Blue Sky is based to an extent on her own family and older daughter Alex is something of a stand-in for her. Her father, Clyde H. Stagner, receives a credit as an advisor on nuclear effects. It juggles a number of themes. First off are the expectations on women in Kennedy-era America, particularly those married into a patriarchal organisation like the military. We see this in Carly, who appears to be bipolar (though that word, nor the more period-appropriate “manic depressive”, is not used) and with a sexuality that chafes at the restrictions placed upon it. Needless to say, Hank is criticised for not controlling her.
We see this also in a secondary storyline dealing with Alex’s coming of age. The second strand is the nuclear issue, and this is one of several films of the time that looked back on fears and concerns of a past era, just as the Cold War and its own fears of possible nuclear annihilation came to an end. See, for example, Desert Bloom, made four years earlier and set during 1950s bomb tests in Nevada, and a possible nuclear holocaust had been dramatised on the US small screen in The Day After, three years before that. This is a lot of baggage for one feature film to bear, and Blue Sky isn’t completely successful in blending it, but does it well enough to satisfy.
As a character-led acting piece, the film certainly scores. It’s as true now as then that for many women, good roles tend to dry up in their thirties, when they’re too old to play ingenues and teenage love interests, but too young for older character parts. So a role like Carly, to be played by a woman old enough to be the mother of two teenagers, didn’t come along very often, and Lange, 40 to 41 when the film was shot, is remarkable in the role. Jones is no slouch at effectively being the foil to strong performances by his leading ladies (see also Coal Miner’s Daughter from a decade earlier, in which he acted opposite an Oscar-winning Sissy Spacek) and he gives his role plenty of shadings. Hank is sympathetic if often out of his depth, and not the stiff-necked caricature soldier he could have been played as. The supporting cast is strong too.
Richardson (born in 1928 as Cecil Antonio Richardson) had begun his career on stage and television. As the original stage director of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, he made his big-screen debut with the 1959 film version, the first product of Woodfall Productions, which Richardson co-founded. The company made some groundbreaking films and hit a commercial and critical peak with Tom Jones (directed by Richardson), which won the Oscar for Best Picture, and The Knack...and How to Get It (directed by Richard Lester), which took home the Palme d’Or at Cannes, both films remaining emblematic of a country, and a capital city in particular, which was going through profound social changes – beginning to swing, in short.
The rest of Woodfall’s output is uneven, and for much of the rest of the 1960s and the 1970s it became effectively Richardson’s own production company. Its last film was Richardson’s second-last cinema feature as director, The Hotel New Hampshire in 1984. While Richardson had from the early 1960s worked outside Woodfall and in Hollywood (Sanctuary in 1961, The Loved One in 1965), it will be the films of that era he made at home for which he will be most remembered. In the 1970s his big-screen work became intermittent and not that successful, though he directed for American television as well. Blue Sky is not especially showily directed, but it does show the sense of time and place and eye for performance that marks his best work. Richardson died in 1991, aged 63, due to complications from AIDS.
Completed in and copyrighted 1991, Blue Sky was one of several films made for Orion Pictures which sat on the shelf due to the company’s bankruptcy. It was finally released on September 16, 1994 in the USA. A limited UK cinema release followed on April 7, 1995 in the wake of Lange’s Oscar and Golden Globe win, from the only nomination the film received for either award.
Blue Sky is a Region B Blu-ray release from the BFI. The film was given a 12 certificate on its original and other than between 1995 and 2002 when it had a 15 on VHS (because the 12 didn’t then exist for home viewing) that’s the certificate it retains. The two short film extras are documentaries exempted from certification, though both had U certificates on their original cinema releases.
The film was shot in 35mm colour. The Blu-ray transfer, supplied to the BFI in HD, is in the correct ratio of 1.85:1. There’s not much to say about it: it’s sharp and the colours are strong where they need to be, and grain is natural and filmlike.
The soundtrack is available in LPCM 2.0 (playing in surround) and DTS-HD MA 5.1. I watched the film with the former (closest to the original Dolby Stereo mix, as the film was made just before digital soundtracks arrived). The LPCM does feel a little more full-bodied, and slightly louder, than the DTS. The surrounds are used for the music score and some directional effects, such as the sound of helicopters. The subwoofer doesn’t get a lot of use.
The extras begin with a new commentary track by Nick Pinkerton. He’s certainly appreciative of the film and fills in a lot of background details, even if he does several times stop to give potted filmographies of particular cast and crew members. There’s the occasional error – “Melvin Murray” as the co-star of A Taste of Honey, for example – but this is an informative talk worth listening to.
Extras specific to Blue Sky continue with the film’s trailer (2:05) and a self-navigating image gallery (4:35).
This being a BFI release, it would not be complete without some extras from the archive which aren’t specific to the main feature but pick up on some of its themes. In this case, the nuclear issue, and so here are two short films, both from 1952, Operation Hurricane (33:13) and Atoms at Work (10:40). Operation Hurricane is a documentary of a nuclear bomb tests in the Monte Bello Islands, off the north coast of Australia, one of three such tests carried out by the British in the 1950s. Directed by Ronald Stark and narrated by Chester Wilmot, the film details the preparations for the tests, before the explosion itself. With some thirty miles of film shot, the film had to be approved for security reasons and so some cuts were made. The film is very sober in its approach, indeed sobering when you realise that the Islands remain radioactively dangerous to this day, nearly seventy years later. The film is in black and white, but at the end, the blast and the mushroom cloud are replayed in colour, which must have been particularly vivid at the time but sadly, the surviving colour negative from which this has been scanned has faded over the years.
Atoms at Work puts a much more positive spin on the nuclear industry. Directed by Diana Pine and narrated by Stuart Legg, it takes us behind the scenes at the Atomic Research Establishment at Harlow, Buckinghamshire, it sees atomic power as the future at a time when many people lived in fear that a bomb like the one in Operation Hurricane could bring their lives, and civilisation in general, to an abrupt halt.
The BFI’s booklet, available in the first pressing only, runs to twenty-eight pages plus covers. It begins with “Sunset Sky”, an essay by Jim Hemphill which locates Blue Sky in the context of Richardson’s career and in particular, in its view of husband/wife dynamics, compares it to Richardson’s previous cinema film, The Border. Ellen Cheshire continues with biographies of Tommy Lee Jones and Jessica Lange and then Dr Martin Hall gives an overview of Richardson’s career in the US. The booklet also has full film credits, credits and notes (both by Vic Pratt) on the extras, and stills.
Blue Sky is available own on Blu-ray from January 25.
Blue Sky (1994)
Dir: Tony Richardson | Cast: Carrie Snodgress, Jessica Lange, Powers Boothe, Tommy Lee Jones | Writers: Arlene Sarner (screenplay), Jerry Leichtling (screenplay), Rama Laurie Stagner (screenplay), Rama Laurie Stagner (story)