To Be of Service


Taking a walk with your best friend on a snowy day.

(2019) Documentary (First RunGreg Kolodziejczyk, Sylvia Bowersox, Tom Flood, Greg Wells, Terry Henry, Susan Kolodziejczyk, Brandon Lewis, Dr. Frank Ochberg, Caleb White, Jon Bowersox, Dr. Larry Decker, Amanda Flood, Walter Parker, Phil Bauer, Tom Tackett, Kellen Dewey, Dr. Edward Tick, Jamie Kolodziejczyk, Maggie O’Haire, Lu Picard, Trisha Knickerbocker. Directed by Josh Aronson

 

Something like half a million veterans currently suffer from some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Most go through the VA system and are given a dizzying array of medications; one vet described receiving 31 different pills a day to combat his mood changes. Another discusses matter-of-factly his suicide attempt that left him in a coma for 19 days.

We’ve seen films that discuss alternative treatments for those suffering from PTSD but one alternative treatment is surprisingly simple; man’s best friend. Service dogs can be a tremendous gift for someone in the throes of the disorder. Not only do they provide constant companionship and unconditional love, they can actually smell mood changes in their handlers and help alert them (and those around them) that something’s wrong.

=Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker looks at how veterans affected by PTSD can have their lives virtually turned around by the presence of a service dog. The film primarily follows three veterans suffering PTSD; Greg Kolodziejczyk, Sylvia Bowersox and Tom Flood, showing how their PSD affected their lives, their families and their ability to function before showing how service dogs helped them become functional again.

The movie appears to be somewhat haphazardly put together; one of the veterans isn’t identified until nearly halfway through the film after he’s appeared several times. We start to follow the story of one vet who lost a leg in Afghanistan and then his story just seems to stop. There are also way too many interviews with clinical psychologists telling us how dogs are beneficial to their human patients. It takes up way too much time and distracts from the stories of the vets who we really want to know more about.

The vets talk candidly about some of the things they witnessed, the feelings they had; a clearly distraught Bowersox says “That’s what happens in war; people cease to be…and there’s nothing left.” She also urges people who thank her for her service to engage her in conversation; “Ask me what I did for my service,” she says, starting to cry, “I really want to talk to you.” The anguish that these people are suffering is heartbreaking, the lives absolutely devastated by the war that they fought.

Each service dog costs around $30,000 which is much more than most vets can afford; the bulk of them have to go through charitable foundations like the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation or Paws for Vets (links to those organizations and others like them can be found at the movie’s website which you can access by clicking on the movie still above). We don’t see much about how the dogs are trained; we come into the process essentially at the point where the new handlers are trained to properly use the dogs.

There are some great stories here and Bowersox, Kolodziejczyk and Flood all make compelling subjects. I would have liked to have seen a steadier hand in the editing bay and a bit less background information. More vets, more pets, less heads; that’s my take on this.

REASONS TO SEE: Clearly shows the bond between service dogs and their handlers.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too many talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, as well as discussion of some horrific incidents during war.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jon Bon Jovi recorded a song for the soundtrack and is also releasing it as a single; the proceeds will go to benefit the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: From Shock to Awe
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Crown Vic

From War to Wisdom


The real battle begins when they get home.

(2017) Documentary (Vision) Josh Hisle, Scott Blakley, Matt Lorscheider, Kenny Bass, Hans Palmer, Ragtime, Neil Young, Frank Weston, Nick Salcedo, Jared Vrazel, Edward Smith, Justin Oxenrider, Rick Pickeral, Tyler Engel, Travis Elfgren, Josh Rivers, Mike Whiter, Mike Cerre, Walt Michael, Tony Trischka, Mark Llano, Ramez Wahab, Bryan Sellers, Brenda Anna. Directed by Dan Collins and Josh Hisle

 

As a general rule, we tend to honor our combat veterans. We appreciate the service they do for us, putting their lives in harm’s way and triumphing. They represent the best aspects of our society – the sacrifice that we make for the freedoms we enjoy. We literally can’t honor them enough for what they have done and continue to do.

But in truth we don’t truly understand; not really. We can mouth platitudes as I have just done but unless you’ve served in a combat situation, there’s simply no way for us to really empathize for what they’ve been through. We haven’t taken fire, seen our buddies shredded by shrapnel, watch our mentor take a gunshot through the head, felt a bullet whizzing by that missed us by a hair’s breadth and slammed into the face of the guy behind us. We haven’t taken bullets for our brothers nor have we watched our brothers take one for us. We don’t know.

For that reason, we make war with impunity and send our kids out as kids but see them come home as warriors. Once they get home, we pat them on the back, tell them well done and expect them to get on with their lives as if nothing has happened. I’m not sure where that mindset came from but the fact of the matter is that nobody who goes to war comes home unchanged. It’s not possible. That change often can be disturbing; it is common for returning veterans to have severe insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), nightmares (and occasional hallucinations), chemical and alcohol dependency and difficulty fitting back in to society. The incidence of homelessness among vets is staggering as is the divorce rate. Even more disturbing is the high suicide rate among veterans.

This documentary focuses on the Marine Corps Fox 2/5 company, one of the most decorated in the Corps. They have an illustrious history and those in it wish to pass on their honorable record to the newest members of the company. Josh Hisle was one of those in Fox 2/5 and he is essentially the main focus, although not the only one. We see them through two tours of combat; the first being the invasion of Iraq in 2003 followed by the Ramadi campaign in 2005. In the first they are viewed by the locals as liberators; in the second they are viewed as invaders.

The combat footage is at times harrowing and we get a real sense of how men react to combat; some of them have big smiles on their faces as combat can be exhilarating; others scream war cries and we are reminded that combat can bring out the savage within us. In both cases we get a sense of the emotional toll of war, more than any other documentary has brought us close to that I can remember.

More poignant than that though are the stories of the warriors returning home; Those who spend sleepless nights in their refuge; Hisle talks about being unable to sleep until he’s sure everyone in his apartment complex is asleep. He sits on his front porch drinking and with his head decidedly not in a good place. However, Hisle is one of the lucky ones; he has a creative outlet in songwriting that helps him to work out some of his frustrations.

And his music is really, really good; good enough to attract the attention of legendary rocker Neil Young who invites the young vet to appear in onstage with him and his group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young as well as in his documentary CSNY: Deja Vu. Walt Michael, one of the founders of Common Grounds on the Hill, a group dedicated to highlighting the things that are common to all of us regardless of culture, heard some of Josh’s music and wanted him to attend one of their festivals as a music teacher. Josh was so impressed and was so moved that he convinced Walt to create a Veteran’s initiative, securing funding to get veterans in need of healing to a Common Grounds festival. Josh is convinced that Common Grounds has helped right his life and he has become a passionate advocate of it. This will be the fifth year that the Veteran’s initiative will be in effect.

In fact, several veterans have committed to creating positive changes for their fellow veterans. Matt Lorscheider, who served with Josh in the 2/5, is working with New Directions, a charitable foundation that takes homeless veterans off the streets, gives them vocational training, substance abuse counseling and helps them secure affordable permanent housing. Kenny Bass who was disabled during his tour of Iraq was told by his Veterans Administration doctor that he needed a service dog – but that is something not covered by his benefits. Kenny, on disability and a fixed income, basically had to save every penny to afford the $25,000 needed to purchase a service dog who has helped the quality of life for the veteran immensely. He and his war buddy Josh Rivers decided to turn his difficulty into a positive and founded their own charitable foundation Battle Buddies which helps veterans in need of service dogs be able to purchase one.

This isn’t a political film, although there is a decidedly anti-war skew here among the veterans but one can hardly blame them for that – nobody would want anybody else to go through what they have gone through. Hisle was blunt about his criticisms about certain decisions made during the war; ‘We were trained killers. You don’t send killers to keep the peace. It doesn’t work.” He has a point.

The one small complaint I might have had about the film is that they could have edited it down a bit more; the combat sequences while harrowing do get repetitive and I’m not 100% certain that we needed all of them in the film as the running time is a bit long for this kind of film. Less is more, generally although I would bow to the wisdom of Hisle and the other veterans behind the making of this film as to how much war we civilians need to see.

To a man none of the vets regret their service and would go back in a heartbeat – but only for the sake of those they served with, not for the reasons they were sent there in the first place. This is truly an inspiring documentary that shows you that these Marines are truly leaders of men. They have the will and the training to do tremendous things in the name of war. They also have the drive and the leadership to do amazing things in the name of peace. Our veterans are a resource this nation is truly squandering at present and all of us, the citizens of this country, are partly to blame. We have dropped the ball for those who have sacrificed so much and we need to give our veterans more than platitudes. By all means, do see this movie and be inspired but let that inspiration be more than just lip service; donate to these excellent causes that are helping veterans every day heal and resume their lives. That’s a way of showing your gratitude that truly matters.

REASONS TO GO: It’s truly inspiring to see veterans rising up to help one another – and truly depressing that our own government is not. The exhilaration and savagery of combat is depicted graphically. Hisle’s music is actually really good. In many ways the post-homecoming stories are more poignant.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie could have used a bit more editing
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and scenes of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the footage from the Iraqi conflict was taken by the embedded press with USMC Fox 2/5.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stop-Loss
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Rings

Home of the Brave (2006)


A sadly far-too-common sight during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

A sadly far-too-common sight during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

(2006) War Drama (MGM) Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel, Christina Ricci, Brian Presley, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Chad Michael Murray, Victoria Rowell, Jeff Nordling, Vyto Ruginis, Sam Jones III, James MacDonald, Sandra Nelson, Ginger Ewing, Jack Serino, Brendan Wayne, Mohamed Zinathiah, Richard De Mayo, Kiara Johnson, Joyce M. Cameron. Directed by Irwin Winkler

For three soldiers serving in Iraq, the word has come down; they’re shipping back home in two weeks. When in Hollywood, that’s a sure sign that something Bad is about to happen.

And so it does. Dr. Will Marsh (Jackson), Vanessa Price (Biel), Tommy Yates (Presley) and Jamal Aiken (50 Cent) are part of an Army National Guard humanitarian convoy bringing medical supplies and personnel to a small Iraqi village when they are ambushed by insurgents. The firefight is sudden and brutal, with the soldiers taking on well-armed adversaries. None of them get out without some kind of wound; Vanessa loses her hand in a roadside bomb explosion, Jamal accidentally shoots an unarmed civilian, Tommy takes a minor wound to his leg and as a result is unable to help when his best friend is killed. As for Marsh, he’s supposed to stitch them all together.

Once they recover from their physical wounds, they’re all shipped home and essentially left to fend for themselves. The VA bureaucracy is bewildering for some, while others fail to take advantage of the programs that are available to help them cope. Vanessa is having problems dealing with her mutilation; not only is she having physical problems adjusting to the prosthetic, her emotional issues are threatening to overwhelm her and alienate her from her family. Jamal is angry and frustrated; his former girlfriend Keisha (Ewing) refuses to have anything to do with him and he can’t seem to navigate the paperwork that will help him get the treatment he needs for his injured back. Tommy is aimless and drifting, unable to handle the guilt of failing his friend; on top of that, he finds himself attracted to his dead buddy’s girlfriend (Ricci), but neither of them seem able to help the other cope with their grief.

Dr. Marsh seems to have the most complex issues. His teenage son (Jones) is angry (what teenage son isn’t?) and takes it out on his father, who struggles to understand him. His wife (Rowell) in turn wants to help him with his pain, but can’t find any sort of common ground to begin with, even if he was willing to let her in which he isn’t. Instead, he turns to the bottle to ease his suffering, with predictable results.

The turmoil of soldiers placed into extremely stressful situations returning into a normal life is daunting. Not many go through the process unscathed but which of these returning vets will break and which, if any, will overcome?

Outside of Jackson, Biel and Ricci, few of the cast were really name actors at the time this was made. Jackson is, as always, terrific as the tormented medic while Ricci has only a couple of scenes in which to display her grief, which to her credit doesn’t seem to be a product of Acting Out Grief 101. Most of the rest of the cast is solid, although 50 Cent at times has difficulty enunciating in one of his first screen roles – his third, to be exact. As for the rest of the cast, most resist the urge to denigrate drama into melodrama but some succumb to the temptation.

The battle sequences are pulse-pounding and realistic, although it reminded me a little bit of the ambush sequence in Clear and Present Danger. Winkler is a veteran director and does a solid job of moving the story along. While the script is extremely flawed in terms of its characterization of the emotional state of the majority of our veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, the elements that work do so extremely well.

I’ll pretty much see Samuel L. Jackson in just about anything. Yeah, he can be over-the-top but he’s never boring. Winkler manages to make each soldier’s story gripping and you wind up caring about the characters and being interested in their individual journeys but the movie doesn’t really add anything to the overall conversation. In a lot of ways, the topic is and has been better explored in documentaries about the subject. I was disappointed that the script portrayed all of the returning veterans as psychotic, which is not true of the majority of returning war veterans. Yes, there are plenty of Iraq War vets who have problems returning to normal life, but there are plenty who are able to adjust without falling apart.  I’m not saying that they all come through unscathed and adjust easily to civilian life, but most don’t have the extreme reactions these vets did. I would have hoped for more realistic portrayals of vets adjusting to their return to normal life. In short, this is no Best Days of Our Lives.

While this seems to be a modern take on The Best Years of Our Lives, there is at least enough about it that give it some resonance. However, the 1946 movie about returning WWII vets is still the best movie ever produced on the subject and let’s face it, Jessica Biel is no Harold Russell. There is some resonance here however, particularly given the recent VA scandal and the difficulties veterans are encountering getting the assistance they need. Overall I have to say that I found myself interested in the lives of these soldiers and if you get me to that point, that’s half the battle.

WHY RENT THIS: Jackson is always interesting. Opening ambush sequence very powerful.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Heavy-handed. Doesn’t really cover any new ground.
FAMILY MATTERS: The subject matter is difficult for less mature audience members to latch onto, and the ambush sequence is fairly realistic, particularly when the roadside bomb does its work. The language is salty throughout; definitely not for younger and more sensitive types.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The closing credits song, “Try Not to Remember” performed by Sheryl Crow was nominated for a Golden Globe.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a trivia track on the Blu-Ray edition; the DVD edition has the usual audio commentary and deleted scene.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $499,620 on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stop-Loss
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Deli Man

American Sniper


Taking aim on controversy.

Taking aim on controversy.

(2014) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Luke Grimes, Keir O’Donnell, Sammy Sheik, Leonard Roberts, Cory Hardrict, Eric Ladin, James Ryen, Jake McDorman, Eric Aude, Navid Nagahban, Mido Hamada, Kathe Mazur, Sam Jaeger, Chance Kelly, Elise Robertson, Ben Reed, Marnette Patterson. Directed by Clint Eastwood

As we deal with the aftermath of our country’s adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq as it seems we are preparing to do battle with ISIS, it behooves us to seek out the aftermath of those who fought those wars. War is never easy on those who fight it, regardless of the reasons they have for leaving their homes and their families and going off to some godforsaken place to kill other human beings. We often take that part of our armed forces for granted.

Chris Kyle (Cooper), a proud Texan and would-be cowboy, goes because he feels that after 9-11, it is his duty to protect a country that he loves. He leaves behind a wife Taya (Miller), a strong woman of no uncertain opinions who eventually falls for the burly Texan despite having exceedingly low expectations when first they met. He joins the Navy SEALs mainly because he believes them to be the toughest SOBs in the military.

Kyle proves to be a gifted sharpshooter who is perfect for sniper duty. His first action requires him to make an agonizing decision when it seems that a young boy is getting ready to hurl an explosive at an American convoy in full sight of his mother, who handed him the device. He waits until the last possible second, before it becomes apparent that his intentions are to blow up the convoy; then Kyle shoots him dead, and then his mother for good measure when it appears she’s going to finish the job her son was unable to. Far from being a moment of triumph, it deeply affects the young SEAL deeply. When he sees a terrorist (Hamada) put a drill through the head of a child while his parents watch, he decries the Iraqis as savages and it’s hard not to argue with him.

Kyle goes through four tours, and each time he returns home as Taya puts it, he’s not really there. He’s nervous, jumpy, living very much inside his head while Taya tries desperately to reach him, to get her husband back. By now Kyle is also a dad, and while he goes through the motions of being a father and assures VA psychotherapists as well as his immediate family that everything is fine, everything clearly is not. He only seems to be whole in country.

As he piles up the confirmed kills, he gets the nickname of Legend which at first makes him uncomfortable but eventually he grows to accept. It is a mark of the respect in which his peers hold him as he becomes the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, for all the lives of American military men he saves with his unerring aim and precise shots. There is however a counterpart within the ranks of the enemy, one known as Mustafa (Sheik) who is in many ways a mirror image of Kyle – a family man, one obsessed by his work and absolutely deadly. Somehow Kyle needs to survive his tours and come back to his wife and family – a whole man.

Clint Eastwood has become over the years a great American film director and although he has had his share of missteps (cough Jersey Boys cough cough) his consistency has been as good as any. In a lot of ways this is going to be counted as one of his best works ever, although it is steeped in controversy more because of the subject matter than anything else.

There are those who have decried the film because in their minds it glorifies an individual who shouldn’t be glorified. Many have pointed out that the real Kyle, on whose autobiography this is based, consistently identified Muslims as savages (which he does in the film on one occasion) and has been labeled a racist because of it. He has also been taken to task for exaggerations or making up incidents out of whole cloth.

These are two separate issues and on the first, I can only say that it was common for veterans of war to dehumanize those they fought against. It is one way for the psyche to cope with having to kill other human beings. If they aren’t human, if they’re savages, it makes it easier to justify what you’re doing. Thinking that way may not necessarily be politically correct but it’s at least understandable.

The other can also be looked upon as something of a Texas thing. Now, making up a story in which former governor and ex-Navy SEAL himself Jesse Ventura was rude and insulting to fellow SEALs who were mourning a friend and getting clocked by Kyle is wrong and Ventura – who has been excoriated for doing so – has every right to defend his reputation, even if it means suing the widow of the man responsible because she is after all profiting from the story in a matter of speaking, since the story is a part of his best-selling book. While I give veterans a good deal of leeway in their behaviors, they are nonetheless responsible for their actions when they return home and are liable for the consequences of those actions.

That said, I don’t think this film glorifies war at all or this one in particular – at one point, at a soldier’s funeral, an unidentified woman who I assume is the soldier’s mother reads a handwritten eulogy condemning the war – but rather tries to give us insight into those who fought it. For me, the most compelling material is when Kyle is home, struggling to be home and be present with his family. It takes a good deal of time for him to finally want to be home, to finally let go of his feeling of duty and to get past his need to be a hero which the real Kyle was often accused of and Eastwood seems to agree was part of the man’s psychological make-up.

Cooper, who added 40 pounds for the role, really inhabits the role of Kyle, who actually resembled the late wrestler Chris Benoit in reality. It’s a mesmerizing performance certainly worthy of the Oscar nomination he received. Cooper’s Kyle moves from a fairly normal aw-shucks cowboy to a heroic sniper in the field to a terse, uncommunicative stone wall of a man at home. It’s a brilliant performance that shouldn’t be missed.

Sienna Cooper’s performance as Taya is also flawless. It’s so good I wish the script and Eastwood would have devoted more time to her; at times she almost becomes one-dimensional because she’s trying to convince her husband to leave the war behind and be home. How she kept her family together, how she weathered those times when he was home and not with her (it must have been heartbreaking) would have added more nuance to the film overall. I’d have gladly sacrificed some of the battle sequences of Kyle in country for that.

About those battle sequences; they can be pretty intense and for those who might be sensitive to such things, you should be forewarned that there are scenes that are quite disturbing. However, the rest of us will find them, as I did, absolutely mesmerizing and keep you on the edge of your seat, as I was.

I don’t know why we need our heroes to be absolutely perfect. Nobody is, and Chris Kyle certainly wasn’t. I don’t know that I agree with all of his views or approve of some of the things he said. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great soldier, an expert marksman or a hero for saving the lives of hundreds and perhaps thousands of American troops. I do believe that for most people, how you feel about the war will color your perceptions of this film. The conservative right are hailing the movie as a masterpiece (which it isn’t – Unforgiven was far better) while the progressive left are decrying it as propaganda which it also isn’t. What it is when you get right down to it is a terrific movie about war itself, about surviving it not only physically but emotionally and mentally as well, and how hard it can be to come home when the tour of duty ends.

REASONS TO GO: Cooper is brilliant. Realistic and often heart-stopping battle sequences. Admirably allows viewers to make their own minds up.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally too intense for the sensitive. I would have liked to have gotten a little deeper into the mind of Taya.
FAMILY VALUES: Much gunfire and war violence, some of it quite disturbing. There’s also plenty of colorful language with some sexual references involved.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Chris Kyle and the real Marcus Luttrell of Lone Survivor fame actually met in SEAL school and became close friends which they remained for the rest of Kyle’s life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stop-Loss
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: A Most Violent Year

Dolphin Tale


Dolphin Tale

"Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up"

(2011) Family (Warner Brothers) Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Kris Kristofferson, Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Austin Stowell, Frances Sternhagen, Austin Highsmith, Michael Roark, Richard Libertini, Tom Nowicki. Directed by Charles Martin Smith

“Just because you’re hurt doesn’t mean you’re broken” says one wise character in this movie and that has a real ring of truth to it. There was a time when having a disability meant you were limited, but in this day and age of technological marvels that’s no longer the case. As a disabled person myself, I can tell you first hand that you’re only as broken as you allow yourself to be.

Sawyer (Gamble) is a kid from a broken home; his dad left ages ago and has disappeared off the face of the Earth as far as Sawyer and his plucky single mom (Judd) is concerned. Sawyer is socially awkward and a bit of a loner and things are going from bad to worse; his cousin Kyle (Stowell), a swimming champion at Clearwater High, is joining the Army and going off to the Middle East. Sawyer is bummed; he idolized his cousin and had expected he would try out for the Olympic Team but Kyle knows he needs money to train for that and a stint in the Army would give him that.

On his way to summer school (Sawyer, in addition to not fitting in with his peers is failing at school) Sawyer is flagged down by a surf fisherman (Libertini)  who has found a dolphin washed to shore. The dolphin is tangled up in the lines of a crab trap. Sawyer calls 911 on his cell phone and races down to the surf to cut the animal free from its bonds.

Concerned vets from the local Clearwater Marine Hospital led by dashing Dr. Clay Haskett (Connick) and his plucky daughter Hazel (Zuehlsdorff – there is no shortage of plucky in family films) come and rescue the dolphin. Sawyer becomes intrigued by the dolphin and goes to the Marine Hospital where he meets Hazel again and the plucky pelican Roofus (because he lives on the roof). Dr. Haskett is about to shoo Sawyer away but he notices that the gravely injured Winter responds to the boy’s presence and allows him to stay as kind of a junior volunteer.

This serves to energize Sawyer and give him a purpose he’s never had before. However, Winter’s injuries are too severe and her tail has to be amputated. Winter learns how to swim using an entirely different tail motion but this is creating extreme stress on her spinal column that might just kill her if something isn’t done.

On top of that cousin Kyle has returned from war badly injured and unable to walk properly, his dream of Olympic gold silenced forever. He has entered a deep depression and is staying at the local VA Hospital where a concerned prosthetist named Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Freeman) is fitting Kyle for a new leg. Sawyer realizes that a prosthesis might be the key to Winter’s survival and despite feeling sad at Kyle’s despondency  has the presence of mind to seek out Dr. McCarthy to help with his friend.

The initial attempts to get Winter to accept her new prosthetic tail are a disaster as Winter rejects each one. To top it all off, the Marine Hospital is in severe financial difficulties and a real estate mogul (Nowicki) has put in an offer the board (led by the redoubtable Sternhagen) of the Hospital can’t refuse, one which would involve tearing down the facility, moving the animals elsewhere and putting up a new hotel. Things are looking as ominous as the sky before a hurricane – which is about to strike.

Smith, best known as an actor in such classics as American Graffiti and Starman has directed such family fare as the forgettable Air Bud, hits a home run here. A lot of family films are a bit too sweet, like lemonade with too much sugar in it. You feel like gagging when you’re leaving the theater.

Not so here. Yes, there’s charm in a Free Willy kind of way but there are also some underlying messages about not giving up whatever the obstacle, and looking at those with disabilities in a different light.

This is based on a true story and it’s true in that there is a dolphin named Winter that was fitted for a prosthetic tail and acts as inspiration to the disabled everywhere. However, most of what you see here is fiction and Hollywoodized for family viewing. There are no kids in the real Winter’s story and teams of doctors instead of one prosthetist.

Gamble does a pretty good job as Sawyer but I’m still wrestling with whether his character was needed in the movie at all. From a marketing standpoint, very much so – the kids need someone to identify with if you’re going to get them to see the movie. However, from a story standpoint no. There is no way on Earth any sort of reputable marine vet would let a kid anywhere near a dolphin this badly injured.

Be that as it may, the movie is satisfying on several levels. The acting is pretty solid throughout, with Freeman as the idiosyncratic curmudgeon prosthetist and Kristofferson as Dr. Haskett’s salty dad. Judd is the lone exception; she seems a bit uncomfortable in her very brief role. Best of all is Winter, who plays herself. Watching her in action is astonishing, and the CGI versions of her are seamless.

The town of Clearwater is presented as an idyllic, all-American community (which is pretty much true) although it is in reality a little larger than it seems to be here. Having been to Clearwater and the Marine Aquarium (although this was pre-Winter), I can tell you that the filmmakers got that part of it right.

Good family movies have to appeal to the entire family, not just the ones who are wearing shoes that light up every time they step, or have little wheels so they can roller about. It’s helpful when they have some valuable life lessons for the kids and are at least reasonably palatable for their moms and dads (or grandmas and granddads) who are paying for their tickets. This one fits the bill. Yes, I find it disturbing that the story of Winter – which is truly amazing even without the enhancements – was fictionalized to the extent that it was but it still remains an inspiring and affecting family film that I think any parent should feel good about taking their kids to.

REASONS TO GO: Feel-good movie that is inspiring for the entire family. Some insightful subtexts as well as solid acting performances and of course Winter herself.

REASONS TO STAY: Was the inclusion of the kid as a lead character really necessary? There are a lot of family film clichés here.

FAMILY VALUES: Some kids will find the clinical treatment of Winter’s injuries a little rough.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the movie was filmed at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Winter’s real home. Producers built a new 80,000 gallon pool for filming.

HOME OR THEATER: There is nothing wrong with keeping the kids at home and seeing this on your own television.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Stone