Blue Sky ★★★★½

Before he died in 1991, Tony Richardson completed this difficult, superb swan song; unfortunately, it was one of the films sucked into the whirlpool when its distributor Orion hit bottom, and it was shelved for three years. Set in the early ‘60s and based on co-scripter Rama Laurie Stagner’s childhood experiences, it’s a messy but satisfying examination of a mysterious love. Carly (Jessica Lange), an effusive Southern belle, and her husband Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), an Army scientist working on nuclear testing, move from one military base to another with their daughters (Amy Locane and Anna Klemp). Hank is a methodical and sensible man; he has to be, because Carly is a bit nuts. There’s a suggestion of abuse in her past, and the rootlessness and conformity of being a military wife also play substantial roles in unhinging her. Carly doesn’t mean to hurt Hank, but she just can’t help acting up and embarrassing him.

At first Jessica Lange is hard to take, and we look at Hank and think “What a saint.” But then we meet some of the other wives, dutiful and gossipy, who don’t create problems for their husbands — and who, at least in part, enable the men to pursue their inhumane testing with clear consciences. Carly emerges as a heroic figure, the only woman unstable enough to upset the Army structure and crazy enough to come to Hank’s rescue. Lange’s fierce, moving performance deservedly won her a surprise Oscar.