Blue Sky ★★★

Englishman Tony Richardson carved his reputation as a director in the late 1960s and 1970s though increasingly ventured abroad – to Australia for Ned Kelly and then to the USA where he applied his vision to Americana. His unusual irreverence was most evident in the peculiar though critically ill-fated adaptation of The Hotel New Hampshire. Towards the end of the 1980s he made Blue Sky in part about American social and military ethics in the age of nuclear testing. Less distinctive in tone than his more celebrated works it was nevertheless consistent with Richardson’s joint themes of socialization and human conduct. However, the studio became entrenched in financial troubles and the film subsequently spent many years unreleased. By the time it did gain a limited theatrical release actor Tommy Lee Jones had become a major star and Oscar winner. Indeed, director Richardson had consistently drawn praise for his handling of actors and here steered Jessica Lange to one of her most acclaimed dramatic roles. Despite the noteworthy performances Blue Sky failed to make an impact and Richardson died within a year of its release. As his directorial swansong, Blue Sky is a quietly realized character study that attempts to make a point regarding the moral climate of the early 1960s. Despite this context, the film is obliged to play through with its rather more obligatory conspiratorial aspects.

Blue Sky takes place in the late 1950s / early 1960s. A military officer (Tommy Lee Jones) is a nuclear researcher whose discoveries have made him highly concerned about the safety of US above-ground nuclear testing and sceptical towards government and military policies regarding such. He is married and has two daughters. His wife (Jessica Lange) has severe emotional problems and an exhibitionist streak that both attracts men to her and offends the moral standards of the military. Lange wishes that she could have been a movie star of some description and indeed lives her life as if she were one. Her difficulties thus occur when she comes down from her highs and realizes both her lower socio-economic standards and her marital status. Her relations are further strained when Jones’ new superior officer (Powers Boothe), a married man himself, takes an adulterous sexual interest in Lange who is also drawn to the prospect. However, Jones has an added responsibility on his mind when project Blue Sky carries out a nuclear test that accidentally irradiates two passers-by. When Jones protests, he is detained by the military, leading Boothe to convince the vulnerable Lange to have her husband committed. Lange goes along with this but when she visits Jones in a mental hospital and sees his medicated state she realizes her mistake and fights to draw attention to his plight.

Blue Sky uses its mismatched husband and wife to explore conventional codes of social morality and interpersonal responsibility which it then contrasts to the presumably larger responsibility of nuclear testing and military ethics. Although it never fully integrates these two topics, it does suggest in Powers Boothe’s officer a morally hypocritical Patriarchy that would suppress the individual dissenter and uncaringly experiment with dangerous weapons. Jones’ vulnerability lies in his eventual reliance on his unconventional wife to expose a truly unethical military procedure. Galvanized by such a purpose the wayward Lane must ironically appeal to a higher ranking officer, one who has a moral code. Indeed, Richardson wants to believe that the military’s moral code is still thriving, if dormant, and the film urges a kind of responsibility based on moral connection: adultery is a betrayal, but love and respect and an awareness of humane obligation can overcome such factors. The film thus concerns the acceptance of such moral obligation by Lange as she moves marital irresponsibility to a willingness to confront and rectify the consequences of her actions. In helping her husband she seemingly seeks a personal validation. She realizes her emotional dependence on her husband, whom she calls “daddy”, and thus fights to protect him from harm, in the process bringing her own needs into stronger self-focus.

Despite the plot concerning nuclear experimentation and the perhaps inevitable military cover-ups that follow it, much of the film’s focus is on Lange. She likes to be looked at and sexually desired as if this objectification validates her belief that she could and indeed should have been something more than she is. Other women recognize her sexuality, with Boothe’s wife characterizing her as the kind of woman that makes men interested in all women. Thus, as an analysis of feminine free-spiritedness in the early 1960s, before the rise of the women’s movement, Blue Sky makes for interesting viewing, duly suggesting that Lange’s independent will is bound in moral codes that restrict and confine her emotionally as they build conflicting desires and dependencies, though the film implies that her spirited influence will eventually be for the better of her daughters. Indeed, her eldest daughter is initially a more responsible and stable person than is her mother, furthering the sense that, for Richardson, Blue Sky is about the necessity for shared emotional, social, moral and ethical responsibility at all levels of the American societal and military compact. The military ethos thus condenses the nature of responsible conduct. The theme is not overstated and depends on strong performances, all of which are amply sustained.