"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, January 16, 2023

A Flash of Green

What is the price for one’s soul? Is it ever worth the price, to betray loved ones, those who matter most to you? This is the dilemma that newspaper reporter Jimmy Wing (Ed Harris) wrestles with in A Flash of Green (1984), Victor Nunez’s adaptation of John D. MacDonald’s 1962 novel of the same name. As with all of the filmmaker’s films, this one is, first and foremost, a fascinating character study with a conflicted protagonist at its center.
Jimmy is a reporter for a local Florida newspaper in 1961. Developers are trying to buy Grassy Bay, a body of water in the heart of Palm City. Their goal: fill it in so that they can build homes on it, making a lot of money in the process. Some of its residents, however, have formed a committee called Save Our Bay (S.O.B.) to stop it, citing egregious environmental damage if it goes through.
Jimmy meets with Elmo Bliss (Richard Jordan), a county commissioner, to get the skinny on the development. He is told that the plan is to create an island, populating it with homes; as he puts it, “We’re going to manufacture a paradise.” Elmo is tired of being a commissioner and is going to run for the governor’s mansion. He plans to use the money he makes from Grassy Bay to fund his campaign. He wants Jimmy to spy on the S.O.B.s and dig up dirt on them … for a price, of course. He lays it all out for the reporter when he tells him, “World needs folks like me. Folks with a raw need for power. Without us, wouldn’t anything ever get done.”

Initially, Jimmy stays neutral, giving Katherine Hobble (Blair Brown), one of leaders of the eco-group, a heads up and she begins to rally the locals to stop it. He checks in on her and her two children from time to time as her husband - his best friend -- died a year ago. The steady income from Elmo, however, sways Jimmy, who is adrift in life. Adding to the weight of this decision is his wife, Gloria (Tiel Rey), who suffers from a degenerative brain disorder that her doctors understand little about and from which, it appears, she will never recover. The rest of the film plays out his moral dilemma – help Elmo for the money and in doing so betray Kat, the woman he loves but is afraid to admit it, even to himself.
Ed Harris delivers a memorable turn as a man faced with a conflict, a crisis of conscience. The deeper Jimmy digs for dirt for Elmo, the more morally compromised he becomes. He passively watches as his friends are railroaded by local politicians. Why is Jimmy willing to do this? Has his wife’s medical condition left him so cynical that he doesn’t care about anything? Kat and her kids humanize him, give him something to care about – a life he’d like to have. Jimmy’s actions are ruining people’s lives … good, decent people he’s known for years. Even those closest to him, like Kat, are being harassed on the phone by religious zealots, surreptitiously employed by Elmo to scare of members of the S.O.B. Harris does an excellent job conveying the guilt that plays across Jimmy’ face when the S.O.B. fall apart, knowing that it is because of his actions.
Richard Jordan does an excellent job of expressing Elmo’s passion for the development deal. He’s honest with Jimmy about his ambitions but not about how far he will go to realize them. Jordan is a fascinating actor to watch as he so effortlessly disappears into his character, something he did often in such diverse films as The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Mean Season (1985), and The Hunt for Red October (1990). In A Flash of Green, Elmo is the obvious villain of the film, but Jordan resists the urge to play him that way, even when he obliquely admits to sending guys to beat-up Jimmy repeatedly in the hopes of ‘persuading’ him to leave town after he turns the tables on Elmo. It is hinted that these two men have known each other for many years, the only reason why Elmo doesn’t have Jimmy killed.

Blair Brown is also very good as a woman still struggling with the loss of her husband, raising two children, trying to protect the bay from greedy developers, and sorting out her feelings for Jimmy. She has a lot on her plate and Brown’s intelligent, layered performance results in a fascinating character. At times, it is painful to watch her and the other committee members struggle against more powerful forces that they have no hope of beating. Brown resists any urge to inflate Kat’s fight to heroic heights, as one would see in a Hollywood movie, and instead opts to have that be only one of many aspects of her rich character.
There are also memorable minor roles, such as George Coe as a fellow journalist who doesn’t have the stomach for the darker stories that he and Jimmy sometimes cover. His response is to get so drunk that Jimmy must take him to his wife who cares for him. Even his character has his own arc and finds a way to redeem himself as he does his own part in the unfolding drama.
Sam Gowan, who had worked on Victor Nunez’s first film, Gal Young ‘Un (1979), went on to work at the University of Florida Libraries as the assistant director for special resources. Part of his division was the John D. MacDonald repository. MacDonald was a successful crime author, both critically and commercially, with his series of Travis McGee novels, and 1957 novel The Executioners adapted into film twice, in 1962 and 1991. Gowan and his wife enjoyed the man’s novels and she suggested asking Nunez to adapt one of them. Warner Bros., however, owned long-term options on all the Travis McGee novels, save for a couple of the early ones, which were available. He contacted MacDonald’s agent in Los Angeles and worked out a deal that required a small payment up front and a loaded backend, whereby if the film did well financially, the author would be paid more.

The budget for A Flash of Green was $750,000, ten times larger than Gal Young ‘Un. Half of the budget came from a small group of local investors with PBS American Playhouse covering the rest, who had been impressed with Nunez’s first film. To keep costs down, the entire cast worked for Screen Actors Guild minimum.
At the time the film was cast, Ed Harris turned down a chance to extend his run on Sam Shepard’s off-Broadway success, A Fool for Love (for which he won an Obie Award), and an offer from Paul Newman to appear in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, to go to Florida and act in Nunez’s project. Harris said, “I loved Victor’s sensibility and his cinematic tastes, his knowledge and how he films.” The actor was also drawn to the character of Jimmy Wing:
“I really appreciated the subtle character study that this guy is. He goes through so many changes. He’s someone who gets caught up in events that sort of catch him and sweep him away and he really has to climb his way back. He was a character I could really explore.”
To this end, the actor worked with the filmmaker on the screenplay, and during rehearsals, he frequented local stores for his character’s outfits. Harris’ hands-on approach extended to other cast members. Richard Jordan helped get period-specific props for the film and remarked on the challenge: “That era is too recent for anyone to collect and a lot of what you’d want to use has wound up in garbage cans.”

Critics of the day gave A Flash of Green generally favorable reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "A Flash of Green is attentive to the compromises of daily life, and it understands how people can be complicated enough to hold two opposed ideas at the same time." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "A Flash of Green is not perfect, but it is provocative and nearly always intelligent." The Washington Post's Lloyd Grove wrote, "Nunez, who also worked the camera with an eye for faded beauty, has made Palm City a self-contained world where there can be no appeal to a higher authority. While sometimes he's a bit heavy on the symbolism -- having Wing, at one point, fiddle with a two-faced doll -- he usually handles the material with admirable subtlety, letting the story all but tell itself."
The worlds in Nunez’s films feel fully fleshed out and realized, populated by readily identifiable people with compelling dilemmas. In the case of A Flash of Green he also creates a real sense of place; the attention to period detail on a budget is fantastic, with vintage cars and clothes used sparingly and matter-of-factly. He achieves it with small details, such as the cluttered office that Jimmy works in or the Spartan wood interior of Elmo’s office. Nunez also has a great ear for dialogue, accurately capturing the way people talk, evident in the scene where Kat debates with her friends about the development of Grassy Bay, with one arguing that developing the land will help the depressed local economy. The film presents several different points-of-view and then shows them in conflict with one another.
Nunez does a deft juggling act of showing how parts of Florida are being ruined by greedy developers and the toll it is taking on the residents, without being preachy about it, and by focusing on the relationships between them. A Flash of Green might be the most low-key crusading journalist film ever made. There are no heroic, epic speeches, moustache-twirling villains, car chases or gun battles – just people trying to protect their own little piece of the world. Much like John Sayles, Nunez is interested in telling stories about everyday people trying to get by, finding that their personal dilemmas are just as worthy of telling as any epic tale. For the people in his films, what goes on in their small world means everything to them. Life is about the choices we make and having to live with them. Jimmy has to live with the choices he has made. They were tough decisions that took their toll on him physically and emotionally. Jimmy finds that it isn’t easy buying back even a part of his soul. It is a long, hard journey but by the film’s end, there is hope that he is on his way to redemption.

Crandell, Ben. “FLIFF Reunites Old Friends Ed Harris, Victor Nunez.” South Florida Sun Sentinel. November 17, 2015.

Fein, Esther B. “Shaking A Hero Image.” The New York Times. July 22, 1985.
Gowan, Sam. “My Life in Movies.” The Gainsville Sun. April 1, 2004.
Maslin, Janet. “At the Movies – Jordan Assembled Props.” The New York Times. June 28, 1985.