What if dads taught their kids to deescalate rather than to retaliate? To prioritize love over conflict? What if men learned from their trauma, and shared their lessons with their families? The War is an under-appreciated classic — a kids movie that t...
What if dads taught their kids to deescalate rather than to retaliate? To prioritize love over conflict? What if men learned from their trauma, and shared their lessons with their families?
The War is an under-appreciated classic — a kids movie that tries to show the destructive nature of cycles of violence. It is hokey and fantastic, but it dares imagine another way for dads to be. You don’t have to have seen this 1995 Kevin Costner and Elijah Wood vehicle about addressing post-Vietnam trauma to appreciate our conversation about this movie, which has a little something for everyone. And we are joined by friend of the show Kasai Richardson, a writer and educator who knows this movie well because it was a staple in his family. The War helped Kasai to better understand his own father’s struggles with trauma and post traumatic stress.
This one was a joy.
Sarah: The War is about a wonderful dad who comes home from Vietnam with PTSD and it is about a Summer when he is trying to take care of his family and his two kids are trying to make sense of what he’s been through. And they’re having a big feud with some other kids in town.
Alex: Whose names we’ll cover at the beginning of this episode and people will learn that it is impossible for me to know more than two names at any given time. [laughs]
Sarah: But those two that you do know, you know the heck out of them. To be fair.
Alex: And I do want to apologize to one of my favorite actresses, whose name I’ve been saying wrong the entire time, which is…
Sarah: Like for your whole life?
Alex: For my whole life.
Alex: And I’m referring to Christine Baranski—that is her name?
Sarah: Yes, Baranski.
Alex: I’ve been calling her—as you will hear in this episode—Christine BRIZanski. [laughs]
Sarah: Which is a great name also.
Alex: We were joined by Kasai Richardson, someone who I worked with years and years ago at Trace Magazine. It was a magazine about quote transculturalism, which I think we’d today associate with a different thing but this was kind of like a global black fashion and culture magazine. Kasai and I were both unpaid interns who sat across from each other.
Sarah: That’s great, I didn’t know that.
Alex: And he’s a writer still and also an educator. When we were talking about guests to be on the show I thought Kasai would be great. He is the one who suggested The War. We learn a lot about why Kasai suggested that.
Sarah: I feel like this is the most we have talked about someone’s actual dad so far. The most we have talked directly about movies as a way of processing trauma and emotions and what we have been through. We kind of have been talking about that from the beginning in bits and pieces and I just love that we talked about that. I feel Kasai came in here ready to just dive into the deepest of water like Hooper on the Orca. “Just throw me on the water.” He went all the way into the turbulent dad waters and we all got to go and it really meant a lot to me to share that with the both of you.
Alex: Yeah, he was so extraordinarily generous in a way I could imagine could be hard when coming on and talking about your dad. As you said, this episode is so interesting because this movie is so unique. It is a very unique, very specific series of stories layered on top of each other and every element of the stories happen to line up with Kasai’s exact relationship with his father and his family used this to understand each other.
Sarah: The theme that came up so much in this conversation is the search for representation and how much it matters to see some analogue for what you’re trying to understand about yourself or your family or just the world around you represented in movies and for movies to be authentically what they are about. And also I think this is going to be our best dad for a while. It’s gonna take a while for a movie dad to come along and unseat Kevin Costner as a dad in this movie.
Alex: Kevin Costner as a dad in this movie is shining. He’s wonderful and we all wish we got the hand of Kevin Costner as a dad in this movie… despite that, we talk about dad messes left and right.
Sarah: I think I would also close by saying it’s meaningful that Kevin Costner is such a great dad in this movie not because he’s perfect but because he has gone through a lot and inherited a lot of trauma through his experiences and is now such a heroic figure in my eyes because he is working very hard to be a positive influence in his family’s life and to not pass on the hurt that he has experienced onto them by inflicting it on them. That’s the greatest dad heroism that I can imagine and that a lot of people can imagine. So I think if we expand what we think of as heroic then we can also bring in better role models. Alright, let’s talk about the war.
Alex: So Kasai. The movie is about Steven Simmons, a dad who comes home to Mississippi from Vietnam, he was fighting in Vietnam, played by Kevin Costner, comes to be with his family. His wife lois is played by Mare Winningham, who isn’t in enough things as far as I’m concerned, and his daughter Lydia who is played by Lexie Faith Randall and his son Stew who is played by Elijah Wood. It’s about his return, his attempt to get back to work, and get his life in order. It’s about his kids coming of age as well and applying the lessons that he’s learned and taught to them, particularly as a PTSD-stricken vet. The kids along with their friends have an ongoing feud with the Lipinski clan
Alex: Lipniki! That’s way different
Sarah: It’s Lipniki like the kid from Jerry Maguire not Lipinski like the girl who improbably won the 1998 Olympics. Two very nineties names.
Alex: I’ve been calling the other kid Lipinski this whole time.
Sarah: That can be our nickname for him
Alex: We’ll unpack that at another time… So it’s about the Lipniki clan, a gaggle of boys and one girl who could charitably be called plain white trash - it’s sort of how they’re portrayed.
Sarah: I would call them a nineties reboot of the Yule family from To Kill A Mockingbird
Alex: Oh that is fantastic, that’s the contrast we see. They’re raised by their father who is the opposite in almost every way of Steven Simmons. Okay. Kasai – when I asked you to be on the show you suggested this movie. Why did you suggest this movie?
Kasai: Let me count the ways. So I rewatched this yesterday and thank you both for having me on, and as I’m rewatching it all this stuff is coming up and I’m like damn this is why this was like a staple in our house growing up. And as that thought crosses my mind, remembering something that happened in the movie, my mom calls me just to check in and I told her I’m watching it and she’s like I love that movie it always get me. You wanna talk to your dad? And she puts him on the phone and I tell him I’m watching the War and he’s like oh yeah I just came across that in my collection yesterday, I’m never getting rid of that. Yeah I mean, that movie had so many parallels to our life growing up. There was a family like the Yules that when we moved into our neighborhood when I was like ten that were our friends then as they started to like learn that we had this like loving, stable home and that ya know I was going to private school and some other stuff that they might not have had that I don’t know rubbed them the wrong way, we started ya know, it was kind of like a feud situation and there were fights and there were whole neighborhood battles and stuff and on top of that my dad ya know was a Vietnam vet and ya know incredible man, I have a great relationship with him now. I think about like Kevin Costner like before we started telling Sarah this was like classic 90s sentimentality of just like he’s impossibly good, he’s had all these trials and tribulations in life but he keeps a stiff upper lip and is so optimistic and hopeful almost to a fault. That wasn’t always my dad, my dad was very alpha, very old school – I’ve written about this plenty so it’s not like I’m putting my family’s business out there – but he kind of a rough life. He was born in Pennsylvania, grew up mostly in Chicago. My grandfather, his father, was a Bishop and ran this huge church in the South Side of Chicago had Sweet Daddy Grace come to his services and give sermons and my dad was being groomed to be a youth pastor when he was like 8 or 9. And then his mom passed away when he was about 14 or 15 and the story was always that my granddad remarried and that upset my father so much that he ran away. I always heard that story and thought it was so dramatic and it wasn’t until my granddad passed away about ten years ago that I learned that he ran away and it was only like four blocks down the street. And nobody thought to look for him then. But just to fast forward a little bit, I guess he ended up going out to Virginia to live on his grandmother’s farm cuz he just wasn’t ready to come home. He joined Job Corps then he was drafted. He came back from the war and he talked to me about this because growing up he was a very tender man, he became Mr. Mom when my sister was born when I was about five. I very distinctly remember these moments of playing games with him and him having like sing-songy nicknames and things like that. But things kinda like went sour when my half brother died when I was about ten. He was murdered and I was too young to understand then obviously the things that my dad was going through from his first family that he started right after the war but like I know now and then talking to him how much that impacted him and from that point forward especially as I became like this bratty, teenage drunk, like spoiled like prep school kid, that was like a night and day thing and I know now he just didn’t want me to suffer the same fate that my half brother did and ya know he got physical sometimes, there was verbal and emotional stuff. Now, I know that so much of his upbringing, cuz he would casually tell me stories about being abused by his aunt. She would like lock him in the basement of the restaurant that she ran, things like that. But I think for a long time, I guess like before I got sober especially eight years or so ago, I had this obsession with like “the perfect parent” especially the perfect dad. My mom was always working and so it really was like he pretty much raised us and he was always with us. And he was just a great man. He showed up, he did the school projects late at night, he would pick us up from school on his bike with my bike on his back and my sister in a carrier and bike through these neighborhoods, these first wealthy white neighborhoods, the black neighborhoods that are segregated from them in Baltimore and he did all that and I’m like the age now that he was when he had me and like the idea of doing that kind of stuff even five-ten years from now blows my mind. And it wasn’t until I did that inner work on myself, therapy and getting sober and stuff, I kind of reconciled with the fact that like yes I’m not perfect but also like some of the things that was on that movie reminded me we watched this movie because it helped us process who he was. And I talked to my sister about that recently she was like yeah we constantly watched that movie because it reminded us so much of him.
Alex: We see two things that I feel come up in the conversations Sarah and I have been having, which is 1. There’s a circumstance in this movie in which the character Steven actually gets to tell his son in a clear-headed way like what is going on with him and I think a lot of the people who listen to the show or people in Sarah’s situation don’t ever necessarily or don’t get a situation which Dad is able to articulate what the fuck is going on in his life. Have you been able to have that luxury of talking through some of that stuff with your dad? Does he get it?
Kasai: Yeah. And I’m not gonna pretend that it happened quickly or overnight
Alex: It wasn’t a beautiful scene by a tree?
Kasai: No, there wasn’t an orchestral score playing in the background
Sarah: With Aaron Copeland notes
Kasai: No Americana just lots of crying and yelling. But no, like I distinctly remember a few times and usually it centered around me being 18, 19, or in my early twenties, moving back home like after you and I worked together Alex for instance, I would just like crash and burn. Just get into some sort of shit with drinking or drugs. He would pull me aside and I always thought for years, I thought that there was no booze in my house whatsoever, at all. I think I saw my parents drink like once when I was growing up. It wasn’t until like my early thirties, a few years ago, where I first started seeing them drinking casually. I always thought it was because he was just so out of control that he stopped when I was born cuz he was doing a lot of crazy stuff. He had all these exotic pets and stuff before I was born that he got rid of when I came on the scene. But yeah as far as those conversations there were a bunch where I was just like Kasai you can’t drink like normal people, we have a family history of mental illness, of alcoholism of drug addiction, and he kind of talked me through one night like he drank himself to sleep in a graveyard living in Virginia with his first family and I just like – back then, absolutely, not trying to hear that. All I was hearing was the Charlie Brown teacher as somebody telling me to stop drinking which was like not what I wanted to hear at all at that age, cuz I needed it back then now I don’t need it as much. It wasn’t until maybe four or five/six or seven years ago my mom happened to work with a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and he kind of was talking through the stuff my dad has been through and dealing with the VA and just life in general. He mentioned that a lot of black and brown vets have been ever since Vietnam maybe even before, have been pretty much getting fucked over by the government, by the VA, being told that they were only eligible for like free or discounted tuition through the GI Bill but there’s all these protections. Like I went to a state school, I could have gone for free or for a very reduced rate. Foreclosure protection, healthcare stuff. My mom like through talking to him worked with this guy to get my dad what’s called Service Connected with the VA where he got all this back pay. Cuz he wasn’t working like when, in the movie Kevin Costner is shuffling from job to job, he disappears for a while we are told. My dad worked as a janitor at this private school with all of these kids that had tons of money and I was so ashamed and so scared that people would find out he was a janitor and now I know that he just did what he had to do. That’s how he showed up. But in talking to this man and getting him service connected he got an official PTSD diagnosis and in talking to him kind of more recently I know that that has to do as much with Vietnam as it does with his childhood and losing a child, things like that. But yeah, I know now how fortunate I am to have him but to also have had those conversations because it’s not like, especially as men, like we’re just not coded, not raised, we’re not socialized to open up and be vulnerable like that. And especially he’s 70 now in that generation especially and I’ve had a couple moments like recently in the last year or two I’ve had more talks with him more intentional and deeper talks about what’s been going on over the last few years because it’s like he did group therapy with my mom and my sister, more stuff kind of came up and there’s like this new level as a family that we’re reaching.
Alex: It’s wonderful to hear. Sarah what struck you about this?
Sarah: I mean, exactly what you said to begin with because like wow like here’s another dad who is able to describe in an extremely self aware way what is trauma is and how it has affected him. And how I know that there are people like that, I’ve talked to them. I’ve experienced them. But like that is something that your dad is able to give you in sort of handing you his legacy. I don’t know, it’s very interesting to me as a storytelling tool because most as we’ve been saying ya know in our previous episodes like most parents aren’t gonna be able to do this for the kids. Which isn’t to say that what they can offer isn’t valuable. I think movies also do this thing where it’s such a sort of condensed, heightened reality that nothing in live life can really be compared to that so the question is like, you don’t necessarily need a dad who can perfectly explain his trauma in like one scene next to a tree. But like, you need someone who can be willing to attempt to be known and to sort of offer you that information over time maybe or not be able to express all of that totally by himself. But, well two things. First of all, I had never heard of this movie before we watched it. Then I was watching it and was like why have I never heard of this movie? Then I looked up when it came out and it was four months after Forrest Gump came out and I was like I feel like this movie got screwed by coming out right after Forest Gump – and it’s much better!
Alex: Right around the “life is like a bowl of something” time apparently, cuz that’s a reference in this movie as well
Sarah: A bowl or a box of something, but like, and how this is also a movie set in the deep south about characters trying to make sense of the legacy of Vietnam, among other things with this wonderful jukebox soundtrack which I was also thinking like, music was harder to access in the early nineties, you had to buy stuff like it’s nice to have a movie that just over and over you’re like I remember that song! I remember that song, like ya know and like stuff that you really enjoy and is… appropo? They play Spirit in the Sky, during a time when perhaps there’s a spirit involved, stuff like that. But yeah, how much the timing of this movie’s release affected its reception I’m curious about that and also just that as I was watching it not knowing where it was going I was like… I’m worried about this dad. This is a really good dad. I don’t know if I can think he’s gonna make it.
Alex: Kasai what a beautiful luxury to have had a movie that was such a specific binary for your situation because it sounds like when we’re talking about these movies and then we hear people’s feedback about what is in there, I mean I think what a lot of people are missing are ya know “my situation” or “my dad was so fucked up in a specific way and I never saw it portrayed anywhere and so I never really had a vocabulary for talking about it like either a literal or aesthetic vocabulary for talking about it. And even right down to the things that you just said like your dad was a janitor some of the things that the kids struggle with are reconciling feeling shame around their father and coming to understand that the things that they felt shame about were coming from a specific place and so they were able to piece that together, and it sounds like from a lot of the people that we’re hearing from, they don’t have any media representation that explains exactly how they are. Like I remember, my parents or my dad in particular, hated that I loved Roseanne. Roseanne was the only show that showed a household that was like my household. And I think like part of his hating it was he saw us in the show and saw that it was kind of part of the joke, even though it was never the butt of the joke within that show. But I feel so luxury because I had Roseanne because it made me understand a lot of stuff I could not understand from say Full House, it didn’t make any sense like theyre in San Francisco and there’s not a gay person to be seen.
Sarah: I mean, Full House made sense to no one.
Alex: It’s just such a specific and kind of beautiful thing to think about though like you had a specific piece of media that you watched as a family and whether or not anyone was standing in front of the TV and saying, “this is us” it was giving you something to see. Do you remember it resonating in that way?
Kasai: Yeah and I had to ask my sister when we watched this cuz I legit couldn’t remember and I’m five years older than her so she said when she was seven and I was twelve and that had to have been a couple of years after we moved into this house that they live in now. They had four kids when they first moved in, it was a fixer-upper, it was a whole like a yard, woods and then a drop down to the stream then across from the stream is an hbcu (??) called Morgan State which was actually started as a reaction to like the first racist housing ordinate in America in this neighborhood called Rolling Park here in 1910. So a lot of black professors didn’t… they couldn’t move to the neighborhoods where my schools were basically back then so they started this neighborhood. So it was an all black neighborhood, with tons of kids running around, and when we watched this movie I feel like it was DVD-era so I think my sister might not even be right about us being twelve and seven we might have been a little older. And we talk about the representation thing, I was watching now, all these years later and thinking about like what black films like films starring black actors, there were back then that we watched like that and there were some but, obviously ’94 like our stories just weren’t being told in that way. Like we weren’t granted that nuance we weren’t granted that humanity I don’t think and there’s still some work to be done in that department but yeah.
Alex: Yeah, so we have two black little girls in this movie and one’s name is Latoya and I don’t know what the other girl’s name is
Alex: Elvadeine! Is Latoya the girl who tells her story in the classroom?
Kasai: No that’s Elvadeine
Sarah: Elvadeine has the big scene, that’s how you remember
Alex: And the wonderful mood ring that she trades back and forth
Sarah: Yes, the mood ring
Alex: So Elvadeine tells – there’s a racist teacher played by Christine Brasanski, way off type.
Sarah: It’s amazing, just boom outta nowhere Christine Baranski here she is. It also feels like a To Kill a Mockingbird homage. There’s a lot in this that feels like that to me. Cuz I don’t think this was, I don’t even remember if this was in the movie, but in the book there’s a school teacher who shows up who’s just completely clueless about like the needs of the children that she’s working with.
Alex: Right. And Elvadeine is just an amazing character throughout the movie, but she kills in this scene where the kids are challenged to tell their story, right
Sarah: To tell why their life is like a bowl of cherries. Cuz then the framestory for this movie which caused me to think Oh my God, like at the end it’s revealed that Kevin Costner’s daughter has been telling this entire movie as her life is like a bowl of cherries like theme that she wrote and youre like how long has she been standing there reading this.
Alex: And did this happen on the same day she schooled the – no it didn’t, because that’s part of her story.
Sarah: This is like the end of summer school when like she’s just Andy Kauffman reading The Great Gatsby, I think. Anyway.
Alex: By way of representation Kasai what stood out to you in this movie?
Kasai: Well, it’s funny cuz you think about early/mid nineties like especially like that teacher reference, Dangerous Minds, and The Substitute, like those were movies where you saw… there aren’t too many instances in film or tv that I can think of where a dynamic that exists like I work in schools now and do like restorative justices or restorative practices and we talk all the time about like teachers particularly white, female teachers being a source of trauma for black children especially in cities like Baltimore. So you don’t see that there was a lot of like white savior stuff even though we might not have called it that back with Dangerous Minds and stuff like that. As far as this movie, I don’t know. It’s like something in me like having grown or thinking about like this story being told from this white point of view. There’s the class aspect too that you have to look at as well. But I’m glad that Elvadeine got that scene right cuz… I remember when I was first watching the movie I was like aw man not a black sidekick so even as a kid that was a thought that crossed my mind. But they gave her that monologue which is great. It’s a bittersweet ting cuz it’s like how many of our stories weren’t told… When I think about the movies that came out around then yes, there were dramas and things like that but there was a lot of comedies, a lot of like hood movies, gang movies and stuff, like that was how you got your movie greenlit if it was mostly black actors or a black filmmaker and it’s like only now like the last five or six years, ten years, that we’re seeing these stories about black families and just us being people instead of these vessels for trauma and suffering.
Sarah: Okay, so let’s talk about the scene where Kevin Costner is taking his son Elijah Wood to the auction because Kevin Costner has told Elijah Wood hey I have this plan don’t tell your mother, but I’m gonna put in a bid on this house that the bank owns because their house has been taken away from them. And was it foreclosed on? What happened with their original house cuz this is a plot point too that the Lipnikis have like ya know stripped it.
Kasai: Yeah I just think it’s assumed, it’s understood that it’s foreclosed. A general nineties tragedy.
Sarah: Right it’s a general nineties financial tragedy. They lost the house and Kevin Costner, he’s come back from the war, he’s riddled with PTSD, he’s having a really hard time holding down a job and it feels like one of the ways he’s trying to redeem himself is by doing the father and protector of the family thing, providing a safe and beautiful home for his family. It feels like this movie is his quest to redeem himself in a lot of ways. And so he takes his son to this auction to put in a bid on this house and as they are pulling in the car stalls and who should behind them but the Lipnikis in their truck who then start to ram him. And then a fight escalates between the two families and like it’s this amazing scene where it’s escalating and Kevin Costner like cools it down, Mr. Lipniki gets out with a tire iron and Kevin Costner deescalates it then Elijah Wood, because he’s an eleven year old boy, what does he yell out? He insults Mr. Lipniki finally.
Alex: I can’t remember I think he calls him a son of a bitch or something someone say a douchebag at some point I can’t remember.
Sarah: He like insults the dad as he’s walking away so Mr. Lipniki comes back to wail on him so Kevin Costner basically like strangles him a little bit. He knocks the tire iron out of his hand, pins him to the ground, like has his hand on his throat and says I believe like ‘you can ram my car or you can call me names but if you come after my child you’ll push a button in me and I’ll lose control and I’ll kill you.’ And to me it’s this… I just want to talk about what people think of that scene cuz to me it’s this amazing moment of like he’s going to be out of control like he’s capable of becoming out of control but he’s also aware of that. Like it’s this combination of like of out-of-controlness and self-awareness about it. And his message is like I don’t want to strangle you fully so I’m going to strangle you like a little tiny bit.
Alex: This movie is such an interesting representation of a dad teaching his kids how to deescalate which is fascinating. He has seen crazy shit in Vietnam, he had to leave his best friend not knowing the fate of his best friend in order to survive and that’s… presumably to die or to end up in a POW camp, both options aren’t great and he says that this is sort of the source and the root of his struggle and he’s trying to teach his son as a result and also his daughter but the conversation’s directly with his son, about how fighting ultimately is not worth it and he explains not just that it’s not worth it because it’s not morally worth it, but because it fucks you up. Like you are poisoned by the violence. So he in this exchange, with the Lipniki father, he does everything he can to deescalate, he does everything he can to say you can ultimately do anything to me, I don’t care, I’m not losing from it, I don’t fight. But when you threaten my child, that’s a problem. It plays in to this other theme where he says earlier in a conversation with his wife while he’s dealing with the fact that he can’t hold down a job, and this is another theme, that he … You ultimately have to have hope cuz as long as you have hope you can accomplish something and that’s essential and important to him because it gives a chance to his kids and if his kids get a chance then all of his shit that’s he’s gone through was worth it. That’s kind of what he implies. And so, watching both like protecting his kids are extraordinarily important to him and it’s important to him cuz it gives his life some sort of meaning, it gives all of the shit that he’s gone through some sort of meaning.
Sarah: And all of the people he’s killed, ya know, his life has some sort of positive meaning despite that. He also says like I killed more people than I saved.
Alex: And so for him like he thinks that his kids’ chance to survival is to learn how to not fetishize violence. We see all these kids later on and Kasai I’d love for you to touch on Sarah’s question but also touch on the big actual war we have in this movie which is between children. But there’s one point in the narration where the little girl says, she looks around and realized that everyone had suddenly lost their minds because they’re all emulating the adults in war and this is exactly what Kevin Costner doesn’t want these kids to get lost in.
Kasai: It’s like Gimme Shelter
Alex: Yes, it’s like a Scorsese movie
Sarah: This movie goes as hard as Platoon ever did
Alex: No it really does, there are parts in this movie where they were very faithful to having a Vietnam movie but putting kids in the role, it’s amazing. Kasai how’d you feel about that scene – the Lipniki de-escalation, how’d you feel about that.
Kasai: It reminded me of some things that happened in real life but also like rewatching this kind of helped me also understand like just talking about this as a movie, in ’94 or even like a few years after that there wasn’t really, weren’t really too many nuanced takes especially about that war as far as just regular people coming home whether they joined up, cuz he says I went over there to help people and as we all know was a completely ridiculous unjust war, lots of needless death and suffering and changed people in this country forever. And to have a character say that out loud and not have it like a war movie that makes a character heroic is obviously borderline farce. So for him to just be outright and say like ya know it did this to me, this is what happened, I don’t want to see that for you. When I think about my dad’s relationship with this movie as just like a random nineties Kevin Costner movie I think there was something of value in that for him, especially before he was able to go to group therapy with other vets and talk this through. Yeah there were situations like in the neighborhood before where they live now. A kid was bullying me, I was probably like eight, nine and my mom worked with his mom and they lived in the same apartment complex. My dad went over with my iguana on his shoulder and talked to the kid and was like you’re a kid I’m obviously not gonna beat you up or anything, but I don’t know what was going on with the mother’s substance abuse, mental health stuff I don’t know, but it just wasn’t… even as a kid like I could pick up it wasn’t registering. I remember he pulled me aside and said like some people go through things that we can’t see, there might be things going on in his house that according to his mother, my mother, as far as his family situation that are affecting him, if this ever happens again let me know, but it’s like how Kevin Costner said I can’t expect you to control yourself if I can’t control myself. So yes, I did get the dad teaching me how to box kinda lessons and stuff like that and the talks but was never encouraged to just go out and start shit for no reason. And I think like the lesson of that war was not starting shit for no reason even though it’s obviously not been learned as a country as a government but yeah I think like back to the specific family and it’s funny cuz like I’ll visit now and see, there were three brothers and two sisters and the middle brother and I were closer in age, we were cool, and like I said there was like a switch flipped and the older brother started kind of bullying me and teasing me and stuff and then it got physical a couple times kind of back and forth and our parents got involved but they maybe five years ago like their father went missing and there was a search throughout the city and he was found by the side of a river dead. And it was really tragic and I know he had had some mental health stuff going on and I don’t know if it was related to that but. Just looking at them now as adults and they have their kids of their own and they’re talking to them when I go to that neighborhood just thinking like wow that was twenty plus years ago. And again, I didn’t, it never crossed my mind that they had anything going on in their home that would like make them come at me sideways or get in my shit about going to private school or who my dad was or whatever. That part of the movie I think also even as children I think we were watching that to see that on a screen and be like oh this is like a common thing I guess.
Sarah: Because I think it’s such an interesting combination of him knowing that he’s going to get out of control about these things but wanting to stop that from happening or using what ability he has to deescalate a situation. Because I think there’s such a glorification of the violence that comes from trauma residing in mens’ bodies in America, in a lot of culture and this is just a very different response to that and I just feel that throughout this movie Kevin Costner is so good like he’s a little bit too good of a person. It’s almost too much but like not for me, I don’t care. He’s so decent and he’s so haunted by the experience of leaving his best friend behind when he’s probably mortally wounded so he can get on a helicopter by himself to evacuate which is the kind of trauma that I think is absolutely horrible to imagine and also in the scheme of ways/waves that people ethically lost their way as soldiers in Vietnam is like one of the least horrible that anyone ever did in that war in a way, ya know cuz like men came home from Vietnam and were like I was on acid for days and days and the soldiers I was with we all opened fire on women and children and we killed them all and I took part in it. Why did I do that? But like you can’t ask those questions out loud really. And also the embargo on talking about war when it’s over is something that I wonder about a lot as one of the reasons behind this sort of generalized ideas that we develop about psychology and humanity. Cuz like I was just talking to someone before we got on to record this episode about something that I find very interesting which is that the first kind of book about psychopaths theorizing the psychopath which is the mask of sanity comes out in 1946, like interesting timing. It’s like wow like why at that moment are we suddenly interested in the worst capacities of human behavior, like the worst of what is potentially hiding within us all. No it’s not, jk it’s like specific people who are born bad and like we can’t be transformed by trauma. Like any one of us into doing something that we in a previous moment of our lives could have found totally inconceivable as something that we might do. And I also wonder about the fact that like we start theorizing the serial killer in the late seventies that’s when that term is invented and American really goes in on the idea of the serial killer like the cold-blooded killer and it’s like once again are we creating a diversion from the fact that we just… that our country has just systematically traumatized a massive group of young men for no real reason and they’re like deal with it. It’s not our problem. Serial killers – that’s the issue.
Alex: Right. Is this the first movie… this has to be one of the first at least family films that talks about PTSD
Kasai: Even him just saying post traumatic stress out loud in a movie was kind of like a coo almost. I don’t know what the first one was but yeah it’s absolutely… just thinking about it again, if you would’ve asked me that question before I rewatched this movie as far as like why this was so precious to us, I wouldn’t have been able to answer that I don’t think cuz we didn’t have cable and we had our rotation of movies. But just seeing that like knowing long before my dad was able to sit down with guys that did a lot of the things that Sarah was just talking about or had those experiences and just being so isolated in that and not being able to process it any other way than this random **director’s name*** from the nineties. I think there was an importance to that. It’s really strange how it just kinda sits in this little corner as the movie that addresses it.
Alex: I was texting with Sarah about this earlier, it’s like a two-fer, it’s like hey your dad might have PTSD and here’s how to do CPR. This movie is very handy.
Sarah: This is also the second movie that we have watched for this show where someone gets CPR done on them and then like coughs up a bunch of goop.
Alex: What was the other one?
Sarah: Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
Alex: The other thing that this shares with another movie is Friday because Friday is all about de-escalation too. Friday is about a father trying to teach his son to deescalate when he’s immediately trying to ya know um, Ice Cube and Elijah Wood have a lot in common in this particular instance.
Sarah: If only Ice Cube had been cast in The Lord of the Rings, like that could have been a different world really
Alex: Absolutely amazing. I think about, so when I took care of my father in his last year he was terminally ill and it was only then that I ever heard him – and we’ve talked about the things you sort of get towards the end of your parents life, if you’re lucky because like if not you get none of it and there’s no resolution which is the worst.
Sarah: You just come back and dad’s just in a morphine coma like Tom Cruise in Magnolia, insulting a basically already dead guy.
Alex: And you get none of it
Sarah: Which is better than insulting an already dead guy, so like you take what you can get
Alex: When I took care of him he was able to kind of say some of the stuff that he went through in the war in ways that he didn’t tell me as a kid. He was in the Korean War and he didn’t… it turns out that he was on a ship, he had a Purple Heart, I always knew he had a Purple Heart, but never knew the implication of what that meant. He was on a ship that got torpedoed he had to go out into the water and collect bodies and into like essentially meshed canvas bags. One of the instances in collecting bodies he picked up the remains of one of his friends and it was really like a remains situation. And I never knew that as a kid, I just knew that he had a Purple Heart and that he sometimes he watched… if you walked in at the right time and he was watching The History Channel, he would be crying a little bit and I didn’t know what any of these things meant. The thing that resonated with me the most, as Kasai just said, you don’t necessarily get that all at once, sometimes you just have to put together all the pieces and I think it could be very easy to watch this movie and say like, “Oh, convenient. He just like explained it all to his son in a touching moment.” But I mean, you know you don’t have the luxury of the kid’s entire life to necessarily walk through in the movie and I really appreciated seeing what that resolution looks like where a parent in an optimal situation gets to say my ethical perspective doesn’t come from a specific place it comes from exactly how and why I was fucked up. And I think it like gives you something to look for in all of your interactions with your parents moving forward.
Sarah: Movies are wonderful when they have the like ‘that was the summer’ format like we just talked about Dirty Dancing and that’s what that movie is and this is I think an amazing example of ‘that was the summer’ movie. Movies are allowed to be spectacular in that way and show us all of the sort of growing understanding between father and son that take place over the season to watch and I think just having examples of men who describe their emotions and showing how their families love them for that. And the fact that Kevin Costner is someone who is… I’m left with the image of him, two things, with him trying to start his car as he’s getting rammed by that guy, just like looking like just like he’s maintaining calm under the most unbelievable dress, like an elephant who’s having a sore tooth poked by a carnie. And you’re just aware of like this great nobility and strength. And then also when he takes his little son Elijah Wood to look at the house that he’s gonna put in the offer on and Elijah Wood’s like ah it’s falling apart and he’s like well how dare you. This gentle wit, basically, this very deep love of his family. This very, you’re just conscious of how like how much sort of emotional anguish he’s in and how much energy goes in to sort of maintaining the stability to do what he’s able to do. And I feel like there being a movie that sets him up as an example of a good father is so meaningful and subtlety is overrated, honestly. Most people don’t get subtlety, I don’t get it most of the time. So I just feel like especially in the nineties, anytime, but like especially 25 years ago just having a movie that’s just like ya know a father can be really strong by being very loving and peaceful and open about his trauma. Just think about it.
Alex: In saying quite literally without love, there is nothing. Like he says that to his kid.
Sarah: Yes, oh my God, Kevin Costner was like a feelings king.
Kasai: I was gonna say you just reminded me of there was a point where my cold 2020 heart started to creep in I was like oh come on, but that scene where he gives Lucas Black and the other Lipniki girl their cotton candy and he’s like you know those are the kids who just beat me up you gave cotton candy to, right? And he says it looks like they haven’t been given anything in a while. There were a couple instances in my life where my dad gave away my Atari when I was like seven and I was so mad and I don’t know what the conversation between me and my mom was as far as that happening, cuz I’m sure they worked hard to get that, but he gave it to these three brothers in our neighborhood and it got replaced right after that so not a big deal but just like that notion of this is somebody who has caused you harm, and you’re still here offering him a gesture of kindness and love. Yes, sappy, sure but also that’s the kind of stuff that sustains us now, especially now. I know in my life I have had to turn the other cheek whatever you want to call it and I know that I’ve grown as a person not reacting in the way that Elijah Wood’s character wanted to. It’s ingrained in us to react that way.
Sarah: I love how you were watching it and you were like this is over the top then you were like oh my dad did that. Like a more expensive version of it. It also has kind of a nineties silliness to it too cuz you’re like if he didn’t give that cotton candy to the bullies like did he really think he was gonna bring these two pristine cotton candies like all the way home?
Kasai: In the Mississippi heat
Sarah: Like that seems like it would be much more difficult, this seems like better for everybody, so that’s good. Alex, when you said we were going to be watching this movie my first thought was like of course, like of course we’re going to have a Kevin Costner movie in the first five episodes that we release and I just feel like Kevin Costner is a dad icon, certainly one of THE dad icons of the nineties. I’m just curious about like what is it about Kevin Costner?
Kasai: He was like Pa Kentin the terrible DC movies and I went to see Man of Steel, there’s a scene they put in the trailer because they knew it would tug at our heartstrings, young Clark Kent is like something’s wrong with me or they don’t like me or something like that or you don’t love me or you think I’m different. And that single tear runs down Kevin Costner’s face and is like you’re my son of course I love you and he just grabs him. They knew how to get me into the theater to see that terrible movie. And they kill him off in like a really weird way. Spoilers for anyone who hasn’t seen Man of Steel.
Sarah: We got the butts in seats, down with Costner. The old bait and switch works every time.
Kasai: But it was like perfect casting cuz like you said he’s definitely a dad icon, he was like sex symbol for a little bit and then transitioned into the dad icon.
Alex: One of these things that we keep talking about that definitely came up in our Dirty Dancing episode is like realizing inadvertently in one way or another, you’re attracted to your father.
Sarah: That’s what that episode certainly ended up being about
Alex: And I think the reason I never thought of as a kid Kevin Costner… I think in so many way I was rigid in my way of thinking because Kevin Costner to me as a child was sold as someone who was a movie star and a sex symbol and I couldn’t understand, I don’t understand that at all cuz this man seems like a dad. I remember there was actually like a punch line in a Saved by the Bell episode in which like Lisa talks about being attracted to Kevin Costner and I was like really that seems very strange.
Sarah: Then it makes sense that she’s so uninterested in Screech
Alex: Yeah if Kevin Costner is her type
Sarah: Screech never had a shot
Alex: I don’t think I ever have appreciated Kevin Costner until relatively recently. I would say the one thing that I saw of his enthusiastically in the theater was Waterworld and that was sort of...
Sarah: I’ve never actually seen it and I feel like it can’t be that bad, right? It’s sort of this legendary
Alex: It’s like a Mad Max...
Sarah: Like he’s on the water and he’s wearing a cool outfit I don’t see how it could be that terrible
Alex: I think it was, I don’t even know if it was judged for what it is I think it was judged for this is the most expensive movie ever made at this point and this is what you did? I think that that was the question. I didn’t get it. Do you see him dad like, Sarah?
Sarah: I do. Although I think as we got into it as we talked about Dirty Dancing like I always had such a phenomenally old dad that like Kevin Costner playing a day in his thirties, like I never registered that as a dad age. That’s just an adult male person.
Alex: That’s a math teacher.
Sarah: Yeah. So like kind of more now that like I see my friends becoming dads and being progressively Costner-aged I’m like oh I see it, that is dadliness incarnate. There’s certain men who when they become dads you’re like you were just always missing a baby like you are just finally complete now that you have a little baby to hold. Kevin Costner kind of like maybe embodies that quality? He just is like as an actor really well-suited for playing characters who have children and are sort of emotionally present with their children.
Alex: What I think is coolest about this movie in the way that it’s set up and spoiler for anyone who hasn’t seen it… Dad dies midway through.
Sarah: He gets pinned under a fucking rock!
Alex: So, as we know his trauma from not being able to save his best friend. He makes a new best friend. He gets to save his best friend who—
Sarah: Get’s pinned under a fucking rock!
Alex: Yes, he gets pinned then Costner takes a rock to the head and eventually dies. And what to get to see happen is really fascinating in a way that again this movie does so many complex things for a children’s movie or a family movie. But you get to see not only him sort of live out his, not his fantasy, but sort of close the loop of being able to save a best friend. You get to see his kids live to his code, and his code being de-escalation. So Kasai, can you talk a little bit about what the war is and what happens between the kids?
-At first the war is the boys versus the girls, like Stew, the brother, Elijah Wood and the sister battle over who’s going to replace it, or put it up and it escalates into oh all the scrap that we used to build this is from our enemy’s junkyard. They find out and then after the Kevin Costner plot element of him dying is finished and there’s like this whole beef over the Lipnikis coming to take it over and yeah we had mentioned platoon earlier and I was like damn this really does feel like those like super dramatized, stylized Vietnam movies from the eighties and nineties.
-Bugsy Malone, but about Vietnam
-There’s a lot of kids very close to fire in this movie
-Yeah there’s like falls and people are being threatened with chains, there’s an explosion, there’s a potato gun hit straight to the torso but yeah I just remember being like we had rock fights when we were kids, things I would never do now unless it was like street fighting at a protest or something I don’t know. Normally you’re not going to be in a situation where you’re like doing these things but as kids it seemed completely normal. But then I completely forgot how this ended. Completely forgot about the little boy Billy going up to the youngest Lipniki brother, finds Kevin Costner’s dog tags that were in the locker and he climbs to the dreaded water tower that’s next to the quarry they had been fighting over earlier in the movie and there’s a whole rescue. Like you talked about him living up to the code and I just think about for me all these years ya know my dad I’m sure a lot of people get this the message that was kind of rained down on me was your family is more important than anything. And after decades of being ashamed of my family for not having enough money or where we lived or what my parents did, and then getting my stuff together and working on myself enough to realize like wow he was right. And now we have this relationship that I wouldn’t trade for the world it’s not perfect we have our bumps but we’ve all kind of done the work on ourselves to get to the point where we’re able to like live up to that and I think like also I say all that knowing that’s not typical right cuz we talked about like especially as men we’re not like wired to be vulnerable or to admit that something’s going on with us or that something is affecting us. For us to have the conversations we have I know that’s a blessing. I know I’m very privileged in having that.
Alex: So there’s this war over the treehouse, which is again exceptionally violent for a kids’ movie, beautifully so actually. I feel like kids’ movies today are missing straight up war scenes. Stew has been to this point of someone who is trying to live up to his father’s values, until his father dies and he feels abandoned by God, which we all in one way or another feel literally all the time in our lives.
Sarah: I love a movie where a character literally cries and yells at God and says of his dead dad, “I needed him more.” It’s so good.
Alex: He finally comes to his senses when he sees this kids getting shit kicked out of them In coming to his senses realizes that the littlest Lipniki is going up to essentially get himself in trouble, almost drown -
Sarah: By climbing on top of a rusty-ceilinged water tower, which has like a vortex like Scylla and Charybdis around it basically.
Alex: Yeah, a water tower made of Chekhov’s gun, basically every time we see it we know that thing’s gonna murder someone. So he goes, and by him going, he triggers everyone else going, they save this little boy, the little boy has the dad’s dog tags on him if you did not realize in the battle that the dad’s influence helps Stew come to his senses, you see that he literally helped save this little boy. And then there’s also some God stuff cuz the little boy says he saw an angel that was probably like the dad but whatever, that’s fine. A beam of light comes down… it’s good, it’s so good it’s tasty.
Sarah: It’s implied that if only the United States and North Vietnam had had like Billy to save together then we could’ve ended this cruel war. There’s this theme of angels in the movie which I feel like you can take in any way that you want really. And one of them is to think when we do something better than we would have otherwise is because of the way something who isn’t with us anymore has influenced us then that’s a way that they live through us. I feel like this movie we’ve talked about it’s overtness and it’s sentimentality and I feel like it’s kind of a Disney movie for adults in a way where it’s like here are the feelings that this movie is about its themes and we’re gonna make this all unbelievably clear to you. Kevin Costner is an angel, this is his trauma and here’s what I learned this summer and also I totally thought that this narration that’s happening throughout the whole movie that is Kevin Costner’s daughter’s character, I thought that this was like as in Dirty Dancing, from her looking back when she’s like forty, but like no she just read all of this at the end of that summer. She got perspective really fast. I feel like this is a story that’s like very relevant to most people who have some kind of a dad or some kind of an experience of deescalation being something that they learn or would like to learn in their lives. To me it’s taking those themes and just making them very, very accessible.
Alex: This part of the movie is about legacy. You can either take like legacy as metaphor which it’s presented as, or you can take it as angels, but this movie is about impact and influence of the people who leave us behind. I love that there’s a scene earlier that sets us up for this, by the way I wish Billy said that the angel looked like Ray Liotta, but that was a missed opportunity. There’s a scene earlier that sets us up for this in which Kevin Costner’s talking to his little girl and he’s telling her about guardian angels and how she must have a lot of angels. It’s implied that one of the angels is his father, her grandfather, and she in the most wonderful way possible checks him on that and reminds him that his father was a non-functioning alcoholic so that’s kind of a shitty angel to have. And he says once I make it to the afterlife I’ll check in with God to make sure that I can look after you properly.
Sarah: And then we should talk about how in the very end Kevin Costner has died, the war has ended, Stew has saved Billy. Also Billy’s brother like doesn’t get in the water he’s like I’m just gonna…
Kasai: I was just about to say, it’s Elijah Wood who jumps in, right?
Sarah: He’s like I’m gonna stay high and dry and keep shouting Billy.
Kasai: I’ll grab the stick
Alex: Sometimes you can give people all the cotton candy you want but they’re only gonna go so far, ya know. Don’t expect too much.
Sarah: So at the very end, all of this has happened and we see Kevin Costner’s widow with her Coke bottles that she’s collecting to save up for deposit money, I think. We’ve learned that this is how she’s… she saves up Coke bottles, she’s got like $40 worth of Coke bottles at one point I think now she’s maybe starting over. Someone from the bank I guess, comes and says that the house that her husband put down an offer for is theirs and so he’s given them a home from the afterlife and that’s the very ending of all of this.
Alex: We were led to believe earlier that it wasn’t going to work out because his bid wasn’t very high. It was suggested that the minimum bid should be $5,000 and we eventually learn he only put down around $430.
Sarah: $432 in fact.
Alex: He put in everything he had. And I love that this movie was almost clearly written by a socialist because it was by no one’s grace that it happened it was because the bank was up against the wall and had to settle for the lowest offer. They’re not pretending that banks are cool they’re just like it just fuckin worked out because we’re all in a bad way.
Sarah: Because the bank is corrupt and made bad choices.
Kasai: So you benefit from that choice, no big deal.
Sarah: Just every so often, one out of every hundred have fun.
Kasai: We’ll see you in forty years.
Alex: Well so normally we ask a kitschy end-of-episode question which is we know who the dad was but who is the daddy, but there weren’t a lot of options it’s just Kevin Costner, right? Like.
Sarah: It’s Kevin Costner and Mr. Lipniki. That’s an interesting thing though cuz are there even other men in this movie? There’s like little side characters but like.
Alex: There’s the guy who like works at the auction. There’s the guy who shows up from the bank. That’s it.
Kasai: And the guy he saves.
Sarah: Yeah the flashback guy. But that’s it. There’s really not other men in this movie? Fascinating. Oh and then there’s his dad’s work partner, his buddy who he saves. Whose life he saves. So there’s people from the bank, and people whose life you attempt to save if you’re Kevin Costner. These are the other men in your life. He’s a family man.
Alex: We know he’s a man because he does not like it when people make fun of his car. I love this movie, Kasai I am so glad you suggested it. It strikes me as a movie that I definitely saw through like flipping through on television because I distinctly remember Elijah Wood in the movie, but I hadn’t had a chance to really absorb what this movie is.
Kasai: I love that he got top billing over Kevin Costner.
Alex: Elijah Wood was huge at this time! The Good Son had just come out.
Sarah: He really acts, too. Like there aren’t that many like little boy roles where you can give like a tour de force performance like carrying a whole film but like he really does. He and Kevin Costner are co-leads like Pesci and De Niro.
End Credits: Alright everybody, that’s it for this episode of Why Are Dads. Our producer is Carolyn Kendrick. Of course we want to thank Kasai Richardson for joining us on this episode—thanks so much for joining us for this ride, Kasai. We want to thank Funky Fresh Lesh for some of the music in today’s show, and Carolyn for coordinating the music and writing and performing our opening song. Emily Page transcribed today’s episode. Join us for TOP GUN with writer, rabble rouser and delightful shit-stirrer Clementine Ford. Both me, Alex Steed, and Sarah Marshall are Why Are Dads creators and executive producers. Talk to y’all soon. Thanks so much for listening.