“The Book of Henry”: the legacy of a gifted child who was grown at 12

The Book of Henry”, directed by Colin Trevorrow and written by Gregg Hurwitz, is layered, in the sense that the plot is partially driven by the contents of a handwritten notebook authored by the charismatic Henry (think “Nocturnal Animals”) and it is also Biblical, in that the 12 year old Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is almost like a Christ figure (think Danny in “Judas Kiss”) who really could save us, so his book is like a Gospel.

Unfortunately, Henry has an unusual, opportunistic brain tumor.  It starts with headaches, and a seizure, and he dies in his mother’s arms, looking at the sky. It’s a horrific tragedy. It is sudden, like Lee Atwater’s in 1989. Why would this happen.  Was he born with HIV?  His single mom (Naomi Watts) also has a younger son Peter (Jacob Tremblay, from “Room”) whom we also hope will grow up to be a genius.

Henry and Peter have built a tree house with all kinds of perpetual motion gadgets. Mom likes to play video games on TV, but the movie has the look of the early 90s (in upstate New York).  Mom (Susan) works in a diner as a waitress even though it’s not clear  she has to. (The source of the money is not quite clear.)  She often covers for goofball comedian Sheila (Sarah Silverman).

There are twelve year old’s who understand the adult world.  I’ve met a few in my life, as a substitute teacher, and at local churches.  It’s gratifying to see the same 12 year old a decade ago at 22 today out of college.  (Maybe the Washington Nationals could use him as a closer, but I’ll stop there.)  But Henry won’t go to M.I.T., Stanford, or UNC.  His days are numbered, and he knows it, and he has to take care of his family.

Henry talks fast, often in rich metaphors (“our legacy is not how many commas we have after our name”).

Henry has Jesus’s moral sense.  Before his illness, he gets after his mom not intervening in an abusive situation in a supermarket.  He says that if everybody minded just their own business, people who can’t take care of themselves would be left to die.  Remember the parable of the Rich Young Ruler, who has too much to lose?

Henry, playing “Rear Window”, has spotted the possible abuse of a female classmate by her stepfather, a politically powerful police chief, through the window, in the next door house.  He wants mom to intervene but he figures out that politically Child Protective Services won’t help.  So his authored book provides the blueprint for what mom must do to stop the stepdad once Henry is gone.

Susan (the mom) puts her comic plan into action to trap the police chief while Sheila leads a talent show at the school.  At the end, she burns the Book and the 80s-style minitapes.  But the DVD for this movie will need to include a PDF of the Book, with all of Henry’s Da Vinci-like drawings.  The Book itself needs ti be published.

The style of the movie is almost that of comedy, despite its tragic middle. The look of it reminds me of “Moonrise Kingdom”.

There is a NatGeo film “The Gospel of Judas” (2006).

Name: “The Book of Henry”
Director, writer:  Colin Trevorrow, Gregg Hurwitz
Released:  2017
Format: 2.00:1
When and how viewed:  Cinema Arts, Fairfax, 2017/6/20
Length:  106
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Sidney Kimmel, Focus Features
Link:  official

(Posted on Wednesday, June 21, 2017 at 11 PM EDT)

“Hidden Figures”: three women overcome racial and gender discrimination in NASA to help with the space program; the workplace issues were fascinating

Hidden Figures”, directed by Theodore Melfi, and written with Allison Schroeder, and based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, chronicles the contributions of three African-American female mathematician-engineers to the NASA space program from the mid 1950s until 1962, when one of the women’s calculations becomes crucial to John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) 3-orbit Project Mercury spaceflight.  These calculations involved certain specifics of orbital mechanics (elliptical and parabolic paths).

The women were Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji R. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae).  The movie starts in West Virginia in 1928 (black and white) where the women overcome racism to go to good colleges, and then shifts to the 1950s.

The time scale of the film is a little misleading.  Wikipedia biographies indicate that the women worked in the 1950s into the 60s.  The movie narrative focuses on 1961 and usually shows pictures of President Kennedy, but one or two scenes show Richard Nixon as a presidential candidate during the 1960 debates. The film works in Sputnik (1957) and the narratives of successful Soviet orbital space flights, pressuring the US to catch up and take the lead under Kennedy.

Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, the tough-guy boss who gradually overcomes his own racism because he has to.  The engineers work together in a large open bay, solving problems by hand and with calculators.  The arrival of the “IBM” mainframe computer is a big deal.  The film shows what early mainframe computing was like (what computer rooms looked like then with the card readers and tape drives) pretty accurately.  One of the women becomes proficient in the “new” FORTRAN programming language.

The narrative is set up as happening at NASA in Hampton, Virginia, above Norfolk, in the Tidewater. The regimentation of the work is notable, as is the now shocking adherence to segregation, not only in bathrooms but even coffee machines.  The point is well made that Virginia was still segregated despite the Supreme Court 1954 Brown v. Board of Education.

I found myself fascinated by the parallels to my own early work career settings.  I worked as a “mathematician” for David Taylor Model Basin in the summers of 1965-1967, and then for NAVCOSSACT at the Washington Navy Yard from 1971-1972.  But my duties comprised mainly coding FORTRAN calculation subroutines on coding sheets, which would get keypunched and submitted in card decks. It is true that formulas and calculations were often developed manually, but this usually occurred at a much slower pace than shown in the film, and usually by people in offices with one or two people.

But during my time at NAVCOSSACT, a friend and coworker with a similar academic background had a mathematics paper published (I even pre-reviewed it). At an earlier “operations research” job at RCA Labs in Princeton, NJ, I helped develop equations for an assembly line model which was then coded into FORTRAN.  Later, at another job for Lewin in 1988-1989, hospital financial performance simulation models were coded in COBOL after the equations were developed by mathematicians.  That was one of the strangest jobs in my career.  A lot of this is covered in Chapter 4 of my DADT-III book.

It is a challenge, to be sure, to reproduce the workplace in a commercial entertainment film and make it entertaining.  The real truth is more subtle and drawn out than screenwriters can convey in two hours.  This film tries to make the solving of math problems on the board exciting.  I did that, as a substitute teacher, and even when giving a technical talk on my Master’s Thesis (“Minimax Rational Function Approximation“) for my first job at RCA.

When I was stationed at Fort Eustis, VA when in the Army, I had the MOS of “Mathematician”, or “01E20”.  But I recall doing very little math there.  In the Pentagon, I worked a bit on force development simulations, but there was no real equation development like in the film.  But I do remember a trip to Fort Belvoir where I did see this kind of math being used by the Corps of Engineers.  While at Fort Eustis, I knew an engineer who worked for NASA at Hampton, having met him in the Newport News chess club – and we were of almost exactly equal strength in chess, splitting the games.

The obvious comparison for this film will be “The Right Stuff” (1983) by Philip Kaufman, with Sam Shepard and Scott Glenn (Warner Brothers), which I saw at Northpark in Dallas that year.

Name: “Hidden Figures”
Director, writer:  Theodore Melfi, Margaret Lee Shetterley (book)
Released:  2016 end of year
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed: Regal Ballston Common, 2017/1/9, fair audience for a weekday afternoon
Length:  237
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  20th Century Fox
Link:  official

Wikipedia picture of NASA at Hampton. Included picture is at NASA Kennedy in Titusville, FL, my trip, 2015.

(Posted: Monday, Jan. 9, 2017 at 7:30 PM EST)

“Like Sunday, Like Rain”: an overly sentimental drama about a young cello prodigy and his nanny



Name: Like Sunday, Like Rain
Director, writer:  Frank Whaley
Released:  2014
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant (avail. Amazon)
Companies: BB, Tagline, and Monterey Media
Link: official site

Like Sunday, Like Rain” (directed by Frank Whaley) sets up a situation where a twenty-something young woman goes to work as a live-in nanny for a 12-year old boy and cello music prodigy.  The film gets a bit manipulative and sentimental as it progresses, but the setup raises interesting “moral” questions about privilege and family.

Reggie (Julian Shatlkin) is spoiled by his overprotective divorced mom in his ritzy Manhattan brownstone.  She hires a driver to bring him home safely from private school.  He demonstrates his smarts in math in class in one scene (which could have made a different movie).  Math and music go together. Just before going away, mom (Debra Messing) has an emergency when her housekeeper quits.

In a parallel story, wannabe trumpet player Eleanor (Leighton Meester) gets fired from her waitressing job when her musician boyfriend Dennis (Billie Joe Armstrong) makes a scene in the bar. She says to Dennis, “You have to pay them to let you pay there; that doesn’t quite count as a gig.”  So, self-publishing doesn’t count, and remember a boyfriend in the 1970s who played guitar for tips in the Village at Shakespeare’s.  Well, Eleanor has only $160 to her name, and almost moves back with mom.  But she gets a break from an agency, and immediate live-in job as a nanny for Reggie. In the vetting interview, she tells the story of practically raising her younger sister, who is also stumbling in life.

The movie drags a bit as the starts to drag Reggie into her own life, maybe moving into inappropriate territory.  They visit the sister’s house upstate.  In the final scene, they play a piece together, the somewhat perfunctory, sweet leitmotif for the movie, in C Major, with not the most adventurous harmonies or mixing of melodic lines.  The music seems original for the movie (Ed Harcourt).

A bigger movie for comparison would be “The Soloist” (2009), by Joe Wright.

(Published: Thursday, June 2, 2016 at 3:30 PM EDT)

“The Man Who Knew Infinity” parallels some of my own narrative issues


Name: The Man Who Knew Infinity
Director, writer:  Matt Brown, Robert Kanigel
Released: 2016
Format: film, 2.35:1
When and how viewed: AMC Shirlington, Arlington VA, light audience, late 2016/5/14
Companies: IFC
Link: website

The Man Who Knew Infinity”, directed and screen-written by Matt Brown (adapted from the book of that name by Robert Kanigel) is an engaging British biographical drama about Indian-born mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel, star of “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008)).

Ramanujan (1887-1920)  is known for his work on number theory and infinite series.  He developed many identities (the bane of trigonometry students) my “intuition” before he could prove them.  Generally, this is uncommon in academic mathematics, although it happens with cosmology and physics;  some of his work now relates to black holes.  His life was tragically shorted by aggressive tuberculosis (the “white plague”), which could not be well treated when he lived.

The film tells a story with some striking parallels with my own personal narrative, and deals with some issues on which I have focuses a lot.  As a young adult, he is nudged into an arranged marriage (in India), after which he goes begging for an accounting job to support his wife despite having no formal degrees.  He tries to be attentive as a husband, but is not very physical, and his wife even says he is more interested in his numbers than people (or was my father once said, in “seeing people as people”).  He contacts Cambridge University Hardy (Jeremy Irons) at first with a desire just for assistance in getting published (another issue of mine)!  It’s determined that he needs to pursue a degree and attend classes like everybody else.  But his outspoken and perhaps boorish behavior in a lecture (the professor asks why he doesn’t take notes, when he responds by putting his infinite series expansion converging to “2/pi” (or 2/π ).

Then World War I starts (with some foreshadowing newspaper headlines).  Unbelievably, wounded soldiers are treated in tents right on campus.  A white soldier bullies Ramanujan as a privileged freeloader, living a shelter life in academia while his peers go out and fight – very much anticipating our own student deferment controversy during our own Vietnam War. But Ramanujan starts getting sick during the hardships from the rationing (the students cook in fireplaces with coal their own rooms).  Later he survives a zeppelin bomb attack on the campus. He would be denied his fellowship but eventually regain it and get his degrees.

He finally returns to India, partially recovered but soon deteriorates and passes away, almost like someone with AIDS. His illness may have also been related so some poorly done surgery mentioned in Wikipedia.

The screenwriting makes a lot of the personality crises (following the tenets of keeping audience rooting interest) and is sometimes a little “over the top” compared to what probably really happened.  The discussions about the need to do mathematical proofs, though, are interesting to me.  Hardy is atheist, by Ramanujan  was religious, saying every equation comes from God, and is shown praying in his room with incense.  Dev Patel makes his character personally appealing despite churlishness, and except in the illness scenes, seems more vigorous physically than he probably really was.  A comparison could be made with the early scenes of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” (2014).  A more distant comparison (psychologically) would be Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” (2014).

My own background includes an M.A. in Mathematics from the University of Kansas (1968), right before going into the Army as a draftee.  In the movie, a cohort, Littlewood (Toby Jones) gets “drafted” and serves doing ballistics calculations, but actually lives in tents in combat.  In my Army tour, I had an MOS “Mathematician” (“01E20”) and spent the two years at the Pentagon and Fort Eustis, sheltered from combat.   Most of the course work involves proving theorems, as are most of the exam questions. I remember very few of the problems, except proving Liouville’s Theorem on the master’s orals (and stumbling)  with implies the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra.  My Master’s Thesis (“Minimax Rational Function Approximation“) has already been described online.

But compared to any genius mathematician, I was spread too thin, across too many areas, to have the kind of intensity to do this kind of math.  In 1971, I did help a colleague in a civilian job in the Navy Department get a paper on matrices in military computing published.


Wikipedia attribution link for Trinity College Picture, by Stanley Howe, under CCSA 2.0.