Blue Sky would be Tony Richardson’s last film, but sadly due to the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures, Richardson wouldn’t live to see its release before his death from HIV/AIDS in 1991. The film eventually got a release in 1994, and has since faded away into semi-obscurity, despite Jessica Lange winning the Academy Award for best actress for Blue Sky. BFI has given the film its most definitive release to date on this Blu-Ray.
Rama Laurie Stagner, who is one of the three screenwriters on the film, based the characters played by Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones on her own parents, Clyde and Gloria Lee Moore-Stagner. Lange’s character is called Carly Marshall in the film, and is a pretty standard early ’60s housewife whose mental health is rapidly declining. Her husband Hank (Tommy Lee Jones) is a nuclear engineer who is working on top-secret nuclear testing projects. They move to a secluded town in Alabama where the military base is located, and soon her flirtatious outbursts and manic episodes are heightened. The base commander Colonel Vince Johnson (Powers Boothe) also enters the picture—will she succumb to his advances? No matter what, the relationship between the Marshalls will reach a fever pitch, and despite the fact that on surface they are seemingly like Ozzie and Harriet, they are actually anything but.
The film is solid Oscar-bait, studded with three great actors, even though I actually think Tommy Lee Jones might give the best performance in the film. Lange delivers one of her showier roles, even though she only won the Oscar because of weak competition and Linda Fiorentino’s mega-bitch from the depths of Hell in The Last Seduction being disqualified for a nomination because it was shown on TV before its theatrical run, as there is no doubt she would’ve won if it had qualified. The domestic-drama stuff isn’t as interesting as the world of military atomic testing, but sadly they do very little with it besides a side plot concerning a cover-up about radiation sickness. There are much better films about the underlying issues within the concept of “the nuclear family” of the ’50s and ’60s, including some made in the ’50s, like Bigger Than Life.
Overall, Blue Sky is a film with identity issues, trying to balance being a domestic drama, a film about the world of atomic testing, and finally, a whistleblower thriller. Todd Haynes would’ve perfectly gelled the three together, which he kind of did in Dark Waters, minus the atomic testing stuff. This film never quite succeeds at any of these strands, but the performances from the cast really carry the film despite a rather lacklustre script. None of the three screenwriters did anything of note afterwards (well, at least nothing that was credited). It would make a decent double bill with Joe Dante’s take on the similar subject matter, but done in a far more comedic tone, Matinee.
The disc includes a commentary track from Nick Pinkerton, some archival documentaries on the atomic era, an image gallery and the trailer. The booklet contains a new essay on the film by Jim Hemphill, biographies of Tommy Lee Jones and Jessica Lange by Ellen Cheshire, and full film credits.