Racing with the Moon
The Movie: The 1984 movie Racing with the Moon is a story about three teenagers coming into adulthood in 1942. The primary characters are Henry “Hopper” Nash (Sean Penn), his best friend Nicky (Nicolas Cage), and his love interest, Caddie (Elizabeth McGovern). Hopper and Nicky work together at a local bowling alley, and they have enlisted with the Marines, planning to depart six weeks from the beginning of the film.
For the first portion of the movie, we watch Nicky and “Hop” (as he is called by Nicky) on their rambunctious teenage antics - disobeying the adults in their lives, chasing girls, and pulling pranks. Nicky is far more focused on girls than Hop, however, who has his eyes on a mysterious gal who’s new to town. He gives her flowers and follows her around to learn about her before approaching her. One day while digging graves with his father (who owns a graveyard), Hop is obviously distracted. His father asks who the girl is, and Hop resolves to speak to the girl who he so admires from afar. In the next scene, he approaches her in the library while she works. He dons the faux confidence of a young man with little self-doubt and makes quite the fool of himself.
In the next scene, Caddie sits with a friend in a diner, and she calls Hop over to talk. Caddie gets Hop to agree to go on a double date on Christmas Eve, and then reveals that she already has a date - Hop will be her friend’s date. Nevertheless, Hop shows up dressed finely and with flowers. He is obviously uncomfortable throughout the date, but makes conversation with Caddie, and the two seem to get along well enough. They begin to spend more time together, and it becomes obvious that their chemistry is adding up to something. Their third time spending time together, they awkwardly connect physically - Hop, inviting Caddie to swim with him in a pond, says that she can keep her “understuff” on if she wants - and it is clear that they are in love.
Meanwhile, Hop and Nicky have been up to shenanigans as much as ever. They shoot pool and chat about their bright future in the Marines, they get drunk and try to get patriotic tattoos, and they spend time on the old train tracks. Each moment is characterized by their youth: they play games, get reprimanded by a wise old tattoo artist, and race the train as they did as boys. But at each turn, there is also a reminder of their encroaching manhood: their discussion of the future is shadowed by the funeral of a friend who died in the service, their tattoos are symbols of permanence, and the train race is interrupted by the revelation that Nicky’s girlfriend is pregnant.
There are three primary dimensions of the movie - Hop’s romance with Caddie, his friendship with Nicky, and the relationship each has with growing up. My synopsis above is more thematic than chronological. A directly chronological summary would be sentences scarcely related to one another. But Racing with the Moon does something incredible in that it manages to tell the joint stories of Hop, Nicky, and Caddie in bits and pieces that all fit together. Their personalities and lives are characterized in every scene, and everything that goes on around them relates directly to their story.
Beginning with the revelation that Nicky’s girlfriend is pregnant, the tone of Racing with the Moon shifts. The relationships between characters become strained. Hop and Caddie are stressed because they must help Nicky get through the issue. Nicky, who believes that Caddie is rich, asks her for money to help pay for the abortion. Hop grows angry with Nicky for asking, and Caddie is angry with Hop because she actually isn’t rich, although that piece of information remains a secret until after the damage has already been done. And as the problems that the characters must deal with become more and more the issues that adults must deal with, the characters seem only to become more and more childish and childlike.
By the final scenes of Racing with the Moon, the characters have all managed to pull themselves back together and face the new reality of their increasingly adult worlds. Just before the credits roll, Hop and Nicky board a train to go fight the war. It is a very well-written story about three young people who struggle to figure out their places in a world which has expectations of them that they may or may not be ready for. Each of the characters figures out their own way down that path, and Racing with the Moon is a captivating portrait of their experiences.
The Cage: Nicolas Cage as Nicky is an impressive performance. Nicky is the perfect display of smooth-talking, confident young bravado with a goofball behind it. When Nicky is with Hop, he is the face of mischief and fun. But there is another dimension to Nicky which makes him startlingly human which only emerges as the film gets further into its story. His father is an abusive alcoholic - this much we learn during the first several minutes, but not in a manner which makes it seem like a pressing issue. His mother passed away when he was very young - this much we learn later on in the film, and it is given serious treatment. It invites us to reevaluate the role that alcoholism plays in Nicky’s family, and to look more sadly upon Nicky’s own abuse of alcohol.
Hop’s father tells us that “For a time after his mom died, Nicky brought flowers here [to the graveyard] every day.” He recounts that Nicky would stay at the graveyard until he was too tired to walk home, and Hop’s father would carry him home. Nicky doesn’t show this side of himself often, tending to be the wily young man with the plan. But we see him break down when he takes his girlfriend to get an abortion, as he drinks while driving and does what he can to avoid the situation. In one very tense moment, he breaks up the silence by turning on the radio. The radio is playing reports of the war, which he changes to some early rock and roll since the war is too close to home to be any comfort in the situation.
Cage’s acting is well-done. He conveys the desire to escape and be youthful forever while also displaying the desire to become a man and prove himself. He can look unshakable while also hinting vulnerability. He speaks profound statements while seemingly not to grasp the gravity of what he’s saying - “There’s a war out there somewhere, Hop,” or “You only want her for some picture in your wallet.” Cage succeeds in making Nicky lovable, pitiable, funny, and heartbreaking all at once. Between Penn, McGovern, and Cage, I think Cage actually provides the most convincing performance.
I think that when people accuse Cage of over-acting or of not being an actor capable of complex characterization, Racing with the Moon is one of the many films to be cited as evidence to the contrary. In a film that does so many things right, Cage’s portrayal of Nicky fits in perfectly and pushes the film in all the right directions.
The Verdict: I think that Racing with the Moon is a movie that is easy to enjoy and which also bears considerable fruit under analysis. The performances are great. The direction seems solid. The cinematography doesn’t try to get fancy, but it always pulls its weight. The story is outstanding. The symbolism in practically every scene is incredible. It’s a movie that just works.
If I were to fault anything in Racing with the Moon, it would be the romantic scenes between Hop and Caddie. Penn and McGovern have good chemistry, and it’s easy to believe that Hop and Caddie care deeply for each other in the way that teenagers do. But something feels missing from the moments in which they fight. In one pivotal scene late in film, Caddie is angry with Hop because he thinks that she’s rich. She tells him off, and McGovern absolutely sells that she is upset. Hop stands there, confused at what has happened. Penn manages to be frustrated at first and then shocked when he figures out the issue. But the fight happens quickly and ends without any real exchange. Perhaps it’s the way that the scene was written, but it feels as though the characters are fighting out of a formality. It doesn’t detract from the film’s pacing or story, but it just doesn’t match the heights achieved by practically every other scene.
But beyond that, Racing with the Moon is thoroughly impressive. Nothing in the story ever feels contrived. The little things which come up again and again go so far in making meaning, almost in the way that young love is nostalgic for itself. The movie manages to evoke the feelings of being young and wanting simultaneously to be young and to be grown up. In particular, the train operates as a symbol of everything that Hop and Nicky have grown up towards, and its use is judicious enough to not become tired by the film’s end.
The movie opens on Hop walking down the train tracks. Two young boys warn him that the train is coming, and that he has to get off the tracks. He stares the two boys down, and in this moment, he is an adult compared to the boys, but his young rebellion against safety and reason is a topic which the film explores until the final moment. Later, he and Nicky race the train for fun, and when Hop doubts the wisdom of risking injury, Nicky assures him that “This train’s an old friend; it would never hurt us.” When Hop feels that Caddie is trying to scare him about his upcoming service in the military, he walks the tracks with her and tells her about his relationship to danger. Finally, he and Nicky deliberately miss their train to leave for the Marines so that they can chase it down and jump aboard - one last expression of their childhood on their way to become men.
It’s difficult to point to one single aspect of Racing with the Moon that makes it a compelling and powerful film, but I think that makes it even more impressive. It’s simply a good movie. It doesn’t demand formal study of cinema, nor is it a movie with can only be enjoyed by audiences looking for a quick thrill. But it can be enjoyed by either group, and that’s impressive. I recommend Racing with the Moon, and I recommend watching it with a more thoughtful mindset than otherwise.
On a more comical note, I watched Racing with the Moon on Netflix, which means that upon finishing it, Netflix suggested more movies to me based on my interest in Racing with the Moon. As usually happens when you finish a movie featuring Nicolas Cage on Netflix, it recommends another movie with Nicolas Cage. (This time, it recommended the incredible film Bringing Out the Dead.) The other two movies recommended were a movie about Hitler having a relationship with a Jew and a movie about a young Jewish man who hides his Judaism from a group of classmates. I suppose that the focus on plotlines that involved Jewish culture stemmed from the tangential relationship that Dancing with the Moon has with WWII. Nevertheless, it seems like a very bizarre metric upon which to base recommendations. C’mon, Netflix.