25 October 2016 | dave-mcclain
equal parts enlightening, frustrating, inspiring and depressing
Anti-war protests. Heated political arguments. Police brutality. Social inequality. Race Riots. Calls for violence as a way to set things right. No, I'm not describing the Middle East or some Third World country. I'm talking about the United States – and not in the present day, but in the mid-1960s. The American Civil Rights Movement and opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam were both at their zeniths, both yielding positive and negative results for the country and those most personally involved. Can you imagine if much of this turmoil converged where you lived – all at the same time – and directly affected your own family? That's the situation in the drama "American Pastoral" (R, 2:06).
The script is by John Romano, based on the 1997 novel of the same name by Philip Roth, who based his main character on a real person – with some embellishments. And what a character Roth created! The Swede seemed to have it all! He was a star high school athlete (really, a hero and a legend in his hometown), he married a beauty queen (a former Miss New Jersey), he took over his father's thriving business (manufacturing high-end ladies' gloves), he had a house with land (in a very
pastoral setting), he and his wife had a loving, beautiful daughter to care for. What could be bad? All of it. At the 45th high school reunion of Swede's older brother, Jerry (Rupert Evans), he tells Swede's story to an old classmate, Nathan Zuckerman (Oscar nominee David Strathairn), a journalist who was overseas during the 1960s.
Seymour "Swede" Levov (Golden Globe nominee Ewan McGregor) was the pride of the Jewish-American community in Newark (which nicknamed him "Swede" because of his Nordic good looks), but Swede's life became difficult after high school – and went downhill from there. Swede had to struggle to get his very traditional father (Oscar nominee Peter Riegert) to accept the Catholicism of his wife, Dawn (Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly), he struggled to keep his business viable in the face of declining customer demand (and being at the epicenter of the 1967 Newark race riots), and he struggled mightily with his daughter, Merry (played by Ocean James in Merry's childhood and by Dakota Fanning as a rebellious teenager). Merry dealt with a bad stutter, which clearly affected her confidence and self-esteem (besides the "problem" of having such a beautiful mother, as pointed out by Merry's psychologist, played by Molly Parker). But Merry's problems (and her parents' problems with Merry) had just begun.
As she grew up, Merry became disillusioned with the world which she saw on TV as seemingly coming apart. She strongly sympathized with the Civil Rights Movement (especially its more radical elements) and the Vietnam anti-war movement (especially its more radical elements as well). She went from spewing hatred at President Johnson's image on the family's TV set to regularly taking the train into New York to commiserate with like-minded radicals. She rudely rebelled against all authority figures (including her own loving parents) and started talking openly about the need for a revolution in the U.S. One day, a local post office exploded, killing one man, and Merry
disappeared. Her anguished parents insisted that Merry couldn't have done such a thing
unless she was brainwashed and forced by others.
Over time, the movie's characters display very different reactions to the post office bombing. The police and FBI are convinced that Merry did it and they follow the few leads that they have trying to find her. Dawn doesn't want to believe that her daughter committed this horrible act, but gradually accepts it, leading her to a nervous breakdown. Jerry tries to get his brother to deal with the probability that Merry is guilty. Swede, however, never gives up on his daughter. He'll never believe in Merry's guilt unless he hears a confession from her own lips. Either way, all he wants to do is bring his daughter home and he never stops looking for her. The unexpected appearance of a mysterious young woman named Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry), who says she knows Merry, ends with Swede more desperate and frustrated than ever – and putting increased stress on his relationship with Dawn. Regardless, Swede never ever quits.
"American Pastoral" is a unique combination of enlightening, frustrating, inspiring and depressing. I gained a greater understanding of what was going on during the Vietnam Era, how certain social issues intertwined and how all of this affected ordinary people. I was frustrated by the daughter's behavior – and by the way the movie glossed over any real explanation for her unlikely and extreme radicalization. I was inspired by Swede's determination and unconditional love for his daughter
but it was depressing to see what those admirable qualities did to his previously promising life. The story's somewhat shaky, but interesting, the direction of McGregor (directing his first feature) is mostly solid, the characters are compelling and this impressive ensemble of actors are all at the top of their games. This movie won't leave you feeling very pastoral, but it will teach you more about America – and the power of love. "B"