American Pastoral—The drama of a family, the drama of a country
I rarely start a review by showing my enthusiasm for a movie, but “American Pastoral” directed by and starring Ewan McGregor as Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov certainly deserves it. The director uses a narrator—a resource that not always integrates well into the dynamic of a story—but this time it works wonderfully. In fact, it is the element that, without being intrusive, engages the audience into learning why the life of the handsome, distinguished high-school athlete and Marine veteran, who married a beauty queen and had inherited his father prosperous business, didn’t go the way everyone expected. And it works so well because the narrator is also learning what happened.
It all starts at a high school reunion where author Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) after looking at the usual trophies and pictures celebrating the athletic achievements of the school, meets the brother of the one most celebrated: ‘Swede’ Levov. To his surprise, he finds out that ‘Swede’ has died and his brother was in town precisely to attend the funeral.
Then we learn about ‘Swede’: coming from a Jewish family, he had to overcome some resistance from his father—owner of a glove factory— when he announces that he would marry Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), a Catholic girl, a recent New Jersey beauty queen of Irish descent. Nevertheless, they marry, and soon they have their only child, Merry.
Things seem to go fine for those first years of marriage. Unfortunately, Merry (at age 12 played by Hannah Nordberg) has one problem, she stutters. The couple goes to a therapist, but the answer she gives them would not solve the problem, on the contrary, it would unleash another more sordid question in the interrelations of the family, a question that would become more critical on the occasion of a camping excursion the father and the daughter take.
A few years pass and now Merry (Dakota Fanning) is a teenager growing up amid the turmoil of the unpopular war in Vietnam, and she would not remain indifferent to the atrocities committed by the American forces there. Like many young people in the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S., she would join the opposition to the war, but she would go farther. Her radicalization process eventually leads her to commit acts of violence as a result of which she should have to leave home. Desperate, her father looks for Merry, on one occasion she would send a messenger, Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry), who is also a member of the underground and would try to manipulate Levov. The loss of Merry is also having a toll on Dawn, but despite all these obstacles Swede would continue his search.
The issue of radicalization of youth (in this case going into a senseless violence, to some extent comparable to the radicalization of some Muslim youth today) is well presented in the movie. At one point the father, convinced that his daughter must have been manipulated or brainwashed into committing those terrible acts, asks Merry “who made you do it?” She answers, “Lyndon Johnson.” Beyond the sloganeering a point well made: institutionalized injustices lead some people to irrational responses.
“American Pastoral” based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Philip Roth and written by John Romano is a captivating portrait of the drama of an American family during the painful years of the Vietnam War and other significant events of the sixties. But it is also a portrait of the tragedy of a whole nation. It presents a convincing re-creation of the time period, solid performances especially by McGregor and Fanning, an engaging narrative, and certainly a most interesting plot.
Length: 126 min.
By Sergio Martinez – totimes.ca
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