Albeit a cliché, there are few things more incalculably painful to a parent than the loss of a child. Imagine then the particular anguish of losing a child not to death but to irresolvable conflict. That is the burning ember at the core of American Pastoral, a challenging film adaptation of Philip Roth’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, directed by and starring actor Ewan McGregor.
McGregor plays Seymour “Swede” Levov, a sandy-haired Jewish athlete and all-around high school star in 1950s New Jersey. We all went to school with one of these people, whose innate talent, competence, and charm radiated from them like an essential oil. Everyone knew these hometown paragons were destined for greatness of some kind or another: success in business, a beautiful and devoted spouse, an envy-inducing manor house in the country. And indeed, Swede’s adulthood starts with every indication of fulfilling those lofty expectations. But life, and Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War, harshly intervene.
Swede’s only child, a winsome daughter aptly named Merry, grows into a fierce and violent protester of the war, going so far as to blow up a local business, unintentionally killing a man inside. As this incredible new reality comes crashing down on Swede and his beauty queen (literally) wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), their lives slowly, inexorably come undone.
American Pastoral is a powerful and heart-wrenching story. McGregor’s work as an actor is commendable, and he is supported by an equally talented cast that, in addition to Connelly, includes Dakota Fanning as the young adult Merry, Peter Reigert, Uzo Aduba and Molly Parker. As a director, McGregor wisely knows to stay out of the story’s way and let it carry the film, which it does.
John Romano’s screenplay keeps the focus on Roth’s compelling central theme. In fact, the only unsatisfying distraction is the retention of the novel’s framing device, which inserts Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s recurring alter-ego character, as an unnecessary narrator for the story. Despite the best efforts of David Strathairn in the role, Zuckerman is superfluous.
This is certainly not a film for every moviegoer. For some, it will cut a little too close to home. For others, it will lack the anticipated fireworks—either of the explosive special effect type or of the Oscar-bait performance variety—that attract most of us to the movies. But for this critic, himself the father of a strong-willed, politically-oriented teenage daughter, American Pastoral is a resonant exploration of a family landscape that is best visited through the movies rather than lived.
The Birth of a Nation
Another current release that succeeds on the power of its central narrative, The Birth of a Nation recalls the little-remembered biography of Nat Turner, a slave in 1830s Virginia. Written and directed by and starring Nate Parker, the film gives another harrowing but necessary glimpse into the lives of enslaved African Americans in the antebellum South. (In fact, the title is a pointed reference to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film of the same name, a racist and myopic tribute to the losing side of the Civil War.)
However, unlike some other recent dramas, such as Twelve Years a Slave and the TV remake of Roots, this account depicts slaves that don’t persevere against their bondage but rise up in violent, even deadly opposition. Writer-director Parker takes some artistic liberties with historical fact, but his gritty examination of our dishonorable national past has both drive and a ruthless poetry.
Parker’s own troubling past (he was accused but acquitted of sexual assault years ago) has created a controversial background for this film. If the viewer can set that issue aside, this is a powerful story, worthy of contemplation.