Two images stand out more than most in my memories of watching television as a child. The first is the summary execution of a civilian on a Vietnamese street, and the second the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk protesting against that war. Even now, I can see the charred skin and the upright body toppling sideways, a human being disintegrating. As a child, it both horrified and fascinated me. What kind of will was required for such a fate to be embraced? How could this be happening in what looked like an ordinary public space? How did the “victim” retain such preternatural calm? There were no trigger warnings back then and, since these pictures were “real”, they were almost certainly not subject to the 9.00pm watershed, before which “private parts” and patently fake violence could not be shown, but the unspeakable consequences of war were fair game.
Meredith Levov, a pre-teen, sees what I saw on television and reacts with the same horror – but decides to do something about it, eventually hooking up with an terrorist cell based in New York at the peak of the late 60s urban riots. She “brings the war home” by bombing the post office in her sleepy middle class Newark suburb and goes on the run, to be pursued by her father as her mother’s mental health spirals out of control.
That is the central storyline of Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, American Pastoral, based on the Philip Roth novel of the same name. Though I have read a few Roth novels, I have not read this one and, in consequence, the simplifications, the telescoping of plot and the awkward shoe-horning in of an unnecessary framing device, did not concern me as it did others (reviews, largely negative, continually refer back to the source material).
Ewan McGregor is a little monochromatic as “Swede” Levov, high school football hero and successful businessman – everybody loves him, but the charisma seems secondary to the square jaw and seeming immunity to ageing, physical gifts trumping emotional intelligence too easily. Jennifer Connelly does the crazy-beautiful turn (with which we have become familiar) as Swede’s shiksa goddess wife, Dawn, at her best when facing down old man Levov (Peter Riegert in midseason form) when brokering her marriage conditions across the Gentile – Jew divide. She gets the therapy and “moves on” but it’s all a little predictable.
Dakota Fanning’s work stands out as the troubled Merry, full of the burning certainty of youth and the solipsism of teenagers. She never loses touch with the child she once was, even dead-eyed and broken in an inner city squat. Fanning ensures that Swede’s obsessive pursuit of his daughter is genuinely grounded in rational hope, because Merry is forever only just out of reach – she isn’t totally brainwashed and she’s not that far away.
There’s much that is wrong with the film – themes such as the Merry’s precocious Oedipal rivalry with her mother, morphing into vehement hate and the racial dimension of the riots, are treated with an almost flippant haste, dropped and disregarded. Instead of the film broadening its perspective as the narrative moves forward, it narrows to the kind of “Parent vs Cult” trope that we have seen many times before. A sprinkling of visual cliches to mark the passage of time doesn’t help lift the sense that the desire to make Roth’s always complex work more accessible, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
And yet this is a thought-provoking movie, especially for parents of bright teenage kids. It’s barely worth stating that teenage lives are a closed book to their families – and there’s a strong argument for saying that they should be – but we know the lure of cults, the pull of the easy solutions offered by radical politics or religions, the understandable dissatisfaction of finding an identity in a world full of unacceptable elements yet demanding that they “fit in”. What do we do to “protect” our kids? The film shows that a carapace built on orthodox family love allied to a kid’s bright and inquisitive nature, may not be enough to repel the call of something different – the “Whaddya you got?” reply given by Marlon Brando in The Wild One when asked what he was rebelling against.
Reviewers have been too harsh on this movie – there’s a distinct feeling that McGregor’s hubris in starting out as director (and star) with the notoriously difficult Roth needs calling out – but there’s something universal and something particular in this work that bubbles up through the film’s flaws. I need to read the book I suppose – and I expect that I will.