Review: “American Pastoral”
I love Ewan McGregor. He played the main character, Seymour “Swede” Levov and he directed “American Pastoral”. But while I love his acting style and there are some interesting elements to this movie, I struggled to connect to it. Maybe it’s me and I failed to grasp some important piece to the film or maybe my unfamiliarity with the source material, the book of the same name by Phillip Roth, hindered me. But whatever the reason, I didn’t find this movie quite worked for me.
This is a story of the perfect family. Seymour is a former sports hero with a beauty queen wife, the staple of his community, running the family business whose perfect life falters and falls apart as his daughter’s radical political affiliations threaten to tear apart the family. The film takes place around 1951, continuing through the sixties on into the seventies.
The story begins with a high school reunion; a writer Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) attends and reminisces with a friend, Jerry Levov (Rupert Evans) about his heroic older brother, Seymour “The Swede”. You are shown the beautiful, idyllic life that Swede has been granted, marrying a woman that he adores and their only child, Merry. Merry has a stutter but that is the only flaw in an otherwise beautiful life or so it appears. Jerry relays the news that his brother has passed away and was killed by a tragic event. He then tells the tale to Nathan.
As the film builds, you learn that Merry struggles with her stutter and has been taken to a psychiatrist. Along the way, you see flashes of rebellion, hints of her tendency to carry things too far and eventually, she grows into a teenager, developing political ideals that are at odds with her parent’s peaceful lives. She begins having ties to student protesters of the Vietnam War, radicals who advocate tearing down the system, heading to New York to meet with them. As the story delves into the riots of the time, you see Seymour try to council his daughter to take a stand at home if she feels change is necessary. The next scene shows the local post office exploding, a man dead and sixteen year old Merry (Dakota Fanning) has disappeared. She is suspected of carrying out the bombing and the FBI are after her.
There is a point where a mysterious woman approaches Seymour, Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry) and convinces him that she knows Merry, is in league with her and will help him find his daughter. She demands money in exchange for leading him to Merry but ultimately he gets nothing out of the encounter. And this is where I felt lost. Because of these scenes, I anticipated more of a mystery, where her parents search for her and learn what she has been doing. While the beginning is slower and meanders at points, I felt that made sense as it develops the characters and points to the daughter’s acts of violence. But as the family struggles with their daughter’s actions and her disappearance, it falters. Seymour holds tightly onto the idea of finding his daughter while her mother (Jennifer Connelly) has a nervous breakdown and finally decides to forget about her. Instead of being a mystery, this ended up being a drama and while there is nothing wrong with that, it wasn’t what I felt the movie had been leading to.
I found the political aspects, the historical elements of the sixties and seventies are interesting and well captured cinematically. The riots and other events carry over into Merry’s rebellion and her extremist views. The father daughter bond is sweet, especially with the young Merry (Ocean James) and Ewan McGregor plays a loving father well. The emotion of that bond is what builds to an emotional punch at the end of the movie, when he dies of old age never giving up on his daughter. He loves her in spite of her actions and that part moved me to tears. But that was the only emotion that connected.
The message for me ended up being the love between a father and a daughter and his unwillingness or inability to see past his love to the truth of who she becomes as an adult. He still wants to hold onto to that young, innocent little girl but never realizes that she wasn’t that girl from the beginning. But while he holds on too tight, his love is what makes this movie strong, that unconditional love of a parent for their child.
I’m torn on this film. I loved Ewan McGregor’s acting. Personally, I thought all the actors played their parts well and the history was excellent. I just wished the story hadn’t gotten lost along the way. There are parts of the story that are not resolved and with those dangling threads, it left me feeling unsatisfied. Although the ending had a strong impact for me, the movie failed to give me the connection I was craving.
Viewers who loved the book or love dramas will probably love this movie. It is slow in the beginning but even though it didn’t resolve the way I expected, there is an interesting story with some insights into the Vietnam War era that I think people will find thought provoking. The acting is solid and the father-daughter moments made a poignant ending.
Rating: 4 stars