American Pastoral

First Hit:  Interesting look back into the 1960s and, although it was confusing at times, it did make me think about a powerful time in America.

If you grew up in the 1950s and 60s, you probably knew or had heard of “the guy” who was the most popular guy in school, was on all the high school teams, was a letterman on all those teams, and married the prettiest girl in class. They led the idyllic lives.

Here we have Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor) as that man. We are introduced to his legend through the 45th high school reunion where his the Swede’s brother Jerry Levov (Rupert Evans) speaks with Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), a friend of his and Seymour’s. It is through Jerry telling Nathan the story that this film unfolds.

Swede marries Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) a New Jersey beauty queen. Because she is Catholic and Swede is Jewish, the Swede’s father Lou (Peter Riegert) wants to meet and question Dawn prior to their marriage. The Swede tells her to be strong during the meeting because this is what Lou admires. This discussion is well done and a strong scene in the film.

Swede ends up running the family business in Newark and is easily in the upper middle class. He and his wife move to a small rural town where they begin to raise their daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning). The film sets the ideal life with family dinners, mother and daughter working their cows, and even the birth of calves.

However, this pastoral scene starts to get darker as Merry begins to show her independence and anger towards the US Government’s involvement in the war of Vietnam and societies’ bent towards making money. I recall this attitude in many people including myself and the protest movements during this time. What complicates her internal struggle is that she also stutters. The psychologist they have tells Dawn and Swede that it is because she is struggling with her mom’s beauty and perfectness.

Merry runs away and is accused of blowing up the local rural post office (government facility) and killing the proprietor, whom the whole family knows. She disappears and Swede is distraught and beside himself and cannot let go that his daughter might have become part of an underground movement. Dawn begins to disappear from living, sells her cows and begins to slip into a deep depression.

From a filming standpoint, if feels over controlled and directed. The film is longer than needed to tell the story and this is a director issue as well.  To know what I mean watch a Clint Eastwood directed film and this one, Eastwood’s films are crisp, sometimes almost too crisp, and he gets the story told. In this film we have some long and languished scenes that supported the idyllic life they were living but some could have been cut or made shorter and made the film better. I also didn't believe the reasons for Merry’s stuttering and I don’t know if this was a screenplay issue or a directional issue.

McGregor was good as Swede but I also think his directing of himself got in the way of his performance. I did think, as a director, many of the scenes were well presented and setup well. Connelly was fantastic. I was mesmerized by her ability to put together a wonderful series of transitions as Dawn went from beauty queen romanced by the absolute best guy available, to a mother who cared, to cow farmer, to concerned and troubled mother, to depressed wife, and to remade wife through plastic surgery. Fanning was very strong in this very difficult and complex role. Although I didn’t fully buy her scripted logic for her actions, I bought how she made it work. Riegert was particularly good as Swede’s opinionated and robust father. John Romano wrote the screenplay from the Philip Roth novel. I do think there were some weaknesses in the script, and McGregor didn’t help this much.

Overall:  This could have been a stronger film with a crisper screenplay and clearer direction.