Young people are drawn to a cause and radicalized. They build bombs, blow up buildings, and kill people. African-Americans are marching in the streets and are beaten by the police. Sounds like present time, but Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel focused on the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, college students protested the Vietnam War, militant elements staged violent acts to drive home their anger, and cities were torn apart in the battle for civil rights.
The themes in American Pastoral still resonate, and a film that’s able to bring to the screen the similarities between what happened in the past and what we see unfolding in our country now would certainly be a worthwhile project. Ewan McGregor, in his directing debut, puts in a game effort, but the result falls short.
McGregor plays a Jewish sports star, Seymour Levov, nicknamed Swede, in deference to his light hair and complexion. The story, which sticks closely to the book, is told through the eyes of Swede’s admirer, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), a writer who has spent most of his life living abroad. That plot device becomes a clumsy vehicle for moving the story forward, with flashbacks that only serve to interrupt the narrative flow. Zuckerman returns to his New Jersey high school for a reunion and reconnects with Swede’s brother, Jerry (Rupert Evans), hoping to hear stirring tales about the golden-haired athlete who married Dawn, a former Miss New Jersey (Jennifer Connelly). Nathan is dismayed, not only to hear that Swede has just died, but that the life of this promising young man took such a tragic turn.
Slowly the story unfolds. Jerry becomes a heart surgeon and Swede takes over the glove manufacturing business set up in the heart of Newark by his father, Lou Levov (Peter Riegert). While other businesses begin producing goods abroad to cut costs, Swede retains his work force made up mostly of African-Americans. When protesters burn down white-owned businesses in Newark, Swede, assisted by his loyal employee, Vicky (Uzo Aduba), saves the factory by hanging out a sign saying, “Negroes work here.”
Hannah Nordberg and Ewan McGregor
The riots in the street are mild compared to what Swede confronts at home with his daughter. Merry (played by Hannah Nordberg as a child and Dakota Fanning as a teen) suffers from a speech problem that causes her to stutter. As a child, Merry is close to both her parents and eager for their approval. But when she hits the teen years, she turns on both of them. In New York, she connects with radical elements and soon disturbing slogans are showing up on her bedroom walls. Swede empathizes with her need to influence opinion about the war and encourages her to make her voice heard in her community. Merry takes him up on that challenge, although not in any way he might have imagined. There’s an explosion at the local post office that kills the postmaster, a husband, father, and popular figure in the community. Neither Swede nor Dawn can accept that Merry is responsible for such a violent act. The postmaster’s wife doesn’t blame them, but she makes a prophetic comment: her family will heal, but the Levovs will never recover from what their daughter has done. Indeed, Swede will spend the rest of his life looking for his daughter, hoping against hope to prove that she was brainwashed and not responsible for her actions. Meanwhile, Dawn will suffer a nervous breakdown and blame her husband for everything wrong in her life.
While the casting cannot be faulted, the performances are not what we might expect from such experienced actors. McGregor seems wooden, his reactions not nuanced enough to reflect the various levels of hurt and outrage he must be feeling as his life begins to unravel. Connelly does her best with what she’s given, but her downward spiral is too abrupt and therefore not entirely believable. Similarly, Merry’s transformation from dutiful daughter to revolutionary happens in a nanosecond: one minute she’s happily flipping burgers in the family kitchen, the next she’s hurling them at her parents along with vitriolic words. The best performance belongs to Riegert, who perfectly captures Swede’s loyal father and Merry’s even more loyal grandfather.
Molly Parker plays Merry’s therapist, whose advice should have sent the Levovs rushing for the door. Yet, they continue family counseling, a decision that will place Merry in danger. Valorie Curry seems to be making a career out of playing creepy, fanatical groupies, most famously as Emma Hill in Fox TV’s The Following. Here, as Rita, a fellow revolutionary, she becomes the link between Merry and Swede. There’s a cringe-worthy scene where she tries to seduce him.
What the film does get right is how far a parent will go to protect a child, even one who has engaged in criminal activity. Swede can’t accept that his daughter, his flesh and blood, is responsible for killing people. He also can’t absolve himself of the guilt that somehow he’s to blame for the choices she made. These are tough questions, and the film doesn’t attempt to answer them.
American Pastoral opens nationwide October 21, 2016.
Photo credit: Richard Foreman courtesy of Lionsgate