"The Nuclear Family Meets the Atomic Age."
Good tagline, nice little encompassing description, too.
This is one of those many titles I grabbed on the ultra cheap at discount pricing from warehouse dumping at Big Lots (honestly, I'm one short of finishing the first wave, so then it's back to movies you might have actually heard of again--oh, I know, I've sprinkled in famous enough titles, but still) and in this case, while I did check all titles I bought against both Leonard Maltin (I've never found him a definitive source, but often if he does think it IS good, he's right, even if he's too hard on most things for me) and IMDb averaging, I often had some catch that pulled me in, usually actor, director, strange quirk or trivia. In this case--Jon Voight.
I'm not sure when it is that I started liking Jon Voight. I remember seeing Anaconda in theatres (I've felt no need to see it since, just for the record) and noting that he was in it, but that was when I was just starting to be able to name people outside the huge, huge names. I know it was around 2000 or 2001 that I developed my belief that Angelina Jolie was the hottest woman on earth (she has since been topped) and soon discovered who her father was, but I remember thinking it was exciting that she came from that lineage, so it can't be then, either. Still, it occurred at some point, and it was my enthusiasm at seeing he had a STARRING role here that brought me into the movie with some awareness and interest.
What we have here, since I imagine you don't know (most of you, at least) is the story of a small family in the early 1950's in the small town (!) of Las Vegas. Stepfather Jack (Voight) is a wounded war hero from World War II who runs a local gas station and autoshop, his wife Lily (JoBeth Williams) works at "the hotel part" of one of the local casinos, her sister Starr (Ellen Barkin) has just moved in because of messy plans for divorce with her husband Frank, and we center on the story of the eldest of three daughters, Rosalie Chismore (Annabeth Gish, many years before geeks like me would know her as Agent Monica Reyes in later seasons of The X-Files) who is thirteen as the movie opens.
We see both her view of Jack, and an observer's, a third person view, and for the first time in my recollection, we see both the justifiable anger at a drunken, somewhat abusive stepfather, and the shattered shell of a man he is that drives him to that point. Annabeth is very believable as a thirteen year old--though, she was fifteen, so I suppose it wasn't a huge stretch--caught between the impulsive questioning of extreme youth and the growing awareness of how people act when you should leave a subject alone. She shows a pretty deep loathing for her stepfather, which we can't blame her for when his drinking gets far enough out of hand that he strikes her, or leads him to project his anger and frustration at her over everything else in his life.
But we do see what has done this to him; we see how much he treasures his past, patriotically proud of his role in the war, and of the importance of his country and the protection of his family. We see that he is proud and stubborn whenever he does something despicable--but we can see in his face that on some level he is half-questioning the wisdom of his choices. Of course he is not one to apologize, admit error or even admit when he's unsure of himself, and feels that his interests and passions are those that everyone should have, but we know that he thinks he's doing right. This doesn't justify most of his actions, no, but we can see where he's coming from, and often see shades of the man hiding underneath that surface.
A pretty solid little drama, really, that manages to feel very much like it must be what the fifties were like. As someone who sees little appeal in the culture and attitudes of the time, it was very impressive how well-conveyed it was here. It didn't feel like a distortion, or like I had much of it obscured by a focus on a single aspect. Maybe I was helped by the nostalgia it induced through its--oh you knew this was coming from me when you saw the year, didn't you?--very 80s style, though not in fashion or anything of that sort, but simply in its rich, lived in filmstock and full, natural colours. Or maybe I was just suckered in when Rose said that she liked books, movies and not much else. That could be it.
My little interesting tidbit--the composer's name caught my eye in the opening credits. Brad Fiedel. I know this composer's name for one film--The Terminator. Slight change in style, both for him musically and for the film he was composing for. As you might imagine.