OK, so, I heard how fantastic Billy Crudup was in Jesus' Son, then in Stage Beauty. I saw him as Russell Hammond in Almost Famous and wasn't disappointed, but wasn't overly impressed either. Of course the reason for that, in my opinion, is that the film isn't really about his character anyway. However, here, I was almost disturbed by how many actors I was reminded of as the movie went on--here's a rough list that I kept in my head as it went: Joaquin Phoenix, Sean Maher, Rob Lowe, Jimmy Smits,Tobey Maguire, Christian Bale, Skeet Ulrich. Each time it was primarily a physical reminder of the actor, but occasionally there was a behavioural or characteristic reminder. Smits' eyebrow-raising that symbolized his skeptical but essentially respectful listening, the eager, sort of nerdy hollowness of the attentive and bright Tobey Maguire (especially as Peter Parker or in Pleasantville), and the intense, dark, heavily browed look Joaquin can give in appropriate roles, the false charm of Bale as Patrick Bateman, the honest charm of Skeet Ulrich in the role for which I know him best--Paul Callan of Miracles.
Anyway, I smelled a cold, spacious artsy drama when I saw the cover and read the title of this film--and when I saw the two stars, Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly. I am, as such, wary of films like this becuase they are almost always filled with talent, skill, interest and intelligence, but can succeed or fail depending on the attitude of the author and/or director. If he or she is self-important, pretentious and condescending, the entire film is often ruined. Here, thankfully, that is not the case.
Fielding Pierce (Crudup) is watching a news report on television, announcing the carbombing of a Catholic activist group in Minneapolis, and then that this group includes one Sarah Williams (Connelly). He sobs and presses his hands to his forehead in confused, unconscious distress, angst and sadness. So, we begin the film knowing that Sarah has died. The year, we're told, is 1974. Suddenly, a fade to white reveals the date is 1972, and now we see Fielding in Coast Guard uniform, wandering into what is obviously not his element--a clear counterculture publishing office, playful confrontations with the workers, apparently going to see his brother Danny as publisher. Danny's secretary is none other than Sarah Williams, who we can tell as yet does not know Fielding. This, we find, is how they meet, and after a dinner dominated by Fielding's politics, philosophy and viewpoint, they have a date that evening in which she sarcastically suggests she will only agree to if allowed to talk.
From here it is a clash; Fielding is a senator-to-be, hoping to gain and use political footing to improve the world and eventually become president and really shake up the system. Sarah is an activist with no interest in a government she sees as irredeemably corrupt, idealizing and admiring revolutionaries. Somehow, despite this, they fall clearly and obviously in love. They are fully aware of their conflicting interests--Fielding is in the Coast Guard, attending Harvard to try and get himself to his final goal, while Sarah is working through her Catholicism as an activist in a home for orphaned children. And so we begin to shift in time back and forth, first the 70s, then 1982, Fielding now being offered a chance at the position of Senator, Sarah still a memory. He begins to hear her voice, see signs of her presence and is unable to shake them or write them off. We see how deeply they were into each other's lives, and how difficult it was to reconcile their worlds. This difficulty of reconciliation comes back to haunt Fielding, emotionally and to some degree mentally unseating him.
The supporting cast includes Jim Carroll Lynch, permanently ingrained in my brain as Steve Carey, transvestite brother of Drew Carey and wife of his nemesis Mimi, as Father Mileski, the priest who takes Sarah to Chile, as well as the great Hal Holbrook, known to us genre fans from John Carpenter's The Fog, George A. Romero's Creepshow, as Isaac Green, Fielding's political mentor, who maneouvres things behind the scenes to put things into motion for him and coaches him into finding the greatness he seeks from his working class roots.
What I found most frustrating about this film, though, were the politics, viewpoints and ideology of Sarah. Connelly performs her perfectly, it should be noted, capturing exactly the smug, self-righteous, holier-than-thou, condescending, patronizing, tactless, uncontrolled attitude of the folk I've known of the more activist mindsets. I find them endlessly irritating despite agreeing with their goals and essential desires, which seems to be the feeling Fielding has of Sarah, outside the love he feels for her, much like her love for him is outside her distaste for his willingness to bend and hide his feelings from others to serve politics. However, she has no tact whatsoever and expresses venemous and profane distaste to a man whose article she has read when she meets him at a party Fielding is attending to build a reputation and name for himself. It was not charming, amusing or cheer-inspiring. She came off as disrespectful to the man she supposedly loves, petty, childish and immature. While her distaste for what he said was certainly justifiable, what point did it really serve to call him out like that and express her disgust with him so openly? Does that serve any real purpose? So, what, she can feel righteous in her condemnation of him and at least mildly sabotage her lover's lifelong work?
Is she going to overthrow the U.S. government? If not, wouldn't it be good to have Fielding working to change it from the inside? This point is actually made later, in an inverse scene where Fielding is surrounded by Father Mileski, Sarah and the Chilean activists they have recently rescued. They speak ill of the church, inspiring no devastating comments from Mileski or Sarah, then tell Fielding, with sneers, that it is shocking that he would follow in the footsteps of the obviously corrupt existing politicians. He responds in clear frustration and feelings of being attacked by everyone--justifiable, I feel--that this is nonsensical, that just because he chooses that path does not mean he will be corrupted. Acting within the system is the only way to do something without changing the system itself. Fielding goes on to say that it must mean something that he, as a working class man, is ABLE to make himself into a Senator if he chooses, that, yes, it's a heavily flawed system with heavily flawed components, but that it has to be something that he can do that. Mileski makes the hideous remark that this sounds like a sick man using his symptoms to describe his health. Sarah points out this is an unfair and cold remark, but Fielding says this sounds like something Sarah would say, which leaves him alone in the conversation, she says. This is, while realistic, similarly unfair. From what we've seen, that's a completely accurate claim for him to make. She is always condescending to him and accuses him of horrible things consistently. While he isn't a perfect man by any stretch, he tends to at least be somewhat more respectful of her and her needs, dreams and interests.
But, that's not what determines a film's worth or value. Just because it accurately portrays something I'm not a fan of does not make it flawed; if that portrayal is indeed accurate and instills this kind of reaction in me through its accuracy or representation, then it has achieved something. It may or may not be the intention, I suppose, but it comes off quite well in the end.