Hollywood has long embraced stories of war and the affect it has on those who faced it. The drama comes from either the heroic efforts in the heat of battle or the heart-tearing events that unfold when soldiers come home.
A less common topic has been the impact war has on the homefront, especially with those who have no direct connection to the conflict. Emotions can be just as big and painful, even when not staring down the barrel of a gun.
That is the focus of Ewan McGregor’s adaptation of the Philip Roth novel, “American Pastoral.” McGregor both stars in and directs this look at a family through the decades of going from living the American Dream to dealing with an American nightmare.
McGregor plays Seymour “Swede” Levov, a legendary high school athlete who has a successful business and a perfect wife in former beauty pageant contestant Dawn (Jennifer Connelly). Their daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning), has spent her life dealing with a stutter that has made her a social outcast.
Merry becomes a teenager during the height of the Vietnam War. Whether driven by the pain she’s endured as an outcast or her guilt over living a perfect lifestyle while others suffer, Merry takes a militant approach to politics and her family. Her rhetoric turns to action, and Merry is accused of committing a violent act. She disappears.
This breaks Dawn’s spirit and mind, while Swede becomes obsessed with finding his daughter. Both pay a massive price for the actions of their daughter.
“American Pastoral” is, at its heart, a father-daughter story. His love for his daughter is boundless, but Merry goes from embracing his affection to using it as an excuse to rebel. Fanning turns in a memorable performance, both as the politically energized teen and as the changed adult she becomes.
“American Pastoral” is, at its heart, a father-daughter story. His love for his daughter is boundless, but his daughter goes from embracing his affection to using it as an excuse to rebel.
Even more powerful is the psychological journey that Connelly’s character takes, from the joy of a perfect home and family to the hatred she feels for failing her daughter. Connelly’s character is stripped down to bare emotional nerves, but when she’s put back together, her mental state is never fully repaired.
Although Valorie Curry plays an outside figure in this family story, her presence puts an accent mark on the frailty of the group. Curry’s work personifies the kind of thinking that Swede could not understand. It’s a small but noteworthy performance by Curry.
McGregor provides the emotional glue desperately trying to fix the shattered pieces of his life. Despite a lifetime of frustrations and failures, this good man clings to the one thing that defines him: He’s a loving father. McGregor manages to show a range of emotions without ever taking away from the character’s central core. It would have been an impressive task if all he did was act in the film. Taking on the added demands of directing doesn’t take away anything.
John Romano’s adaptation of the book cuts some corners, which makes a few of the key moments come across as slightly pushed. But the essence is there and is given life by the strong cast.
The only structural problem is bookending the story with a class reunion where David Strathairn plays a noted writer who hears the story of what happened to Swede and his family. It feels slightly detached from the film’s family focus.
Overall, “American Pastoral” is as powerful as any movie that uses war as a catalyst for the story. It shows that emotional scars can be created in a myriad of ways.