Movie Review: American Pastoral

The story of American Pastoral is based on a Philip Roth novel that takes place right after World War 2 ended and stretches over some of the most difficult years in this country’s history, through the Korean War and then Vietnam and the 60s, followed by Watergate and Nixon and into the early 1990’s where the movie starts at the end, with a 45 year high school reunion. This movie does a great job reminding you about the extremely turbulent time in this country in the 1960’s where we were involved in a war that we had no business being involved in. While sitting through this 2-hour movie, I was reminded of all the protesting, the hippie culture, Jane Fonda and all of the horrible images of young men being flown back to the United States in body bags. Protesting a horrible war like this was definitely understandable, given the insane injustice of this country constantly acting as the police force for the entire world despite the huge cost of so many young lives.

The story of this movie is mostly about the Vietnam War and how deeply it affected the young people of the 1960’s, even to the point of blowing up buildings to protest the war and in some cases, not even caring what terrorist acts like this can do to innocent people, including their own families. The last movie I can remember that even remotely touched on this subject was the outstanding film “Running on Empty” that came out in 1988 and was one of the last movies for the actor River Phoenix. I remember that movie having one great and extremely well acted scene where the actress Christine Lahti meeting her father in a restaurant for the first time in 20 years because she had been living underground after bombing a weapons facility that forced her to go underground with her husband and 2 children to avoid prosecution. The movie American Pastoral has a scene like this too but follows a similar and far more depressing story line.

In American Pastoral, Jennifer Connely andEwan McGregor play Dawn and Swede Levov, the parents of a very impressionable young child played at first by Ocean James and then in later years by Dakota Fanning. At first, their lives are idyllic with Swede a former high school football star who takes over his father’s glove factory in of all places, Newark New Jersey. The family lives on a farm in a small fictional town called Old Rimrock New Jersey (I checked this town does not exist). Apart from this family’s seemingly perfect life is the very severe stuttering problem of their daughter. At numerous points in this movie watching this young girl trying to say difficult words like “beautiful” or other words that start with hard consonants and similar alternative replacement words do not exist are extremely painful to watch even if you never had this problem yourself.

What this film does so extremely well, is to show very clearly that a severe stuttering problem for any young person, especially a girl is anything but trivial and can cause long term problems in life. The family’s ineffective and stupid therapist even suggests that the young girls stuttering is caused more from her competing with her beauty queen mother for her father’s attention, more than any other reason. There are several subtle suggestions that this young girl’s very bad choices in life due to her rage over the Vietnam War could have been caused by her constant frustration and humiliation when she even tried to speak during her entire childhood. What this film does the best is demonstrate that very bad decisions you make in life due to anger or other reasons can destroy not only your life but also the lives of people who care about you. Many of the scenes that address this issue are very depressing and difficult to watch, especially towards the end of the film and because of this, the story does not follow the typical Hollywood ending. This movie also marks the directing debut of Ewan McGregor.

I thought that American Pastoral is an extremely well acted movie and I do give it a high recommendation.

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