American Pastoral captures life in the Vietnam War era

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With the 2016 Presidential Election from Hell mercifully running out of gas, there’s a new movie out that reminds us that things could always be worse. American Pastoral, a film about the turbulent Vietnam War era, reveals in suspense-filled details the conflict’s damning effects on one, middle-class family.

Jennifer Connelly and Ewan McGregor
Jennifer Connelly and Ewan McGregor

It stars Ewan McGregor as Seymour Levov, a Jewish, Newark, NJ-based entrepreneur, high school star athlete and WWII veteran. He’s contently married to a Catholic girl, Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly.) She’s a pretty, former “Miss New Jersey.” He’s a happy go-lucky political liberal. His friends call him “Swede.”

The Swede’s factory makes gloves in what’s left of Newark’s industrial base. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the riots of 1968 strike the town hard. It’s fair to say that Newark, and the Swede’s business and home life, were badly shaken by the experience.

Nevertheless, the Swede’s family, residing out in the patrician-dominated countryside, soldier on. They are enjoying the good life out on their farm/home, in suburbia New Jersey.

The Levovs have one daughter, Merry. As a child, she’s played impressively by: Ocean James, age 8; and Hannah Nordberg, age 12. When she reaches that late teenage time of open rebellion, the fine actress, Dakota Fanning enters the frame.

Dakota Fanning
Dakota Fanning

Merry, a blonde, is a little on the spoiled side growing up. She also has a serious stuttering, and “dad problem.”

The movie is based on a popular novel of the same name, authored by the controversial Philip Roth. In 2012, he declared, a la J.D. Salinger, that he was going to fade from the literary scene. (Oh, my, these testy writers! Sometimes they can be worse than those larger-than-life egos on the TV show,  “The View!”)

The novel, American Pastoral, came out in 1997. I haven’t read it. I prefer to review a movie without forever comparing it to how the book portrayed this or that subject, which can be so distracting. I understand the film is true to the spirit of the book.

In any event, the screenplay for the flick was written by John Romano, and he gets the job done. It’s McGregor, himself, (the Swede), who very skillfully, directs the movie. His acting is compelling, too.

The Levov family is soon shaken again. As the Vietnam War heated up in the 60/70s, their daughter Merry, now age 16, is pulled into the most extreme antiwar politics of the day. She starts associating with violence-prone antiwar radicals in New York City.

american3The generation gap in families is all too familiar. But, when you toss in a very unpopular war, the mix can be toxic. The Swede and his wife try, but have a tough time dealing with Merry. Meanwhile, she has developed a smart-ass, know-it-all attitude.

Backstory: The Vietnam War (1954-1975) literally ripped the country apart. After the murder of President John F. Kennedy, his successor, the shadowy Lyndon B. Johnson, launched the conflict based on a false flag op, aka “The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.” Close to 58,000 of our finest sons and daughters died; many more were wounded. The Vietnamese casualties ran into the millions.

Protesters in the U.S. hit the streets. Vietnam birthed the modern day, “Antiwar Movement.” It also brought out the crazies, the ultra-militant, “Weathermen,” aka “The Weather Underground.”

The chant, “Hey, Hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” regularly rang out at demonstrations across the county. The torching of the American flag was also a frequent occurrence at these demonstrations.

Matters begin to speed up in the film when a bomb goes off in the Swede’s local Post Office. It brings the war home for him and his family. The postmaster is killed in the blast. Merry is implicated in the act of terrorism and suddenly goes missing. The FBI is on her trail. Her devastated father tries to track her down, too, which takes up about the last half of the movie.

Much of the story is told in a narrative form by an ex-classmate of the Swede, Nathan Zuckerman, ably played by (David Strathairn). A sounding board for Zuckerman is the Swede’s brother Jerry (Rupert Evans), a doctor. They relate how the years had burst the bubble of Swede, the one-time high school jock.

american2The Swede’s search for Merry brings him into the mean streets of Newark’s ghetto. One day at the glove factory, he is visited by a young woman, Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry). She purports to be a friend of Merry’s from the underground movement. Is this a setup? Is she just looking to shake him down and then do him harm?

In any event, some of Roth’s views on the Vietnam War period come off as too far removed from the struggle itself. It’s like he relied mostly on headlines and stereotypes from that period to craft two of his most important characters: the Swede’s daughter, Merry; and the extremist radical, Rita Cohen.

For one, Merry’s evolving so quickly into a full fledged bomb maker doesn’t compute. The mysterious Cohen character, I must add, is totally incredulous. Despite those objections, the movie, still works as first-rate entertainment. The film was shot in Pittsburgh, PA.

It’s the superb acting which keeps American Pastoral together. It sustains your interest throughout. This sad film recreates, at times insightfully, via the highly-fictionalized history of one impacted family in suburbia New Jersey, the trauma, anxiety and grief of that horrific Vietnam War era.

I’m not only recommending American Pastoral, I’m giving it three out of five stars.

All photos are screen shots from trailer. Click to enlarge.

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Editor’s Note: Bill Hughes is a Baltimore-based author, actor and photojournalist.