"Tragic Tale of American Family Discord"
What You Need To Know:
AMERICAN PASTORAL’s major conclusion is that you never know what people’s lives are like just by their outward behavior or public persona. What’s much more interesting about the movie is the protagonist’s love for his daughter, despite the bad things she does and he mistakes. In spite of this powerful emotional undercurrent, AMERICAN PASTORAL is too hit and miss. It also contains strong, obscene foul language that warrants extreme caution.
(B, CapCap, PP, APAP, AcapAcap, Pa, FR, PC, LLL, VV, S, NN, A, D, MM) Light moral worldview about a man’s undying love for his daughter, even though she becomes a radical leftist terrorist at one point and hides from the authorities, plus protagonist is a successful capitalist, who pursues the American Dream, but his ungrateful teenage daughter becomes an Anti-American, anti-capitalist leftist terrorist, who wants to tear down the society (the argument for his side is stronger, but the hatred coming from his daughter almost destroys him, because she can never come home again), five years later the daughter has become a Jainist pacifist believing in reincarnation of animals, bugs and humans, but she lives in squalor, and a bit of liberal political correctness survives the clash of cultures and ideologies depicted in the movie; 28-30 obscenities (more than half “f” words), one GD and one “for Christ’s sake,” and two light profanities; strong violence when family watches the famous 1963 TV scene where a Buddhist monk sets himself on fire in protest of the Vietnam War, some rioting, someone fires a gun from a building across the street to another building, and a man is shown from outside going into his store early in the morning, and a bomb explodes; young woman in short dress on bed spreads her legs and obscenely tempts middle-aged man, but he eventually leaves, though he clearly may indeed give into her seduction at one point, and husband catches his wife kissing another man in their kitchen during a barbecue party but says nothing; partial nudity when woman goes mad and appears nude wearing only a beauty pageant sash at husband’s glove factory, and young woman in short dress spreads her legs on bed, but nothing explicit is really shown; alcohol use; brief smoking; and, strong miscellaneous immorality includes woman goes mad, older teenager evades FBI and police after she plants a bomb that unintentionally kills one man, who showed up earlier than expected at the bomb site, lying, daughter confesses to father she killed two other people in radical bombings, Jewish father doesn’t approve of his son marrying a Catholic woman, but she wins him over eventually, and father doesn’t tell authorities about meeting with his daughter a couple times.
AMERICAN PASTORAL, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Phillip Roth, tells the tragedy of a liberal Jew from New Jersey whose beloved teenage daughter becomes an antiwar terrorist during the 1960s. AMERICAN PASTORAL is too hit and miss and contains some obscene foul language and mature themes, but it has a few good, even heartbreaking scenes and images.
At a high school reunion, the brother of Seymour “Swede” Levov, a successful Jewish businessman and star high school athlete, tells a writer the tragic story of Seymour’s later life. Seymour married a Catholic girl and beauty queen, and they have a beautiful daughter with a stuttering problem. The daughter grows up in the traditional liberal household in the 1960s.
The family watches in horror as a Buddhist monk lights himself on fire in June 1963 in protest of the Vietnam War. Later, Seymour and his wife are shocked to hear their teenage daughter spout obscene leftist rhetoric against their middle class lifestyle after returning from a trip to New York. Seymour tries to humor their daughter, but the wife is hurt by the feminist vitriol directed at her specifically.
Shortly thereafter, the daughter disappears after setting off a bomb at the local rural post office. The bomb unintentionally kills the grocery store owner operating the post office inside his store, because he arrived early to raise the flag in front of his building. Of course, the FBI investigates, but the pressure sends the wife off to get some mental health, and she comes back a changed woman.
As his marriage disintegrates, Seymour keeps searching for his missing daughter. After his office building survives the 1968 riots in Newark, Seymour eventually finds his daughter, but she’s become a doctrinaire, mystical pacifist living in abject squalor. She tells him to go away. He does, but he never gives up hoping for his daughter well-being until his death at 68.
This movie version of the novel reportedly leaves out a major subplot from the book. In that subplot, the writer meets Seymour in 1985, who tells him he’s remarried and has three boys with his second wife. So, the writer re-imagines the story of Seymour and his daughter before Seymour’s second marriage.
As in the novel, one of the major points in the movie is that you can never know what people’s lives really are like just by their outward behavior or their public persona. What’s much more interesting about the movie, though, is the protagonist’s ongoing love for his daughter, despite the bad things and mistakes she makes. Tragically, his love leads to the movie’s final emotional shot, where the daughter comes to his funeral and stands beside the coffin.
Despite the final powerful shot, AMERICAN PASTORAL is too hit and miss. There’s a great scene, for instance, where Seymour and the black woman, who’s been the office manager in his glove factory for years, work together to save his factory from angry rioters in the streets of Newark. However, although Ewan McGregor, as the protagonist, turns in a fine performance, the rest of the cast is uneven. For example, it’s hard to take seriously Dakota Fanning as a violent 1960s radical, but she’s heartbreaking when she becomes a fanatical pacifist and vegetarian living in squalor, and her loving father tries to help her out.
There’s an undercurrent in the movie, and apparently in the book, which shows the unraveling of the American Dream by the events and conflicts that started in the late 1960s and lasted through Watergate. While the movie itself doesn’t celebrate the American Dream per se, when Seymour’s daughter starts spouting a lot of leftist rhetoric against her family’s middle class lifestyle in the kitchen, it comes across as a wild, mean and totally unfair caricature. This, coupled with the admirable ways in which Seymour defends his business, including his hiring of African Americans, seems to lend support to the aspirational side of traditional American culture. In the end, however, all of Seymour’s economic success can’t make up for the loss of his daughter to the faddish cultural vicissitudes of the 1960s, which is surely one of the darkest ages in American history, a downfall still impacting the USA today.
AMERICAN PASTORAL contains some strong foul language and a scene where a taunting radical woman obscenely tries to tempt the protagonist in a hotel room (he’s trying to get information from her about his daughter). Seymour almost falls for her crude seduction but, to his credit, refuses her taunting advances. Finally, there’s also a scene where Seymour’s wife loses her mind and shows up nude, wearing only a beauty pageant sash, at his business (not much is shown, but enough). This content warrants extreme caution.