Sean Penn's Pledge Shines but Needs More Polish | Lasse Comes Home — Will Chocolat Director Get First DGA Nod? | Hanoi Jane: The Direct Word From the POW Organization
Last night I finally got to see Sean Penn's latest directorial effort, The Pledge. The movie opens next Friday and stars Jack Nicholson as the central character in a quasi-thriller. A huge cast of Penn friends and famous colleagues, from his wife Robin Wright Penn to Harry Dean Stanton, Helen Mirren, Aaron Eckhart, Sam Shepard, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke and the great Lois Smith, fill out the ensemble cast.
I went into The Pledge expecting the worst — after all, it's being released a mere 19 days after the Oscar deadline. Warner Bros. could have, but did not, give it a weeklong Oscar-qualifying run. And the movie has been ready since early November, when it got its rating from the MPAA. Believe me, after Proof of Life, Warner Bros. could have used an Oscar contender.
So what's the story? The Pledge is a mixed bag. In fact, parts of it are so good that I spent the first hour wondering why it didn't get an Oscar campaign. Nicholson is in nearly every scene and his performance is nothing less than brilliant, almost to the end of the two hours. Looking fairly unglamorous as a retired cop in the Nevada backwoods, Jack manages to withhold his worst ticks and give a textured, memorable characterization. This is the second time he's let Penn direct him — he was also in The Crossing Guard. His faith in Penn is manifested in the obvious trust between them.
Penn, whose late father Leo Penn was a well-known television director, has a good eye. His scenes flow beautifully and he handles a considerable number of emotional scenes well. He also has a very good cinematographer in Chris Menges, a talented director himself (the wonderful 1988 film A World Apart with Barbara Hershey), and a very good production team. Parts of The Pledge are utterly beautiful to look at, so beautiful that they'd make John Toll and Terrence Malick, who composed The Thin Red Line, weep with envy. The Pledge is almost like the best nature program you've never seen. One bit, set on a lake, is too gorgeous for words.
So what's wrong? The story is just bizarre. I know it's based on a novel by Friedrich Durrenmatt, but it doesn't matter. Basically, Nicholson's retired cop comes out of retirement to solve the very grisly murder of an eight-year-old girl. A culprit is found, but even so Nicholson believes the real killer to be out there. Several times in the second act the audience can guess what's going to happen, and even that is a conceit worthy of suspending disbelief. However, the last bit of the film — in which Nicholson's character uses Robin Wright Penn's eight-year-old daughter as unwitting decoy to catch the killer — is a very sour and unfulfilling direction for the plot. I won't give away the ending, but think of it sort of like John Sayles' last film, Limbo. The audience is left right there.
In the TV ads, Benicio Del Toro is for some reason omitted altogether — maybe not to confuse people with his current Oscar run in Traffic. But he has a short pivotal sequence in the beginning of this film that is absolutely mind-blowing. Something tells me 2001 is the year of the Bull. But it's not the year of The Pledge. But you know how the ad goes — you don't want to polish the polish. That's the problem with this movie ultimately: You never get beneath the surface.
I don't think there's any doubt that Steven Soderberg will win the DGA award this year. And it will probably be for Traffic, which is considered the more daring of his two films. I think audiences like Erin Brockovich better, but hey — the DGA is going to vote for artistic achievement. If Soderbergh's two films cancel each other out, then Ang Lee has a chance with Crouching Tiger. Lee will definitely be nominated.
That leaves only a couple of open slots, one for former winner Robert Zemeckis, who had the temerity to shoot love scenes between Tom Hanks and a volleyball. Then, depending on whether Soderbergh takes two slots or one, that leaves my two favorite directors of 2000, Cameron Crowe and Lasse Hallstrom.
Crowe is a known entity to the DGA. He's American, and he's had a massive hit with Jerry Maguire. Hallstrom, being Swedish and a little shy, is an unknown to most American directors. Lanky, 54, and youthful in appearance, Hallstrom is not going to campaign for anything. He doesn't know how to. Last year we were at a dinner just prior to Oscar ballots going out and I urged him to go meet some Academy voters, since The Cider House Rules might be in the running. "Oh no, I couldn't do that. I have no good stories," he said. He thought I was nuts.
Hallstrom's films, such as My Life as a Dog, Cider House and Chocolat, show the wonderful gift he has for making what could be bitter subjects seem sweet. His movies are deceptively lighthearted. I think of them as Tootsie Pops, with surprisingly dark centers. Chocolat is like that. It's too easy to say it's sweet. Abandon all the candy metaphors. Chocolat is the heftiest fairy tale you could hope to see.
Hallstrom goes so far as to bring out an unexpectedly nuanced performance from Carrie-Anne Moss. Moss, of Matrix fame, makes the children come alive, and offers Juliette Binoche her ticket into the world of glamorous leading ladies. He's already made the short list for the British Academy Awards — the pre-nomination stage. Let's hope American directors and audiences second that decision.
Captain Mike McGrath (USN Retired), president of the POW-NAM organization, writes the following letter to us. I don't know Col. McGrath, but he served in Vietnam and seems to have a good grasp of the truth about Jane Fonda's visit to Hanoi and its consequences. Talking with Mike the other night, I realized that the Vietnam War remains alive as ever in the American mind. As a topic of debate, it's endless — there are many sides, no one is right, memories are clouded by emotion.
This column continues to receive so many e-mails from all sides that at times the server has stopped accepting them. All of these messages are impassioned and certain about various events. Since this reporter is in no position to adjudicate, I'm going to defer to McGrath, who, by the way, was a POW from 1967 to 1973.
"Hi Roger: Basically, you are starting to get the bigger picture. Jane did go to Hanoi about July 8, 1972, some eight months before our release. She did appear in a room where there were seven POWs. Only one of the POWs was tortured to force him to go to the room. The others, to my knowledge, were just told to dress up in our "pinks" (our more formal pajamas) and get in a vehicle. They ended up in the room with Jane. She read propaganda statements on the air (Radio Hanoi) while they sat there. I do not have any firsthand information that she actually spoke to any of them. You would have to personally speak to the seven men to determine what, if anything, went on. I suspect nothing went on. I suspect that they were taken out immediately after she spoke and they were taken back to their cells.
"Probably the only consequence of her visit to the radio rooms of Radio Hanoi was that her broadcasts were played in the rooms of the POWs (each room was equipped with a radio box mounted high on the wall near the ceiling ... for propaganda, etc.). All it did was infuriate the POWs. So, hatred is probably the only thing she brought forth from the POWs. She did not bring torture or other abuse to the POWs ... with the one exception. Why one man was picked out for torture of his broken arm is unknown. He was the senior ranking man of a room full of new guys. Maybe they wanted to force him to do something against his will so he could be an example to the other new guys that they had to comply with the various demands.
"They (the Viet Cong) quit outright torture and barbarity soon after Ho Chi Minh died in September 1969. I'll bet [certain described treatment, which McGrath has asked me to delete here] came before September 1969 or else it was done outside the prisons of Hanoi.
"Yes, the Carrigan/Driscoll/strips of paper story is an Internet hoax. It has been around since Nov 1999 or so. And, no, to the best of my knowledge, she never visited the Hanoi Hilton prison. The conditions sucked and there was too much risk that one of us old-timers might have seen her and yelled out the truth, insulted her, or if we got close enough [deleted]. The Vietnamese wined her and dined her and fed her propaganda to their liking. Remember, the V were fighting a propaganda war. They would never let her see the deplorable conditions we were in. They probably took a chance to even bring seven men into a well-lit studio room (you can bet it was cleaned and freshly painted, too). I think they just gave her a royal tour of the best the city had to offer ... history, culture, clean rooms, clean hospital rooms, etc. and any bombed-out building they could claim had been churches, schools, etc.
"Please excuse the generic response, but I have been swamped with so many e-mails on the subject of the Jane Fonda article (Carrigan, Driscoll, strips of paper, torture and deaths of POWs, etc.) that I have to resort to this pre-scripted rebuttal. The truth is that none of this ever happened. This is a hoax story placed on the Internet by unknown Fonda haters. No one knows who initiated the story. Please assist by not propagating the story. Fonda did enough bad things to assure her a correct place in the garbage dumps of history. We don't want to be party to false stories which could be used as an excuse that her real actions didn't really happen either. I have spoken with all the parties named: Carrigan, Driscoll, et al. They all state that this particular story is a hoax and wish to disassociate their names from the false story. They never made the statements attributed to them. Systematic torture of POWs by the North Vietnamese did slow down in late 1969, after Ho Chi Minh died.
"Some camps were devoid of torture after 1969, but several individuals continued to be brutally tortured for information and propaganda. Fonda's visit was in late 1972. Treatment was starting to improve at the time of her visit, but at least one POW was hung by his broken arm to force him to go before Ms. Fonda [name withheld by request]. Even the last POW shot down and captured, Jan. 27, 1973, was brought to Hanoi and brutally tortured only two weeks before the first release of prisoners. You are welcome to forward this rebuttal to the Carrigan story as you like.
"Thank you. Mike McGrath, President of NAM-POWs."