' ' Cinema Romantico: Waking The Dead

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Waking The Dead

My favorite actresses having been getting a lot of pub on here recently and I realized my favorite actor, one Billy Crudup, often gets the shaft in my various rantings and ravings. He has starred in two of my absolute favorites ("Without Limits", "Almost Famous") but he often chooses projects that leave me admiring his work a great deal but not the movie itself. One of his movies I do admire a great deal is 2000's "Waking The Dead". It is far, far, far from perfect. Admittedly. It registers a 52% at Rotten Tomatoes. But why? One of the negative reviews comes via Stephen Holden at The New York Times who dismisses it as "painfully earnest." A ha! There it is! Earnestness once again being viewed as a negative trait in contemporary society! Anyway....because of its themes I often finding myself thinking about it come those first Tuesdays in November and so I sat down for my first re-watching of it in many years.

Crudup is Fielding Pierce, so named by his working class parents because they have grand visions for their son, and he has grand visions for himself. He goes to Harvard Law and joins the Coast Guard and all for no other reason than that he yearns to run for public office, to be one of the cogs in that mammoth political machine that makes a difference. He's kind of, well, an idealist.

Luminescent (as always) Jennifer Connelly is Sarah Williams, an activist ("an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause, esp. a political cause" per Dictionary.com). She works in the offices of Fielding's brother Danny (Paul Hipp, who appears in the early scenes to be auditioning for the role of Disco Stu), who runs a kind of radical magazine. She is rooting for the Vietnamese in the War. She's kind of, well, an idealist.

They go on a date. She says to him: "I want a life of unbelievable adventure and profligacy and at the last possible moment...sainthood." Well, then. Many men would tuck tail and run at that point. Not Fielding Pierce. He says being a Senator is not actually what he wants. "I want to be the President." Then he asks her, "Why are you smiling?" She says, "Because you mean it." They are both kind of, well, idealists. Romantic idealists. Perfect for one another. Except that he thinks change can only be made from within the system and she thinks change can be made from outside the system.

But they are in love and so she moves to Chicago with him where he begins his first step toward a life of glitter and grease politics in this fair city. She goes to work at a church and becomes deeply involved in the plight of Chilean refugees. And eventually, terribly and tragically, she will die in a car bombing. Sainthood. Possibly.

The film skips back and forth between these events in the early 70's and Fielding's run for Congress in 1982, being orchestrated by a cigar-smoking benefactor played by Hal Holbrook which is just perfect because this is so the kinda guy that really runs Chicago politics. We all know it. The campaign should go smooth but Fielding begins to break down. He thinks he sees Sarah. Again and again. And so this political story becomes a sort of lovelorn ghost story. Is Sarah actually alive? Has Fielding just gone crazy? We'll come back to that.

The film's problems, as mentioned, are numerous, like the needless, woefully done 1982 subplot involving Fielding's brother and him wanting a Green Card for his Korean girlfriend. Fielding's entire campaign process is essentially summarized via a couple bland montages but then this was almost necessary for the sheer fact "Waking The Dead" has so much else going on and so much it wants to say. Who really wants to spend time on the campaign trail? But then it also so desperately wants everyone to understand what it wants to say that it Pounds The Hammer over the audience's head at the end with a wretched voiceover that needed to be eliminated.

There is one scene in particular that underscores the film's flaws and what I simultaneously love about it. Fielding is having dinner at Sarah's church and a couple Chilean activists choose to brazenly insult Fielding's desire to go into politics. This scene is so ham-fisted, so obviously Message Deliverers masquerading as Characters ("Young man, everything is politics"), and yet I can't help but somehow be mesmerized every time Crudup gets righteous and righteously pissed off

-"I am so sick of having to apologize for being an American."
-"North American."
-"Oh my God, I'm so sorry. North American."

You so often hear of multi-dimensional actors. Okay, so what is that? Well, Mr. Crudup is a living, breathing illustration of a multi-dimensional actor. He exudes uber dimensions. In this scene he's likeable but kind of unlikeable and you feel empathy but then a little apathy. He's getting ganged up on, it's not cool, and you can see his side, see where he's coming from, and you feel yourself agreeing with him, but he almost takes it too far. He calls out their sense of superiority but he lets you feel his sense of superiority. And then he ends it with that line - "Yes, Stephen, that is ugly. It reminds me of something Sarah might say." - and the way he says it, the pointed smarminess, is like getting your throat slashed. I am one of the least politicized people around and yet this scene centered entirely around politics leaves me breathless.

He goes one better in a scene late in the film where he has, basically, a nervous breakdown in a restaurant in front of his family. What he does, how he does it, the way in which he succeeds and subverts what could have been overdone showiness, might be my favorite three minutes in the Crudup Back Catalogue and I'm saying nothing else because you should just see it for yourself.

In the end, after Fielding has been elected, barely, Sarah herself turns up. She's alive! Or is she? Is Fielding's mind still playing tricks on him, giving himself the closure he so desperately needs? The movie never truly says. This bothered people, like the esteemed Roger Ebert, who wrote: "And at the end, we are left with - what? When we invest emotional capital, we deserve a payoff." But I disagree completely. This movie can't have that kind of payoff. It just can't. You're either someone who thinks Sarah is still alive or you're not. You're someone who thinks change can be made from within the system or you're not. You're someone who thinks idealism is a waste of time or you're not. You're someone who thinks earnestness can be "painful" or you're not. "Now the music divides us into tribes. You choose your side. I'll choose my side."

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