Ewan McGregor makes his directorial debut with “American Pastoral,” a crime-drama based on a novel by Phillip Roth. He deftly presents nice performances from Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Connelly, Rupert Evans and Valorie Curry but tells a story that feels disjointed.
McGregor stars as Seymour 'Swede' Levov, a man with a charmed life. He was a football star in high school, married Dawn (Connelly) his beautiful girlfriend, inherited a thriving business and was blessed with a daughter, Merry (played by Hannah Nordberg as a child, Fanning as a teen). He was “Our hero, our Kennedy,” says a schoolmate.
When little Merry, aged eleven, sees a news report of Buddhist monk Thích Quang Duc burning himself to death to protest the war in Vietnam, it awakens something inside her. "Why does that gentle man have to burn himself?” she cries. “Doesn't anyone care? Doesn't anyone have a conscience?"
Cut to several years later. Merry is now a politically engaged revolutionary teenager living under her father’s suburban Old Rim Rock, New Jersey roof. She calls the president, “Linden ‘Baby Burner’ Johnson,” and heads off to meet her radical friends in New York whenever possible. “What do you care about the war?” she shrieks at her parents. “You're just contented middle-class people!”
The 'Swede,' concerned about his daughter’s behaviour forbids her to go to the city. Instead, he suggests, why doesn’t she protest a little closer to home? When the local post office blows up, killing the postmaster, and Merry disappears the human cost of her actions becomes clear. The bomb destroys the building, kills a man and presents 'Swede’ with the first crisis of his charmed life.
“American Pastoral” is a handsome movie that tackles one of the most tumultuous times in American history. McGregor gets inside the stateside protest of the Vietnam War by keeping the story tight, focussed on one family and the devastating effect of radicalism has on them and, peripherally, on the victims of Merry’s crimes. Getting inside the head of a young woman driven to push away the comfy-cosy life provided by her wealthy parents for a life on the run would be fascinating. Too bad it isn’t here. Instead, Fanning plays Merry like a petulant teen, more likely to sneak out to meet boys than blow up government buildings.
Ditto the resulting toll Merry’s actions take on her decent, hardworking parents. Dawn falls apart, ending up in hospital before taking the most superficial way out of her heartbreaking problems.
There’s an affair and some intrigue but it’s all skin deep. There are many shots of McGregor looking concerned, but the full weight of the family’s tragedy is never truly felt. It feels by times as though sections of the movie are missing, either edited out from a longer version or left unfilmed. It’s a shame because what could have been an interesting look at what happens when radicalization comes home is neutered by some swiss cheese storytelling—lots of holes.