The year is 1968 and renowned hardworking man Swede Levov (Ewan McGregor) is forced to watch his very middle class life crumble around him as his daughter’s new political ties threaten to destroy their family. The tragic effects of Vietnam are at the core of the negative discourse between Swede and his daughter Merry Levov (Dakota Fanning). The father is well-liked in their Newark community as many have known him since he was a kid and the local sporting celebrity. He’s a stand-up guy who believes in the American Dream but his daughter’s ideologies are in direct contrast to his own.
She wants America out of Vietnam and is willing to commit murder to do it. From anti-Vietnam protests to heated political debates, police brutality and social injustice with race riots, in addition to calls for violence to settle scores. No, I’m not talking about 2016. This is in the middle of the 1960s. The Civil Rights Movement is in full swing and Vietnam opposition is out in full force which both show positive and negative results. Can you imagine having such sociopolitical and sociocultural turmoil on your doorstep? The situation in the Middle East and America in 2016 is uncanny to the anxieties felt in 1960s America in Ewan McGregor’s American Pastoral. Spooky huh?
The plot looks through the crack-infested false mask of a seemingly flawless middle class family. The Swede (McGregor) marries the beauty queen Dawn (Connelly). It all seems picturesque sunsets and fairy tales right? Wrong! Within a family, there’s always going to be politics and arguments. There’s a great scene early in the movie where Swede introduces his desired to his father (Peter Riegert) and the religious and ideological difference are laid bare. This is a bulletproof representation of the changing times between the generations of this era.
Since I’m a 90s baby, I can only go on by what my parents’/grandparents’ generation have said and it’s an accurate portrayal of the transition between the 1960s and the 1970s. Political, cultural and social change were in abundance with many occurrences turning violent. The movie’s first half is sensational while the second half is pretty soul-destroying, but necessarily so. Part two is an obliteration of Swede’s misplaced faith in society and the world. The American Dream really screwed him and he’s part of that generation who believed the American Dream is true and still holds up.
Merry Levov (Dakota Fanning) is quite a character. She knows her own mind, and in the sixties that terrifies people. To not follow the norm is the equivalent of writing your own suicide note and being anti-war and pro-civil rights is even worse. She’s feisty and has a stutter. Those are traits that only increase the angrier she gets, at her parents complacency. Her naïve questions as a youngster turn into “radical” beliefs and associations the older she gets. Dakota Fanning gave the performance of her currently brief career and she certainly has a prosperous acting career ahead of her.
As Merry gets older, she ceases to recognize the world she grew up in. She is very empathetic to the black rights movement (especially the Black Panthers) and the more radical parts of the anti-Vietnam movement. Through the movie, she darts from shouting hatred at Johnson on television to taking trips to New York City and immersing herself with other likeminded individuals, thus rebelling against all figures of authority (her parents included) and taking the adolescent rebellious stereotype to a new level.
American Pastoral is a good movie that talks about very socially relevant issues that we can still take something from today. Swap Vietnam for Syria and Civil Rights for Black Lives Matter and what have you got? These are things that affect the Joe Bloggs of our society and the film shows us that in order for people to take notice, sometimes you have to be radical like making stores go boom. This movie will leave you feeling anything but pastoral, and as directing debuts go, it’s really good. With good performances and sound direction, American Pastoral will probably leave you feeling depressed yet you will have learned a thing or two by the film’s end.