When it comes to reenactments of historical events, I am a stickler for accuracy, which has made such travesties-in-hindsight as “The Buddy Holly Story” and “Walk the Line” all the more painful. In the case of this week’s Page Stage and Screen picks, however, this jaded old history buff has been pleasantly surprised, even if getting through these selections could be — for some — akin to, well, reading a history book.
Page: Robert Sullivan’s “My American Revolution” (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2012) is a delightful story-within-a-story by a writer with the talent to both live up to the book’s promise that “you’ll never think about the American colonies’ war for independence the same again” — and a man in a handmade boat reenacting the famous evacuation of Brooklyn.
Along the way, this Henry-David-Thoreau-by-way-of-Chuck Klostermann crosses the Delaware, camps out in New Jersey backyards and enlists his daughter to help him recreate a signal beacon used by George Washington’s troops — albeit using a Boy Scout mirror from behind a Dumpster in a parking lot on a Saturday morning.
The story is a whimsical yet enlightening field trip, led by the coolest history teacher you never had, putting both the writer and the reader in a front row seat for the story of our country’s founding. And through his brilliant melding of history and humor, Sullivan - whether accidentally or on purpose - introduces us to the humanity of our forefathers.
Screen: At 160 minutes, “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford” (Warner Bros. 2007) is about as long and deliberate as its title. This, for many (including my girlfriend who fell asleep before old Jesse could even rob a train, much less get assassinated) can be somewhat of a deterrent. For those of us who think there are only two basic cable channels on TV - National Geographic and The History Channel - the film lives up to every bit of its Oscar-nominated reputation.
Telling the story of the killing of a famed post-Civil War outlaw and - quite frankly, domestic terrorist - from the perspective of his killer is fascinating from the outset. When taken as a whole with the hypnotically understated performances of Brad Pitt as James and Casey Affleck as Ford, Hugh Ross’s brilliant narration and sweepingly intoxicating cinematography from Roger Deakins, the result is an eerie, practically poetic piece of filmmaking.
While the filmmakers take a visceral, mood-inducing approach, director Andrew Dominik sets a stage whereby the actors’ matter-of-fact delivery is more reality TV than, well, “reality TV.” The film deftly takes the viewer into the intelligent, yet twisted mind of Ford - not to mention the other Southern-sympathizing James sycophants that surround him and, much like Sullivan’s “My American Revolution,” shows how little people have changed in the past century or two. James is accurately portrayed as a serious family man who, at a base level, could be a rude, manipulative, self-absorbed “star” of his time, qualities that eventually led to his death at the hand of one of his biggest fans.