by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Alan J. Pakula
CAST: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol
MY RATING: 10/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 78% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Sophie, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, has found a reason to live with Nathan, a sparkling if unsteady American Jew obsessed with the Holocaust.

I have not seen a movie as stirring, as affecting, or as emotionally shattering as Sophie’s Choice in a very long time.  For years, I was aware of the film’s cachet and of Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning performance, but the opportunity to watch the movie never presented itself until very recently.  I was intellectually aware of the slang usage of having to make a “Sophie’s choice”, meaning that one had to choose between two equally undesirable options.  I knew it had to do with the movie of the same name, but I had no other context.  And for decades, the real context of Sophie’s choice had remained unknown to me until now.

That fact is one of the reasons Sophie’s Choice had such a devastating impact on me.  The screenplay is another, and naturally, there’s Streep’s landmark performance.

The story opens with an older man’s narration while we watch his younger self onscreen.  This is Stingo, played as a young man by Peter MacNicol.  He’s an aspiring author, and he’s just moved into a large pink boarding house in a Brooklyn suburb shortly after the end of World War II.  On his first day there, he encounters the two people who will irrevocably change his life, Sophie (Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline in his film debut).  They appear to be a couple, but they are in the middle of a brutal verbal argument on the stairs, with Nathan yelling awful things to Sophie, calling her a Polack, saying how much he doesn’t need her.  He leaves in a huff, Sophie is in tears, Stingo instinctively goes to comfort her, they get to talking, and the next morning Nathan returns, utterly contrite, at first suspicious of Stingo, but when Sophie assures him Stingo is just a friend, Nathan is all charm and goodwill and has nothing but good things to say about Sophie.

At this point, in my head, I had the movie all planned out.  Okay, so we’ve got a love triangle with a writer/narrator coming between an unattainable beauty and the capricious brute who loves her.  And this, I imagined, is what Sophie’s choice would eventually come down to: the penniless aspiring writer who is “safe” or the roguish charmer with the turn-on-a-dime temper.  Ho hum, been there, done that, I thought, but wow, is Meryl Streep’s Polish accent spot-on or WHAT?  Guess I’ll keep watching just so I can say I watched it.

That’s the ingenuity of the screenplay I mentioned earlier.  It strings you along for close to an hour, making you believe it’s about the romantic relationship among the three leads.  And then the movie springs one of the greatest head-fakes in film history.  What started as a soapy melodrama becomes a character study of the limits of human endurance, with scenes as fraught with tension as anything written by Hitchcock or Tarantino.

(I am going to have to write very carefully from here on out because I want to convey how effective the movie is while preserving its revelations.  It worked so well for me precisely because I knew very little about the plot, and I want to make sure you have the same experience, dear reader.)

Any appreciation of Sophie’s Choice must include a discussion of Meryl Streep’s performance as the title character.  She reportedly begged director Alan J. Pakula for this role, even after he had lined up a Polish actress for the part.  We can all thank the cinema gods Pakula went with Streep instead.  This is, without a doubt, one of the top three or four performances I’ve ever seen by any actor, living or dead.  Even leaving aside her mastery of the Polish accent…well, actually, let’s talk about that for a second.  She learned to speak with a flawless Polish accent.  Then there are scenes where she had to speak fluent Polish, so she learned Polish.  Then there are scenes where Sophie also speaks German, so she learned how to speak fluent German with a Polish accent.  I mean…it took me two weeks to learn two sentences in French and say them fluently.  If there were a fan-fiction theory that Streep is really a magical drama teacher at Hogwarts, I’d believe it.

At times during Sophie’s Choice, Pakula’s camera simply stops and stares at Streep while she delivers a monologue about her days before the war, or about how she survived as a personal secretary to the chief commandant of Auschwitz.  Her delivery during these scenes feels about as naturalistic as you can get.  You don’t feel like you’re watching an actress give a performance anymore.  It’s more like you’re watching a documentary about a Holocaust survivor.  It’s a performance that simply must be seen to be believed.

Next to Streep, Kevin Kline as her beau, Nathan, is almost overdone, stagey, far too full of ebullience and rage and earnestness.  Nathan is Jewish, and he is obsessed with the idea of tracking down the Nazis who escaped justice after the war.  However, his antics are balanced by Sophie’s serenity and unconditional forgiveness.  I look at it as a yin/yang kind of thing.  It works.

There are questions, though, about their relationship, especially as the movie wraps up.  Why does Sophie put up with this lout who whispers sweet nothings to her and impulsively proposes marriage in one moment, and in another moment is given to vicious accusations of infidelity and collaboration with the Nazis, then swings back again in a fit of contrition?  Perhaps she was wracked with survivor’s guilt.  Her parents, husband, and children never emerged from the concentration camps.  Perhaps she felt it was her duty somehow to prop someone up and latch on to a soul like Nathan, someone whose outward cheerfulness masked internal demons.  Perhaps being a helpmate for such a person keeps her own demons at bay.  Just a thought.

When I’m watching a movie on my own, I can measure how effective it is by how many times I talk to myself or yell at the screen while it’s playing.  With Sophie’s Choice, I didn’t do a lot of yelling until it performed its head-fake and veered into territories not even hinted at previously.  After that, there was a lot of my Gods and holy craps and oh Jesus-es.  The end of the movie is a roller-coaster that may not end in the happiest place ever, but it’s the kind of earned emotional catharsis that doesn’t happen very often at the movies.  A movie like this is a treasure.  I hope, if you’ve never seen it, you’ll make it a point to hunt down a copy and see for yourself what all the fuss is about.

And don’t let anyone spoil it for you.


By Marc S. Sanders

Tulane Law Student Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) is unbelievably lucky. She can find herself being pursued by one white guy in a suit after another over the course of a two hour movie and will be fortunate enough to escape every threat by sheer chance. It’s only to her benefit when she is being chased by two assassins in a creepy downtown parking garage that someone left an angry doberman in a car to startle the killers. As well, it’s really a blessing that Darby has caught on that if an engine sputters when turning the ignition it can only mean one thing – car bomb! GET OUT!!!!!

Darby is the main protagonist of The Pelican Brief directed by Alan J Pakula, adapted from John Grisham’s best-selling novel. When the eldest and the youngest Supreme Court justices are murdered, Darby conceives of an outrageous conspiracy stretching all the way to the President and documents the whole rundown in the so-called Pelican Brief. She shares the document with her law professor who shares it with his government friend who shares with the CIA who shares it with…and so on and so on.

Pakula is an under celebrated director when you consider his better thrillers like Presumed Innocent, Klute, and especially All The Presidents Men. Here though, I think he got a little lazy with his screenplay and direction. The Pelican Brief is a little too paint by numbers.

Sure, the film has suspense. I think Grisham’s story has some convincing weight to it where wealth and government won’t stand for the platforms of environmental causes and therefore people have to die. Still, while the meat of that story eventually surfaces, we are left with A LOT of buildup before Darby gets involved. Just a lot of white guys in different office buildings walking down hallways, entering doorways and talking on the phone. Every so often we come across a DC crack reporter, Grey Grantham (Denzel Washington) who gets a phone call from a potential informant. When that guy gets scared and hangs up, thank goodness Darby just happens to call two seconds later regarding the same story. Good on you Grey for being by that telephone.

That’s my problem here. Pakula just works in the lucky conveniences to keep Grey and Darby on the trail. Neither of them ever truly escape a bind on their own. Neither of them ever truly dig the hole any deeper without something COMING UPON THEM to help them along at just the right moment.

We learn a safe deposit box belonging to a dead character exists. Darby just strolls into the bank and posing as the widow, who is not a signer on the box, is just asked for her address and phone number. No proper identification necessary. Why didn’t anyone ever tell me it’s that easy? Folks, hide your valuables because I’m gonna be robbing you blind.

Pakula will even set up a good scenario where Darby thinks she’ll be meeting someone who can help but it’s an assassin ready to kill, only suddenly the assassin is killed while holding Darby’s hand in a crowded courtyard. Wow!!! Lucky again, Darby. I’m still fuzzy on who actually killed the guy. That didn’t concern Pakula though. It’s explained in a quick throwaway line before the credits roll. Pakula only had to get Darby out of danger again. So let’s see he’s got the barking doberman for something else, the engine sputter will be used later on. Hmmmm??? Meh!!! we’ll just have someone randomly kill this guy. Now run, Darby. RUN!!!

Notice I haven’t talked about performances. Well, there’s not much to them. The Pelican Brief boasts an impressive cast of character actors like Sam Shepherd, Anthony Heald, John Lithgow, Stanley Tucci, Robert Culp and John Heard. Yet, these guys, along with Roberts and Washington are flat. Just reciting their lines when the cues call for them. There’s nothing very exciting to any of them really. Very monotone. Roberts is beautiful yet depressing even before she gets caught up in the mystery. Washington, while handsome, does not seem to have the gusto that Pakula’s reporters did when he directed Hoffman & Redford. Grey is too neat, physically fit and tailored for an always on the job, aggressive reporter looking for a scent.

There was a better movie to be made here, thanks to some convincing motivations that were started with Grisham’s novel. Unfortunately, Pakula just didn’t devote enough respect to the original author’s imagination.


By Marc S. Sanders

People talk too much.

Ten minutes into Alan J Pakula’s film, that’s all I can think about. William Goldman’s dialogue heavy script pounds away at depicting Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s uncovering of the Watergate break in, and it shows that simply, people talk too much. So much so that just a stutter or a name in passing conversation will dig the hole deeper and deeper towards self-incrimination, and that of other accomplices. Once a source trips up, then a good reporter can pounce.

Names, dates, slamming doors, rotary phones, typewriters and papers fly fast and furiously during Pakula’s film and that’s what upholds the breakneck pace of the investigative journalism. In a film like this, a crime is depicted and investigated, only the words are the real weapons.

I don’t find All The President’s Men to be a history lesson in the corruption of Nixon’s administration. Rather, I only see what was necessary for Woodward & Bernstein to truthfully prove the corruption took place. The reporters, played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, seem to run on endless adrenaline of coffee, cigarettes and fast food effectively showing their drive while donning loose ties, wrinkled shirts, and crumpled notepads amid unkept desks and apartments. It’s visually convincing. A story like this doesn’t sleep, nor does it take a vacation. A story like this makes a viewer feel like he/she is still up at 2am, catching a cab to meet a shadowy source in a haunting parking garage; thanks Hal Holbrook for Deep Throat (“Follow the money.”).

Redford has a great scene where Pakula never stops running the camera on close up for over six minutes. All that Redford is doing is dialing, and talking on the phone while maintaining two different conversations. I don’t know if this moment happened in real life but I imagine the best reporters in a pre internet phase had to hold out for opportune times like this to fall into their laps. The cut does not end and Pakula was instinctively wise to do that. The scene itself serves that harrowing pace. Less is more in a moment like this. Props to Redford for maintaining the statuesque momentum.

Equally so, Hoffman has a couple of good moments with Jane Alexander (his eventual costar in Kramer vs Kramer.). She beautifully depicts a victim of intimidating threat, and Hoffman must tread carefully with his questions by strategically letting himself into her home, puffing on a cigarette, sipping cold coffee, speaking softly and eventually getting out his notepad as she gradually breaks down her shell. Alexander doesn’t make it easy and so their scenes work so well in taut suspense of low whispers.

Nixon’s cohorts really are not the antagonists here. In essence, Goldman’s script (based on the reporters’ published book) welcomes the challenge of acquiring factual reporting as the overall conflict. This is best represented by Jason Robards’ portrayal of Post Editor Ben Bradlee. Robards won an Oscar, and he so deserved it. He wouldn’t give “Woodstein” a break until the truth willed itself out by the proper means that are necessary. He’s intimidating in the role but he’s open minded enough to not ignore the young reporters’ instincts. I love watching his scenes; the way he commands an office from a chair with his feet up or fidgets and writes with his red pen. When his boys finally get a solid piece, Bradlee’s character breaks for one moment to knock on a desk and clap his hands as he walks away from his men. They got it. He didn’t relent, and they finally got it. I love that moment. Simply marvelous.

All The President’s Men remains a favorite film of mine. The dialogue moves so fast that after seeing it a number of times I still haven’t connected all the dots, and yet that’s what I appreciate about it. I see something new every time.