Ewan McGregor directs himself in "American Pastoral", in which he stars alongside Jennifer Connelly as his wife, and Dakota Fanning as daughter Merry. It's at times stagey, melodramatic and with occasional lapses of dialogue in a cumbersome direction, but it treads courageously where very few films have ever trod before, and that's got to be what film is for ... what Philip Roth's original book was for. The world needs to know, these subjects cannot just be ignored.
You think you're normal parents in a normal family, doing your best to raise a kid, but somehow at some late-childhood/early-teenage moment - as McGregor's character Swede Levov notes - something just grows inside them, and they rebel, kick away all the traces. Perhaps the first sign is some slightly inappropriate behaviour, as when a still-young Merry asks her father to "kiss her properly" (film parts company from book here - comments here naturally apply to the movie). Or maybe an excessive reaction to something on TV?
At first, those around you tell you to step back and allow space, and it will be OK. Just maybe they are right, as long as the kid doesn't go too far off the rails (in the case of this story, Merry does go off into areas beyond redemption or recovery). But anyway, sooner or later, neighbours and family and medicos and authority figures may be more than a little inclined to blame you for your incorrect upbringing of the child, even though it's nothing you've obviously done.
Equally, there may be some who suffer at the child's hands, but end up pitying you, rather than condemning, and it's then hard to know which is worse - as in an electric scene played out here between Merry's parents and the wife and kid of her first, entirely innocent, victim.
You don't give them that space, they rebel; you do allow them to do their own thing and ... guess what? They still rebel.
The asymmetry is the most shocking thing. They hate you, and you love them back. They run off and do who knows what, and you still sit there and worry yourself witless. They urge you to give up on them, and you just can't. These truths in the film are writ large, as are the ultimate parental responses. Merry's mother hits a crisis, and feels a change of image - up to and including infidelity - is the way out. She also regrets marrying Swede. And guess what? She survives. Father can't abandon causes, so he pines and withers away, and dies before his time - (apparently) a (lost) hero of parenting, just as he had been a hero on the school sports-field and in the US Marines, and even a hero for employing black workers in his New Jersey glove factory, as had his father before him (a nice part for Peter Riegert, by the way).
How real is all that? For some out here agonisingly real - people who want their story to be told, their heartache known, want the world not just to go on and take no notice at all.
Presumably rather few will watch, as "American Pastoral" is hard to deal with. It throws in a second message about the "American dream" turning sour. And that is clearly an oversimplification, as the film itself acknowledges, since the War was the war (hardly a picnic), while the 50s were only innocent and a time of plenty where the Klan and others were not doing evil things, and where the White Anglos (and here also Jewish people) were able to get on with and in their lives, without having to come before House Committees.
But the 60s and 70s hardly brought anything better with them, with 'Nam giving people a chance to hate a disillusioned hate that they were as willing to turn on their families as they were on national authority and Uncle Sam. Dirty and sad responses to a dirty and sad government business, and two parents caught in the crossfire and having their lives ruined without doing much to deserve it.
Overwhelmingly, we are challenged to find a period - however short - in which the American dream really did exist, and the answer is compellingly clear...
Would Merry have gone of the rails even had there been no Vietnam? Would she have grown less hateful at least? These are questions the film has no chance to pose, given that that War and all the associated "Reds under the Beds" stuff did happen, and there's no going back on that.
And there is no going back for Merry either, and a father's love just cannot get around that.
"American Pastoral" also tells a story about a campaign of bombing terrorism at home in America that history seems to have done a very efficient job of sweeping under the carpet. The truth of this is made clear by a "Time" article of September 2016 entitled "The Bombings of America that we Forgot" - well worth reading as background to a watch of this film which, maybe you don't want to, but maybe you should...
There are a couple of quite strongly erotic moments, and several things that are disturbing in a psychological sense, leaving this film firmly in the realm of the challenging. Ultimately, "American Pastoral" should perhaps have stayed as a book, given that even the acting and staging in the movie version are a little imperfect. But had there been no film, I would doubtless never have encountered the story - and that would have been a great, great shame. So thank you, Ewan McCregor and co., for having the dignity and courage and determination and imagination to bring this to the screen.