BEIRUT (2018) – Complex Thriller Driven by Strong Performances

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BEIRUT (2018) is a complex thriller about a hostage negotiation in 1982 Beirut. Driven by strong performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, the film does a lot of things well and more than makes up for its lack of supporting character development and peripheral plot.

The movie opens in 1972 Beirut with American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) hosting a dinner party with his wife for a group of dignitaries, including a United States Congressman, where Mason explains the current intricate political situation inside Lebanon. When Mason’s best friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) arrives with the shocking news that the thirteen year-old boy Mason and his wife have taken into their home and consider a part of their family is the younger brother of the world’s most wanted terrorist, and the U.S. authorities want to extract the boy that very night. Mason refuses, and in the middle of his argument with Cal, gunmen open fire on the party and whisk the boy away before the U.S. agents can take him.  In the process, Mason’s wife is shot and killed.

The story picks up ten years later and finds Mason back in the U.S. working as a mediator and negotiator for local labor disputes. He has left his former life behind him, having walked away from both Beirut and his friend Cal immediately after the shooting, and he hasn’t spoken to his former friend since he left.

But all that changes when he is approached by a group of federal agents who want his help.  It seems that an American was taken hostage in Beirut, and the kidnappers demanded that Mason handle the negotiation.  Mason balks at the idea and says that the kidnappers simply pulled his name out of a hat. The agents then inform Mason that the hostage is his friend Cal.

Against his better judgement but not wanting to abandon Cal a second time, Mason returns to Beirut to negotiate the release of his best friend.

BEIRUT tells a compelling enough story and for the most part keeps its intricate tale from becoming too confusing. It’s a decent screenplay by Tony Gilroy, as one would expect as Gilroy also penned screenplays for the BOURNE movies and more recently he was one of the writers involved with ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

BEIRUT reminded me a little bit of ARGO (2012), the Ben Affleck movie which won Best Picture in 2012. Both films share suspenseful hostage stories and international intrigue, although ARGO told the better story by far.

The story BEIRUT tells is not as memorable, nor is it as riveting since one of the weaknesses of the screenplay is the supporting characters aren’t really developed. In ARGO, the audience gets to know the hostages. In BEIRUT, very little is known about hostage Cal, and so even though the proceedings are very interesting, they don’t always resonate as well as they should on an emotional level.

The best part of BEIRUT are the performances by the two leads, Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike. Hamm is terrific as Mason Skiles, although this smooth talking alcoholic character is clearly reminiscent of Don Draper, the character Hamm played so well on the TV series MAD MEN (2007-2015). Fans of the show might have fun imagining that this is what happened next to Mr. Draper. And while Hamm isn’t exactly out of his comfort zone here, he still delivers an enjoyable performance.

Rosamund Pike is also excellent as Sandy Crowder, one of the government operatives who helps Mason when he’s on the ground in Beirut. It’s a solid understated performance by Pike, whose character has her own reasons for wanting to extract Cal. The other dynamic I enjoyed between Mason and Sandy is that unlike most movies where the male and female leads are involved romantically, this time they are not, which I found refreshing.

I like Pike a lot and have enjoyed her recent roles in such films as HOSTILES (2017), GONE GIRL (2014), and JACK REACHER (2012) to name a few.

BEIRUT also has a strong supporting cast.  Mark Pellegrino is very good as Cal, Mason’s shadowy friend, even if the character isn’t developed all that well. For most of the film we don’t really know if Cal is a good guy or not, which hurts the story somewhat.

Dean Norris, Hank on TV’s BREAKING BAD (20080-2013) is nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair and glasses as Donald Gaines, one of the government agents who recruits Mason. And Shea Whigham is memorable as another of these agents, Gary Ruzak.

BEIRUT was directed by Brad Anderson, who’s directed a lot of movies and TV shows, including the horror movie SESSION 9 (2001).  Anderson certainly does a good job of capturing war-ravaged Lebanon circa 1982, and the film’s location alone is enough to make this one a nail biter.

The story is certainly engrossing as we follow Mason’s efforts to find his friend Cal and navigate the negotiations needed to release him. There are some decent scenes, like when Mason first meets the group claiming to have Cal, as there is a rather unexpected execution right in the middle of it.  And the film heats up every time Mason slips away from his handlers, driving them crazy while he’s off the grid.

That being said, there really isn’t any centerpiece scene in this movie, either in artistic design or in its plot, no part of the film where it kicks into high gear and really becomes something special.

And I would imagine this one is not making a whole lot of money. I saw it with a very small audience. There were fewer than ten people in the theater.

Nonetheless, it’s a solid movie driven by two potent performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, and it’s certainly worth a trip to the theater.

BEIRUT is also a nice reminder of the value of diplomacy and negotiation over violence, even though when all is said and done, there is certainly lots of bloodshed, which is what you would expect in 1982 Beirut.

—END—

 

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CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018) – Recounts Tragic Ted Kennedy Car Crash and Subsequent Cover-up

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Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018).

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018) tells the tragic tale of a young woman who lost her life when the car she was riding in crashed off a rickety wooden bridge on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick and plunged into the water below where, trapped inside the car, she drowned, while the drunk man at the wheel swam to safety.

The man, of course, was Senator Ted Kennedy.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK tells this true story through the prism of what the Kennedy name meant to the United States in 1969. It had been just over one year since Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated just six years before, and all eyes were on young Ted Kennedy as the heir apparent.  JFK’s work was left unfinished, and when Robert Kennedy attempted to take up the mantle, he too was cut down.  The feeling in 1969 wasn’t so much that the Kennedys were entitled, but that their vision for the United States— one of optimism and promise— was desperately needed.  People wanted Ted Kennedy to run for president.

The problem was Ted himself wasn’t all that interested. He had lived in the shadows of his older brothers his whole life and felt the sting of a strict father who seemed to view him as much less of a man than his older brothers.  And then there was his safety to consider.  We see Ted wearing a bullet proof vest at one point.  The Ted Kennedy we see in CHAPPAQUIDDICK is a sad, somber soul, a lost soul, trying to make his way in the world, feeling unbelievable pressure to do something he didn’t really want to do, and pretty much behaving in a way that suggested he wanted to get away from it all.

And on this particular weekend in 1969 his brother John’s legacy was on full display as Neil Armstrong was about to set foot on the moon, and all the newscasts were hearkening back to JFK’s inspiring words which had propelled the space program forward in the early 1960s.

So, when the accident happened, there was a prevalent feeling to protect Ted Kennedy, not because he was wealthy and privileged, but because he was needed to continue the work of his brothers and keep the nation on a positive path.  This view was shared by both those in power on Kennedy’s side and a large portion of the general public who even after the story broke still said they would vote for him, and of course in reality they actually did.

But still, a young woman lay dead in a car submerged underwater.

Early in CHAPPAQUIDDICK, young Senator Kennedy (Jason Clarke) and his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) set up a party on the island of Chappaquiddick, located near Martha’s Vineyard, for the “Boiler Room Girls,” a group of women who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign.  It was meant to be a reunion and celebration of the work these women had done on Robert Kennedy’s behalf.

Kennedy chats with Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) and asks her to join his staff in Washington, D.C., but she declines, saying she doesn’t think she can handle another presidential campaign, to which Kennedy replies that she won’t have to, the implication being that he’s not going to run for president. Later in the evening, the two leave the party and take a drive into the night where they continue to chat, and as they attempt to travel to a secluded beach, the drunken Kennedy drives off the infamous bridge into the water.

He somehow manages to escape the car, and he makes his way back to the party where he tells his cousin Joe what happened.  They return to the scene of the accident, along with Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) and they attempt unsuccessfully to extract Mary Jo from the submerged vehicle. Joe tells Ted that he must report the accident, the sooner the better, and Ted agrees. However, Ted does not report it.  Instead, he returns to his hotel room in Edgartown, and he calls his ailing father Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern) who can barely speak, but the Kennedy patriarch does say one word to his son: alibi.

It takes ten hours before the conflicted Ted Kennedy finally decides to report the incident, and after going back and forth with what to say, admits that he was indeed the driver of the vehicle.  What follows is the tale of the cover up, the powerful advisors on one side, who are doing everything in their power to create a false narrative to save Ted’s political career, and Ted’s cousin Joe on the other side, imploring him to remember that a young woman is dead and for him to tell the truth. In the middle is a confused young Senator who seems lost throughout these events, pulled in multiple directions, conflicted between doing the right thing for himself, for his family, for his country, and for Mary Jo Kopechne. In short, he doesn’t have a clue.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK tells a somber story that portrays Ted Kennedy as a conflicted, confused figure. At times he comes off as sympathetic because he seems to want to do the right thing, but more often than not he’s seen as a massively frustrating figure who completely and continually botches the situation, and if not for his famous name could and most likely should have easily gone to jail for manslaughter.

But the best part of CHAPPAQUIDDICK is it tells its tale with Mary Jo Kopechne at its forefront.  Never does the movie allow its audience to forget that Mary Jo Kopechne, a promising young woman with a bright future ahead of her, lost her life that night. Worse yet, it’s quite possible she died not only because of Ted Kennedy’s drunk driving, but because he didn’t call for help immediately.  The film intimates that she survived for a while inside the vehicle before ultimately passing away.

Jason Clarke delivers a grave performance as Ted Kennedy. He portrays Kennedy with a “deer in the headlights” expression throughout.  He makes Kennedy a man who seemed completely lost and overwhelmed by the events around him. Should he listen to his father and lie? Or to his cousin Joe and tell the truth? He portrays Kennedy as a man who knows what’s expected of him because of his family name, yet seems to want to carve out his own path in life, and when this tragedy occurs, at his own hands, he goes back and forth between owning up and saving his political hide for the sake of a nation. One thing that Kennedy is not portrayed as is a cold-hearted manipulator.

Jason Clarke has delivered some fine performances in the past, in films like DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014), THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), but this might be his finest work yet. He captures the essense of the conflicted Kennedy so perfectly you almost can feel a migraine coming on while watching him.

I’m a huge fan of Kate Mara, and I’m still waiting for her breakout role. With very limited screen time here, this isn’t it, but she’s still excellent as Mary Jo Kopechne. In her brief time on-screen, Mara makes Mary Jo a three-dimensional character, one whose presence is felt throughout the film, even after she has drowned.

Ed Helms gives the most memorable performance in the film as Kennedy cousin and “fixer” Joe Gargan. Normally a comedic actor, Helms more than holds his own in this dramatic role. He’s the voice of reason in this story and its conscience, the voice audiences hope Ted Kennedy listens to, but ultimately that’s not what happened.

Bruce Dern also makes an impact as the gravely ill and very harsh Kennedy patriarch Joe Kennedy, who would die a few months after the Chappaquiddick incident. At this time, Joe Kennedy could barely speak, and as such Dern’s performance is pretty much sans dialogue.  He does manage to utter that one cold calculating word to his son over the phone, “alibi,” and later when Ted opens his heart to his father and says he’s unsure of who he is and where he’s going, but he does know he wants to be a great man, his father responds, “you’ll never be great.” Ted hugs him anyway.

Clancy Brown is memorable as Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense called in to “fix” the Chappaquiddick incident.  As is Olivia Thirlby as fellow “Boiler Girl” and Mary Jo’s friend Rachel Schiff who utters the prophetic line to Ted that even Mary Jo’s parents didn’t blame him for her death, so why should America?

The screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan pretty much tells two stories. On the one hand, there’s the ugly tale of Kennedy’s cowardly negligence which led to the tragic death of a young woman and the subsequent cover up by the rich and powerful powers that be to save the political career of a young senator with a famous name. But there’s also the story of a nation still mourning the loss of its beloved Kennedy brothers, and how the voting public was willing to turn a blind eye on the actions of the man who they hoped would be the successor to these leaders, the younger brother, Ted Kennedy.

And in the middle of both stories, a conflicted, sad, confused, and for one fateful evening completely irresponsible Senator Ted Kennedy, who if not for his name, should have gone to jail for both his actions and inactions. Instead, he served as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts for over 40 years.

Director John Curran captures the salty feel of a Massachusetts island to the point where you can smell the unpleasant odor of the ocean, and it smells like death, ugly incompetence, and the vulgar actions of a political cover-up.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

THE DEATH OF STALIN (2018) – Brutal Dark Comedy Still Generates Laughter

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THE DEATH OF STALIN (2018), the most recent film by writer/director Armando Iannucci, is one of the darkest and painfully ugly black comedies I’ve seen in a long time.

And yet, like the audience I saw it with, I laughed out loud. Frequently.

In terms of its satirical tone, THE DEATH OF STALIN is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s classic DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964). Whereas STRANGELOVE made people laugh with a story about nuclear annihilation, THE DEATH OF STALIN takes the ruthlessness of Russian politics in the days following Stalin’s death and presents a story that somehow gets its audience to howl with laughter.

The story opens in Moscow in 1953, and we see a nation living in mortal fear of its leader, Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin). In fact, the people are so frightened, that when Stalin requests a recording of a concert held earlier that evening, and the petrified producers realize the concert was not recorded, they call everyone back into hall to play the concert again and this time record it. Since most of the patrons had left, they round up people off the street to fill in the empty seats.  To calm the people, the producer says, “Everything’s fine.  No one is going to be killed.”  But the conductor panics, slips, falls, and dies.

They send for another conductor, whisking him out of his apartment in the middle of the night, amidst the evening raids by Soviet troops to extract citizens and execute them. The conductor expects to be shot but instead is gleefully brought to the auditorium where he conducts the orchestra in his pajamas.

Such is life in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

When Stalin dies, his inner circle of ministers scramble to fill the power void, as folks like Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) jockey for position to become the next in power, which often means making sure they’re not next in line to be shot.

What they do, who they team up with, and how they try to outsmart one another makes up the remainder of the film, and of course, students of history know who ultimately prevailed in this power struggle.

THE DEATH OF STALIN is a sharply written and very well-acted dark comedy that had me laughing in spite of the lurid tale it tells.

One of the reasons it resonates so well is due in large part to current events.  Russia is in the news an awful lot lately, mostly because of the antics of its leader Vladimir Putin. THE DEATH OF STALIN provides an open look into the ruthlessness and brutal history of Russia. It also shows what life is like in a country where all the power is held by one man.  It’s not a pretty picture. Not in the least.

It also resonates here in the United States where the present administration is making great strides to operate outside the traditional political landscape, to the point where it’s almost celebrating the realm of dictators, leaders like Putin. THE DEATH OF STALIN shows why such leaders are simply not to be celebrated.

The biggest reason the movie works, however, is that the biting humor is on target throughout. The aforementioned concert sequence is hilarious, while later elements, the moving of Stalin’s body, for instance, are just as uproarious. The film highlights the ridiculousness of certain situations without ever become ridiculous. People don’t act silly here. They act dead serious, knowing that they could be shot at any moment. Position and power do not matter. No one is safe. In fact, so many people are shot in this movie, so casually, it almost becomes a running gag.

Steve Buscemi is perfect as Nikita Khrushchev.  His silly demeanor had disarmed his associates, Stalin included, but his meticulous note taking and serious thoughts on his country put him in prime position to become the next Soviet leader. Buscemi is hilarious in the role, which is seeped in seriousness,.

Simon Russell Beale delivers the best performance in the movie, as the icy cold Lavrenti Beria, the man who held secrets on nearly everyone. Beria was a notorious sexual predator, and his scenes here with young girls make him a rather despicable character.

Jeffrey Tambor makes for a satisfying Georgy Malenkov, the clueless leader who had no idea what he was doing. Michael Palin gives a restrained and understated performance as Molotov, who seems to be driven by fear throughout. And Jason Isaacs, recently of the TV series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18) as Captain Lorca, and who also played the mysterious doctor in A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016) is memorable as Field Marshall Zhukov.

Director Iannucci made the curious decision to have all the actors speak English without Russian accents. At first, I found this off-putting, as it seemed strange to be telling this deeply Russian tale with actors with British accents, but eventually this decision grew on me.  The British accents seemed to fit in more closely with the humor and served as a reminder that this tale though based on true events was being told with a comedic eye towards the absurd.

Iannucci wrote the screenplay with David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows, based on the comic book “The Death of Stalin” by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. As I said, the storytelling was reminiscent of DR. STRANGELOVE. At times, it also reminded me somewhat of Ernst Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) although its story is much darker than Lubitsch’s World War II tale.

I enjoyed THE DEATH OF STALIN, and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed at material as dark and disturbing as this before, which is a testament to the writing, acting, and directing in this one.

It’s not for everyone’s tastes, and it’s certainly not a straightforward comedy, but THE DEATH OF STALIN has a lot to say about the dangers of absolute power and the ridiculousness of those who believe that such power is a good thing. And it says it all with a sense of humor that will make you squirm in your seat and laugh at the same time, which is not an easy thing to do.

—END—

VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) – Light But Ultimately Superficial Tale of Unlikely Friendship

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There’s a funny line in VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) where Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) receives a mango from her entourage, and hearing her friend Abdul’s comments about the fruit, tells them, “This mango is off.”

The same can be said for the movie itself.  It starts off well, but as it goes along, I couldn’t help but notice it was all just a little “off.”

VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) begins playfully, as the first words on the screen are “Based on real events—- mostly.”  Good for a chuckle, it’s the first of many humorous moments during the movie’s first half.

It’s 1887, and Queen Victoria has been ruling for fifty years.  She’s pretty much bored to death with all the ceremonies and pomp and circumstance which surround her life. Enter Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian clerk who has been sent to present her with a ceremonial coin, a gift from the queen’s colony in India.  The queen notices Abdul, later quips that she found him terribly handsome, and the next thing Abdul knows he’s invited back.  Soon, Victoria is taking to speaking to Abdul privately.  Bored with her life, she is fascinated by his fresh positive outlook on life, and she even makes him her “Munshi,” a spiritual advisor.

These decisions absolutely enrage the officials surrounding the queen, including her whining son Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard). It doesn’t take long for the plots to begin, plots to remove Abdul from the Queen’s confidence.  And it’s here where the film started to lose me.

The relationship between Victoria and Abdul is quite charming at first, but as the story goes along, it becomes less so because the movie does not give its audience reasons to really understand why this relationship is so important to them.  In terms of the queen, sure, she finds her life boring, and Abdul is like a breath of fresh air, and this works at first, but it only goes so far.  Abdul’s motives are far less understood.  In fact, of all the characters in the movie, he’s probably developed the least.

And then there’s the undercurrent of racism and imperialism.  The British officials disdain Abdul mostly because he is an Indian peasant, and they look down at him throughout the movie.  While this keeps the story real and relevant, it also doesn’t really mesh all that well with the lighter, fun tone of Victoria and Abdul’s friendship.  As the movie moves forward, the ugly imperial undertones grow stronger while the witty friendship tale reverts into the background, paving the way for Abdul’s eventual fate. The film does not end the way it begins.  In fact, the ending seems like quite the different movie.

I saw VICTORIA AND ABDUL because of Judi Dench, and she does not disappoint one iota.  She delivers a solid performance as Queen Victoria, and she is the main reason to see this movie.

I was less impressed with Ali Fazal as Abdul.  There was just something less real about Abdul than pretty much all of the other characters, and I believe the fault is a combination of the acting and the writing.  I just never really understood what Abdul really wanted.  Supposedly, in real life, he used his relationship with Victoria to be a voice for Muslims and their rights, but that kind of motivation is absent from this movie.

But the supporting cast here is very good. Adeel Akhtar, who was also memorable earlier this year in a supporting role in THE BIG SICK (2017), plays another Indian peasant named Mohammed who also meets the Queen with Abdul.  Early on, Mohammed provides plenty of comic relief as he criticizes what he sees as the barbaric English society, and later, he has one of the better dramatic moments in the film when he rejects the British officials’ plea to him to help them get rid of Abdul.

The recently deceased Tim Pigott-Smith is excellent as Sir Henry Ponsonby, the queen’s long-suffering handler who receives most of the pressure for not being able to rid the royal household of Abdul.  Eddie Izzard is both comical and menacing as Victoria’s whiny son Bertie.

Then there’s Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury, Paul Higgins as the queen’s personal physician, Dr. Reid, and Olivia Williams as Lady Churchill, who all can’t wait to rid themselves of Abdul.  They all give very effective performances.  And Simon Callow even show up in a comical bit as the famed singer Puccini.

Stephen Frears directed VICTORIA AND ABDUL, and in terms of period piece photography, there aren’t any complaints here.  The film looks terrific.  The pacing is a bit slow, and while naturally entertaining, it doesn’t really take advantage of its more powerful moments.  The disturbing parts of the story are not explored as deeply as they could have been. Frears has had a long and successful directorial career, from films like MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (1985) to THE QUEEN (2006).

Lee Hall wrote the screenplay, based on the book by Shrabani Basu.  Early on, the humor works, but I never completely understood the relationship between Victoria and Abdul, mostly because I didn’t get a good sense of Abdul’s background and motivations.

And later, when things grow ugly, events just happen without there being much thought or reaction to them.  Again, it comes down to Abdul.  When things go badly for him near the end, his thoughts and feelings barely register.

VICTORIA AND ABDUL is a fairly entertaining movie.  Judi Dench gives a professional performance as Queen Victoria, and she’s aided by a strong supporting cast.  But there’s more to this story than just a lighthearted friendship between two unlikely friends. There’s a tale of racism and imperialism, but the film barely explores these darker more cynical parts of the narrative.  They’re there, but they remain superficial.

As does the entire movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

What I’m Reading: Z – A NOVEL OF ZELDA FITZGERALD By Therese Anne Fowler

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Zelda FitzgeraldWhat I’m Reading – Z – A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald By Therese Anne Fowler
Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA

I often read in themes.

Last year, I taught a unit on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald to a class of high school sophomores. This combined with the 2013 film THE GREAT GATSBY starring Leonardo Di Caprio, got me in the mood to read more Fitzgerald, and so I read Tender Is The Night  considered by many to be Fitzgerald’s most autobiographical novel.

Now comes Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, a fictional account of the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott, who often is cited as being the ruin of her famous husband.

Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald paints a sympathetic portrait of Zelda Fitzgerald, and in this meticulously researched work of historical fiction, author Therese Anne Fowler takes the stance that more often than not, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who incurred the majority of the damage in their troubled relationship, and it was Fitzgerald who actually held his wife back and ruined her career.

Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald opens with a teenage Zelda living in the Deep South—Montgomery, Alabama—with her large southern family, under the guiding hand of her patriarch father, the judge. When Zelda meets Scott, he is an officer in the army, on his way to serve in Europe in the Great War. Even during these early years, Scott is teeming with confidence and tells Zelda he’s going to be one of the greatest American authors. They fall in love, much against her father’s wishes, who sees life as an author as a poor career, one that will not be able to support his daughter. But they will have to wait, as Scott is about to be shipped off to Europe.

During these early scenes, Fowler really brings the courtship of these two young lovers to life. Take this scene, for example, where Zelda and Scott dance for the first time:

He danced as well as any of my partners ever had- better, maybe. It seemed to me that the energy I was feeling that night had infused him, too; we glided through the waltz as if we’d been dancing together for years.

I liked his starched, woolly, cologne smell. His height, about five inches taller than my five feet four inches, was, I thought, the exact right height. His shoulders were the exact right width. His grip on my hand was somehow both formal and familiar, his hand on my waist both possessive and tentative. His blue-green eyes were clear, yet mysterious, and his lips curved just slightly upward.

The result of all this was that although we danced well together, I felt off-balance the entire time. I wasn’t used to this feeling, but, my goodness, I liked it.

 

Fate intervenes, as the Great War is suddenly over, and Scott is spared going off to battle. In a state of jubilation, Scott proposes to Zelda, promising her a wonderful life, eager to whisk her off to New York City for a grand time, one that she could never have imagined before. Seeing this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to leave her southern rural life behind, Zelda agrees. She and Scott marry, and the next thing she knows she’s living in the greatest city in the world, New York.

Zelda and Scott begin their life together on top of the world. Zelda is absolutely flabbergasted by everything in New York City, and she and Scott are head over heels in love with each other.

The buildings, the people, the noise of engines and whistles and voices, the commotion of cars clattering past! I glanced at my sister; she looked frightened. I laughed and said, “I might never leave!”

But when the entry and front spires of St. Patrick’s came into view, my eyes filled with tears. I’d never seen a structure that was at once so ornate and so serene. The sight- the complexity of architecture, the graceful, intricately carved spires towering over the street, inlaid with smaller intricately carved spires, all of them topped by crosses- literally stole my breath. No wonder the woman at the station had looked impressed.

The thought of being married in this church felt overwhelming, but fitting, too; I was convinced that ours was no ordinary union. Scott was no ordinary fiancé. How, though, had he engineered this?

 

And Scott even manages to make good on his promise to support her through his writing. His short stories sell with regularity, to great critical acclaim, and even better, for top dollar. His early novels, This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, and The Great Gatsby also sell well, and money is not a problem for Scott and Zelda.

In this scene, Zelda and Scott spot a display of his novel in Scribner’s bookstore:

The window display featured a number of books individually. Copies of Scott’s, though, had been built into a pyramid that dominated the display. In front of the pyramid was a sign:

At only twenty-three years of age, Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald is the youngest writer for whom Scribner’s have ever published a novel.

I said, “Is that true?”

Scott nodded.

“This is my husband’s book!” I shouted, pointing to the display. Passersby smiled. I turned to Scott and said, just to him, “And this is my husband.”

They become almost drunk with success.

“Are we rich?” I asked.

“We are unstoppable.”

Not quite. Scott and Zelda live way beyond their means, attending one social event after another, spending money on whatever they want, living the highlife, and consuming alcohol, plenty of alcohol. Scott even receives offers from Hollywood, where the real money is, and it seems for a time that they will be unstoppable. Even better, they become national celebrities, trend setters, and it seems the entire nation knows Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

But then the rejections start. Scott’s Hollywood scripts are turned down, and suddenly he finds himself suffering from massive writer’s block, as he can’t seem to finish his next novel. They move to Europe, where they socialize in a literary circle unheralded before this time. Scott meets Ernest Hemingway, who he sees as a younger author who he would like to mentor, but according to Zelda, he spends too much time helping Hemingway instead of his own works.

With Scott seemingly completely focused on Hemingway, Zelda begins to feel alone and ignored, and she seeks attention elsewhere. The pattern begins, an extramarital affair, depression, illness, Scott’s deepening alcoholism, and soon what was heaven is now hell.
Zelda tries her turn at writing, and she publishes several short stories, all of which she’s told by Scott and his agent must be published with both her name and Scott’s in the byline, as they wouldn’t sell without Scott’s name, even though Scott did not write them. Eventually, her name is dropped and only Scott’s remains, even though again, she wrote the story.

When Zelda is committed to a sanitarium, the doctors there tell her not to write anymore, because that will only upset her, and Scott agrees. She grows distant from her daughter Scottie, who grows closer to her father.

In this story, there are no happy endings. As Zelda fights to regain her mental health, she dreams of getting back together with Scott, who has professed to her that in spite of everything, he will never leave her, but at the age of 44, he does just that, dying of a heart attack, leaving Zelda alone. She lives the rest of her life in and out of sanitariums, and it is in a sanitarium that she dies, in a fire.

Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler is a compelling read, mostly because Fowler has done such a masterful job of telling the story of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald that it practically plays like fact. She captures the lives of these two flamboyant personalities so naturally and with such confident ease that it’s easy to accept these things as true.

The early scenes profiling Zelda’s infatuation with New York City are particularly effective. Fowler also does a fine job showing how much Zelda and Scott love each other, setting up the reader for the emotional toil of having to read the details of when it all goes downhill and falls apart. Then there’s Ernest Hemingway, portrayed here as a manipulative predator, who’s kind and accepting of Zelda until she rejects his sexual advances.

In an Afterward, author Fowler explains that she wrote this interpretation of the Fitzgeralds based on exhaustive research, and it shows, although she admits it’s difficult to find the truth, as the two sides, Scott’s on the one, and Zelda’s on the other, both blame each other for the other’s problems. Fowler writes that she based most of her story on what she found in the letters written by Scott and Zelda.

My favorite part is that Fowler depicts in Zelda and Scott a complicated relationship that at its core is held together by a love that neither one of the two ever wanted to see end. Through it all, the alcohol, the extra marital affairs, the writing struggles, the bouts with mental illness, Scott and Zelda never stopped loving each other, and it’s this central theme that Fowler keeps throughout the novel that makes the eventual ending all the more sad and tragic.

In spite of their problems, they truly loved each other.

Near the end, Zelda is devastated by one reviewer’s reference to her work as “the work of a wife,” that after all these years of trying to make it in the world on her own, she has never been able to get out of the shadow of her husband Scott, and that her legacy, how she will be remembered in the world, will be as the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s at this point in the story that Zelda pretty much gives up.

Time magazine ran a review and had found a label for me: Work of a Wife, read the headline, and despite the praise that followed in the body of the review, I felt myself deflating.

That was it. W-I-F-E, my entire identity defined by the four letters I’d been trying for five years to overcome.

Why was it that every time I finally chose, every time I did, my efforts failed- I failed- so miserably? Why was I so completely unable to take control of my own life? Was there any point to it, for me? I’d thought it was Scott I’d been fighting against, but now I wondered if it was Fate.

When I was young, I’d believed that it would be awful to try and try and try at something only to find that you could never succeed. Now I knew I’d been right: I was not a sufficient dancer, or writer, or painter, or wife, or mother. I was nothing at all.

Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler is a fascinating chronicle of one of America’s most celebrated literary couples, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, seen through the eyes of Zelda. They lived their own version of Gatsby, fighting for a lost dream, and like Jay Gatsby, constantly struggled to repeat the past, to reclaim a past that they viewed as ideal, a battle that like the famous literary character they ultimately lost.

It’s a sad tragic tale brought to vivid life by Fowler’s sharp and insightful prose.

A highly recommended read.

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