“Happiness Only Real When Shared …” –Last words of Christopher J. McCandless (February 12,1968-August 1992)
The very first film I ever saw with Hollywood’s angry man Sean Penn goes back to some 20 years ago in unusual circumstances. I had to reluctantly do my military service in France and during a three day long selection process during which I had to pass several I.Q. and medical exams to judge if I was apt for a year long stay in Army barracks and for all sorts of maneuvers in the cold snow covered hills of Eastern France. Unfortunately for me, I was judged fit for the job which made me have to quit university and friends in what seemed as an unpredictable future. Having to make the best out of this experience I head to the Barracks on a particularly cold early morning approximately 5:00 Am in the morning in civil clothes greeted by a grumpy seargent with a a rare sadistic smile who asked me an a dozen of other new recruits to change into our military suits that made me look more like the comic book hero Sad Sack than Rambo.
Our Treat however was to get to see a film to let the stress go down. Well sort of. We got into the barracks movie quarters and got to see a film called Bad Boys. The plot of which was: “A delinquent held in juvenile detention for the murder of a noted youth gang member awaits a showdown with the dead man’s vengeful brother in the deadly prison environment.” Christ ! I thought to myself what was this an introduction to what I may have to expect in the months to come in this hostile highly disciplined environment ? But the cinephile in me was still quite curious to seeing this film nevertheless, and after all it was for “free” albeit at 5 in the morning on an empty stomach.
What immediately caught my attention was the movie’s young virtually unknown actor called … Sean Penn. He seemed to have a calm and yet threatful presence onscreen which reminded me of the first time I got to see Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro or Gérard Depardieu on screen. You could not be indifferent to his strong onscreen persona. As in the case of all the previous examples he was unpredictable. With his angry look you just expected him to jump out of screen at any moment and strike you in the face. Fortunately instead of that he gave one of the most powerful performances I had ever seen from an actor of his generation to date and in a particularly dark film but which managed to be a mesmerizing experience for me and I think all those who saw it with me at the time. Although not the fondest of memories, my 12 months in the Army happily proved less exciting and traumatic than what I saw on screen that early morning. So I guess I owe Sean Penn for making that film experience much more scary and painful than all my entire military service that was to unfold in front of me and my fellow conscripts.
Now some 20 years later I get to meet the real guy at the screening of a film Into the Wild in which he did not act but directed with equally the same brio, generosity and conviction. It was also a chance to meet in person the man who has dubbed for of the latter’s Award Winning film Persepolis out in the US since last December. Invited by a fellow colleague to watch the preview screening of Sean Penn’s latest film at the Pathé Offices in Paris was to be much more comfortable than the one to which I was conveyed to in the Army. We got to have a good brunch after the screening and talk about the film with other film critics and journalists present before heading to a prestigious hotel for the Q & A with Sean Penn and his film’s star Emile Hirsch. Despite the short session (which was also limited the number of questions, due to translation requirements from French to English and English to French imposed on all of us present ) I did get to ask the last question which seemed to trigger some positive reaction from Sean Penn and Emile Hirsch who were otherwise kind of politely neutral in their answers. Rather than trying to get overly subtle in my questioning I tried to get a direct answer from them regarding their motivation in adapting the true story of Christopher McCandless a young American whose short life and tragic death in the American Wilderness was to inspire the bestselling book by Jon Krakauer. Sean Penn known for his political activism and social concerns about America and its people have been at the core of his filmography and public persona. Naturally the very personal story of a virtually unknown American, but in many ways a modern time hero, trying to live up to his own standards of Freedom and dreams of a better life than the one imposed on him and structured by the industrial and consummation oriented society, could not leave the Hollywood actor, often at Odds with political correctness, indifferent …
After graduating from Emory University in 1992, top student and athlete Christopher McCandless (Hirsch) abandons his possessions, gave his entire $24,000 savings account to charity and hitchhiked to Alaska to live in the wilderness. Along the way, Christopher encounters a series of characters that shape his life. Self Dubbed as “Super Tramp” His upper middle-class background and academic success masked a growing contempt for what he saw as the empty materialism of American society. In his junior year he was offered membership in Phi Beta Kappa but declined on the basis that honors and titles are irrelevant. The works of Jack London, Leo Tolstoy and Henry David Thoreau had a strong influence on McCandless, and he dreamed about leaving society for a Thoreau-like period of solitary contemplation. At odds with his Parents his only heartful attachment is for his younger sister Carine played by Jena Malone who narrates the story.
What may appear simply as a juvenile escape from the real world is actually the contrary. Christopher McCandless’ personal odyssey is not just a naïve “Call from the Wild” as often described with sincerity in Jack London’s novels. It is a vital necessity to live an independent life and in many ways fulfill his own “American Dream”. It is neither a suicidal attempt to escape from harshness of life for McCandless hopes not only to survive but live his life to the fullest. In what could be considered a road movie (without the car) the self dubbed Super Tramp climbs the different stages of his new life that will lead not only to love (albeit platonic),memorable friendships, substitute parents, even a grandpa and manhood that make his journey meaningful and worthwhile not only to him but also to those he encounters on the way. It will also ultimately lead to his tragic and ultimate death due to eating poisonous plant seeds out of hunger in an abandoned bus “142”. Penn avoids cliché’s in filming this odyssey of a short but enriched life of a young man who learns that he and his sister were undesired “bastards” of a torn couple who were unable to fulfill their children’s needs and happiness beyond material comfort. By abandoning his family ( although he did intend to return and write a book based on his adventurous life like his role model writer Jack London), the broken family’s pain and self indicted tortured parents ( greatly portrayed by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden ), find some inner meaning about their lives and the fragility of a materialistic lifestyle where love is absent except when faked. The film however does not blame anyone. Chris’ parents are not bad people nor entirely selfish. They are simply caught in what they consider as being their parental duty to sustain their children but cannot realize that their own life and not just lifestyle are simply not a model which Chris wants to reproduce.
Into the Wild offers some very great performance in supporting roles. Some of which truly deserve an Oscar nod particularly Hal Holbrook who in the twightlight of his rich acting career (often cast as cynical or treacherous lawyers or politicians) gives one of his most touching roles as the old man who offers his friendship and experience to the young McCandless. Vince Vaughn normally seen in light silly comedies truly delivers a heartwarming performance proving that he has more to deliver to his Art and audience than Jester stunts and buffoon like appearances. Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker ( In his first Film) are particularly good as an ageing Hippie couple who want to adopt him as their own son. It also is a film which deals with themes that personally reminded me very much of another Hollywood Classic David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave starring the excellent Kirk Douglas who plays a Cowboy on the Run who refuses to live according to the requirements of the modern age and ultimately loses his battle against the march of civilization.
As he explained during our interview session, Sean Penn reiterated that he was already interested in making this film but with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role of Chris back in the mid 90’s when he first read Jon Krakauer’s book twice on a sleepless night. He was not able to find financing at the time and then he went on doing other films. However the story continued to haunt him and the project finally took off when he saw that Emile Hirsch was the type of actor who could pull off the role in replacement to DiCaprio. Also what makes the film even more powerful today is that the story is symbolic of a certain disillusionment with what many consider as the realization of the perfect American Dream in affording material comfort and professional satisfaction ( Chris Father is a NASA Rocket Scientist/Engineer) but fails to deliver the genuine happiness everyone more or less aspires too and that is LOVE. From that point of view Christopher J. McCandless’ last words in his diary ring true (See quote above ).
The film however fails to be entirely a tragic experience for McCandless even despite the fatal and sad predicament. Although we more or less guess from the start that this will be tragic story we are left with the impression that in this short period McCandless lived to the fullest and the life he wanted to live with its share of difficulties, disillusionments but also rich encounters. His death was not martyrdom but the affirmation of a strong will to live to his own standards. Had he been wiser, he would have settled down with the loveable and innocent Tracy portrayed by the beautiful Kirsten Stewart , founded a family and made a living. Not that he would not have done so, but could not before proving to himself that he could realize his dream of heading north to Alaska. However in the course of their platonic relationship he gave Tracy an invaluable gift to trust herself and believe in her talent. If one feels any particular resentment for McCandless’ character it may be only on missing this golden opportunity that could have led him to something more meaningful than the pursuit of a rather uncomfortable life in the Wilderness. Refusing to be adopted by an ageing old man or a childless Hippie couple was understandable even if in return he did give them understanding and sincere friendship, but his refusal to give up on his dream instead of the beginning of a love that would give him an anchor to hold on in life comes across as a rather foolish and cruel stubbornness.
The Story of Into the Wild is set in the early 90’s approximately during the start of the First Gulf War (2nd “Persian” Gulf War) where George Bush Sr. tried to stop Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. This is actually referred too in a specific scene where Chris watch’s the speech of the US President of the time about the mounting conflict and this is a turning point at which Chris decides never to return to civilization ( at least not until reaching Alaska ). The World seems crazier and Wilder than the Wilderness he aspires too with its share of dangerous challenges ( Hunting for food like the Killing of a bear only to see it attacked by vultures and eaten by wolves , hiding from authorities who could signal his presence to his parents, etc ).
This is where Sean Penn’s political convictions to some degree are hinted if not overwhelming the film’s plot. The Nature Vs Civilization theme is not as central to the story as the pursuit of Happiness. If the rare references to windmills as a source of energy would please the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Winner and former Vice President Al Gore, what Penn truly questions is whether or not the American Dream as we have believed in for generations gone wrong ? The answer is of course given throughout the movie but the solution to it is also clearly underlined by Chris’s last lines proving that America needs to relate to other people’s sufferings in order to heal its wounds. That Love is what will bring personal happiness and more universally the Human Bondage and understanding be it in one’s Family or relationships with others. It is to Sean Penn’s credit to have combined his artistic ambitions and his commitment not just as a US citizen but a World Citizen. In recent years he has been at the forefront of political activism in Hollywood along with another Star like George Clooney who has been spearheading a call to international help to solve the Darfur conflict. At the pinnacle of his career, very much like Robert Redford or Paul Newman in the US or Yves Montand in, Sean Penn has been bold enough to put his own reputation and image to the service of his own deep beliefs. His open Letter to the current US President critisizing his role and responsibility in the the disastrous War in Iraq or by personally helping the victimes of the Katrina Hurricane in the US he has proved to be more than just an entertainer.
As a man concerned by the image of his country abroad but also in an effort to understand the realities of Post September 11Th International crisis he decided to visit both Iraq and Iran in 2005 as a Reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle to the dismay of the Bush administration who has dubbed the regime of the two countries as part of an Axis of Evil. He proved to be not only competent for the task but also objective in his reports and descriptions of what he perceived as a complex situation but not without its share of solutions. His reports on Iran were particularly interesting given that the US and this country have cut off diplomatic ties eversince the US embassy takeover in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution. Accepting to go to Iran as an American in the public eye was not just a bold act but also a difficult one where his presence and outlook could have been blurred and manipulated by the particular attention and warm reception he received from the Iranian authorities. However openminded Sean Penn is he was not naïve not to see that the Islamic Republic was not without its share of flaws and injustices particularly towards its own people. Thus he covered the Iranian elections and interviewed the then candidate Hashemi Rafsanjani filming him with his digital camera and taking notes but did not fail to report the crushing of dissidents and peaceful demonstrations for Women Rights and gender equality. But the most interesting aspect of his visit was to connect to fellow Iranian Colleagues at the Iranian Cinemateque which will certainly be remembered as a milestone visit for all movie fans and professionals. More importantly it proved that beyond political differences between the US and Iranian Governments that cultural and human ties between Iranians and Americans were the most important and essential than anything else. It also offered an avenue of Hope in bridging both people and building the foundations for the future and better understandings between them. Sean Penn’s visit to Iran was also particularly effective in drawing the attention of Hollywood on the predicament of Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji who at the time was also on a hunger Strike that lasted for 60 days and nearly costing his life for demanding that Iran’s constitution be changed and that the title of “Velayateh Fagih” be dissolved putting an end to the role of the Supreme Religious leader Khamenei who has full control over the elected President by controlling the Army and Justice departments. A bold stance on behalf of Ganji who although unsuccessful in achieving that goal did nevertheless draw attention on political dissent in Iran against the Theocratic and authoritarian rule of the mullah’s. Not surprisingly Ganji was finally liberated and invited to the US and Hollywood By Sean Penn who introduced him to fellow colleagues like Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and George Clooney to speak out about human rights violations in Iran.
After seeing Sean Penn’s Into the Wild and in the light of his political commitments to Freedom and World peace, one can only wonder how would Christopher J. McCandless have survived in today’s Post September 11Th America had he not died so wastefully in the wilderness ? He would be in his early 40’s today. Would he have found another way of pursuing his Dream ? Or would he have joined the U.S. Army and died in different circumstances but equally wastefully in war torn Iraq ? Would he have on the contrary joined anti-war demonstrations and found a new idealism in political struggle for Peace or any other Humanistic mission ?
We will never know …
His death through the talented cinematic lens of Sean Penn is nevertheless symptomatic of an entire American generation, whose malaise with the tragic realities of the modern world as we know it today, only reflect the shortcomings in what modern societies and their leaderships often wrongly consider as an evolution towards progress or towards a better life. This burden is certainly not just that of American Society alone but that of Humanity as a whole. More importantly Into the Wild makes us think about the true meaning of the word “happiness” by showing that it cannot be achieved alone and that whatever we do or not do, Human beings and their ultimate destiny are interconnected in life and death. That makes it all the more important for Humanity to reset love and mutual respect at the center of our concerns and as a pre-condition to building a better future for ourselves and for our children or loved ones.
Lonely are the Brave (1962) Starring Kirk Douglas, Walter Mathau, and Gena Rowlands (Satrapi’s grandma in US version of Persepolis) directed by David Miller based on a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus)
Sean Penn In Iran for San Francisco Chronicle in 2005: