February 24, 2024

A Walk on the Moon (1999, dir. Tony Goldwyn) – REVIEW

Tony Goldwyn has earned a slew of respectable credits as an actor on stage and screen over the past thirty years. He also has a lead role in the ABC television series Scandal—now in is its sixth season—and increasingly has made his mark as both a political activist for progressive causes and a film director. His first directorial project was A Walk on the Moon, a deceptively simple rumination on that moment in time, the summer of 1969, when the gears of the American zeitgeist shifted so dramatically that today, four decades later, neoconservatives continue to cite it as the defining transformation by which they apotheosized into Us and everyone else became Them. But Goldwyn’s film, scripted by Pamela Gray and produced by Dustin Hoffman, is not an exposition of the socio-politics of the late ’60s or of the subsequent cultural wars. Nor does it concern itself directly with the cataclysmic ingredients of the period—Vietnam, Woodstock, drugs, the sexual revolution, and that proud but disorienting moment when American astronauts altered the face of poetry by footprinting the moon; though they are crucial in informing the film’s context and are even glimpsed obliquely, these iconographic elements of the era remain, for the most part, offstage.

A Walk on the Moon is the story of a middle-class family who registers the cultural rifts of the times as many families did—subtly, almost imperceptibly, maladroitly, and above all, inarticulately. Far from marching against the war or burning bras, dropping acid, or reading Carlos Casteneda—these characters pass the “Summer of Love” coming to grips with the difficult necessities of familial intimacy. They breathe the change in the air and they must respond to internal seismic shifts as the large social abstractions seep into their lives, but, on the whole, A Walk on the Moon is not about people on the cutting edge of revolutions but those, like the vast majority of average folk, who either sink or learn a new way to swim when they are caught in a riptide of change. Gray’s sweet script and Goldwyn’s memorable directorial debut give A Walk on the Moon a lovingly focused, nostalgic quality that is almost Chekhovian in its sympathy for human beings who must struggle to communicate when they find themselves confronting a new frontier, their familiar social idioms and vocabulary suddenly in question.

Not surprisingly, Goldwyn proves to be “an actor’s director.” The emotional arc of every scene is unhurried though never lax and, refreshingly, he entrusts his audience with an appreciation for subtlety, surprise, recognition, revelation. Diane Lane is Pearl, a wife and mother to a teenage daughter and eight-year-old son. She is passing the summer of ’69 as she has for 15 years—at a Jewish bungalow resort in the Catskills. (Goldwyn distills the mise en scene of this tradition with gentle accuracy and poignancy.) Every weekend her husband Marty (the great Liev Schreiber) comes up to join his family, and every Monday he makes the two-hour drive back to New York, where he is a television repairman. While her daughter discovers first love and her son splashes in the lake, Pearl does what she has always done—she goes berrying and cooks meals with her mother-in-law (Tovah Feldshuh) and plays mah-jongg and experiments with new hairstyles with her thirtysomething girlfriends. The only difference is that this summer Pearl senses that she is drowning in unrealized dreams, or that life has somehow changed, or that it is going on somewhere else, or that it has left her behind. Married and a mother at 18, she has never known herself beyond the reality of her husband and children and, though she loves them dearly, she is wondering what pieces of her life may have gone missing. A free-spirited, traveling blouse peddler (Viggo Mortensen) lends focus to her vague discontent.

Lane is well-cast as Pearl. It is no easy matter to portray, for nearly two hours, a character who is fundamentally confounded, who becomes virtually immobilized by her confusion of purposes and cannot articulate it, to others or to herself. Lane has always been an actor capable of vulnerability and a wry tentativeness, and she relies on these qualities to evince Pearl’s inexpressible dilemma as moving rather than maddening—she makes her unvoiced questionings and undirected longings completely ingenuous. The other well-tailored performances provide invaluable help in keeping Pearl’s credible but dramatically challenging quandary from weighing-down the film’s pace and development. Anna Paquin is enchanting as the 14-year-old daughter (who hugs her mother and says, with perfect teenage logic in a tearful reconciliation scene, “I still hate you but that doesn’t matter”). Feldshuh, as Marty’s shrewd and energetic mother, is warm, earthy, and engaging. And Schreiber’s Marty is incisively etched and endearing—the performance gives early indication of his evolving growth as an actor who eschews showing-off, who knows how to use quiet intensity and implied emotion to pull an audience into a character’s internal struggles.

Unlike today’s reactionary social critics, Goldwyn has no axe to grind with the ’60s. His focus on that fateful summer of ’69 is tightly, clearly, and affectionately drawn. The story of Pearl and Marty is a simple but resonantly affecting story of innocent bystanders drawn into the margins of great events. A Walk on the Moon‘s very power is in its restraint from polemics—we are left with a couple who, after the upheavals of their own particular version of the Summer of Love, are awkwardly poised but filled with the quiet excitement of carrying forward a new shared sense of discovery. They may not be anyone’s cultural heroes, but it’s nonetheless pretty wonderful when, in the end, the only side they find they can take in the revolution is each other’s.

– Hadley Hury

(Available through Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and other select streaming sites)

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