By Jonathon Penny
I’m late with this, as with so much in my dog-eared, half-buttoned, last minute, Subway-sandwiched, twenty-first century life. I wrote the other day, on reflection about the harried nature of workaday (and workanight) life that
I was precocious as a child, ambitious, full of expectations for myself and for the world around me bending to my will made holy for a borrowed righteousness and then the sag set in and I lost all of that to work and weekend and the paying of bills and the buying of groceries and clothes—the valid preoccupations of a grown up and the invalid occupations of a man of today that suck the meat and marrow, if I let them, if I forget them see them objects and not tools and not excuses to move about the world and make it ring and rhyme and ripple for my passing through it, little though I am and ought to be.
When I was that child, it was Lloyd Alexander and C.S. Lewis and Ursula LeGuin and later Ray Bradbury who nurtured that precocity, who fed and shaped it, who layered their heroic visions of childhood over fable and fantasy, Goliath and God. Well, when I was a child I hardly needed provocation. And now that I am a man, I need the occasional reminder.
Of course, my notions of what it is to be heroic have changed considerably. Things like “consistency,” “fidelity,” “attentiveness,” and a strong back for giving horsey rides have taken precedence over wicked aim, a black belt in Kung Fu, and a mastery of string theory. Instead of wand-and-hocus magic, I look for the magic of the mundane, the depth of connection between persons, the turn of a phrase and a head, the incantatory power of conversation in the kitchen past midnight, a child reading.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) is, among other things, a portrait of such a child as I was, as many of us were, en plus, a child who understands so much and yet who cannot understand enough entering into the world of sorrow and loss kicking and screaming.
I confess I love the book, in a way natural to lovers of books, and unnatural to the rest of you, and by “you” I mean “them,” since folks who don’t love books are hardly likely to be reading this review. I love it hard. It made me weep twice and then I taught it in a course on post-9/11 fiction and it made me weep again. It is, if Eggers will pardon me, the heartbreaking work of staggering genius that we needed after 9/11—the book to not make sense of the event, and indeed to not require sense from the event, or comprehension of it from us. It is a beautiful book—beautifully conceived and beautifully executed. It engenders beautiful and difficult thoughts. It makes you love your father and cherish your mother, or at the least the idea of father and mother. It is a book that believes in things.
It is a book, too, that offers much to the senses, much of it the noise and the closeness of the city and the wide, stark expanse of an emptied sky made noisier and close and starker by the mind of a child for whom every moment, every corner, every obstacle has something of the Greek about it, and something of the divine. It teems with an audible delight and the off, blank thrumming of the immanent madness of great grief. That grief, that madness are structural conceits, vocalic tones, motivations for bewildering and wonderful acts of comprehension and hope in the absence of comprehension.
It’s a lot to film.
Stephen Daldry’s movie (2012) does it right. The film strikes a fine balance between fidelity to the novel and the offering of a new object, a version that knows its medium, understands its constraints, gets that its audience will consist of readers of the book, yes, but also fans of Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Book and film are different beasts. The book can be read over an extended time, in dribs and drabs by those struggling with the spectre of “the worst day.” But a movie necessarily lays it all out in a single sitting: reflection, if it happens, happens after the fact, over the hours and days that follow. This reflection can be unmoored and unmooring. Movies that address 9/11 are, of course, more unmooring than most. And this one—bravely, necessarily—looks at “the worst day” directly, through large office windows and on small television screens. We hear it through cell phones and on answering machines. We feel it in the broad, slow, cumulative collateral heartbreak on faces and in voices and in sudden tantrums and more sudden embraces. It is vocative, and troublingly so, of how so many of us experienced it eleven years ago.
Film critics have, in the main, been unkind. They complain about the noise, about the whimsy, about the stridency of young Oskar’s (Thomas Horn) voice and the intensity of his fits and paroxysms of rage. They complain about the film’s pathos, about its (gads!) emotion. They complain, now, that whereas the last decade was too soon, this one is too late, that 9/11 can only be used to manipulate, to provoke mere sentiment.
I don’t think they watched the same movie I watched. No, not at all.
Oskar is angry? A little strident? So would you and I be, I’d wager, were our fathers to be yanked away from us in dust and ruin, dissolved in voice and form, supplanted by a sudden, hopeless void. Even children well adjusted and phobia-free would go primal at the loss. That such an obviously precocious and precious and, perhaps, autistic child can become so angry is itself significant: and as a creation of Jonathan Safran Foer, he is believably all that: precocious, and angry, and precious. Granted, the book Oskar is less angry and more precocious, but I like this movie Oskar, even when I want to smack him, because I know he’s in a pain that dwarfs any I had to deal with at his age.
And, being a child, he cannot be angry at others he does not know: such anger, he refrains, an anger set on killing those we don’t even know is outside reason, a logic so alien it cannot be human. No, he is angry instead at those who remain: at himself for being afraid, at his mother for living instead of his father, at a grandfather—hitherto inconnu—grown into a reluctant presence in the wake of the tragic “worst day.”
And this is a tragedy—it ought to be one, and we ought to feel it as such, even as it ends well enough, in a shoulder-shrugging acceptance of what it was and is: a thing too vast and too complex and too personal to make sense of.
Horn and his supporting cast play it human and humane, and the veterans’ performances are masterful and moving: Max von Sydow does more with his face and shoulders and hands, Hanks more with his voice on the phone than most actors will ever dream of managing. Sandra Bullock is luminous and heart-breaking as a mother finding her way through her own grief, battling back towards a son on the verge. Jeffrey Wright inhabits, as always. Alfre Woodard is a constant source of wonder (twice). A cast this natural, this feeling, is hard to come by.
The boy’s mission—in the book and the film—is bootless, it seems, but invested with significance and, ultimately, with the divine: a divine awareness, a careful and wise indifference to the generality of suffering, and a close attention to the singularity, in every case. Even the mean lady who refuses to talk to Oskar gets to feel something—to tear and tear the bitter ones, the rash, unlovely, hot-blooded streams that burn and burrow in the cheeks. That, too, is life after disaster, after great grief.
This movie tells. It domesticates a thing too large to handle otherwise, reduces and magnifies it, multiplies and whittles it all at once. Its grief rings and rhymes and ripples, as it ought, and is manageable for the sharing of it. It is, like the book it borrows from, an oxymoron, a paradox, a revelation.