Brokeback Mountain is an American masterpiece. Riding in on a crest of critical raves from Venice and Toronto, the new film by the visually gifted Ang Lee, with Larry McMurtry co-adapting a screenplay that throbs with realism from the acclaimed New Yorker short story by Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx, is finally here, with quality and artistry stamped all over it like labels on a Vuitton trunk. Weirdly enough, we still live in a time when a film about two rugged Marlboro men in love can also be dogged by controversy. Silly and antediluvian as raised eyebrows are in the 21st century, I say bring ’em on, as long as they turn Brokeback Mountain into the box-office triumph it deserves to be.
When I say Brokeback Mountain is a masterpiece, I don’t mean gay masterpiece. In fact, it’s not so much a gay movie as it is a beautifully directed, sensitively acted, gorgeously photographed love story about two people in the right place at the wrong time, who fall in love serendipitously and against their better judgment, and spend the next 20 years of their lives burdened by their compromises. The accidental lovers could be any unconventional couple—interracial, a cop and a drag queen, or an older teacher and a younger pupil. Same-sex love in the Biblical sense is just one of the taboos forbidden by some segments of not-so-polite society. Only a fool would try to analyze love.
In 1963, in a blistered butt-end fork in the road called Signal, Wyo., second-rate rodeo cowpoke Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and dirt-poor ranch hand Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) sign on to spend the summer at an isolated campsite on Brokeback Mountain herding sheep and living on canned beans. They are men of few words, hardened by the West and emotionally calloused by miserable childhoods. But as the summer drags into autumn, and the cruel climate, the dull routine of chopping wood for the campfire, and the job of protecting the flock from wolves and coyotes breed loneliness and boredom, the two young men open up to each other—cautiously at first, then with growing trust and friendship. Strangers and loners, isolated geographically and emotionally from the rest of the world, they learn to bond as soul mates. One night in the sub-zero cold, huddled together for warmth under a horse blanket, they also find each other physically, and the emotional impact of their first sexual encounter opens a floodgate of need, release, desire, shame and violence that haunts them for the next two decades.
As their lives move in different directions—Jack in Texas with his wife and son, Ennis in Wyoming with his wife and two daughters—they distance themselves from each other, but the flame of their passion never fades. Mr. Gyllenhaal’s Jack is the playful, aggressive one, initiating the affair, then marrying the daughter of a successful distributor of farm equipment in Texas. He is also the one who is more comfortable in his own skin and willing to defy the rules by offering to share his future with Ennis as a life-long partner. Mr. Ledger’s Ennis is the tortured, mumbling macho guy who wants to plunge into freedom but doesn’t know how, meeting Jack once a year in highway motel rooms or pretending to go on weekend fishing trips back on Brokeback Mountain.
The intensity of the realism he brings to the role is as shocking as the role itself (who knew he could act?), and matched by the equally silent terror and solemn suffering of the girl he marries (Michelle Williams, his real-life partner). He’s the one who hides the best part of his life, enraged by his sexual desires, fearing scandal and even death. After his wife sees the two men kissing, she carries her own baffled and heart-rending secret around inside her. “If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it,” growls Ennis. Jack is willing to risk everything, but even after Ennis’ divorce, he’s still not free to commit himself to the lifestyle Jack wants so desperately. Eventually Jack finds other outlets for his frustration and longing in the back alleys across the Mexican border, which leads to tragic consequences. I’ve seen Brokeback Mountain twice, and both times I’ve heard grown men and women sobbing through the deeply heart-wrenching final scene.
Still, I suspect there will be resistance to this movie. When straight men see two men kissing on the screen, they reach for the airsick bags. Some gays are disappointed because they don’t think the film goes far enough! Ang Lee is too much of an artist to give in to either phobia. For a Taiwanese director who lives in Larchmont, he knows and reflects an uncanny knowledge of American manners and mores. With the same staggering insight he showed for dysfunctional suburban family life in The Ice Storm, he unravels the hypocrisy infecting the myth of the rugged American cowboy in John Ford movies in a way that opens the eyes and touches the heart. (Think about what probably really happened between John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River.) In his first film since going mainstream with Hulk, Ang Lee proves that he is not down for the count.
Elegiac is the word for Brokeback Mountain. Eloquent in its sparse dialogue and basic human interactions between inarticulate men with hidden feelings, and dazzling in its visual compositions of peppermint skies and chili-pepper mountains (Wyoming is played by the majestic Canadian Rockies), the film captures the rustic beauty of an awesome landscape as well as the guarded, overwhelming inner emotions of two lonely men daring to love against unbeatable odds and cope with a wave of emotion that can never be resolved. The languid pace takes its cue from the dewy rhythm of life on the range. A great film transports the viewer to another plane of thought and opens a new window to experience. After years in development hell and many changes of directors, Ang Lee has turned Brokeback Mountain into that kind of film. The truth is worth repeating: Enduring and unforgettable, Brokeback Mountain is an American masterpiece.
George Clooney is a Hollywood liberal who uses his matinee-idol star power to tell stories of social resonance and importance that Make a Difference. Earlier this year, he submitted a bid to be the Warren Beatty of his generation with the brilliant Good Night, and Good Luck, a gripping account of Edward R. Murrow’s showdown with the Red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy.
Now he’s attempting to bolster his self-nomination with Syriana, a broadside against the global oil industry. This time, he produces and stars, leaving the directing and screenwriting duties to Stephen Gaghan. In an effort to cover the waterfront of international greed and corruption, Syriana, like Mr. Gaghan’s screenplay for Traffic, eschews a straight narrative in favor of a sprawling canvas of interlocking plotlines. The fulcrum of these ever-shifting gears is the power struggle between two Arab princes vying for their dying father’s throne. The older one is an enlightened, Oxford-educated crusader who wants to purge his country’s wasteful plutocracy, give women the right to vote, and forge a magical Camelot in the desert. The younger is a sniveling toady who wants to party on gaudy yachts in Cannes and pledge allegiance to the corporate American flag. Guess which one wins.
All of which forces Connex, a major U.S. energy conglomerate, to merge with another company called Killen Oil to access lucrative gas reserves. Jeffrey Wright is the attorney they hire to grease the skids for the (possibly illegal) merger before the feds smell foul play. Matt Damon is an ambitious derivatives trader (whatever that is) who is after a huge chunk of the older prince’s empire. Mr. Clooney is the C.I.A. operative being used by his boss to assassinate the prince who threatens Connex-Killen’s interests. And Christopher Plummer is the puppet master pulling all the strings. Got all that? Before heading for the cinema, you are advised to sketch out a diagram. You still won’t know half of what’s going down.
The weakest of the many subplots follows a young Pakistani displaced by the merger and driven to join a Muslim religious school that serves as a breeding ground for Al Qaeda suicide bombers. Why does he turn to terrorism? The film never offers a satisfying answer. In fact, not one of the subplots reaches deep enough to strike a truly resonant chord. The audience is expected to fill in the blanks by supplying its own emotional response to the real-world events unfolding around us. It’s a safe assumption on the filmmakers’ parts, but an easy crutch on which to lean.
What the film lacks in depth, however, it makes up for in scope. From the seedy cafés of Beirut to the sweltering refineries of the Persian Gulf, it imparts a tangible sense of time and place. As a window into a shadowy world of international intrigue, Syriana tells a compelling story. But a sprawling panoramic documentary is not necessarily the stuff of great drama. With so many stories, the characters are little more than chess pieces moved around the board.
Given the scant opportunities for character development, Mr. Clooney has wisely grown a scruffy beard and gained 30 unsightly pounds to expand his normally limited acting range. Used up and beaten down, he is the Willy Loman of the national-security establishment, firing off political memos that attention must be paid. Chris Cooper and Christopher Plummer are suitably smarmy as the venal, contemptible villains. Less engaging are the Arab characters, who amount to little more than broad caricatures.
Mr. Damon is the only character with any real meat to chew on. With the chance to play a grown man instead of some precocious boy-toy secret agent, he acquits himself nicely. The cryptic name “Syriana” refers to the neoconservative wet dream of remolding Syria, Iraq and Iran into a secular, capitalist democracy in America’s image. At its roots, Syriana is a movie about economics, the buying and selling of a commodity. Only that commodity is not oil—it’s people. Everyone, from Mr. Clooney’s war-weary C.I.A. spook to the insane, idealistic young Al Qaeda terrorist recruits, is disposable. People as products to be used up and discarded as cheaply and efficiently as petroleum is a theme that Syriana, for all its faults and confusion, drives home with a sledgehammer. And it resonates all too painfully at a time when the lives and livelihoods of the troops in Iraq and their families are horse-traded daily for the sake of a gluttonous geopolitical endgame. Even second-term Presidents are as disposable as Brillo pads.
Sitting through Syriana isn’t really like watching a movie. It’s more like watching two hours of CNN. Or it would be—if only the preening, fawning lapdogs of today’s media conglomerates had the nerve to sink their teeth into a news story the way Edward R. Murrow once did. With Good Night, and Good Luck, Mr. Clooney smartly captured the mettle of a man dedicated to uncovering the truth. With Syriana, he and Mr. Gaghan try to capture that truth themselves. The former is a far more successful film, but the latter is no less noble. Though never a fan of Mr. Clooney onscreen, I doff my hat to him for checking his vanity at the door and trying to make movies with more significance than the weekend grosses in Variety.
On a jauntier note, take note of a holiday entertainment that promises to put the egg back into the nog. My pal Joe Raposo, the terrific Grammy- and Emmy-winning Sesame Street songwriter who died prematurely in 1989, left behind a complete musical version of Frank Capra’s legendary Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, that has never made it to Broadway. That is, not until now.
On Monday, Dec. 12, at 7 p.m. at the Shubert Theatre, a one-night-only concert version of this long-anticipated work (with book and lyrics by the great Sheldon Harnick) will benefit the Actors’ Fund of America. In the Jimmy Stewart role, Brian Stokes Mitchell will star as George Bailey, the disillusioned small-town everyman who contemplates suicide on Christmas Eve and gets saved by an angel named Clarence, played by David Hyde Pierce. The cast includes Phylicia Rashad, Judy Kuhn, Dominic Chianese, Philip Bosco, Marian Seldes, Karen Ziemba, Marc Kudisch, George S. Irving and the dynamic singer-dancer Michael Berresse from The Light in the Piazza. It’s almost sold out, but for info and tickets call 212-221-7300, ext. 133. Joe Raposo’s Sesame Street songs, like “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” have become standards. Who knows what hidden treasures will come out of this score? Did I say one night only? I meant once in a lifetime.