For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock will watch all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film will be recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
There are some movies that upon their completion make you feel as if you’ve been emotionally dragged behind a car. These gripping dramas usually have two or three well-developed characters and then are relentless in their pursuit of each character’s flaws, weaknesses, hopes, fears. Two of my favorite dramas are “A Heart in Winter” (1992) and “Paris, Texas” (1984). When I describe what it is like to watch “Paris, Texas,” I always say, “This movie will drive you to the middle of the West Texas desert, force you out of the car, and leave you stranded, but all the while you’ll be thankful that it did.” “Sophie’s Choice” drives you through Brooklyn on its way to Auschwitz, before stranding you there, but my goodness I’m glad it did.
This film is a big meandering story that focuses on three characters. Stingo (Peter MacNichol) is a young writer from Virginia who has come to New York to find his voice. He ends up in Brooklyn living in the apartment below Sophie and Nathan. Sophie (Meryl Streep) is a refugee of Poland and a survivor of Auschwitz, and Nathan (Kevin Kline) is a brilliant research biologist with a troubled past of his own.
The story is allowed to move and flow without hindrance through small digressions that allow characters to develop and become more complicated. Because of this the plot itself, though solid, takes a back seat to the characters. “Sophie’s Choice” is Stingo’s story in the same way that “The Great Gatsby” is Nick Carraway’s. Though it is Stingo’s story, the viewer’s eyes are always trained on Sophie, often on Nathan.
Though “Sophie’s Choice” is a drama, it is also filled with emotional and psychological mystery. Both Nathan and Sophie have tightly guarded secrets that come to light slowly over the two plus hours of the film. Many of these secrets are condemnable, but one of the things that director Alan Pakula is able to do is to keep revealing these secrets in such a way as to make us sympathize all the more deeply with either Nathan or Sophie. They have flaws and have made incredible mistakes, but their bumps and bruises make them like us.
I need to take a moment to talk about Meryl Streep. I’ve always thought that she was really good, and have enjoyed her willingness to take risks. Her performance in “Adaptation” (2002) is a personal favorite. Here, her performance as Sophie is genuinely remarkable. Kevin Kline and Peter MacNichol need only to hold on and survive; Meryl Streep will drag them kicking and screaming to the finish line.
One of the things that struck me while watching “Sophie’s Choice” is that this type of film has become exceptionally rare in the contemporary U.S. film market. Most of the gripping dramas that I can remember in the past 20 years have been foreign films. If they happen to be made in the States then they often trend to a syrupy sweet conclusion even if your main character dies, or are so devoid of hope that they are rendered unwatchable. There are countless examples of the treacle-filled films, but for a good example of a genuinely hopeless film (re)watch Mike Nichols’ “Closer” (2004). I’ve watched it twice and it hurt in a bad way both times.
But that’s what makes “Sophie’s Choice” so good. There is tragedy beyond imagination, but there is hope. There is incredible sadness and heartbreak, but there is also transcendent beauty and the ability to overcome obstacles that seemed impassable.
At the end of the movie, Stingo and the viewer come out enriched by their time spent with Nathan and Sophie–two tragic, broken, individuals. We are stronger, wiser and with eyes trained on the possibilities that lie ahead.
As I read this post out loud to my wife, Jaime, (an editing technique I use often) she said that she wasn’t sure that she wanted to watch “Sophie’s Choice.” She said that it just seemed too stressful. She’s right. This movie is often stressful and emotionally draining, but if you really love a strong drama with incredibly real characters, then “Sophie’s Choice” will satisfy beyond most other films.
Just get your tissues out and make sure you’ve got the next day off from work.
Next up #90 “Swing Time” (1936)