Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
One of the week’s curious arrivals is a somewhat-delayed release for The Last Full Measure, a very old-fashioned military picture. Once upon a time we would describe this kind of thing as being little more than a TV movie, which you can’t say anymore in this glorious age of peak TV. But it’s dutiful, sincere, and without much cinematic interest, though it gives a fitting appreciation to a real-life soldier, William Pitsenbarger, who died in Vietnam and should’ve been awarded the Medal of Honor at the time.
What distinguishes the movie is its supporting cast, which is crammed with strong folks such as Ed Harris, William Hurt, Amy Madigan, and Christopher Plummer. Diane Ladd gets a potent energy into just a handful of lines, and Peter Fonda is quite moving as a vet with debilitating PTSD. Ed Harris’s intensity, which always seems to find the True North of a scene or a line, reminded me that somehow this brilliant actor has never won an Oscar, although he has been nominated four times.
One of those nods was for Pollock, Harris’s labor-of-love 2000 biopic about Jackson Pollock (which did win a well-deserved Oscar for Marcia Gay Harden). I found my Film.com review of the film, reprinted below. Scarecrow, of course, has this passionately committed film, which I didn’t love but which is certainly worth a look. And along with Harris’s large body of acting work, check out his other directing job on Appaloosa (2008), a movie that seemingly wants to be just a darned good Western, and which succeeds rather well at that.
The physical similarity between Jackson Pollock and Ed Harris is so striking that Pollock begins to seem like a project that had to happen. To nobody’s surprise, Harris’s intensity in the role and commitment to it is ferocious. His lined, suffering face is the perfect vehicle for Pollock’s torment, and the stubby but graceful body duplicates the lithe prowling of “Jack the Dripper” as he circles his canvases.
Despite Harris’s performance, and his thoughtful work as director, one may nevertheless wonder why the actor felt so compelled to make this movie. Jackson Pollock was a virtually unknowable personality, probably manic-depressive and certainly alcoholic. His death was particularly unforgivable, since it involved other people. This does not disqualify him from cinematic examination, or even sympathy, but it does make spending two hours in his company a tough slog.
I suspect part of Harris’s impetus was the sheer challenge of the acting. The two central roles present mighty possibilities, and Harris and Marcia Gay Harden (as Pollock’s wife, herself a painter) are very much up to the task. The scenes between them crackle with love, need, and hatred; Harden stops the movie cold with a staggering monologue about the impossibility (and the irresponsibility) of bringing a Pollock child into the world. Much of the value of this movie is watching this underused actress shine.
Jeffrey Tambor is terrific as the critic Clement Greenberg, Val Kilmer is amusingly distracted as Willem de Kooning, and Jennifer Connelly is sad as a late-life mistress. The evocation of the postwar art scene is very flavorful, with artsy Greenwich Village apartments and the influence of Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan) right in place. Harris brings a measured, quiet touch to the flow of the narrative, which tends to follow along the lines of the traditional biopic of the self-destructive artist. The familiar rise of the “breakthrough” sequences, when Pollock finds his style by slapping the canvas on the floor and drizzling paint over it, is as gratifying here as it usually is.
A life rendered with care and curiosity. Yet when we reach the end, the sense is of a raging bull of art, banging his head repeatedly against the cold hard wall of his own anguish. Late in the film Harris gives us an apt image of Pollock: the artist bicycles along a country road near his Long Island home, balancing a case of beer on the handlebars. He tries to maintain his balance, but can’t, and ultimately goes sprawling to the blacktop as the bottles break and foam around him. Like other aspects of this film, the image may be a little too perfect, a little too careful…whereas Pollock’s art was nothing if not expansive and improvised. Well done and acted as it is, this movie never quite triumphs over that central contradiction.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.