Into the Wild
starring Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn and Hal Holbrook
screenplay by Sean Penn
directed by Sean Penn
Based on the book by Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild tells the true story of Christopher McCandless, and American EmoryUniversity graduate who abandoned his family and the bourgeois materialism of his parents’ lives after graduation to tramp across Americalike Jack Kerouac, eventually making his way to Alaska. Along the way he meets a host of amazing people - mostly what you might call marginal people, people with whom you would expect a tramp to share company, like aging hippies, nudists, lonely retirees, itinerant farm workers, isolation-seeking desert rats, etc. It’s admirable in that way, motivating me (just a little bit) to try to love my fellow man more than I do. McCandless was an idealist with an extreme and unforgiving moral sense. But there is a moral flaw built into that extremism, because without the charity to forgive, one’s morality is compromised. I wonder if the real Christopher McCandless knew that? To forgive is to practice and experience love, and it is really, really hard, because the world is filled with people that we despise and that we don’t want to forgive, let alone tolerate. None of us deserves love, but it’s necessary. We don’t deserve anything at all, really. Love is never easy. It comes through Grace, not by right. It comes through our fellow people as a gift, not earned. It is not what we expect it to be when we say “love.” Love does not mean a whole lotta liking. So it does the character of McCandless ill to be portrayed as a young man who rejects his family and society in anger.
Sorry to say it, but in the film he also comes across as a bit of a moron. Of course, that’s just me talking as a middle aged man and a parent. 25-years ago I would have had strong empathy with him and defended his propriety and accuracy - his righteousness - as absolute, just as in high school I stood by the Franco Zefferelli film version of Romeo and Juliet (starring Olivia Hussey) as the perfect portrayal of true love. (Romeo and Juliet was/is my favorite Shakespeare play, but when I read it today or re-watch the movie that inspired me so much as a teenager I can’t get over my disdain for the stupidity of the couple. And, I think a similar dynamic is at work in my thinking in the matter of Christopher McCandless.)
I think the movie was great, although the lead character, was anything but. But his story makes for great theater. It’s dramatic, extreme, adventurous. It’s stupid, too, but out of courteous good manners no one makes that point because his story is a tragedy. Even into the 1990s Alaska retained its aura of untamed wildness, representing total freedom outside all the constraints and cares of conventional society. Getting there was an adventure in itself in the mind of the penniless McCandless. (Being penniless would necessarily make traveling anywhere an adventure, wouldn’t it?) Never mind the fact that Alaska is in fact a settled, populated place accessible by car, bus, train, ship or airplane, take your pick, governed by just as many rules as govern our lives in more densely populated and urban environments. It is also occupied by people just as likely to be concerned with money and acquisitions as any other place. I don’t agree that that makes people bad or hateful. Just like he tramped across and around America like Jack Kerouac, McCandless viewed Alaska, distortedly, through the eyes of Jack London, and his antipathy to human society possibly came from another writer, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854, certainly one of the most famous pieces of non-fiction by an American). Too much time spent with books. Too much time immersed in the idealism of ideas in books. Of course, that the best kind of idealism, isn’t it? Too much time diverted by the Roussean idealism of Nature. McCandless thought that total happiness was total freedom and that total freedom meant total separation from and isolation from his family, his past, and from society, too. The literature that he loved misled him a bit.
I’m a bibliophile, so I do not disparage books. But in my life with and among books and people I have learned that all people are equally children of God - even Jack the Ripper and George Bush - and that we are not all that we wished we might be when we were young. And, human beings being naturally social creatures, love and joy have no meaning (or diminished, incomplete meaning) unless they are shared. McCandless didn’t understand that until it was too late. I learned that true, proper freedom is more the freedom fromthings and freedom to be rather than freedom to do things with our material goods and with our lives. McCandless understood that as well, but he went too far, or he did not possess a sufficient social understanding to restrain his extremism.
I expected to see a movie with fantastic vistas, like a National Geographic travelogue. I expected to see a film that looked like Out of Africa (1985, directed by Sydney Pollack, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford). (I saw that in a movie theater with my best friend, Ken, and it was so beautiful that it made him weep.) It was that, but I expected more.
I was delighted to see Hal Holbrook in this film. I haven’t seen him in a movie in a long time but I recognized him right away. I said, “Hey! That looks like Hal Holbrook!” And it was. “Wow!”