Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Stephen Daldry’s Ambitious Tale of 9/11 Impact, Starring Tom Hanks and Max Von Sydow

Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” one of the first Hollywood pictures to deal directly with the impact of 9/11, is an ambitiously flawed but ultimately rewarding film that deserves audience support.

Trailer: www.emanuellevy.com/?attachment_id=47153

There have been documentaries but not many features about the massive terrorist attack on the world Trade Center. Like other national disasters and collective problems (the Vietnam War and the anti-War movement are prime examples), it takes time for pop culture to depict those events in a serious yet accessible, provocative yet not depressing or alienating way.

A cinematic work does not have to be of the greatest artistic merit to carry significant historical weight. For this reason alone, entrepreneurial producer Scott Rudin and director Stephen Daldry deserve credit for tackling had-on what is still an open sore in the American collective consciousness.

It’s too bad that “Extremely Loud” did not come out at the tenth anniversary of the event, but I believe the movie was not ready; it was the very last film that I saw as voter for the Golden Globes and for other critics awards.

The film is based on the acclaimed 2005 bestseller by Jonathan Safran Foer. If memory serves, the novel was the first major literary exploration into the grief of 9/11 families, a touching chronicle of how a child’s imagination helps him come to terms with the overwhelming, often paralyzing fear and unfathomable loss for which there is no logic or rational explanation.

The movie (Warner’s Christmas release and Oscar card) likely will divide critics due to Eric Roth’s semi-effective adaptation. A vet, mainstream scribe, Roth (Oscar-winner for “Forrest Gump,” Oscar-nominee for “The Insider”) has a tendency to turn high-brow and eccentric material into middlebrow, well-rounded, and accessible fare.

This was most evident three years ago in his screenplay for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which imposed on that text the same paradigm that he had used for “Forrest Gump.” There was quite a discrepancy between the David Fincher’s brilliant filmmaking and Roth’s more easy-to-digest and east-to-please scenario.

Similar observations could be made about “Extremely Loud,” which, admittedly, is a tough material to adapt into a Hollywood movie due to the fact that most of the events and thoughts take place within the mind and heart of an ultra-bright, ultra-alert boy named Oskar. Devastated by the death of his beloved father, he has hard time coping with and accepting this traumatic event.

However, despite shortcomings in the writing, uneven tone, and manipulative strategy (especially noticeable in the last reel), there is much to recommend about “Extremely Loud.”

First, the film demonstrates a major leap forward for Daldry as a director. An intelligent, if also too literal and literary filmmaker, Daldry is the luckiest guy in Hollywood, having received Best Director Oscar nominations for each of the three film he has made: “Billy Elliott,” which put Jamie Bell on the map, “The Hours,” for which Nicole Kidman won Best Actress Oscar, and “The Reader,” for which Kate Winslet got the lead kudo from the Academy.

“Extremely Loud” is Daldry’s most smoothly and impressively directed feature, benefiting immensely from the sharp and concise imagery of ace cinematographer Chris Menges, Oscar-winner for “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission.”

Second, “Extremely Loud” continues to show the evolution of Sandra Bullock as a dramatic actress. I have always held that in serious roles, she is far more convincing as a supporting player (Remember “Infamous,” in which she played Truman Capote’s friend, author Harper Lee, or her segment in the ensemble piece, “Crash”).

It may or may not be a coincidence that several of the major films this holiday season, such as Scorsese’s ”Hugo” and Spielberg’s “War Horse,” center on isolated children or troubled adolescents (often orphans) and unfold as coming-of-age tales due to the surrounding socio-political conditions.

The protagonist of “Extremely loud” is Oskar Schell, an 11-year-old New Yorker, who may be too smart for his own good.

What kicks the plot is an accidental discovery of a key in his deceased father’s belongings sets him off on an urgent search across the city for the lock it will open. The only clue to the mystery is the name “Black,” which is written on a piece of paper, and a key. It doesn’t help that the phone book enlists hundreds of residents who answer to that name.

A year after his father died in the World Trade Center, on what Oskar calls “The Worst Day,” he is determined to keep his vital connection to the man who playfully cajoled him into confronting his wildest fears. In flashbacks, we see the father (Tom Hanks) challenging Oskar’s mind with playful games about New York’s “Sixth” Borough, the origins of Central park, and so on. (We never get a good sense of what kind of marriage Oskar’s parents had).

Unfazed by the magnitude and impossibility of the task, Oskar crosses the five New York boroughs in a quest of the missing lock, thus embarking on a journey which is both physical and metaphoric.

An unusually precocious and sensitive boy, Oskar invents fantastical devices, dreams about astrophysics, collects a vast assortment of random facts. He embarks upon a journey which is nothing if not quixotic, surveying the fabric of New York in all its glory and misery.

In the process, he encounters an eclectic assortment of people who have had troubled lives and are survivors in their own peculiar way. It’s too bad that, with few exceptions, writer Roth has opted for a superficial montage (leaven with some humor) of the various people Oskar meets.

The first, and most significant stop, is visiting Abby Black (the great actress Viola Davis, who can do no wrong), as a woman going through marital discord, who finds unexpected solace in her strange encounter with Oska, who somehow manages to restore her self-esteem at a time when she needs that. They are soul-mates: Both go through grief, and when they meet they form a peculiar but intimate bond.

Gradually, he begins to uncover mysterious, often invisible links to the father he misses so terribly that he believes he can’t survive without him. Oskar often hides under his bed, or plays his tambourine loud as survival mechanisms.

In the first half of the narrative, Oskar’s mother (Sandra Bullock) is (too much) in the periphery, encouraging us to think that she too busy, or aloof, or uncaring about her son’s anxieties (This is yet another weakness of the scenario). A major revelation in the film’s last ten minutes may be too late.

In contrast to the mother who seems impervious and far away Oskar, leaving him alone to his own devices, there’s the strong grandmother (Zoe Caldwell), a rigid German femme who lives across from the family with whom Oskar communicates late at night.

I wish the tale didn’t have so many endings and  so many facile ones, which turns the otherwise disturbing saga into a sentimental, borderline schmaltzy affair, with too many exchanges of “I love you,” and heartfelt hugs and embraces.

As Oskar, newcomer Thomas Horn gives an amazingly multi-nuanced and emotionally touching performance, conveying the anger, the guilt, the frustration, the loss of a boy who’s incredibly attached to his dad. Oskar describes the world around him with his own particular mix of naiveté and insight, nervousness and boldness, incomprehension and a need to understand and make sense of an essentially incomprehensible and nonsensical world.

The supporting cast, from Hanks and Bullock all the way down to Max von Sydov, Viola Davis, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, and Zoe Caldwell, is superb.

Production values are top-notch in each and every technical department. Daldry, lenser Menges, and production designer Designer K.K. Barrett are effective at conveying the hustle-and-bustle of New York City as a noisy, dangerous, and discombobulating milieu.

Even so, the book, a richly dense, postmodern work, is far more successful than the movie in blending incisive comedy and unbearable tragedy, in mixing playful, ironic tone with more serious moods.

Cast

Thomas Schell – Tom Hanks
Linda Schell – Sandra Bullock
Oskar Schell – Thomas Horn
Abby Black – Viola Davis
Stan the Doorman – John Goodman
William Black – Jeffrey Wright
The Renter – Max von Sydow

Credits

A Warner release and presentation of a Scott Rudin production.

Produced by Scott Rudin.

Executive producers, Celia Costas, Mark Roybal, Nora Skinner.

Co-producers, Eli Bush, Tarik Karam.

Directed by Stephen Daldry.

Screenplay, Eric Roth, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer.

MPAA: PG-13

Running time: 129 Minutes