starring Robert Redford, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Steve Burton
screenplay by David Scarpa and Graham Yost
directed by Rod Lurie
by Walter Chaw As I walked out of the theatre after a screening of part infinity-plus-one of Robert Redford's "I am an American Icon" film series (adding three-star general to his playboy, cowboy, investigative journalist, and baseball pitcher), a grey old lady exclaimed for our consideration: "Fantastic film. Just perfect for the time." I assumed that by "the time" she meant "our post-September 11th, anthrax-paranoia time." That much was clear. What bothers me is that while I was watching a film about a prison uprising resulting in multiple guard fatalities led by a megalomaniacal and disgraced army man (who proudly confesses his bad judgment in leading eight of his men to their demise), this woman was seeing a battle hymn "perfect for the time." How does one address this difference in perception, and how do these two readings intersect in the idea of what is distinctly American?
There are many conclusions I can draw from an unsolicited statement of knee-jerk flag-worship in regards to a film like The Last Castle, the most obvious of which is that our educational system isn't getting worse as is so popularly reported, but has in fact been terrible for a very long time. I can also surmise that people are desperate enough for any kind of entertainment (and so susceptible to the image of Old Glory blowing for the wind machine) that they will accept a simple-minded and ludicrous piece of freeze-dried formula dreck as something of value. The Last Castle is, in fact, an example of everything that's wrong with big-budget Hollywood star vehicles.
General Eugene Irwin (Redford) is a grizzled old hawk imprisoned for a crime that he did commit. The warden of the military prison is a fey and vicious Colonel portentously named "Winter" (James Gandolfini), who, along with his Aryan #1 Lt. Peretz (Steve Burton), treats his violent military charges with cruelty and pettiness while listening to classical music. After accidentally insulting Col. Winter's prized collection of military artifacts ("Only a man who has never seen a day of battle collects stuff like this"), Gen. Irwin goes through the obligatory prison movie chestnuts: the scene where the loner sits at the new guy's table; the scene where the jailed bang their cups against the bars in a show of Dead Poets Society solidarity; and the Cool Hand Luke scenario of digging a hole all day only to fill it in all night. By then, our good General has decided that he's had all he can stand. The Last Castle, in other words, is a scene-by-scene retelling of Jules Dassin's classic prison drama Brute Force, except The Last Castle isn't making a worthy statement about resisting the Nazi state.
General Irwin is in prison because he wouldn't pull his team out of Burundi, overly dedicated to his mission of uprooting an entrenched warlord. Very clearly, former critic-turned-director Rod Lurie (who should be given credit for having the courage to show his face after The Contender) felt to the need to comment on Bill Clinton's decision to pull troops out of Somalia after America's attempted extraction of a warlord resulted in the bloodiest firefight involving U.S. soldiers since Vietnam. There's nothing wrong with politicizing in a film; what's wrong with The Last Castle (and the reprehensible The Contender, as it were) is that Lurie simpers and waffles. Lurie contends that it's a bad idea to have pulled out, because General Irwin soldiered on despite his orders, but we are disturbed by the nagging thought that it was actually a good idea to have backed off: in the act of disobeying, eight of Irwin's men were captured and executed. Rather than present General Irwin as an ambiguous character, Lurie presents Irwin as apple pie, baseball, and horse-whispering in the hopes that you don't notice just how much of a failure this American is in terms of fostering his family, professional honour, and his murderous disregard for authority.
God bless America, indeed--or, more appropriately, God help America if this is how we want our heroes to behave. Judging by the applause in the theatre, we're more than ready to throw aside the very ideals upon which our nation was founded for some hazy idea of defending a flag with a ragtag band of cardboard miscreants the Dirty Dozen wouldn't take. I'm sick of rooting for murderers (the speech-impediment charity case has taken a claw hammer to his superior officer) and cowards who decide to kill prison guards for their right to play basketball. I'm sick of seeing the American flag flapping heroically in films of The Last Castle's ilk, like last summer's moronic, embarrasing The Patriot (at the least, The Last Castle has the decency to behave as fiction). And I'm sick of watching (to paraphrase the late Pauline Kael) the umpteenth version of a film that wasn't that good when it was original.
The Last Castle has more stilted dialogue than a film twice its bloated length and more unimaginative static close-ups than The Contender. If it's possible, Lurie is actually getting worse as a director. Redford is strangely listless, Delroy Lindo and Robin Wright Penn are egregiously wasted, and Gandolfini seems eternally on the verge of breaking character and asking what we'd all like to know: "What the hell is my motivation here?" The Last Castle certainly isn't the worst film of the year--the final prison insurrection is full of vaguely nifty (if implausible and atonal) pyrotechnics (that cosily suggest the highest budgeted episode of "MacGyver" ever made), and the rip-offs of Bridge on the River Kwai (an army persevering by construction under siege) blissfully allow one to think back on David Lean's towering masterpiece--but it's certainly the most loathesome 2001 release since Pearl Harbor.
Do not mistake The Last Castle for patriotism: it's about prisoners rioting under the tutelage of a dangerous failure who by film's end has twice led trusting men on highly questionable missions in direct and contemptible odds to common sense. No amount of trumpet-scored slo-mo stars-and-stripes waving can change that; it's your charge as the audience to demand a modicum of responsibility from our entertainments. It's your charge, gentle reader, to demonstrate that Americans are more than brutal, criminal, and easily seduced by boom crash opera. Originally published: October 18, 2001.