Stephen Daldry’s film adaption of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was both renowned and reviled upon its theatrical release last December. The 2005 novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer also met with mixed reception upon its reception. Britain’s Spectator magazine stated that “the book is a heartbreaker: tragic, funny, intensely moving.” But Michiko Kakutani of the NY Times was critical of Safran Foer’s book, describing the story as “cloying” and the main character as “unsympathetic.”
Of course, critics are only one limited reference for understanding a film’s (or book’s) merits. Ultimately, we all need to decide for ourselves. But why would there be such divisive opinions on the book and Stephen Daldry’s film adaption?
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close stars Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright and first-time actor Thomas Horn. The film’s story follows young Oskar Schell’s search for the truth about a mysterious key found following his father’s death in the 9/11 tragedy.
Director Stephen Daldry is the talented filmmaker behind Billy Elliott (2000), The Hours (2002) and The Reader (2008). Astonishingly, Daldry has been nominated for the Best Director Academy Award for each of these films. Although Daldry’s background is in theater, he is not trapped within the conventions of that medium. His filmmaking approach is most certainly stylized and polished, and he uses the tools of the film medium to great effect.
Daldry’s theatrical background ensures a more attuned focus on story and acting. He gives meticulous attention to his actors and the moments of emotion within his storytelling. And it shows – Nicole Kidman won the Best Actress Academy Award for The Hours, and Kate Winslet won the Best Actress Academy Award for The Reader.
Many critics of Daldry’s latest film accuse him of manipulation and exploiting the 9/11 backdrop.
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone concedes the film is “solidly crafted, impeccably acted,” and that “This is delicate territory, and director Stephen Daldry…treads carefully.” But he also goes on to state that the film is also “self-important in the way that Oscar loves.” Roger Ebert decided that “this plot is contrivance and folderol,” and that “The events of 9/11 have left indelible scars. They cannot be healed in such a simplistic way.” And Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy called the film “An emotionally potent, noticeably literary story of a precious boy’s reaction to his father’s death on 9/11.”
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 shocked the world and many of us intimately remember our own moments of horrific realization surrounding that morning and the days immediately thereafter. It is understandable that the depiction of all things related to 9/11 would be an emotional flashpoint.
Some may want to read into Oskar’s emotional journey as a literal comment on an entire generation’s pain and loss in the aftermath of 9/11. But Daldry does not attempt to analyze the events of 9/11 or even depict the attacks. There is a fleeting glimpse of the burning towers and a televised image of one tower’s collapse, but his entire focus is through young Oskar.
We experience the film through Oskar’s perspective. Just about every scene involves Oskar and he is our guide through a post-9/11 New York City. We learn as Oskar learns. And even when our intuition tells us that Oskar’s mother (Sandra Bullock) must be purposely allowing her son to lash out at her about his unexplainable feelings of loss, we are not given a release until Oskar also realizes the truth. The film is about exploring grief. At one point in the film, Oskar solemnly whispers, “It hurts too much.”
But does the 9/11 setting automatically determine manipulation? By its very definition, film is manipulation. The filmmaker and creative team are creating “movie moments” for emotional effect through a determined collision of images and sound, constantly compressing or contracting the time which we experience.
Ultimately, film is about manipulation, emotion and context. Perhaps not enough time has passed to make emotional sense of the events of 9/11? After all, many might feel similarly about films set around other significant tragedies – the World Wars and the Holocaust, Vietnam or even Iraq; natural disasters or accidents; and so on.
Even with only four feature films to date, Stephen Daldry has already demonstrated a great gift for sensitive and mature storytelling. But is he a visionary? A visionary filmmaker uses the medium in progressive ways to seek and understand the truths within our human experience.
Like many other talented filmmakers, Daldry continues to explore recurring humanistic themes. Through his stories, we collectively experience and face the very raw and emotional feelings of loss, grief, connection and redemption. One senses from the integrity of his emerging oeuvre that he is sincere in his explorations, but it is early yet to call Daldry a visionary. For now, Stephen Daldry is most certainly an established talent to watch.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was nominated for three Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Max von Sydow) and Best Art Direction. The film was recently issued on DVD and Blu-ray, so now audiences can decide on the film’s merits for themselves.