Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup) has grand visions for himself. He goes to Harvard Law School and joins the Coast Guard and all for no other reason than that he yearns to run for the state Senate, to be a cog in that mammoth political machine that makes a difference. He’s kind of, well, an idealist.
Luminescent Jennifer Connelly is Sarah Williams, an activist (“an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause, esp. a political cause” per Dictionary.com). She works in the offices of Fielding’s brother Danny (Paul Hipp, who appears in early scenes to be auditioning for the role of Disco Stu), who runs a radical magazine. She is rooting for the Vietnamese in the War. She’s kind of, well, an idealist.
Fielding and Sarah go on a date. She says to him: “I want a life of unbelievable adventure and profligacy and at the last possible moment…sainthood.” Well, then. Many men would tuck tail and run at that point. Not Fielding Pierce. He says being a Senator is not actually what he wants. He says, “I want to be President.” Then he asks her, “Why are you smiling?” She replies, “Because you mean it.” They are both kind of, well, idealists. Romantic idealists. Perfect for one another. Except that he thinks change can only be made from within the system and she thinks that change can only be made from outside the system.
But they are in love, and so she moves to Chicago with him where he begins his first step toward a life of glitter and grease politics in this fair city. She goes to work at a church and becomes deeply involved in the plight of Chilean refugees. And eventually, terribly and tragically, she will die in a car bombing. Sainthood. Possibly.
Directed by Keith Gordon, Waking the Dead skips back and forth between these events in the early 70′s and Fielding’s run for Congress in 1982, being orchestrated by a cigar-smoking benefactor played by Hal Holbrook which is just perfect because this is so the kinda guy that really runs Chicago politics. The campaign should go smooth but Fielding begins to break down. He thinks he sees Sarah. Again and again. And so this political story becomes a lovelorn ghost story. Is Sarah actually alive? Has Fielding just gone crazy? Hold that thought.
The film’s problems, it must be said, are numerous, such as the needless, woefully done 1982 subplot involving Fielding’s brother and him wanting a Green Card for his Korean girlfriend. Fielding’s entire campaign process is essentially summarized via a couple bland montages but then this was almost necessary for the sheer fact Waking The Dead has so much else going on and so much it wants to say. Who really wants to spend time on the campaign trail? But then it also so desperately wants everyone to understand what it wants to say that it Pounds The Hammer over the audience’s head at the end with a wretched voiceover that desperately needed to be eliminated.
There is one scene in particular that both underscores the film’s flaws and what I simultaneously love about it. Fielding is having dinner at Sarah’s church and a couple Chilean activists choose to brazenly insult Fielding’s desire to go into politics. This scene is so ham-fisted, so obviously Message Deliverers masquerading as Characters (“Young man, EVERYTHING is politics”), and yet I can’t help but somehow be mesmerized every time Crudup, my favorite actor, gets righteous and righteously pissed off.
-”I am so sick of having to apologize for being an American.”
-”Oh my God, I’m so sorry. North American.”
You so often hear of multi-dimensional actors. Okay, so what is that? Well, in this scene for instance, Crudup is likable but kind of unlikable and you feel empathy but then a little apathy. He’s getting ganged up on, it’s not cool, and you can see his side of the debate and you feel yourself agreeing with him, but he almost takes it too far. He calls out their sense of superiority but he lets you feel his sense of superiority. And then he ends it with that line – “Yes, Stephen, that is ugly. It reminds me of something Sarah might say.” – and the way he says it, the pointed smarminess, is like getting your throat slashed. I am one of the least politicized people around and yet this scene centered entirely around politics leaves me breathless because the whole scene evokes almost every political argument I have seen and/or heard (endured).
In the end, after Fielding has been elected, barely, Sarah herself turns up. She’s alive! Or is she? Is Fielding’s mind still playing tricks on him, giving himself the closure he craves? The movie never truly says. This bothered people, like the esteemed Roger Ebert, who wrote: “And at the end, we are left with – what? When we invest emotional capital, we deserve a payoff.” But I disagree 100%. This movie CAN’T have that kind of payoff. You’re either someone who thinks Sarah is still alive or you’re not. You’re either someone who thinks change can be made from within the system or you’re not. You’re either someone who thinks idealism is a waste of time or you’re not. You’re either someone who rides an Elephant or someone who rides a Donkey. “Now the music divides us into tribes. You choose your side. I’ll choose my side.”
Young man, THAT’S politics.