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Substance Of Fire
Adapted by Jon Robin Baitz from his play. As always, Cranky makes no comparison to the original. Before you e-mail me that I've given the story away in the paragraphs below, no I haven't. The Substanosce of Fire is a magnificently written and performed story of a family trying to hold itself together when it cannot. I will not make you wait to get to the bottom to tell you I feel it is one of the best films I've seen all year. With that in mind . . .
A striking image opens The Substance of Fire. A young Isaac Geldhart watches from his attic hiding place as Nazis cart the rest of his family away to a concentration camp. Isaac reaches out with his tiny hands to touch the ashes of the books being burned in the street below. It is not surprising, then, to see the adult Isaac (Ron Rifkin ) engaged in the publishing of oral histories by the survivors of Hiroshima, poetry books by political prisoners and other persecuted people. His books may take the moral high road, but they are called "morbid" by Japanese investors approached by his son Aaron (Tony Goldwyn) to save the financially strapped company.
Failing investment by the Japanese, Aaron has first crack at publishing a "sure thing." The book, called Rising Tide and written by Aaron's boyfriend, is dismissed by Isaac as trash. Isaac, instead, wishes to publish a four volume limited edition documentation of the Nazis' medical experiments on their captives, written by a Holocaust survivor (Ronny Graham). At a wholesale cost of close to $300 for each book, the company will surely bankrupt itself. Aaron brings his siblings into the discussion, as stockholders holding shares left to them by their mother.
Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a children's television actress, and Martin (Timothy Hutton) teaches landscape architecture, dismissively called "gardening" by his father. Each child reads Rising Tide. Each likes the book. In a powerful scene, the family splits, brother against sister and child against parent. Even as Isaac storms off to form his own company, the children try to keep the family whole and are rebuffed at every turn by a father who begins to live in his own world. The children suspect a mental illness or breakdown, but the options left to them strain their relationship even more.
The film leaves open the question of whether Isaac's illness is more a case of a man so obsessed with the past -- he sits for hours fingering a post card hand painted by Adolf Hitler -- that he will not deal with the present, or a true medical condition. It is for you to decide. Rifkin's performance is spellbinding. Timothy Hutton, as the son who takes it upon himself to watch over his father, matches him note for note. Goldwyn and Parker, in the smaller roles, take a script in which the characters are fully formed and make them even more so. Ronny Graham, the British comedian, takes a role which could have been played strictly for anger and turns it into a physically expressive comic masterpiece. Baitz' adaptation of his play to the screen is seamless. I couldn't tell where act breaks originally fell, nor could I tell what was added to flesh out the original play. Which leaves only director Daniel Sullivan, who delivers a dramatic and emotionally affecting piece of work.
Does that sound like enough of a rave to get you to go out and see it? I hope so.
As with every film that earns more than a notation on my Nominations list, The Substance of Fire will carry the standard "Oscar race" rating of . . .
Though Eric Bogosian is listed more prominently in the credits, I'll tip my hat to Elizabeth Franz as Geldhart's longtime secretary Miss Barzakian, who is as much a part of the family as the children, and does her best for Isaac until her best just isn't good enough anymore.
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