(director/writer: Keith Gordon; screenwriters: Robert Dillon/based on the novel by Scott Spencer; cinematographer: Tom Richmond; editor: Jeff Wishengrad; cast: Billy Crudup (Fielding Pierce), Sandra Oh (Kim), Jennifer Connelly (Sarah Williams), Molly Parker (Juliet Beck), Janet McTeer (Caroline Pierce), Paul Hipp (Danny), Hal Holbrook (Isaac Green), Lawrence Z. Dane (Governor Kinosis); Stanley Anderson (Ed Pierce), John Carroll Lynch (Priest) Runtime: 105; USA Films/Polygram; 2000)

“I don’t really know how great this film is, but it did catch my attention.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Waking the Dead is based on a novel by Scott Spencer, the screenplay is by Robert Dillon, and it is directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Keith Gordon (“Chocolate Wars”). It’s a metaphysical love story with a bit of a mystery story thrown in. There’s also more than a bit of political allegory to it, as both of the main characters are motivated by political concerns. One as the idealistic rebel who is an outsider and wants to tear down the system, the other as an insider who wants to change the system from within. The film is set during the 1970s and early 1980s.

The love story is complex and is the heart of this engrossing film, a film that deals with the ambiguities that propel people to be who they are. It’s especially pleasing because Jennifer Connelly plays a Catholic activist named Sarah Williams in such a touching way that her innate beauty shines forth as an angelic figure who happens to fall for her opposite, an ambitious politician. It’s a relationship filled with all sorts of possible pitfalls. Billy Crudup plays the wheedling character of Fielding Pierce who’s stuck in an empty world of deceit, in a political role much like the Robert Redford one in the Candidate. Both Redford and Crudup think they can make a difference to help their constituents by going after power positions in the government. In the end they are willing to compromise themselves to serve. In Fielding’s case he never shows that he’s even a liberal, only that he’s blinded by an urge to achieve success. The calculating working-class hero has gone to Harvard to be a lawyer, joined the Coast Guard to get out of Vietnam duty and because it’ll look good on his resume. Eventually Fielding ends up as a congressional candidate for the Democrat machine and questions his sanity after seeing the love of his life, whom he presumed to be dead, suddenly emerge. He will never be quite sure if what he envisioned was real or a figment of his desires, but his sanity at this point is certainly questionable.

The film opens in 1972 as the young Coast Guard officer goes up to the NYC office of his brother Danny (Paul Hipp), who is a hippie book publisher. Here he is attracted to his brother’s new assistant Sarah and they fall in love; even though, they are miles apart politically. She states: “I want a life that makes sense.” He says: “I want to be president.” The film wavers back and forth in the following years 1972, 1974, 1982, and 1983.

In 1974 the couple live together in Chicago and he attends law school while she works as a church activist, even traveling to Chile for the cause of freedom. The following tragedy will haunt Fielding: Sarah is reported dead in a car bomb explosion in Minneapolis while transporting two leftists Chilean refugees.

In 1974 Fielding has been befriended by Chicago power broker for the Democratic machine, Isaac Green (Hal Holbrook), who hooks the Bobby Kennedy lookalike Fielding up in the district attorney’s office. Then in 1982 when the bachelor Fielding is 32 and going out with the niece of Isaac’s, Juliet (Molly Parker), he’s offered a chance by the governor to run for congress in a special election. But after getting the nomination Fielding starts to come psychologically apart, imagining that he sees the real Sarah or her ghost following him around wherever he goes. It culminates with Fielding winning the close special election in 1983 and going to Washington, where his mind is made up to do good for his constituents.

I don’t really know how great this film is, but it did catch my attention; especially, the way Gordon was able to get his main characters to act out who they were in their struggle to make their life and their love viable. There was something soap operish about this tragic love affair, yet it was still heartfelt.

I think how we accepted the lovers really relates to our life experiences. I know I felt very comfortable with Jennifer Connelly’s performance; I thought it was subtle, soft-spoken, and inwardly powerful. It was easy for me to relate to her and what she was about without feeling I was presented with a character who was being foisted on me in a “Love Story” tear-jerker way. The film was passionate, intelligent, and real. The best scene is on a subway that has Fielding and Sarah in a single 3 1/2-minute shot — where they are having a heart to heart talk that seemed so unbelievably real. The Jennifer Connelly character is really the subject of the film and her spirit fills the screen whether she’s on it or not. This is because she came across as someone with a real heart and is always haunting us because we care about her. We don’t really care about him, which is how we are supposed to feel. The two actors were just terrific, giving the story its potency and purpose.

Waking the Dead Poster