Cinema: Nuclear Explosion in Chicago

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ORDINARY PEOPLE Directed by Robert Redford; Screenplay by Alvin Sargent

They are ordinary people, if by that one means that they enjoy conventional middle-class prosperity and adhere to traditional family values. If the problem that the Jarrett family faces—an adolescent son trying to recover from a mental breakdown signaled by a suicide attempt—is perhaps an extreme one, it is hardly unknown in bourgeois America. Nor are the tensions that have been moving for a long time beneath the surface of the Jarretts' existence—an inability to express genuine affection or even speak frankly—exactly exotic.

But let the catalogue of what is ordinary about Ordinary People stop there. For the fact is that Robert Redford, directing his first film (based on Judith Guest's novel), has created an austere and delicate examination of the ways in which a likable family falters under pressure and struggles, with ambiguous results, to renew itself. This is not very show-bizzy stuff, but for once, a movie star has used his power to create not light entertainment or a trendy political statement, but a work that addresses itself quietly and intelligently to issues everyone who attempts to raise children must face.

As this soberly paced film opens, a father and mother (Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore) are treading softly around their son Conrad (Timothy Hutton), full of false cheer and barely suppressed anxiety. He is excessively solicitous. She is too brisk. The boy is trying to take up the normal life that was broken off by the death of his brother in a boating accident for which he feels responsible, and by his subsequent stay in a mental hospital. School, the swimming team, girls—he would like to return to them all with a full heart. But he can only mime the old moves. His mind is clogged by guilts he cannot express to his family or, at first, to the psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch)to whom he reluctantly reports.

The film sounds like another earnest effort to popularize psychiatry. The power of Ordinary People does not lie in originality but in the way it observes behavior, its novelistic buildup of subtly characterizing details. One begins to see that the father's inarticulate patience represents a form of strength, that the mother's cheery orderliness is a mask for terror, that their son is fighting not just himself but an entire suburban society's reluctance to define, let alone accept, the responsibilities imposed by familial love. The deep desire to evade these responsibilities and the equally powerful imperative to fulfill them provide the movie's tension. They also supply the logic for a nuclear family's final explosion, which leaves one awash in powerful, and powerfully conflicting, emotions. No pat answers here.

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