Monday, November 7, 2011
I was twenty-eight years of age when I first explored Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus, Apocalypse Now. Intrigued by the filmmaker’s attempt to elucidate the dark nuances emanating from the nightmare many of my contemporaries knew from personal experience, the Vietnam War, I studied the writer/director’s retelling of Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness. Martin Sheen was thirty-six then, only eight years my senior. Great actors morph themselves into their characters, Sheen so effectively that when the cameras rolled, he became the deeply disturbed Captain Benjamin L. Willard. The complete emotional, psychological breakdown written into the script took down the actor, too, in real life, complete with cardiac arrest. It nearly killed him, right there on the set in Southeast Asia back in the late seventies. That celebrated performance set a standard for actors to come. But mainly, it underscored the terror, no, the horror of a war that leaves its imprint to this very day.
Sheen remains eight years my senior. But Apocalypse Now was a long time ago. This weekend, I was introduced to a very different version of Martin Sheen. We have all changed since those turbulent pre-Reagan days.
There have been lots of roles for Sheen since. Many of us think of him as President Josiah Bartlett, of The West Wing. Most recently, Sheen appears as Dr. Tom Avery, a California ophthalmologist in a film written and directed by the other son, Emilio Estevez (who did not take his father’s screen name, as did Charlie). Charlie had no role in this project. He’s been busy.
If Martin Sheen is the Prodigal Father who had two sons, one would be Charlie, the other Emilio. While Charlie may readily seem the younger profligate brother in the biblical parable, Emilio doesn’t really fit as the indignant older brother, mainly because of the complete absence of resentment. On the contrary, Emilio is the good son who has presented his dad with a priceless gift: a role consistent with the father Martin Sheen has been in real life. (Martin Sheen’s birth name is Ramón Antonio Gerard Estévez.) When Henry Fonda took his final bow as an actor in On Golden Pond, he and Jane reconciled as father and daughter on the big screen for us all to see. Here, Emilio handed a script and a storyline to his dad, one that would cement his legacy in our minds. Perhaps it would put that bedroom scene from Apocalypse Now (in which he breaks a Freudian mirror and collapses in a heap of existential angst) in some sort of distant, thespian context. Here, he might emerge as the curmudgeonly but likeable, distant dad who, after all, really does care about his family.
At age fourteen, back in Vietnam, Emilio was there on location along with the Sheen family. The boy battled his alcohol and drug drenched father, as his mother and three siblings watched. Not long afterwards, Martin, terrified by his capacity to self-destruct, sought out treatment, and cleaned up his life. He and Janet not only stayed together (they were married in 1961). They built a life. This year, they celebrate their fiftieth anniversary.
Now a seasoned actor and director himself, Emilio produced a film that stars his father in the leading role. He calls it The Way. For a thousand years, pilgrims have trekked the five hundred mile route from France through northern Spain to the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela near the rocky Atlantic seacoast – the Camino de Santiago. In the new film, Dr. Tom Avery (Martin Sheen) drives his son Daniel to the airport. As they drive, Daniel describes his plan to trace the ancient pilgrimage. Tom clearly considers the exercise a waste of time and money. Daniel pleads with his overworked, distracted father to join him. Tom turns down the offer. The son grows impatient. He lectures his father, berating him for his truncated, predictable, comfortable ways.
“That’s life,” says Tom with a shrug.
Daniel replies, “There’s the life we live, and then there is the life we choose.” It’s a line that will come to haunt the good doctor.
On the golf course, Tom gets an unexpected call from France. “It’s your son, Daniel. He was caught in a terrible storm in the Pyrenees on the most treacherous stretch of the Camino de Santiago. He was found dead, too late,” a voice reports with a heavy French accent.
Tom, a recent widower, flies to France to identify and recover his son’s body. As an uncharacteristically impulsive move to honor his dead son, he determines to complete the impossible trek on his own. And thus, he proceeds on The Way, toting his boy’s backpack and a silver box containing Daniel’s ashes.
Engulfed by his grief and regret, he has no interest in the others who crowd the ancient pathway. But something like the Wizard of Oz, three others eventually join him and form an unlikely pack. It is said that everyone who chooses to leave home and country to pursue pilgrimage has a reason – each unique. So it is with Tom’s three improbable companions. One, a gregarious Dutchman named Joost, who just wants to loose weight. An emotionally wounded Canadian woman, Sarah, joins them, too, claiming that the pilgrimage is her way to quit smoking. A philosopher, historian, novelist, and Irishman named Jack hopes this journey will cure writer’s block and provide grist for a new book.
We watched a screening of the film on a college campus that overlooks the Getty Museum in Brentwood and then listened in as Martin Sheen, his son Emilio Estevez and several others, including my friend Scott Young, discussed the filming and the script that took us all on that Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Scott sees this as a coming of age for the man who came undone in the making of Apocalypse Now and now emerges with some semblance of wholeness in The Way. We learn that this transcendent journey means much more than losing weight, quitting bad habits like smoking, curing writers block or, for that matter, bringing a lost loved one back.
It is about something else. Something much more profound.
Don’t take my word for it. Check it out.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011