In 2002, Sam Mendes came from the resounding, Oscar-winning success of his first work, the acclaimed American Beauty. He was my father, his eagerly awaited second work, was released in Italy 20 years ago, on December 13, 2002, after being presented at the Venice Film Festival that same year. And one of the first scenes sees a family in a dining room, around a rectangular table, as in one of the scenes American Beauty. But the colors are different: there are no longer those pastel shades, but a penumbra. It is as if Sam Mendes wanted to tell us right away that we are in another era, in another story, in another film.
With He was my fatherbased on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, Road to Perdition (which is also the original title of the film) is a completely different film from American Beauty. And it’s also very different from the films that would come later. From that moment we understood that, in Sam Mendes’ career, each film would be a different story, a different genre, a different world. It’s something that belongs to a few great directors, artists, to name a few, like Stanley Kubrick. He was my father so it becomes The Godfather by Sam Mendes, a great gangster movie, a mafia film, a noir in the name of the great classics of the genre.
In the name of the father
It’s 1931, in cold Illinois. The “father” referred to in the film’s title is Mike Sullivan (Tom Hanks), a gangster who works for boss John Rooney (Paul Newman), to whom he is very loyal. Rooney took him under his wing, gave him a job and a house when he had nothing, she’s someone he owes everything to. And, to Rooney, Mike is like a son. Mike, in turn, has two sons, Michael Jr. and Peter. The first, secretly one evening, follows his father and Connor (Daniel Craig), Rooney’s son, and sees him kill a man. Mike reassures his boss, the baby won’t talk. But Mike and his family are now considered inconvenient witnesses and for this he orders to kill them. Thus Mike and little Michael Jr will be forced to flee, on a journey that will unite them and allow them to really get to know each other.
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With the eyes of a child
Observing one’s father, scrutinizing him, trying to understand what his job is, what his life is. It is this sense of curiosity, typical of every child towards the adult, that animates the story of Was My Father, the engine that starts it all. Because we follow the story through the eyes of little Michael Jr. He is the narrator who introduces us to the story, it is his gaze with which we see the story of his father Mike. And it is literally like this because many of the shots, especially at the beginning, are shot from his point of view: think of when, from an ajar door, he watches his father come back from work, take off his clothes, and a gun with them. Or when he decides to follow him secretly, and glimpses him and Connor from inside a trunk in the car that takes them to a meeting. And again, from a hole in a door, in a vision that can only be partial. Here he is watching his father as he participates in a murder. The revelation of who one’s father is is shocking. The idea of telling a story of mafias and gangsters through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy is a strong choice, which gives the film a very particular tone. Throughout the film, the brutality and tragedy of the mafia film is continually contrasted by the tenderness that Mike, but basically everyone, has in treating this child. From his point of view, it’s the transition from innocence to adulthood, so abruptly, too abruptly. It’s his Bildungsroman. Perdition is where his father is about to take him, an imaginary location on Lake Michigan. But the “road to perdition” to which the title of the film alludes is, obviously, that of those who join the mafia, a road from which there is no turning back.
From graphic novel to film
In He was my father the graphic novel becomes a film. The reference to that world is suggested by the comics that little Michael Jr. reads and in which he finds comfort, consolation, a world to escape to. But also from the photography of Conrad L. Hall which creates that monochromatic effect and those chiaroscuro typical of comics. In many shots of the film it almost seems to see ink on the screen. But those lights and shadows are the ones to which the great classics of American mafia cinema have accustomed us, such as the proverbial ones of The Godfather. He Was My Father, Then, is a graphic novel that becomes great cinema, classic cinema from the moment it is shot and conceived. Era mia padre can rightfully be in the gotha of the great films of the genre.
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Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law and Daniel Craig
Just as Sam Mendes immediately rose to the role of cult director after just one film, American Beauty. And, for his second feature, he was able to afford (not that the first feature didn’t have them, on the contrary), a large budget (the historical reconstruction of the Al Capone years is accurate and impressive) and a large cast. Starting from Tom Hanks, which gives the gangster Mike Sullivan a face full of humanity and sensitivity, that tenderness we were talking about before, without ever letting the character lack the sense of ineluctability and ruthlessness which is the key to the role, and without ever exceeding in excesses which are typical who plays certain roles. Next to him is Paul Newman, monumental and tragic actor, who gives the film that Shakespearian sense which is one of the hallmarks of mafia films, modern Elizabethan tragedies. And there are also a young and still relatively unknown Daniel Craig, which crosses the entire film with a liquid gaze, a mixture of madness and weakness, that of a child not yet grown up who lives in the shadow of his father without being up to it. At the time, perhaps, among so many great sacred monsters, we had underestimated this actor: we could not know that he would become 007, nor that he would find Sam Mendes again as director of two chapters of the James Bond saga, Skyfall And Specter. To leave its mark is also Jude Law, in the role of Maguire, a psychopathic killer, with a sore eye and long and neglected nails, who takes pictures of the dead for the newspapers for work and helps to create monsters to supplement his salary. And then, Stanley Tucci is the boss Frank Nitti, Ciarán Hinds is Finn Mac Govern, another gangster linked to Rooney, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is Anne, Mike’s wife. Tyler Hoechin is little Michael Sullivan Jr., able to hold the scene next to Tom Hanks.
A John Woo story becomes The Godfather
“I had envisioned the story as a John Woo story, but they made it The Godfather and that’s okay!Max Allan Collins, author of the graphic novel, declared it as soon as he saw the film. material. Sam Mendes thus chose to shoot a film that respects those atmospheres. But, in his own way. Throughout the film, there is something suspended, muffled, which attenuates the typical mood of mafia films. The photography by Conrad L. Hall, who won the Oscar posthumously for this film (and numerous other awards, including the BAFTA), in some moments, such as when he emphasizes the snow, making everything muffled, he helps Sam Mendes to give the film a particular atmosphere to the film, as does the music of his long-time collaborator, Thomas Newman, who had also been central in American Beauty, which knows how to be epic, but also has its typical characteristic of making everything suspended. Think of the shooting towards the end of the film, where we don’t hear the shots, just those ethereal notes, and we see the flashes of gunfire and people falling in slow motion. If Mendes is fascinated by the atmospheres of The Godfather, still chooses to shoot his idea of a mafia film. As has often happened in his career, he is interested in the family, in the relationship between fathers and children, as he has been in American Beautyand how it would have been in Revolutionary Road, American Lifeand also in Skyfall And Specter. There is, in He was my father, a sense of tenderness and affection that we do not find in mafia films: those conversations between father and son, those hugs so strong that you seem to feel them are what make Mendes’ film something very special. Those six weeks spent with his father will be important for Michael Jr. He will avoid the road to perdition, and he will avoid the one thing his father feared: that he would become like him. And, to those who ask him who Mike Sullivan really was, he will be able to answer lightheartedly: “he was my father“.