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William H. Macy,
In the waning months of World War II, a man and his wife are mistakenly identified as Jews by their anti-Semitic Brooklyn neighbors. Suddenly the victims of religious and racial persecution, they find themselves aligned with a local Jewish immigrant in a struggle for dignity and survival. Written by
Just after Mr. Newman has been attacked, one of the frames on his glasses is obviously bent. However, when he enters Mr. Finkelstein's shop just seconds later, his glasses are in perfect shape. See more »
First they came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.
Attributed to Rev. Martin Niemoller, 1945
When faced with intolerance or injustice, the easiest thing to do is nothing
speak up and you risk becoming an object of scorn. But when does enough
become too much? Global anti-Semitic sentiments allowed Hitler's genocidal policies to thrive, and equal doses of fear-mongering and ignorance made it possible for the anti-Communist purges of McCarthyism to destroy thousands of peoples' lives. Inaction makes one no less culpable.
Lawrence Newman is a chameleon of a man: quiet and nondescript he blends seamlessly with his surroundings. Lawrence doesn't like to get involved - when he witnesses an attack on a young woman, he tells no one and goes about his business. His world spirals into chaos when he buys a pair of glasses, and is mistaken for one of "them." Lawrence's view of the world and its view of him is forever altered.
While the subject matter of this film is not new, its presentation is definitely unique. It is much easier to understand the irrational nature of prejudice, when placed within a certain context - Lawrence is more concerned with the assumptions that he is Jewish, than he is with the views of his attackers. He believes that if he corrects this "oversight" that everything will be all right, not realizing that logic and prejudice never go hand in hand.
Whether playing a schemer (the only thing I liked about "Fargo") or a down home nice guy sheriff, William H. Macy's roles are linked by a common thread -his characters share a subtle, deliberate countenance that gives them substance. Macy nails Lawrence down to the smallest detail, and says more with a furtive glance or tremble in his voice than a page of dialogue. By showing, rather than telling, Lawrence is able to share his fear and bewilderment with the viewer. The supporting cast brings the story together.
Laura Dern is compelling as Gerty, Lawrence's bombshell wife with a past. Trailer park rough, yet other worldly wise, she has also felt the wrath of prejudice as the result of "a mistake" and unwittingly exacerbates Lawrence's situation. Michael Lee Aday (aka "Meatloaf") is frightening as Fred, the prototypical redneck next door, equal parts ignorance and venom, rallying neighbours to his virulent cause. In the midst of the chaos is Finklestein (David Paymer), the focus of the aggression, and the voice of reason that raises the important questions. Paymer's even handed portrayal keeps Finklestein from becoming a stereotype or someone whose sole purpose is to engender sympathy, making his one of the strongest performances in the film.
The tight editing and close-cropped cinematography make for a clean picture with few distractions, and mixes an air of claustrophobia in with the small town USA feel - it is simultaneously comforting and disturbing. The deliberate use of harsh two-tone lighting to accentuate the malevolent aspects of the piece and the carefully scored soundtrack, are powerful without being overwhelming. Finally, the set and costume designs recreate the feel of the era, an essential component in the film's message.
"Focus'" unconventional approach in dealing with prejudice is reason enough to recommend this film. Just consider the excellent story, solid acting and look of the film as added bonuses.
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