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Strong film about a documentary series that rocked the nation
Surprisingly successful HBO film, which takes on the tricky multi-layered task of making a fictionalized docudrama about the making of "An American Family" a 10 hour PBS documentary that was the direct forerunner the surreal and semi-real world of 'reality television' we know today.
James Gandolfini plays James Gilbert, who has the brilliant idea to study a 'typical' American Family on film, almost as if it were an archaeological document. But of course no family is 'typical' (particularly the upscale Loud family), and all sorts of sticky moral, ethical and cinematic walls are crashed into. How objective can a documentary really be? What is, or should be off-limits of a prying camera? How much do the personalities and needs of the film-makers effect the behavior and choices subjects, subtly or sometimes very dramatically?
It also explores questions about family, as did the original series, but with the value of the passage of years to give context and distance. What is normal? Who are the heroes and villains in the complexities of family life? Are things ever that simple? Why do so many of us want to be seen, known? Or at least think we do?
It's very impressive that an 86 minute film can address so many of these questions so intelligently, entertainingly, disturbingly and ultimately movingly. The acting is all solid, with Diane Lane giving what may be the most impressive performance of her career, disappearing into the role of Pat Loud, the confused, self-searching mother.
While one could validly argue that there was more to explore (e.g. why was this series such a phenomenon? Why are we so driven to watch the train wrecks of other's lives?) this film does a terrific job of self-awarely playing with multiple layers and meanings of 'reality'. Not least when we briefly see footage of the real family cut in. Not surprising from these filmmakers, who also played with various levels of drama vs. reality so well in "American Splendor".
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