Movie review: 'Tell Them Who You Are'

FamilyEntertainmentMoviesMovie IndustryDocumentary (genre)RebellionsPolitics

3 stars (out of 4)

Haskell Wexler, now 80, is one of the great cinematographers of the American cinema, an Oscar-winning master ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "Bound for Glory") and avowed left-wing social activist.

Mark S. Wexler, born in 1958, Haskell's son from a second marriage, is a fairly successful documentary filmmaker ("Me and My Matchmaker") who became a political conservative.

In "Tell Them Who You Are," the younger Wexler tries to explain the forces that drove the two apart politically and to document, or even strengthen, the bond that holds them together. To that end, Mark follows Haskell on his professional journeys and protests against the Iraq war, and also interviews scores of his father's friends and collaborators—including directors Norman Jewison, Elia Kazan and John Sayles. More intimately and painfully, he records the frequent family arguments along the way.

Chicago-bred Haskell is such an intense, contentious, prickly figure, he would tend to take over any film portrait, and he definitely dominates here. Yet if you know movies, or the social history of the '60s and '70s, you can understand his fierce pride and seeming touch of paranoia. He remains a seminal figure for his uncompromising direction on "Medium Cool," that semi-documentary 1969 film on the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, as well as his brilliant cinematography on his two Oscar-winners, as well as Kazan's "America, America," Jewison's "In the Heat of the Night," Sayles' "Matewan" and on Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven."

Mark, on the other hand, seems more easygoing and amiable. Therein, perhaps, lies the root of the schism. Though Mark's first appearance on film, reprised here, was as a little boy carrying the protest sign "War is dangerous to children and other living things" in "Medium Cool," he quickly began to rebel against his dad's rebellion. If Haskell ignored his own family's advantages of wealth and privilege to become a radical activist, Mark swerved 180 degrees to become an admirer of the establishment and a proud maker of a documentary on Air Force One, palling around with the two George Bushes.

It's a flaw of the movie that Mark never really anatomizes his own rightward shift—beyond a brief remark that he discovered the government was stronger than his dad, and a more telling one where he recalls that both he and his mother, Miriam, were unsympathetic audiences to Haskell's radical tirades. Did Mark simply opt for wealth and privilege? Was he a close student of the body politic? Or was there a more profound family conflict, perhaps brought on by Haskell's abandonment of the marriage and admitted infidelities?

Or was it simply another case of reflexive generational rebellion, as with Michael J. Fox's Alex in the '80s TV sitcom "Family Ties?"

One possible explanation of Mark's—that he always felt closer to Haskell's closest friend, that other great cinematographer, Conrad Hall—isn't completely satisfying, either. Trying for a lot, "Tell Them" falls short in the first sections, which often seem annoyingly evasive—both because of Mark's tendency not to dig far enough into his own views and feelings and gadfly Haskell's obsession with digging almost too far. Mark's tendency not to engage Haskell (at one point, the son requests that the two not discuss politics, which the father, of course, ignores), limits the film's drama early on.

But the movie gets progressively more candid until, toward the end, the two Wexlers, along with Mark's mother, collaborate on one great sequence of family sorrow and togetherness all but redeems the entire movie.

That scene, which takes place in the home for Alzheimer's patients where Miriam resides, is almost humbling in its candor and emotion—and it suggests that, as he shot the film, Mark and Haskell changed, moving toward each other. Whether that's true or not, "Tell Them Who You Are" becomes, by its climax, the moving and brave family portrait both Wexlers would have wanted.

mwilmington@tribune.com"Tell Them Who You Are"

Directed and produced by Mark S. Wexler; written by M. Wexler, Robert DeMaio; photographed by Mark Wexler; additional camera, Sarah Levy, Joan Churchill, John Ealer, Jon Else, Patrick Loungway, Keith Walker, Haskell Wexler; edited by DeMaio; music by Blake Leyh; sound, Michael Kowalski; associate producer, Mark Luethi. With: Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, Milos Forman, Conrad L. Hall, Conrad W. Hall, Tom Hayden, Dennis Hopper, Norman Jewison, Saul Landau, George Lucas, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Studs Terkel, others. A ThinkFilm release of a Wexler's World production; opens Friday. Running time: 1:33. MPAA rating R (for language and some sexual images).

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