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Clear Choices of ‘Gorillas in the Mist’

Times Arts Editor

Saying so sounds portentous, but all art is choices: what to include, what to exclude, what level of intensity, what quotient of reality, what line of attack?

Motion pictures, with all their ingredients, are a sea of choices large and small. A film maker once told me, wryly: Figure a decision for every frame; that’s more than 170,000 in a two-hour film. That total may be a shade high, and in truth only one or two or a half-dozen of the big choices may make all the difference.

Frances Coppola elected to see “Tucker” as an upbeat vindication of the man and his dream, even though Preston Tucker’s hope of mass producing a better automobile was destroyed by the same legal processes that acquitted him of fraud. Would a darker portrait of a broken man and a shattered dream have gone better with audiences? It seems doubtful.

Michael Apted and his creative colleagues on “Gorillas in the Mist” had a similar fundamental decision to make about Dian Fossey.

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Do you do a standard, necessarily sanitized portrait of a heroine? Or do you stress the dark side of a complicated, difficult and obsessed woman who was in the end was murdered, probably because of her intransigent devotion to her cause? Or do you acknowledge the darkness but stress the positive and unchallengeable truth that Fossey almost single-handedly saved the mountain gorillas from extinction?

The achievement of “Gorillas in the Mist,” it seems to me, is that it extracts the best of both the light and dark options, to create a tense, vigorous, thrilling and--despite the fact of the murder--satisfying and uplifting film.

Anna Hamilton Phelan’s script does several remarkable things. It compresses Fossey’s 18 years on her mountain into roughly two hours yet preserves all the main truths of the experience. It details yet does not overstress Fossey’s growing imperialism, her at-all-costs protection of the gorillas.

The film sketches, very economically, the several possible suspects in her murder: the disgruntled student aide, the poachers who presumably planted a death-doll in her cabin, the zoo brokers she frustrated, and, more ambiguously, officials in a country that desperately needed the tourist revenues the gorillas could (and now are) producing.

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The intimations of murder to come give “Gorillas in the Mist” an undercurrent of anxiety and a rising suspense. The anxiety parallels the suspense as Sigourney Weaver (who is entitled to a medal for bravery as well as whatever the Academy voters have in mind for her) is, as Fossey, getting acquainted with the gorilla families.

The film leaves the solution of the murder open, although the Rwanda government tried and convicted one of the American aides in absentia. The trial left the impression, reassuring to tourists, that a white person rather than a black person killed Fossey. This is far from certain, as the film, by identifying several suspects yet pinpointing none, implicitly says. What the handling in Phelan’s script emphasizes is that “Gorillas in the Mist” is about a life, not a death.

It would have been conceivable, Apted told a USC class the other night, to do a very dark film dramatizing how difficult Fossey was and examining all the tangled strings of the murder theories. But the result, he said, would have been an art-house film that few people would have cared to see. Then, too, as Apted could have added, such a film would have missed the point of Fossey’s heroic achievement.

As it stands, “Gorillas in the Mist” is one of those rare films in which a beautiful and adventurous spectacle is combined with an intimate and unsparing portraiture. (I think of so different a film as “Lawrence of Arabia.”)

Fossey, as scripted by Phelan and enacted by Weaver, is a complex, contradictory but entirely credible figure. The Weaver portrayal confirms that Fossey was entirely feminine, who saw to her manicures and pedicures and who put on makeup before going to the gorillas.

She liked her comforts and there were other affairs beside the central romance in the film with Robert Campbell (played by Bryan Brown), whose photographs along with hers illustrated the first two stories Fossey did for the National Geographic in 1970 and 1971.

But she was also and increasingly tough-minded, authoritarian and unyielding in her dealings with those around her. She really did fire over the heads of tourists to drive them back down the mountain. She was also smoking herself to death and was seriously afflicted with emphysema in the months before she was killed.

The film is a memorable visual and emotional experience. Apted and his cameramen shot 330,000 feet of film on the gorillas themselves--more than 30 times the length of a normal feature--and the editing took most of a year.

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The moral of “Gorillas in the Mist” has to be that it sometimes requires an inspired monomania to tackle and overcome one of the world’s problems, in this case a potential ecological tragedy. The cost extracted from the inspired can be heavy. Those who benefit can only be grateful that, out of whatever private intellectual and emotion promptings, a Fossey rises to the occasion.

Not least of the amazements of “Gorillas in the Mist” is that two major studios, Universal and Warner Bros., set aside their customary competitive impulses to finance jointly a film that does honor to the medium as well as to Dian Fossey.


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