Our review of Antwone Fisher (Blu-Ray), published February 5th, 2009, is also available.
"I never had parents."
For Antwone Fisher, one of America's finest living actors—two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington (Best Actor, Training Day, 2002; Best Supporting Actor, Glory, 1990)—steps behind the camera for his directorial debut. Based on the true-life experiences of its title character—who, in a storybook twist that would make Horatio Alger proud, also wrote the screenplay—Antwone Fisher presents the touching account of a truculent serviceman's struggle to integrate the horrors of his youth with the responsibilities of adult life.
Ignored at Oscar time, and only a middling success at the box office (domestic ticket sales of about $21 million, against a production budget of $12.5 million), Antwone Fisher sails into the home video market courtesy of this solid package from Fox.
Facts of the Case
U.S. Navy Petty Officer Antwone Fisher (Derek Luke, making a standout feature film debut) is an angry young man. His explosive temper and free-swinging fists land him repeatedly in brawls with his shipmates and in hot water with his ship's captain (Mr. Streisand, James Brolin, contributing a starchy cameo). In an exasperated final attempt to corral the troubled sailor's pugnaciousness and salvage his naval career, the captain orders Fisher to be evaluated by the base psychiatrist, Dr. Jerome Davenport (Washington, in a role reminiscent of his spit-and-polish Army colonel from Courage Under Fire).
Davenport warns Antwone that the psychiatric report generated in his three counseling sessions will determine whether Fisher stays in the Navy, or is sent packing with a dishonorable discharge. Fisher would rather languish in the brig than on the shrink's couch, but Davenport breaks down the seaman's resistance by ordering military police to haul Fisher into the psych office for weekly appointments until the patient starts talking. When Antwone finally opens up, Davenport is appalled by the recounting of the young man's tragic childhood. Born into a bleak existence—his mother a prison inmate, his father dead of a shotgun blast delivered by a former girlfriend—Antwone spent time in orphanages before landing in foster care. There he was abused physically and verbally by his foster mother, a storefront evangelist's vicious, tyrannical wife (played with saccharine-coated malevolence by Novella Nelson, the Ambassador in A Perfect Murder) and sexually by a female babysitter (Yolonda Ross).
As their conversations continue, the two men develop a bond of trust. Davenport reluctantly assumes the role of Antwone's surrogate father, inviting the young man to his home for holiday dinner—despite the misgivings of Mrs. Davenport (Salli Richardson, Biker Boyz)—and offering Antwone dating tips to spark his budding romance with a comely fellow sailor (Joy Bryant, Carmen: A Hip Hopera). Finally, Davenport confronts his patient with yet another harsh reality: before Antwone can make peace with himself, he must first make peace with the cruel past that formed the man he now is, and recover his connection with the family he has never known.
The above plot synopsis of Antwone Fisher reads like a prescription for melodramatic disaster, the sort of hanky-wringing claptrap on which soap operas and basic cable teleflicks thrive. To the everlasting credit of tyro director Denzel Washington, the film never sinks to its lowest possible depths. Is it manipulative? Sure, but so is practically every effective dramatic movie from Citizen Kane to Psycho. Antwone Fisher is not in the league of those classics, having more the structure of one of those Douglas Sirk potboilers everyone mocks but everyone imitates. But like the best directors of cinema before him, Washington understands how much is too much, and never lets his maiden film veer too far off the weepy deep end.
If anything, it's the film's restraint that occasions its primary weakness. For a tearjerker, Antwone Fisher never quite jerks hard enough. As competent as Washington proves to be behind the camera, the movie is so even-keeled and consistent—much like the director/star himself—that we yearn for an explosion somewhere along the way. But that never happens, really.
A great deal of the responsibility lies with the script turned in by the flesh-and-blood Antwone Fisher. Certainly he feels this material intimately, in a way none of us viewers sitting comfortably in our Barcaloungers can. All of the pain, sorrow, and ultimately, redemptive joy Fisher experienced while living these events burns within him, and compelled him to write this cathartic screenplay. That depth of feeling, however, doesn't translate as powerfully to the screen. The film's detachment—stemming in part from its insistence upon filtering Antwone's travails through the device of his relationship with Dr. Davenport (a composite character standing in, Fisher says, for a number of people who counseled him along the road to wellness)—sets us a degree apart from the action. The movie feels like Antwone Fisher telling us the story of what happened to him. But we really need to experience some measure of Antwone's torment and triumph—to share in the catharsis ourselves, not just sit idly by as dispassionate witnesses. There's also an element that reminds us of the Robert Burns line, "Would some pow'r the giftie gi'e us / To see oursel's as others see us." Just maybe, when writing a story based on one's own life, it's a sound concept to collaborate with a partner who isn't quite so close to the issues and can view them with a broader perspective.
Despite its emotional reserve, Antwone Fisher draws us in and carries us along, largely on the strength of its amazing cast. Although Davenport is the kind of role Denzel Washington can play in his sleep, he doesn't sleepwalk here—this despite the fact that Davenport is so internalized that his true emotions only ripple the surface of his face much of the time. It is that internalization that generates tension between Davenport and his wife Berta, played with arch economy by Salli Richardson—a tension, incidentally, that only further deflects the narrative from Antwone Fisher. Speaking of Fisher, young Derek Luke (whose previous credits amount to a couple of nominal bit parts in TV comedies) does a fine job of imbuing this remarkable young man with both gravity and grace. Luke exudes an unforced charisma that lights up the screen, and he resists—most of the time—the rookie temptation to overact.
Washington peopled the smaller roles with some marvelous character talent. Joy Bryant is sweet in the thankless part of the tagalong girlfriend. Vernee Watson-Johnson and Earl Billings are delightfully genuine as Antwone's long-lost aunt and uncle—your extended family probably includes a couple just like these two. And the always memorable Viola Davis (the psychologist in Steven Soderbergh's Solaris, the housekeeper in Far From Heaven) wrenches every drop of pathos from her single, largely unspoken, scene as Antwone's birth mother.
As a director, Washington's style recalls that of two other superstar actors-turned-directors: Robert Redford (whose Ordinary People almost certainly influenced Antwone Fisher) and Clint Eastwood. Like them, Washington's narrative approach remains methodical, even workmanlike, at all times, his camera blocking never flashy or intrusive. He placed the visual technique in the capable hands of veteran cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, who's worked alongside such impressive names as Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, Mary Reilly), John Boorman (Hope and Glory, The Tailor of Panama), and Tim Burton (his Planet of the Apes "reimagining," the upcoming Big Fish), and let the master work. Washington focuses on the performances and stays out of the way of the story—good, in that the performers are wonderful; less good, in that the story needs a kick in the gut that it promises, but doesn't deliver.
Nevertheless, this is a beautiful and touching piece of cinema. Perhaps it could have been more, but as it is, it's thought provoking, thoughtfully crafted, good-hearted, and earnest. Which brands it instantly better than 90% of Hollywood's annual output, and deserving of a place on your DVD shelf.
Speaking of DVD, Fox has made a rather pleasing one out of Antwone Fisher. We start with a beautiful anamorphic transfer, struck from a mostly defect-free print (a scratch here and there, but nothing serious) with rich, natural color and near-perfect clarity. The film overall evidences an ever-so-slight soft focus quality that enhances, rather than detracts from, the visual appeal. The only serious technical error is a glaring excessive application of edge enhancement that's typical of recent Fox releases. Add a warm, rounded soundtrack with firmly centered dialogue, expansive score, and a realistic ambient tone. The audio track doesn't work too hard, but it's well suited to the material.
An audio commentary spotlighting director and star Denzel Washington and producer Todd Black is the first course on a modest menu of supplements. As one might expect from his work as an actor, Washington is a thoughtful, analytical, and low-key conversationalist, and he and the enthusiastic Black complement one another effectively. For a first-time director, Washington possesses a refreshing matter-of-factness about his efforts, and identifies in scene after scene the techniques he borrowed from the top-notch directors for whom he has performed in his storied career. ("This set-up just like the one Phillip Noyce used for our hospital scenes [in The Bone Collector]." "This shot is right out of Norman Jewison [A Soldier's Story]." "That's Jonathan Demme [Philadelphia] right there.") Between them, Washington and Black fill in a number of key background details, among them the contrasts between the real-world Antwone Fisher story and his fictionalized script. Both men clearly admire and are fond of their subject-slash-screenwriter, and the genuineness of that affection sparkles throughout their discussion.
Although the DVD offers a trio of discrete documentary featurettes, it will be immediately apparent to any viewer that Fox has simply subdivided a single electronic press kit into three thematically structured parts. The various interview segments in each piece are all derived from the same block of footage—not even the backgrounds are changed to heighten the illusion of dissimilarity. But that's fine—the material is stylishly produced and interesting enough to warrant a peek.
The Making of Antwone Fisher serves what it advertises: 22 minutes of the usual interview clips with the principal actors and production team members about the creation of the film. The featurette's most interesting revelations center around the intertwining of the various principals. Producer Black first learned of Antwone Fisher's eponymous screenplay from a colleague who taught a screenwriting course Fisher attended while employed as a security guard at Sony Pictures. Black and Washington were old friends, and Black's pitch to persuade the Oscar winner to star in the film finally resulted in Washington agreeing to direct. Likewise, Fisher and his doppelganger Derek Luke were friends from the Sony lot—Luke worked in the studio gift shop during Fisher's security stint—though neither Washington nor Black were aware that the two men even knew one another until seeing them together on the day Luke was awarded the role. (Kinda makes you want to hug your teddy and sing Kumbaya, doesn't it?)
Meeting Antwone Fisher changes the focus from the film to its namesake and central character. (For the benefit of the curious, the genuine article bears little physical resemblance to the actor who portrays him.) Fisher talks about his childhood, his life in the Navy and afterward, and the events that led him to commit his autobiography to paper. The soft-spoken Fisher isn't the most scintillating orator you'll hear, but his unstudied likability makes it easy to understand why this group of Hollywood heavyweights invested their time and talents in bring his story to the silver screen (or the silver disc, for those of you who waited).
The third and shortest featurette, Hollywood and the Navy, is most intriguing largely because it gives us insight into something beyond the nuts and bolts of moviemaking. Narrated by a Naval public relations officer, Lt. Tanya Wallace, this four and one-half minute short, addresses the cooperative effort extended by the Navy to the production crew during a challenging time—most of the shipboard and Naval base sequences were shot in the days immediately following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Four theatrical trailers for Fox Searchlight presentations (Le Divorce, In America, Master and Commander, and Drumline) conclude the extras. Oddly, there's no trailer included for Antwone Fisher itself. (Was it that bad?)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Antwone Fisher, this Judge feels your pain. Like you, I was given up at birth by parents who didn't want—or couldn't handle—the responsibility. Unlike you, I was fortunate to be adopted in infancy by two people who did, and could, and who have loved me unconditionally for more than forty years. In the sad brutality of your childhood, I see mirrored what—except by the grace of God—my own life could have been. Thanks, man, for reminding me how truly blessed I am. Excuse me while I go hug my mom.
Good movies accomplish one of two things for the audience: they reveal to us things about the world that we did not know before, or they reveal to us things about ourselves that we may not otherwise observe. The truly great movies do both.
Antwone Fisher is not a great movie, but it is a very good one. What it reveals to you depends on the direction you have traveled through life in order to see it. Those who have lived all their lives in comfortable surroundings filled with love and hope will confront a corner of humanity where those commodities are not simply in short supply—they are as alien as sunlight at the floor of the Marianas Trench. Those who have witnessed, or perhaps endured, barbarity of the kind suffered by young Antwone Fisher will see that it is possible not merely to survive such unkindness, but to overcome and even to heal from it.
Both lessons are worthy of learning. Which makes Antwone Fisher worthy of two hours of your life…and the lives of those you love.
All charges in this court-martial are summarily dismissed. Seaman Fisher, you are free to go, with the thanks of the Court for sharing your tragic yet triumphant tale. We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director/Actor Denzel Washington and Producer Todd Black
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