US Release Date: 03-24-2000
Directed by: Keith Gordon
- Billy Crudup, as
- Fielding Pierce
- Jennifer Connelly, as
- Sarah Williams
- Paul Hipp, as
- Danny Pierce
- Hal Holbrook, as
- Isaac Green
- Molly Parker, as
- Juliet Beck
- John Carroll Lynch, as
- Father Mileski
- Stanley Anderson, as
- Fielding's Father
- Ed Harris, as
- Jerry Charmichael
- Sandra Oh as
Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly in Waking the Dead
Waking the Dead flopped both commerically and critically upon its release, grossing less than half a million dollars upon its release. It's an obscure little movie that deserved better than it got. It's not perfect, but both leads, particularly Crudup, do too good a job for this movie to be so overlooked.
It begins in 1974 with law student Fielding Price (Crudup) watching the news only to learn that his girlfriend, Sarah (Connelly), was killed in an explosion. The movie then flashes back a few years to when Fielding was in the Coast Guard (partly to avoid Vietnam) where he met Sarah while on leave when she worked in his brother's office and the two quickly fell in love.
Fielding has aspirations of becoming a senator. He's a Democrat, but a moderate one, while Sarah is a way out there on the left fringe liberal. She actually tells Fielding at one point that she hopes he doesn't end up in Vietnam because then she wouldn't know who to root for because he'd be fighting against the side she wants to win. "You are the incarnation of your family's ambition. I am the incarnation of your family's fear." Sarah tells him. He wants to improve the world working within the system and she thinks the whole system is corrupt, but they think they can make it work because of their love for each other.
The movie then jumps ahead ten years and we see Fielding running for the Senate. As the pressure of his campaign heats up he begins to believe that Sarah wasn't really killed in that car. She seems to be a presence all around him. He glimpses her in a crowd. He hears her voice. He doesn't know whether or not he's going crazy and neither do we.
The rest of the movie then alternates between the 1970s and the 1980s and follows Fielding and Sarah's developing relationship in the 70s and Fielding's Senate run in the 80s. In the past, their political differences begin to fray their relationship as she starts to get involved in her activist group, all of whom are insulting and condescending towards Fielding and his ambition to become a Senator. In the present Fielding's campaign rumbles on as his sanity begins to unhinge.
Crudup does a great job as Fielding. He's very restrained and proper for most of the movie, as you'd expect from someone running for office, only losing his grip in a couple of key scenes. One when he finally can't take Sarah's friends condescending attitude toward the U.S. any longer. "But I can't help noticing that when people run to freedom they tend to wash up on North American shores. This country is still the best that we've been able to do in the whole fucking history of the planet." And secondly in an emotional scene later, when he breaks down mentally in front of his family when he's questioning whether or not he's gone completely crazy.
Connelly does a good job as well and is as radiant as always, but hers is the smaller part. Despite being given less screen time though, her presence is still felt heavily throughout the movie, even in scenes that she doesn't appear in. This is due in no small part to Connelly's performance and beauty.
I found the ending of the story to be a good one, although it may not satisfy everyone who sees it. I'll be up front with you and say that it doesn't give you concrete answers to everything. It is an emotionally satisfying ending though and that's more important.
Crudup and Connelly in Waking the Dead
Fielding and Sarah are very much alike, even though they are very different people. Both want to make the world a better place. Fielding chooses to do it through political might. Sarah chooses to do it through personal action, such as taking care of children in a church. Neither truly belongs in the other's world. Sarah has no self control and yells at an influential writer attending a fundraiser for Fielding's campaign.
At first the film reminded me of The Way We Were. Like Hubbell and Katie, Fielding is in uniform and Sarah is a Liberal activist. Fielding does not actually agree with Sarah's decisions, but he respects her for them. The Way We Were was made in 1973, when part of Waking the Dead takes place.
Even the dialogue seemed reminiscent. At one point Fielding says to Sarah, "I can make some real substantial changes without throwing away my life on some ultimately meaningless gesture." Sarah responds, "Sometimes, meaningless gestures are all we have." This conversation seemed very much like Hubbell, "People are more important than their principles." and Katie, "People ARE their principles."
Waking the Dead treats both leads, as well as the setting, with respect. I have often resented films for avoiding religion, and although this movie does not preach any faith, it does feature priests and churches as doing good work. It is also fair politically. Although Fielding is running for a Democrat's seat, he often comes across as conservative, especially when compared to Sarah. In one scene someone complains incredulously that a Senate campaign can cost a million dollars. In real life, John McCain just spent 20 million on his Arizona primary.
I have never put much thought into Crudup as an actor before, but he does some great work here. His dinner speech to his family is amazing, but my favorite line in the whole movie is when he gets upset with Sarah and her liberal friends, "I'm in this whole fucking room by myself, and I'm choking on the collective sense of superiority." He has earned my respect as an actor.
The ending is not a good one, but once you consider the journey, the destination seems fitting. The characters of Fielding and Sarah are strong enough that the mystery of her disappearance was not needed. I was caught up in this intellectual love story with it's clash of ideology and passion. The mystery weakens what is an otherwise very strong character driven film.
Connelly and Crudup in Waking the Dead.
Waking the Dead is an interesting love story told from an intriguing angle. The ending can be taken in two very different ways. Although I am not normally a fan of ambiguous endings, like Scott I found it to be emotionally satisfying. Regardless of what actually transpired that final fateful night, Fielding has exorcised his demons and can now move forward with his life and political career.
Like Eric, I was reminded of The Way We Were. The two central characters are quite similar and both films are set in a somewhat romanticized version of the fairly recent past. Although WWW certainly played up the nostalgia angle more than Waking the Dead, they both feature intense love affairs that somehow don't work out as planned. Both movies end on bittersweet romantic notes.
Billy Crudup is a revelation as Fielding. From the opening moments where he learns of Sarah's demise, right through the wistful final scene, he gives an excellent performance. His growing bewilderment and sense of frustration at his own helplessness is palpable. I really felt for the guy. Jennifer Connelly matches Crudup's intensity as the effervescent Sarah, gushing with moral conviction. She spends a good deal of the movie as a spectral figure haunting the edges of Fielding's existence. This movie reunited Crudup and Connelly. They had previously appeared together in Inventing the Abbotts in 1997. Anyone that's seen that movie knows they were the best thing about it. As a movie couple they share an organic chemistry.
The dialogue features a few quotable lines. At one point, in the midst of a serious discussion, Sarah states, “Ambition is the ice on the lake of emotion.” Fielding thinks for a moment, then asks, “Who said that?” “I did.” In another scene they have this exchange... Sarah: “I don't want to watch you turn into a cog in their machine.” Fielding: “That's so fucking condescending. Sometimes cogs can make machines run a little bit better.” Sarah: “Sometimes yes. Mostly they turn in circles and wear out. Then they get replaced.”
I also enjoyed how the story unfolds. As Scott pointed out, the plot jumps around chronologically. Sometimes we're in the 1970s and Sarah is definitely alive, and at other times we're in the early 1980s and we're not sure if Sarah is real or just a figment of Fielding's increasingly vivid imagination. The mystery angle didn't bother me. I think it adds to the haunting quality the story maintains throughout. Waking the Dead did deserve a better reception than it received back in 2000. It tells a compelling love story and features two powerful central performances. I was genuinely moved by it.
Photos © Copyright USA Films (2000)