October 25, 2001

Cinematic Stronghold

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“You tell your men, ‘Nobody takes our flag.’ Now, you’ve got yourself a castle.”

With these prophetic words, Robert Lurie, director of the high intensity film The Contender, begins his latest work, The Last Castle, a riveting, character-driven piece simultaneously examining the honor and dishonor of the United States Military. The film is successful in showcasing the talents of its actors, and despite a slow beginning and a careless plot mistake, Lurie demonstrates his ability to quicken the pace of a film, balancing it with action, tribute, and nice thematic confidence.

Three star general Gene Irwin, played by Academy Award winner Robert Redford, is stripped of his rank after he ignores an executive order. An introvert, Irwin proves that neither his nobility nor his sense of competition was taken from him. Naturally commanding respect from all the other prisoners in the correctional facility to which he has been sentenced, Irwin develops a conflict with the iron fisted Colonel Winter, played by everyone’s favorite mob boss, James Gandolfini — who gives a mesmeric performance as he runs the facility in brutal fashion, claiming that such methods are “the only way.” Reminiscent at times of the stubborn Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, Gandolfini is not in the slightest bit overshadowed by the legendary Redford.

As the film progresses, the inner workings of the characters are unveiled. At first, Winter is cautious and respectful, as well as a man priding himself on his collection of military memorabilia. Overhearing Irwin say, “A man who has a collection like this never set foot on a battlefield” infuriates Winter, thus beginning his undying resentment and outward hostility towards his new adversary. A dramatic shot of Irwin standing in the courtyard, looking between the stone-faced Colonel Winter and the laboring prisoners, shows a man determined to win his new war.

The Last Castle shines in its ability to add dimension to the typical military drama. Exploring the themes of manipulation and leadership, the notion of perseverance, and the consequences of pride, the film illustrates what happens when normality is rearranged, when prisoners wish to take control of their very imprisonment. Using metaphors of chess and psychology, Lurie’s bold film brings about an adrenaline rush in the final half hour, mixed well with a touching ending that, considering recent international events, is fittingly patriotic.

The movie begins slowly, taking its time to develop the characters, but after a while, the audience must realize that the characters are deliberately internalizing their thoughts, saving them for later. One failure of the film is its inability to continue with an element of the subplot: Irwin’s shaky, yet intriguing, relationship with his daughter is curiously abandoned. Nevertheless, this element of his past is helpful in understanding the character.

While Redford and Gandolfini are superb, some of the best acting moments come from the minor characters, such as the morally trapped Yates, played (You Can Count on Me’s Mark Rufallo), and the tragic, lovable Aguilar, (Clifton Collins, Jr., from last year’s Traffic). Overall, the film is refreshing; it consciously reveres the honor and duty of the U.S Marines, while at the same time showing the audience an unforgettable dark side.

Archived article by Avash Kalra