Film Retrospect: The Devil's Own
by Barry Wurst
March 19, 2007
In our new feature Film Retrospect, we'll be looking back at films from 10 to 20 years ago, exploring their achievements and faults, how they affected audiences (if at all) and looking at their overall place in film history. We'll start with a film that was initially one of the most anticipated releases of 1996, until production troubles delayed the film to March of 1997.
The Devil's Own was a big, prestigious, adult-drama, Oscar-bait character study about an IRA soldier (Brad Pitt) who comes to America to gather weapons for "the cause" and, while in the States, rooms with an Irish-American cop (played by Harrison Ford) who discovers that his tenant is a terrorist. Directed by Alan J. Pakula (who not only helmed All the President's Men and The Pelican Brief but the Ford-starring Presumed Innocent), the film was a highly touted political drama and was positioned for a winter of '96 release.
Things went bad immediately, as stories of the production going amuck hit the press who hung onto the production like vultures. Without going into enormous detail (Wikipedia does an adequate job), the gist is that the character drama Pitt signed on for instead became a more conventional Hollywood thriller. The political overtones became murky, even simplistic (the subject of the ongoing "troubles" in Ireland are handled in a dumbed-down fashion). A face-off ending between Ford and Pitt became the ill-chosen climax for the film. If anything, the verbal standoff they have before they resort to guns is far more compelling. Apparently Ford's character was a supporting role at the start of production and Pitt had to stand by and watch the film's focus and complexities alter on a daily basis.
Reportedly the production stopped altogether, while screenwriters crammed to give shape to a film (and production) that had no end. A medium-budgeted Hollywood production ballooned to $100 million, the test screenings were not promising, the trailer ads made the film look like an action movie and the pre-release press was of Waterworld-level notoriety.
So, how is the film? For all the film's faults: tonal problems, formulaic screenwriting, uneven pacing - all victims of the film's shaky, patched-together post-production, it's quite good. In fact, it has moments that hint at it being even better than that. The father/son-like chemistry between Ford and Pitt comes across and their scenes ring true. They make their character's moral values and longings immediate; Ford must compromise his values as a cop, which makes him an interesting contrast to Pitt's "Frankie The Angel", who we see is a good man with a dark heart and an unfailing dedication to his mission. The supporting performances by Ruben Blades, Natasha McElhone, Julia Stiles and Treat Williams are good, and the film, which isn't up to In the Name of the Father or Michael Collins, is still dark, thought provoking and occasionally riveting.
Ford considers it one of his best films and, as far as his participation goes, it is. His performance is up there with his work in Regarding Henry, Witness, The Mosquito Coast and Presumed Innocent (his best films, acting-wise, up to that point). Pitt is also in good form, though his oft-ridiculed Irish accent is spotty (particularly for Irish natives). As a chance to see two movie stars, who are also accomplished actors, give charged performances off one another, The Devil's Own is worth seeing. It flopped during it's March of '97 release but deserves more than it's notoriety. Sadly, it was the great Pakula's final film, as he passed away in late 1998.