The pairing of a director and a project is one of those intangibles--almost impossible to judge until the movie is completed and the die is most assuredly cast. There are properties and directors that seem so right they're almost inevitable: John Huston and the ironic, acidulous tone of "Prizzi's Honor," for example, or David Lean and the scale and literate character of "A Passage to India."
A few pairings sound dead wrong from the first instant you hear them: "The Color Purple" in the hands of Steven Spielberg or Richard Attenborough having a go at "A Chorus Line," and, by George, they work out pretty much that way on the screen, too. Then there's that occasional grand surprise, like finding that Merchant/Ivory aren't going to put us to sleep (again) with an earnest literary adaptation of "A Room With a View," but instead have made an enchanting, perfectly realized film that actually moves and breathes.
Just now we have three films whose directors must have seemed to fit them hand in glove: Roland Joffe and "The Mission," Bruce Beresford and "Crimes of the Heart," and Peter Weir and "The Mosquito Coast." Yet in each case, the films have also pointed up the blind side of each film maker.
After "The Killing Fields," it was obvious that Roland Joffe has the gift for re-creating the confusions of ordinary people caught in the terrors of civil war with an immediacy and a desperate realism shared by a very few directors. (Gilo Pontecorvo with "Battle of Algiers" and the Costa-Gavras of "Missing" are the two most frequently mentioned as his peers.) He seemed to have both the heroic physical stuff needed for the rigors of "The Mission" and the personal touch needed for its story of an innocent civilization caught between two invading powers.
Since, necessarily, "The Killing Fields" split into two stories at approximately its mid-point, and since most of the tension and anxiety rode with the Cambodian half of the story--its action scenes--we tended not to notice that the New York sections, more personal and more intimate, had a real awkwardness to them.
It's exactly the quality that gives "The Mission" its worst moments. You are not going to get action or spectacle more heart stopping than the opening sequence (the poster scene), nor even the one that follows, the ascent by the waterfall. It's the closet drama, relationships between the lovers, moments when Robert De Niro must say lines like "Me you do not love?" and contrive not to sound like a born New Yorker, that the project falters most acutely.
(I must admit that some of "The Mission's" battle scenes do make singular demands on our suspension of disbelief. It would seem that the Jesuits, clearly kings of an almost unscalable mountain, had only to toss off the ropes and grappling hooks of the ascending Portuguese soldiers to keep them from getting a foothold. Instead, we watch the Portuguese hauling whole canoes up the sheer cliff face--a thrilling piece of action to watch but a puzzling one.
Yet as he had with Dr. Haing Ngor in "The Killing Fields," Joffe has one ringingly pure central performance, Jeremy Irons' as the passionately committed Jesuit father, which makes us want to sweep away any mental reservations and follow where ever the director wishes to take us.
With Peter Weir, it's the question of becoming so entranced by a character that you lose all perspective. "The Mosquito Coast's" Allie Fox is a singular bone in the throat of the audience--a crabby, crafty, Yankee inventor who hauls his wife and four kids off to the jungle to save them from what contemporary America is becoming. But Weir seems to think that the sheer velocity and persuasiveness of Harrison Ford's performance would save the day. It doesn't.
"The Mosquito Coast" has neither the real madness that empowered Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo" nor the magical qualities on which "The Emerald Forest" soared. On a prosaic nuts-and-bolts level, it doesn't even satisfy common sense: a jungle without things that go slithering into your shoes? Kids in the tropics without so much as the need for Kaopectate? Come on .
Weir made one fatal mistake that kept some of us from being able to enter the framework of "Witness." He opened the film with the funeral of the husband and father of an Amish family--the young wife in rivulets of tears, the bereft son not much more than 7 or 8 years old. The action that followed came close on the heels of that funeral--and no one gave dead Papa another thought, and certainly not another mention. It made mincemeat of the emotional truth of the movie.