A workmanlike study of a workmanlike filmmaker.
As producer, screenwriter and director, Alan J. Pakula created an inconsistent body of work. He helmed outright flops (Rollover), middling thrillers (The Devil’s Own) and some mostly successful hits (Sophie’s Choice, All the President’s Men). An admirer of Pakula’s work, Brown (Zero Mostel: A Biography, 1989) surveys Pakula’s career with a clear eye, acknowledging Pakula’s uneven record, while suggesting that as time passes, some of his films (Klute and The Parallax View) are gaining in stature. With a keen sense of detail that Pakula would have admired, Brown traces his subject’s journey from first efforts as a Broadway producer to major success in Hollywood as producer of To Kill a Mockingbird. Brown rather briskly passes over Pakula’s subsequent misfires, though not without pinpointing why they failed. Pakula’s successes as a director receive more expansive treatment as Brown details Pakula’s meticulous recreation of the Washington Post newsroom for All the President’s Men and his sensitive adaptation of William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice. But as Pakula felt a film should serve its story in a clear, direct way, and as he worked in severe genres, he never became a major auteur, leaving the author in sometimes shallow water. Pakula did encourage his actors to improvise, take risks, ask questions and try various approaches to their roles, a receptive attitude that won devotion from the likes of Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. Brown sketches out the details of Pakula’s personal life, which ended in 1998 when the filmmaker was killed in a car crash on Long Island. Pakula, friends and family repeat, was a mensch.
Like Pakula’s films, Brown’s biography is specific, carefully assembled and straightforward, but also sometimes tepid and flatly written.