The Untold Bigger Story: A Review of The Impossible
Viewers flock to certain films when they’re in need of an escape—an escape from the typical 9-5, from the drama, for a distraction from that relationship-tiff, bout of hypochondria, or pending financial crisis. Period pieces are usually my escape films—far enough from my reality not to trigger any thoughts that will unveil the curtain on my “Escapist Movie Experience”, but still interesting enough to keep my attention. For me, it’s usually The Duchess, or Gattica—for whatever reason.
Then you have the films that are difficult to get through. Contrived plot, abysmal acting, a god-awful wig you can’t stop noticing. These are films that follow the Three Act Structure so perfectly that you can call out scenes as they happen, “and this is where she tells her husband she’s leaving him.” We want the Three Act Structure because it’s a formula that has been proven to work, but we want it only if we have to dig a little to find it. Innovation, even if formulaic, is still far more interesting than a romantic chase scene in an airport, or on a bridge, or yelling up declarations of love at an apartment window exactly twenty-two minutes before the credits roll.
And then some films are difficult to get through for an entirely different reason. They’re jam-packed with so much emotional turmoil, tension, and non-stop beating of the main characters that the audience longs for a break from the vice on their chest. They’re a challenge that’s rewarding because you feel something. They’re rewarding because you conquer it with or without tears and you feel better at the end because the bruising pain has subsided.
These films are all well and good, but they’re perfect if you feel all that anguish and learn something. They’re perfect if you feel that pain and it leads to something larger—a greater truth.
Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible about a family vacation in Indonesia in 2004 when the tsunami hits, is a grueling 114 minute long struggle through one family’s traumatic experience as they’re poked, beaten, and torn apart by the devastating natural disaster. It’s a challenge to watch, in the good way, but it’s far from perfect.
Cinema’s purest intention is to make us experience—we watch movies because we want to feel something. But I think it goes a step further than that. What we really want to feel when we sit down to watch a movie is truth. We want that truth to surprise us, popping up where we didn’t think we’d find it, turning a switch in us.
With The Impossible, the audience certainly feels, but what we feel most is the cold wind whistling through the gaping hole cut out of the “Big Picture.” Yes, an effective story needs to be scaled down, you can’t aim too big or everything gets lost in the chaos, but when dealing with true events, you have to address them in a way that doesn’t leave a sour taste in the audience’s mouth. I enjoyed The Impossible, I thought it achieved what it set out to, but I felt guilty liking it, because I couldn’t stop thinking about how far from reality this story was for so many people left suffering (and still suffering) from the devastating events. There is so much left unsaid, and the way this family’s peril is so perfectly resolved feels like a slap in the face to all those who had it just as bad if not worse, but whose solution was no where near as easily achieved as it was for the family in the movie.
What complicates this critique is that the film is based on a true story, but the question I raise is: Should we tell this story? It’s a harrowing tale of a family that overcomes extreme odds. It’s a miracle that things work out for them as easily as they do, but my problem with it is that this is, as far as I know, the only mainstream film on the 2004 tsunami and what the film doesn’t tell is so much heavier than what it does.
We are asked to sympathize with this family, and there’s no arguing that during the film, we sympathize, but when it’s over and everything’s tied up in a perfect little bow (a bloody bow, but still a bow) do we still sympathize? Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts offer near-perfect performances. Their children played by newcomers Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, and Oaklee Pendergast are as adorable as puppies falling asleep in your hand. The cinematography and special effects when the tsunami hits are breathtaking and traumatizing all at once, but despite all of these praiseworthy qualities, the film’s subject is off.
In the end, they’re still an all-white family struggling in a largely poor, non-white, non-western culture. They are wealthy. Wealthy enough to go on holiday in a fancy Indonesian resort with a fully-stocked fridge and fedex’d-in Christmas gifts. Oh but wait, we’re supposed to worry about them because McGregor’s character, Henry, is a little bit nervous about his job security right before the tsunami hits? His wife, Maria (Naomi Watts), is currently a non-practicing doctor—are we really concerned for their well-being? And yes, their experience is awful, but in the end (Spoiler Alert) they’re all safe and sound, all reunited after a series of this-never-could’ve-happened-to-the-real-family instances of the separated family members’ paths nearly crossing, only not to, only then to in a grand tear-jerking reunion.
And it’s moving. And it’s powerful. But their harrowing experience is over. Their kin are all intact. They are popped on a plane and air lifted out of there, back to their home that is still dry and in the ground, and their lives are still together, while they leave nothing short of a war-zone beneath the plane’s propellers. And all the remaining poverty, hunger, bloodshed, death, cleanup, shredded families, and devastation that the people on the ground face are left behind—their stories untold. And we’re left to believe that the situation is handled, is manageable, is solved, because the Indonesian locals as skinny as bamboo chose to lend a helping hand to Maria and her son, likely saving her life, while theirs are still in shambles.
Yes, everything’s fine. It’s manageable. Sure it is.
Isn’t there a bigger story left untold? Don’t we owe it to history to represent the “Big Picture” as accurately as we can?
There are true stories and then there are truer stories.
The Impossible is a true one.
Posted on June 20, 2013, in Film Reviews :: Young and Old, The B's and tagged 2004 tsunami, 3 Act Structure, cinema, critique, Ewan McGregor, film, Gattica, history, Juan Antonio Bayona, Naomi Watts, Oaklee Pendergast, Review, Samuel Joslin, The Duchess, The Impossible, Tom Holland, true story, truth. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.