Long walk to freedom
Having seen many of Martin Sheen’s movies, I was struck by the eerie similarity between The Way and one of Sheen’s earlier (and career-making) movies, Apocalypse Now. Both revolve around a slightly disillusioned, broken man who sets off on a journey which ultimately brings him closer to true self discovery. In Apocalypse Now this is an almost entirely destructive experience, as his inner anger and ruthless skill is harnessed by what he sees on the river to enable to him to kill Colonel Kurtz, thereby completing his journey into the heart of darkness (as per Joseph Conrad’s source novel). Fast forward 30 years and you have the exact opposite influence and conclusion.
Sheen plays a heartbroken father in The Way who travels to Europe to find out how his son died trying to complete the pilgrimage to Santiago De Compostela. Initially skeptical, he is driven towards an understanding of his son’s motives, concluding that the best way to honour his son’s memory would be to complete the pilgrimage himself. So begins the physical, emotional and spiritual journey. Along the way Sheen meets many eccentric but likeable characters who play a role in Sheen’s reassessment of his priorities, as well as helping him to deal with the loss of his son. His traveling companions draw on classic characters found in everything from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (a staple of motley pilgrimage tales) through to the whacky road movie companion of Due Date. Ultimately, as in Apocalypse Now, his character must make a fundamental choice. In the case of The Way he chooses life, love and community.
The Way is a hard film not to like. It slaps its heart on its sleeve with the same pride the travelers sew badges on their backpacks. The characters are likable, their relationships growing in a fairly believable way against the backdrop of some very beautiful Spanish scenery. It’s ultimately a feel-good film with moments of sentimental affection- but it’s not pretending to be anything else. It wears its sincerity with great pride. If you’re looking for post-modern irony or gritty realism, then look elsewhere. I’m normally a fan of such contemporary styles but I was shedding the occasional tear during The Way – a testimony to its determination to focus on the human core of this timeless tale.
Sheen, who brought such intelligence and pathos to his role as the president of the USA in The West Wing, delivers the same here. Fans of his will not be disappointed. It’s also a very personal film since it’s been made and directed by his son, Emilio Estevez, who wanted to explore issues surrounding community and faith. Sheen is, after all, a passionate Catholic which should come as no surprise to fans of The West Wing. While The Way was made long before the current troubles with Charlie Sheen, its central story of a father trying to understand his son can’t help but add an additional layer of relevance to the film’s release in the midst of Charlie’s very public meltdown.
The experience of the press screening was greatly enhanced by the Q&A session afterwards with its star, Martin Sheen, and it’s director Emilio Estevez. Both were full of warm anecdotes, amusing recollections and some surprising spiritual insights. Hearing about their motives, understanding their experiences and joining in their vision for the film felt very much like experiencing the DVD bonus features first hand. Having ‘Hollywood Stars’ talk so openly about faith (and their personal experiences of their faith) was inspiring – especially when handled so intelligently. And funny. Let’s not forget that.
I even got to shake President Bartlet’s hand on the way out.