Norman Mailer: The American
I don’t know if I have ever felt completely satisfied after viewing a biographical documentary. No matter how well-made the film or how fascinating the subject matter, I am always left with questions. After all, how effectively can an entire life be boiled down to one ninety minute film? I find, however, that the best documentaries (biographical and otherwise) know which questions to ask and which to leave alone. It’s a delicate balancing act and if the scales get tipped too far in one direction, the film cannot recover.
NORMAN MAILER: THE AMERICAN is a tough film to review because though I enjoyed almost every second of it, when it ended I was left wanting more. I knew little to nothing about him when it began and by the end, I felt like I had received a crash course in everything Norman Mailer. I got the basics but I didn’t feel that I had a full understanding of the subject. I don’t fault the film for this, because again, it would not be possible for one documentary to answer every question that the viewer may have about the subject.
Director Joseph Mantegna does a commendable job of trying to show Mailer in every possible light. Throughout the film I was by turns amused, repulsed, confused, charmed, amazed, angered and surprised. Mantegna wisely sidesteps judgment and allows the archive footage of Mailer to speak for itself.
The most fascinating parts of the film are the interviews with family members, which were recorded specifically for it. They seem to be as conflicted about how to feel about Mailer as I was. He was a womanizing, alcoholic, drug addict who was married six times and fathered nine children. His second wife, Adele, recounts a story about a night, when in an intoxicated rage, Mailer stabbed her in the stomach. When he got to the hospital he didn’t apologize, but did beg her not to press charges and told her that she never looked as beautiful as she did when she was wheeled into the hospital. She barely grasps how crazy this all is but doesn’t seem angry and even comes off as apologetic for him.
The only person in the film, who experienced the whirlwind that was Norman Mailer first hand and doesn’t seem to have a completely skewed perspective of normal, is his daughter, Danielle. She acknowledges that she witnessed many terrible things at a very young age and seems aware of the lasting effect that these things have had on her. But still, she seems dismissive and apologetic.
This is the effect Mailer had on people. He was a magnetic and passionate person. He was able to excite and charm those around him. People seem incapable of remaining angry with him and unable to refuse forgiveness for even the grossest of transgressions.
The film’s greatest strength is its pacing. Mantegna moves from point to point with great agility. My interest never waned. He employs music which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. However, he should have nixed the bizarre B-movie footage that he occasionally cuts to. It undercuts the tone and doesn’t fit the film’s style.
By the end of NORMAN MAILER: THE AMERICAN, I felt enlightened and entertained. It began a dialogue with me about a subject that I am interested to learn more about. I guess that is just about the greatest accomplishment that a good documentary can hope to achieve.