Don't Know Much About History

Wait, I take that back. It's the second-cheapest way. The cheapest way is to pump up every confrontation with disproportionately melodramatic music, music designed to convince the audience of a scene's excitement and power. The score by British composer Anne Dudley does this repeatedly: A basketball game becomes the Battle of the Bulge. (Dudley has done some decent work in her time, but her recent, baffling Oscar for the totally unmemorable music to The Full Monty suggests that Academy voters think she wrote "You Sexy Thing," "Rock and Roll, Part 2," and the other oldies that fueled the film.)

It may be difficult to deal with hot-button issues such as fascism without indulging in sensationalism, but it is possible. American History X bears more than a glancing similarity to Hubert Cornfield's neglected 1962 Pressure Point, in which black psychiatrist Sidney Poitier is forced to treat neo-Nazi prison inmate Bobby Darin. (The scene between Brooks and Gould toward the beginning of American History X is too similar to Pressure Point's opening confrontation between Poitier and Peter Falk to be happenstance.)

True, Pressure Point has not aged well. It reflects blind faith in Freudian psychology, the secular religion of its period. Even so, at every turn its ideas are more complex, and its narrative and visual style more interesting and compelling, than this counterpart.

While it could be argued that 35 years of desensitizing, onscreen violence has forced Kaye (or New Line) to bludgeon us in an effort to make points about political terror, New Line's own current-release slate refutes that assumption: American History X hits theaters mere days after another New Line film that handles similar issues in a far more complex, subtle, and -- yes -- entertaining way. I refer, of course, to Pleasantville, which on the surface couldn't be more different. But where American History X presents the most obvious notions about fascist violence in the most obvious way, Pleasantville manages to segue from a light pop fantasy into a story about the darker side of American history without ever preaching or dropping its basically fanciful conceit. It may not be perfect, but it succeeds in all the ways that Kaye's (or New Line's) film fails.

American History X.
Directed by Tony Kaye. Written by David McKenna. Starring Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D'Angelo, and Elliot Gould.

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