I was not a fan of INTO THE WILD. I had some problems with the lead character, and the fact that all of the supporting characters were more interesting than the lead. I would have rather have seen a film about Vince Vaughn or Hal Holbrook than the Emile Hirsch story.
That said, I received the following email from Randy from West Virginia, someone I've known through an online movie discussion group for almost ten years now. I thought it was worth posting up, to give another view of the film.
I read your scathing review of Into the Wild, and while I won't quibble with your view of the artistic merit of the film (which just won Best Pic at some festival), some of the things that drove you crazy were strengths of the film, in my opinion, because I thought they were pretty much dead on target. But I have an interesting (I think, anyway) history with the Chris McCandless story and I thought I might share it.
My only visit to Alaska was for four days in September of 1992. I was working with the Christian Law Association and it was my first trip on the road with them. I flew out with an attorney to set up for a church/minister's tax seminar that was given by the organization's director. We flew out on a Wednesday night, and because it was cheaper to fly back after a 4 day stay, we wound up with an expense-paid weekend and our plane was out was a red-eye that left at 8 or 9 Alaska time on Sunday.
As soon as we landed, a volcano 50 miles away erupted and spewed ash all over everything.
On Thursday, we had a light day of work setting up for the seminar in Anchorage Baptist Church. That church has the largest indoor auditorium in Alaska. Our director flew in that day and we had to pick him up at the airport. He was very sick with diverticulitis and it looked like the attorney and me would give the seminar (we had written it anyway). Dozens of people in Alaska flew their own planes to attend the seminar on Friday. It snowed that day -- 3rd weekend in September. The Director rallied and gave the seminar. He couldn't get out of town fast enough afterwards, so after dinner we found ourselves taking him to the airport and we had 2 full days to explore. I had fallen in love with the state by that time.
A man in the church had volunteered to show us around. Saturday was a gloriously beautiful day and we saw a lot of sights in Anchorage and the surrounding area, even visiting a glacier about an hour's drive away. (Prices of everything in Alaska are about a third higher than anywhere else. I remember a Big Mac back then was $ 4.60.)
That morning, I bought a local paper before we left and I was entranced with this story about a 24 year old man who was found dead in his sleeping bag in a city bus in the Alaskan wild about three weeks earlier. They were uncertain as to the man's name and had no idea where he came from. The article spent a lot of time on the description of the body and the various articles that were found on him and some of the scribblings that he made in a nature book. At that time it was all a mystery, so much still had yet to be discovered. The authorities knew he had starved, and they had found the guy who dropped him off by a road miles away from the bus several months previously. I found it fascinating. Some of the questions that I had at the time were a) how did a city bus get found in the Alaskan wild and b) why would a solitary camper be in it? And c) how could he have starved? It took me an hour to read that newspaper story. There was a picture of the bus.
The next day, we went to the church service. Coincidentally, Oliver North was the guest speaker. The the pastor realized that me and the attorney were still in town, so we got invited to a dinner for Ollie. This turned out to be a $ 500-per-head GOP fundraiser and Alaska's governor, both Senators, and its Congressman were also there (I think there was just one Congressman.) We were seated at a table next to Ollie's. We didn't have to pay. I bought Ollie's book and got him to sign it. Afterwards we went to the airport after a quick look around.
Someday, I'll go back to Alaska and go deeper into her bowels. When I left though, I had one regret: I thought I would never know the story of the dead man in the city bus.
Fast forward to 1996. I had returned to WV to start my accounting practice in 1994. I'm in a Waldenbooks (our Borders would not open for another 4 years) and on display is a paperback book called Into the Wild. The picture of the bus is on the cover. I snapped it up, knowing this was the story that had so engaged me in Alaska. I read it in one sitting.
To be honest, the book frustrated me. Author Jon Krakauer had a tendency to interject his interpretation a little too broadly, and I think he was off the mark sometimes. But the ending of the story and the journey of how Chris McCandless wound up there held its fascination for me.
Krakauer painted McCandless far too nobly. I agree with you -- who goes off and never calls his parents? Yet there was something admirable about how Chris lived his life exactly as he wanted. Sometimes his behavior was stupid, sometimes amazingly moral and generous, sometimes all-out crazy. So I began to view Chris as pretty schizo: sure he had charm, but there sure were both selfish and bizarre streaks in his character.
About that time I (like Al Gore, perhaps?) discovered the Internet. I frequented book and readers message boards. From time to time I would get involved in discussions about McCandless. Almost invariably, women though he was completely crazed. The few men whose opinions I read tended to have some degree of envy towards him for his perceived freedom. Some saw him heroic, like Krakauer, some were closer to my opinion.
So I've grappled with my split interpretation of McCandless all these years. Sean Penn became attached to direct the film about 10 years ago. From time to time, I would try to find the status of it.
I actually didn't know he had filmed anything until July of this year, and I saw the trailer about a week later. I saw the movie of INTO THE WILD when I visited my sister in Atlanta earlier this month.
I think Penn nailed McCandless and I think Emile Hirsch captured the paradoxes in McCandless perfectly. I would have scripted and filmed the story differently -- I would have made it an investigative story like ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and had Krakauer as a character. If you weren't familiar with Chris's story, perhaps the film would be confusing.
That said, I liked the film rather a lot, and my sister preferred it over the book -- which she detested. (She was one of the women who saw Chris as a Grade A sicko. She's not anti-Krakauer, though. She raves about his book "Into Thin Air".)
I believe that a film has to stand or fall on its own merits, and if you found it a mess, then so be it. Although we could have a great Siskel-Ebert debate on it, I thought you might like to hear my side of the story.