Clueless directors leave good scripts in tatters

The Gripe

the gripe

September 22, 2006|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

A celebrated writer doesn't always have the makings of a writer-director.

Steven Zaillian earned his reputation as a screenwriter with Schindler's List, but as a writer-director his work is often clumsy or simplistic; even at the script stage, it's as if he's writing down to his limited powers as a film director, or else, as a director, is not getting whatever life or complexity he has on the page.

In Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), his writing-directing debut, Zaillian sheared away the fascinating, complicated mesh of real-life characters in Fred Waitzkin's autobiographical book about being the parent of a chess prodigy, and constructed a hollow fairytale about the need to lead a free, well-rounded life.

In A Civil Action (1998), Zaillian reduced Jonathan Harr's trenchant, engaging study of a real lawyer's attempt to prove that the industrial poisoning of the drinking water caused a leukemia cluster in Woburn, Mass., into yet another fable of one attorney's overweening pride and ultimate salvation.

And Zaillian's All the King's Men has become the malaise-ridden parable of a self-made king who turns followers into toadies and the born aristocrats around him into toads.

Critics often get blamed for over-praising directors, but there's a reason: Directors, in the end, must bring a writer's words to life. As a director, Zaillian embalms his own material.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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