It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Meryl Streep strikes me as one of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet. Also one of the great actresses, but her down-to-earth quality is what struck me in "Theater of War," a documentary about the Public Theater's 2006 production of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" in Central Park. She rehearses, she works with the composer, she never raises her voice, she endures full-dress rehearsals during a heat wave. The only complaint she has is that it's not a good idea for audiences to see a performance in "process," because the work looks like "bad acting."
"Theater of War," directed by John Walter, does however have access to all the rehearsals, and intercuts them with documentary material about Brecht, his theatrical career, his life in exile and his adventures with the House Un-American Activities Committee. There are also interviews with Streep; translator Tony Kushner; Brecht's daughter, Barbara Brecht-Schall, and the veteran theater director George C. Wolfe, a friend of Brecht's, who witnessed the historic 1949 production in East Berlin.
All of this makes an interesting, if not gripping, film about the play, the playwright and the lead-up work to a stage production. It also leaves me wanting a great deal more. Perhaps in an attempt to emulate Brecht's anti-war theme, Walter devotes too much screen time to footage of anti-war protests during Vietnam, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the war in Iraq. TV news footage means little, and still less that it is sometimes seen integrated into graphics representing 1950s all-American families. Nor do we need to see again that familiar footage of U.S. schoolchildren practicing "duck and cover" in case of a nuclear attack.
Walter is trying to make an anti-war doc on top of his primary subject. Not needed, not effective. There could be more of Streep actually changing a stage moment in rehearsal. More from her co-star Kevin Kline. Another co-star, Austin Pendleton, appears in many shots but is not even mentioned --and he, I believe, would have talked more openly about process.