More than just a movie, biopic or true-crime saga, director Arthur Penn’s now iconic 1967 slice of American filmmaking Bonnie and Clyde ushered in our own country’s cinematic response to the outside world, following in the footsteps of post-World War II Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave of the late 1950s.
Featuring a new urgent style of editing, an emphasis on questions rather than answers and starring counter-culture antiheroes who went against the status quo in the wake of the Vietnam draft era, endless assassinations of political figures and general unrest, Bonnie and Clyde sent shockwaves through American filmgoers.
Furthermore, Penn’s feature film easily paved the way for the impact of the titles and associated filmmakers that would follow with the subsequent releases of Easy Rider, The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy.
A film with Freudian subtext, Penn’s masterpiece of American moviemaking fearlessly linked sex and violence together including a causal reference to Clyde Barrow’s impotence with his dependence on his gun that viewers hadn't seen before.
Yet perhaps Bonnie was most famous for Dede Allen’s brilliantly edited handling of the film’s gratuitously violent final sequence where the titular bank-robbing, gun-toting Depression era sweetheart bandits Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker are put down in a hail of bloody gunfire.
Obviously, more revered for its artistry and place in filmmaking history than it is in its actual handling of the source material – when the History Channel announced that they were planning to tackle a new version of the events in the tradition of their successful Hatfields & McCoys miniseries format, it seemed like a good opportunity to set the facts straight.
A three-network effort in which History collaborated with Lifetime and A&E on the ambitious project, while it’s safe to say that no one will ever choose the 2013 two-part version from Fried Green Tomatoes filmmaker Bruce Beresford over Penn’s original in terms of longevity and impact, this grand, well-made ensemble drama still manages to keep us watching, sometimes even in scenes long after they should’ve yelled “Cut!”
Whereas Dede Allen’s pacing was chaotic and fast, the leisurely pace of this miniseries bogs down the all-too-important mid-section of this roughly three hour presentation (four with commercial) and causes us to stifle a few yawns as the couple disagrees about their robbery strategy and goes on the run.
The narrative throughline of the miniseries is challenged that much more by the addition of a strange psychic energy to Barrow as he’s given the gift (or rather curse) of seeing negative events in the future via ominous warning signs that indicate how he and those around him might die.
While it does admittedly add a sense of gravitas to the proceedings and is effective with regard to the fate of his brother Buck, it’s also a peculiar artistic choice that continually pulls us out of the otherwise solid production’s admirable attention to detail and gorgeous art direction that makes us feel lost in the depressing era setting.
Though the script is overall steeped in facts, the motives behind the mayhem have been drastically changed, reframing the criminal history as being all the product of Bonnie Parker (Holliday Grainger) as the Lady Macbeth style mastermind, manipulator and maneater as opposed to the along-for-the-ride accomplice she’d previously been portrayed as in pop culture.
Using her sexuality and feminine wiles to bend her lover to her will in her quest for fame, in this questionable reconfiguration Bonnie is painted as the brains behind the operation whereas Emile Hirsch’s Clyde would rather retire, settle down and raise a whole bunch of baby Bonnies and Clydes.
While this new gender reversal power switch never fully works and indeed comes off as slightly misogynistic given how out-of-sync with the facts the history of Bonnie’s gun-handling was (especially in an onscreen scene when she’s selected to be the murderer of a father on Christmas), the talented cast plays the hell out of it, milking the drama for all it’s worth.
And in all her character’s various cons and manipulations, Holliday Grainger is a revelation – reminding us of Renee Zellweger’s turn as Roxy Hart in Chicago in one particularly witty courtroom scene where she flashes her leg, faints, and flirts her way out of a jail sentence. The liveliest actor in the film, Grainger reminds us once again why the two were dubbed Bonnie and Clyde in that order.
Also working in some more detail about the time period including newsreel footage, articles and references to John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd as Clyde’s voice-over asks if people are a product of their times (if all they’re seeing are people taking the violent, easy ways out of poverty), this miniseries does benefit from opening up the narrative to offer a wider view of the facts.
Showing us how the couple was presented in the media and spending a good deal of time via a fascinating subplot in the area of journalism to dwell on ethical responsibility, actress Elizabeth Reaser turns in an excellent performance as a conflicted crime reporter who isn’t sure whether her coverage of Bonnie and Clyde constitutes aiding and abetting the two or if she should be using her press power to judge.
Also featuring a stellar supporting cast including William Hurt as legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer and his Broadcast News co-star Holly Hunter as Bonnie’s mother, while the miniseries does suffer a bit in terms of its pacing and historical errors, it is commendable in its attempt to try and expand upon the story we know so well to serve up a greater account of their history.
Though a bit suspiciously sexist in its primal motivations of Bonnie as the bossy woman and Clyde as the lovesick beau (particularly when you factor in that the writers were male and also that it’s contrary to the historical accounts of Parker and Barrow), when you put the characterizations aside, it’s nonetheless the closest chronicle we’ve seen of their crimes so far.
Nonetheless, it’s a shame that the History Channel didn’t ask itself the same ethical questions that Reaser’s character did and include a nothing-but-the-facts feature-length documentary on the DVD set’s otherwise light (roughly twenty minute long) special features disc to balance out the misrepresentations in the miniseries.
Flaws and slim supplementals aside, this Bonnie and Clyde is still a gorgeously produced miniseries that’s sure to steal your interest for the length of its three hour running time, thanks largely in part to the criminally charming cast.
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