Robin Wright Penn appears in The Last Castle for about four minutes. She plays Rosalie, the beautiful, angry daughter of 3-star General and mostly absent father Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford). He is, as the film will be reminding you repeatedly, a much-medalled and respected veteran of Vietnam, the Gulf War, Bosnia, etc., now imprisoned and stripped of his rank, following his conviction for misconduct in Burundi (you find out later that he countermanded an order from the President). Because Irwin is such a hero—such a born leader, in the film’s pretentious discourse—you also need to know that he has misfortunes and imperfections, even some regrets.
He doesn’t exactly voice these regrets. They just sort of show up in the form of his daughter (mom doesn’t even merit a mention). Their scene together is short but memorable (in large part because these two performers are equally matched, quite brilliant underplayers): “Look dad,” she says, “I can’t do this small talk thing with you.” Irwin still doesn’t get it, asking if he “intimidates” her. Rosalie’s brief look of exasperation tells you all you need to know. They embrace stiffly, she leaves, and so Rosalie serves her purpose, embodying the military’s domestic, emotional costs. And poor Irwin. He’s inspired his men and defended his country, but his kid is still mad at him. But he’s a good man, really, and keeps a picture of his grandson on his cell wall.
At the same time, The Last Castle suggests, Irwin also embodies his own costs, too, not the least being that he’s in prison for what is vaguely suggested to be an unfair judgment. You know this must be so because his former mentee, now fellow general, Wheeler (Delroy Lindo), insists that no one say anything mean about him. And when Irwin arrives at the prison (nicknamed the “castle”), all the inmates whisper about his Awesome Reputation. Then again, the fact that the great leader is treated badly by the system lends credence to their own similar allegations, and almost immediately, Irwin recognizes that his new yard-mates are not just criminals (or even guys who fight over basketballs, accompanied by a hiphop track, which the film uses to annoying stereotypical effect), but soldiers who had momentary lapses (into anger or confusion) and who can rise to that hardy masculine potential once again.
This is the film’s conceit, that leadership means being able to see the best in your men. Irwin is the perfect born leader, because he’s cool and steady, reasonable and a solid chess player, and mostly, because he’s Robert Redford as Cool Hand Luke.
Irwin’s counterpart—the villain of the piece—is the castle’s murderous, sniveling warden, the odiously named Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini). The other inmates immediately approach Irwin with stories of the Colonel’s perfidies, including murders, asking Irwin to lead their revolt. At first Irwin resists—he’s a reluctant hero, you know—but eventually he comes around. First clue that Irwin will have to fight back is Winter’s lack of combat experience and penchant for collecting military artifacts. On inspecting the warden’s super-well-polished glass cases full of perfectly arranged old bullets and ribbons, Irwin observes, “Any man with a collection like this is a man who’s never set foot on a battlefield.” In other words, not a real man.
Winter, whom Tony Soprano acts with a decidedly “unmanly” affect—prissy, impotent, and mean-spirited, not to say “feminine,” at least not exactly—overhears this comment, deciding then and there that he hates Irwin’s guts (the decision is summed up in girly-man gesture: in a huff, he takes Irwin’s book, which he was about to get autographed, and tosses it to the back of the bookshelf). For the rest of the film, Winter will work overtime to demonstrate his power, mainly by making other, more lowly prisoners suffer consequences merely for hanging around with the General in the yard. When he picks on the very weakest guy, the stuttering Corporal Aguilar (Clifton Collins, Jr.), well then, he’s gone too far.
Irwin wins the men’s confidence by accomplishing a mighty physical deed. No, he doesn’t eat a passle of eggs, he carries a passle of stones, for the warden’s “wall,” actually, a pile of stones left over from a crumbled wall first erected in the 1870s. Winter claims. “The men seem to enjoy” rebuilding this thing, but of course they don’t: they despise the wall, the chain-gang aspect of working on it, and especially, the warden’s affection for it. But they’re prisoners, so they build it. When Irwin makes it through a blazingly hot afternoon of moving rocks back and forth, from one pile to another, as some arbitrary punishment handed down by Winter, the men decide that he’s fabulous (and admittedly, when he takes off his shirt to reveal not only his electric burn scars, from his 6 years in Hanoi’s famous POW prison, as well as his strikingly muscled physique, well, it is pretty impressive). From then on, the men’s hatred for Winter is matched by their love for Irwin.
At this point, the fight is on. It’s about reputation, it’s about winning, it’s about turf and pride, and all of these abstractions are dumped into the convenient, all-purpose material emblem, the U.S. flag. You will already have noticed that the flag is prominent in tv commercials for The Last Castle, and sadly, this is not just creepy opportunism concerning the current rage for U.S. flags. In fact, the film is built on this premise of the flag as symbol of power, and the conflict between the General and the Colonel staged as an elaborate game of capture the flag.
The flag also stands for worthiness, of course. And this is The Last Castle‘s ostensible interest, especially when considered alongside director Rod Lurie’s previous two films, Deterrence and The Contender. All three films take up the question of what it means to be a leader, and all three do it in a preachy, contrived way. Here the explicit anxiety over masculinity and the Rambo-meets-MacGuyver finale make the whole question look pretty silly (the prisoners secretly build a weapon that recalls the days when armies assaulted castles, for sure). Irwin rallies the men, the Colonel becomes increasingly hysterical, the battle includes explosions shot from multiple angles.
As if all these cliches aren’t enough—for what, I’m not sure—the film also includes the young, cynical guy, here, the prison bookie, named Yates (Mark Ruffalo, definitely not parlaying his phenomenal turn in You Can Count on Me into something special). This kid is mad because he also had an absent dad, and, conveniently, his served with Irwin in the Nam, even spent time with him in the Hanoi Hilton. As grudges go, Yates’ is fairly big, but Irwin figures out that the kid really does want to be a good soldier, and also gives him the opportunity to blow up some shit. And so, the son forgives the father, once removed.
That Rosalie (remember her?) is left out of this finale is entirely appropriate, because the values that The Last Castle celebrates have everything to do with defining men, per se. The movie rah-rahs the military system (rank, conformity, loyalty to a set code of conduct) and hates on the individual deviant, rather than, oh, considering their interdependence. It can’t get past the charisma factor: the real leader in this movie has it and the false leader, the insecure Colonel who lords his power over his underlings, does not. (What if the charismatic leader is the bad guy?) And though Rosalie’s momentary appearance opens up all kinds of complications in the “hero”—his role and expectations and potential failings—the movie buries them completely, under that big old wall the men rebuild and rebuild.
Before 11 September, The Last Castle‘s flag-waving and probably seemed like so much action-flick business. Now, however, it roused my fellow viewers to applaud the most ridiculous and alarming events (for example, a suicide pilot, who happened to be fighting for the “good guys”). But the timing of its release doesn’t change its essential triteness. And besides, I think Sylvester Stallone already made this movie a few years ago…