The Substance of Fire
1997, R, 102 min. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Starring Ron Rifkin, Timothy Hutton, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tony Goldwyn, Roger Rees.
REVIEWED By Robert Faires, Fri., April 25, 1997
Uncompromising. Not a word one hears that often nowadays, except in reference to multinational corporations and superstar celebrities. Those with much can afford to be “uncompromising” (and seem to be, in their pursuit of greater profits and fame), but the rest of us, who haven't so much, must often sacrifice something of who we are or what we believe just to survive. That may be why Isaac Geldhart, the publisher protagonist of this drama by Jon Robin Baitz, is doomed. He won't bend, not on issues of taste (he sneers at most modern fiction and refuses to publish it) or support for significant work (he insists on publishing a mammoth history of Nazi medical experiments) or quality (he demands the finest materials for his books, even if that makes them too expensive to be profitable). Now, it's causing his small prestige publishing house to hemorrhage fatally. His three grown children try to persuade him to take on a novel with the blockbuster commercial potential to save the business, but Isaac Geldhart won't compromise. Instead, he denounces his brood in an act of bitter willfulness that echoes Lear, and, as with that king, its repercussions are tragic. As a character, Isaac Geldhart has the fierceness and complexity of a Shakespearean ruler, and Ron Rifkin realizes him with all that plus a warrior wit -- swift, cutting, merciless. When the camera's on him, the film is compellingly deep, focusing on a character we can never fully plumb and raising questions about principle, obsession, art, and the Holocaust with no pat answers. But when the camera shifts to Isaac's brood (Parker, Hutton, and Goldwyn), the film goes shallow, opting for simplistic satire (jabs at children's television in scenes with Parker's Sarah and Rees' loathsome producer-lover) and glossy sensitivity (pastoral shots of Hutton's Martin being touchy-feely at his upscale art school job). In the final reels, Martin rides to Isaac's rescue, moving in with him when the old man's mind starts to fail, but this act is colored by Martin's noble silence as he succumbs to serious illness himself. It's an odd turn toward movie-of-the-week bathos and a radical change from the original story in Baitz's play. The screen version feels like a rewrite made to make the tale more palatable to the “mindless moviegoing masses,” which prompts the question: Is the film a truer vision of Baitz's tale of an uncompromising man or a version in which the truer vision was compromised?