Saturday, September 12, 2020

Limbo (1972)

          Early cinematic explorations of the Vietnam War largely focused on military action, draft dodgers, or the emotional lives of returning veterans. Limbo investigates the Vietnam era from a different angle by dramatizing the lives of three women whose husbands are MIA. Mary Kay (Kathleen Nolan) channels her anguish into antiwar activism. Sharon (Katherine Justice) hides behind a shield of unquestioning patriotism. And Sandy (Kate Jackson) finds herself caught between her obligations to an absent husband and the happiness offered by a new lover. In terms of narrative structure, Limbo is schematic to a fault, neatly assigning one set of emotions to each storyline, though there’s a bit of overlap since Mary Kay also takes a lover. Yet this heavy-handedness doesn’t completely obscure the sincerity of the endeavor—so even though Limbo feels like an earnest TV movie, it’s still a poignant take on a worthy subject.
          Notwithstanding a quick framing sequence, the picture begins on an Air Force base in Florida, when Sandy gets the news that her husband is MIA. After meeting Mary Kay and Sharon in a support group, Sandy moves in with the other women. Soap-style plotting ensues as Sandy gets courted by amiable gas-station attendant Alan (Russell Wiggins) and as Mary Kay succumbs to advances from a homely everyman named Phil (Stuart Margolin). The contrast between these storylines is the picture’s strongest element. Coloring the Sandy/Alan scenes is the fact that Sandy’s marriage was rocky before her husband departed for overseas service, so she doesn’t perceive her actions as a romantic betrayal. Conversely, because Mary Kay and Phil are older, their dalliance plays like a pragmatic means to an end—two adults dulling each other’s pain. All the while, Sharon becomes more and more judgmental of her friends, even as she resists acknowledging that the institutions to which she’s pledged herself—not just the Air Force but also the U.S. government—may not deserve her devotion. Running through the whole piece, of course, is profound ambiguity toward America’s involvement in Vietnam.
          Cowriter Joan Micklin Silver, later to become a significant director, based her original script on interviews with wives of MIA soldiers. She was rewritten by the experienced James Bridges, a storyteller whose humanism was often undercut by his perfunctory approach to plotting. The blend of their styles is not ideal; many scenes are so gentle and understated as to feel lifeless, while others awkwardly strive for impact by expressing sociopolitical angst through underwhelming speeches. Also working against the movie’s goals are bland staging by director Mark Robson, an impossibly square musical score, and several pedestrian performances. Nolan has a few believably impassioned moments, Justice connects when her character’s fa├žade cracks, and Margolin’s squirrely energy brightens his scenes. Alas, leading lady Jackson captures the surfaces of her character’s plight but only hints at the depths—note the many shots of Jackson looking into the distance with wide eyes and a gaping mouth, as if she’s as lost in her performance as her character is lost in a sad life.

Limbo: FUNKY