It was expected that the city of Madison would look awfully good in "Madison," which was shot here in town in January of last year. And director Brent Notbohm makes the city look terrific in his film, using not just the expected picturesque locales like State Street, the Union Terrace and Bascom Hill but neighborhood places like the Plaza and Mickey's Tavern.
But what's striking about "Madison" is not just how good the city looks, but how well it's used. The film is set over the Christmas holidays, when all the students are gone, and the snow-covered city has an almost eerie stillness to it in the film, like a stage set that's been shut down, waiting for the next production to start.
That's a fitting backdrop for Notbohm to focus on Michael (James DeVita), a former UW journalism student who has turned into a shell-shocked war correspondent in the 20 years since he went to school here. In the film, Michael has staggered home on a "holiday" from Iraq, to reconnect with old friends and figure out exactly where that idealistic college student went.
If that seems like a bit of a heavy-handed premise, rest assured that "Madison" gets even more didactic in its politics as it goes along. Michael reconnects with his best friend from college (Brian Mani), a widower who is as assured of his general optimism as Michael is of his pessimism. As the duo shoot pool and knock back Leinies, they meet an idealistic political science student (Gerard Neugent) who is the ideological spitting image of the young, fire-breathing Michael.
It is admirable that in an age when mainstream studio films about Iraq, even good ones like "Stop-Loss" and "In the Valley of Elah," tiptoe around some of the more charged issues regarding the war, that "Madison" so brazenly wades into the debate. But the dialogue among the three leads, about the war in Iraq and the possibility for social change in general, is stiff and didactic, as if it were transcribed from a DailyKos comment thread rather than overheard at a neighborhood bar.
What saves "Madison" is that the acting is very good, even if the lines sometimes aren't. It's pretty amazing that this is DeVita's first movie role of any kind, as the respected stage actor smoothly adjusts to the more intimate confines of the screen, giving the audience exactly what they need to see of Michael's mental disintegration and no more.
On the downside, I think Notbohm made a mistake in giving DeVita countless scenes where Michael is suffering a post-traumatic episode. Two or three such scenes would have been powerfully affecting, but seeing Michael freak out every time he catches a radio newscast or somebody mentions Iraq dilutes the strength of DeVita's performance.
And it is a strong performance that carries the film, along with nice, understated work by both Mani and Neugent. DeVita's daughter Sophia even makes an appearance as Ben's daughter, and I thought seeing father and daughter act together on-screen might seem too cutesy. But they actually have some very wry and affecting scenes together, more affecting than the speechmaking elsewhere in the film.