The first word I would use to describe the film would be: beautiful. It isn't just that the film is well-crafted entertainment or a compelling story, although it is certainly both of these. It isn't even the loving period recreations of New Orleans, New York, Paris, and Mansk. It is that the post-WW I world the movie depicts is at peace with itself. It is incongruous that one could say this about a movie covering most of the 20th Century, and indeed this could be seen as a failing. The Great Depression is depicted with little in the way of immiseration. The scenes set in Mansk show no signs of Stalinism. Even the combat scenes of WW II give grace and dignity to the men who die in them. In some respects, we are invited to share the vision of Benjamin himself. In his early years, he is something of a Forest Gump like character: not that he's stupid, but despite his appearance as an old man, he has the innocence of a boy.
Nowhere is the peacefulness of the world more noticeable than in the film's depiction of race relations in New Orleans. Indeed, the film's handling of race could almost be regarded as an alternative history of America, one in which segregation, the Civil Rights movement, and our whole nasty experience of racial acrimony simply disappears. I'm not an historian, and perhaps New Orleans really did have an outsized level of racial and social integration as the movie implies. If so, it is a New Orleans nowhere in evidence by the images Hurricane Katrina brought to our television screens.
A word about religion. Queenie, Benjamin's adoptive mother, says of the monstrously deformed child, "You're ugly, but you're still a child of God." It would be difficult to imagine the contemporary liberal, last seen howling for the blood of Trig Palin, extending such compassion to baby Benjamin without this moral insight: that our worth as human beings is not a function of our ability and willingness to vote for liberal politicians, or to vote at all, but rather by being created in God's image.
A word on sex. The movie implies that Benjamin is given a religious upbringing, but it is a pity that this didn't include any instruction on the 7th Commandment. It isn't just that Benjamin loses his virginity in a Bourbon Street brothel. It's that he has sex with two different married women in the course of the movie. If these scenes are failful to the source material, then so be it, but I hope this doesn't mean that movies will feel free to give sympathetic portrayals of adultery going forward.
A word on old age. This particular aspect of the film was especially poignant to me personally. The "young" Benjamin suffers the infirmaties of old age, yet he grows stronger instead of weaker. While this is inspiring, in real life, one of the great dangers of old age is that we hurt ourselves much more easily. I contemplated this in light of my own encroaching mortality. As I announced last September, I am now 40 years old, and frankly I'm beginning to feel it. This year has been especially hard. I started to develop rotator-cuff problems, which has forced me to cut back significantly on my swimming and given me a steady diet of anti-inflamatory medication. I've had a mysterious cough for several months that stubbornly refuses to completely abate. Whereas only a year ago I would leap out of bed in the morning to knock out calesthenics and not even count them as a "workout" but just a way of starting the day, now my calesthenics are much rarer, and I realize that I haven't worked out even five times in a week in longer than I can remember. I'm getting the impression that old age really sucks when we're getting older instead of younger.
One more thing. The movie is "Rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking." Smoking? Don't get me wrong: I don't smoke, and I would never permit my minor children to smoke. But let me get a show of hands: how many parents really want to protect their children from movies that show people smoking?