1 Star — Sobering

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is a complex story that has a love/hate quality to it.

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, we visit the fading glory of old Hollywood in 1969, when the star-studded days of glamourous studio productions are giving way to bland made-for-TV westerns and melodramas. Filmed with a comically nostalgic style through the drug-induced hippie lifestyle of the day, we are also soberly awakened to the devastating murders of innocent people by the likes of Charles Manson and his band of twisted followers.

For those of us old enough to remember the 1960s, it was a time of loss of national innocence resulting from the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggles, the assassination of the president of the United States, and the constant threat of global nuclear war. It was also a time of the loss of hope for many young people who turned to self-destructive behavior induced by “free love” and the deception of personal peace through the use of drugs.

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, those who had longed for a career in the magic realm of film were finding that the dream was becoming an illusion. Cowboy actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) found himself floundering through bad TV shows with little hope of a long and successful career. Dalton is best friends with his stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who also substitutes as his driver and confidante. Their relationship and portrayal of life in 1969 are noteworthy, especially DiCaprio, who brings a remarkable realism and a captivating emotional empathy to his role.

Interspersed throughout the story are cameo appearances by a galaxy of stars, including Luke Perry (as Wayne Maunder), Al Pacino (as director Marvin Schwarz), Emile Hirsch (as Jay Sebring), Dakota Fanning (as Squeaky Fromme), Bruce Dern (as George Spahn) and Damian Lewis (as Steve McQueen).

Contrasted with Dalton’s somewhat humble Hollywood hills life is his freewheeling and glamourous next-door neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who is married to the famous director Roman Polanski.

While this film’s details of the actions that resulted in the famous Manson murders of Aug. 9, 1969, are far from historically accurate, Tarantino creates a fictional look at what might have happened the night before this sensational event had a person like Dalton actually lived next door. In this portrayal, we witness the worst of evil interplayed with a touch of comedy. It is not for the weak of heart, but it had bits of morbid humor.

If anyone believes that drugs have a harmless effect on both the physical and psychological reality of a person’s life, then this film will be a good reminder that it can lead to the ultimate destruction of everyone involved. Parallel to this sobering horror is the search for meaning and redemption in the life of Dalton, even if only vaguely sought or found.

The descending values of Hollywood in the 1960s along with the cultural destruction resulting from the Vietnam War’s social hopelessness is a history lesson in institutional and personal loss of trust in values greater than ourselves. In one generation, we moved from the sense of humility and gratitude felt by “the greatest generation” at the end of World War II to the sense of futility and shattered dreams destroying our children, youth, families and culture two decades later.

Some people of my generation look back on the 1960s with a nostalgic memory. This film, although filled with moments of brilliance and great acting, was a reminder to myself to give thanks to God that the 1960s are now over!


» If you lived through the 1960s, how did the war, drugs and lessening of sexual mores impact you personally? Are you also thankful that it is now over? Why or why not?

» A cult that murders out of obedience to a mentally disturbed cult leader is pure evil. Why do you think Manson’s followers were induced to such murderous acts?

» The shift in culture that occurred when the films of Hollywood descended into decadence is more than an academic subject. It has been experienced by all of us who lived through it. What similarities and differences do you see with the impact of social media today?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is the retired pastor of Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara and lead superintendent of Free Methodist Church in Southern California. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.