Pride and Glory is a New York City cop movie about police venality, but it may also become the first Iraq war-inspired feature to make a dent at the box office and win mainstream awards.
How does a story based in Washington Heights resonate with the atrocities at Abu Ghraib? Credit the collaboration between a gutsy writer-director, Gavin O'Connor (Tumbleweeds, Miracle), with family roots in the NYPD, and his audacious star, Columbia's own Edward Norton.
Over the phone from a getaway spot in Ontario, Norton recalled telling O'Connor, "I have to ask the question, what's going to make it worthwhile for me to make a very good example of another cop-corruption movie?"
The answer, it turns out, was blowin' in the wind. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke and dominated the news for weeks, it led Norton and O'Connor into a charged conversation.
"We started saying to each other that the institutional lying at the center of Pride and Glory mirrored the crucible the country was going through. What's so fascinating to me about Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo or any flash point is that somewhere around it there is a person who surely has deep feelings of loyalty to his fellow soldiers, his unit, his army, his country.
"Yet he reaches a moment where he says, 'I'm going to distribute a disc with the pictures because they show a corruption of the things we're supposed to be standing for.' For an actor, that's an incredibly interesting tension."
This movie was personal for O'Connor, who called late Monday night from Pittsburgh, where he's preparing his new picture (Warriors, set in the world of mixed-martial arts). "My dad retired from the NYPD as a detective sergeant," he says. "My uncle was a cop; my mother's father was a cop. There are a lot of things we got right in the script, including having cops talk as cops talk.
"But when Edward got on board, he was great about challenging me, pushing me."
Looking like the folk tune's "worried man who sings a worried song," Norton walks into what he calls the "zone of truth" in the opening minutes of Pride and Glory, and doesn't leave it for two hours. He plays Ray Tierney, an NYPD detective from a family of cops - his influential old-school father (Jon Voight), his Washington Heights precinct-chief brother (Noah Emmerich) and his slippery brother-in-law (Colin Farrell), a cop in the same precinct. When Ray's investigation of a horrific group murder leads him to believe that his brother-in-law may be operating a drug-dealing hit squad, he's caught in a waking nightmare. No contemporary actor except Philip Seymour Hoffman can play ethical confusion as eloquently as Norton can, because he captures its volatility. Sometimes it comes out as distance and impassivity, sometimes as molten rage.
O'Connor acknowledges Norton's reputation for upsetting certain directors (Tony Kaye in American History X) and certain producers (Marvel Entertainment, The Incredible Hulk) with the scope and intensity of his input.
But this director says, "Edward's very involved in a positive way. Most actors are just concerned with the role. He needs to know how his work fits into the piece as a whole. He needs to understand the whole puzzle and how his character tentacles out into the other pieces."
And Norton's commitment extends to the film's release. He'll be avidly promoting Pride and Glory. (He didn't do that for The Incredible Hulk after reports of his and director Louis Leterrier's disagreements with Marvel in the editing room threatened to distract from the film.)
Pride and Glory boasts the zest and grit of New York police-corruption movies from the 1970s and beyond, and Norton can ring off a whole list of them. "Amazingly," Norton laughs and says, "they're all by Sidney Lumet. For me, the Lumet movie that stands out from that bunch is Serpico, because that was the police-corruption film for its generation. Frank Serpico was the hippie cop who spoke to the counterculture." Norton saw Pride and Glory as a chance to explore "how words like pride and glory and patriotism are used to co-opt my generation into participating in things that it knows are not right. And when you frame something that way, to me it starts to rise above genre."
Norton credits O'Connor's script for supplying the clues he needed to fill out his character. Ray's family both admires and doubts him because of his intelligence - and no matter how brainy he is, he can still go all Fight Club on Farrell. O'Connor says, "Edward works like an investigative journalist or an archaeologist when he digs into a role. ... He doesn't play Ray as a cliche, but as a compassionate, troubled, internally struggling guy."
When I ask Norton whether in some scenes he was consciously echoing Brando's Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, he says he thinks Brando's character acted from personal betrayal and anguish; Ray is more "pro-active" about fighting corruption and is full of "rage."
Was the idea of rage what fascinated him about doing The Incredible Hulk?
"No," he says with a chuckle, "that was more the fun of seeing whether you could make a film that makes you feel the way those comics did when you were a kid, as if you're entering a slightly illicit fantasy world." Norton say it's up to Marvel whether his and director Leterrier's cut will ever make it to DVD.
For now, he's happy talking up Pride and Glory and preparing for his next picture, actor and writer-director Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass. Norton calls it a "smart-funny" comedy about an Ivy League professor who goes back to Louisiana to confront his roots, including his "nutbar brother," who's an "unreconstructed redneck." Norton plays both - they're identical twins.
"Whenever I hear an actor say his character wouldn't do something, I have to laugh," says Norton. "Because for me, when I'm working on a character, and he starts to do contradictory things, that's when I know we're in the zone of truth." And maybe, now, the comedy zone, too.
Born: Boston; raised in Columbia
Education: Columbia's Wilde Lake High School, Yale University
Norton's favorite films: American History X (1998), Rounders (1998), Fight Club (1999), 25th Hour (2002), Down in the Valley (2006), The Painted Veil (2006)