‘The Historian’ brings academia politics to light
USM history professor Miles Doleac celebrated the successful theatrical release of his first feature film “The Historian” on Friday night at the Hattiesburg Grand 18 Theatre, bringing the people of Hattiesburg a film to call their own.
“The Historian” is a relatable, emotional expedition through the life of two professors of history at Cartwright University, a fictional institution set in “Anywhere, USA,” as described by Doleac in a recent interview. Ben Rhodes, played by Doleac, is a man haunted by a recent separation with his wife and who leaves his old life behind to begin a new journey at a new job.
Doleac’s written dialogue in the script echoes his past experience with the theater, often feeling a little stiff and dramatic for some of the more intimate scenes between characters. However, his enthralling and involved plotline keeps the action going along at a steady pace, leaving the viewer eager to see the next scene.
His acting, while excellent for his first feature film, is also indicative of his professorial and theatrical background, often feeling declamatory as opposed to the naturalistic technique of more experienced screen actors. However, his familiarity with the subject and personal background enables him to portray his persona with the emotion and passion needed for the Rhodes’ character, a man frustrated with the dumbing down of academia and struggling with his own past and present.
William Sadler steals the screen as the stern, angry chair of the department, Valerian Hadley. His honest depiction of his weaknesses as well as his vulnerability allows the viewer to delve into the life of the famed historian now reduced to educating apathetic and uncaring students. He has some wonderful scenes with John Cullum, who portrays Hadley’s father suffering from Alzheimer’s.
The frustration he experiences with the bureaucratic mess of the modern higher education system, his loneliness as well as his anger and sadness at watching his father slowly degenerate fuels Hadley into a climactic ending scene that drives the denouement.
While Rhodes may have been the traditional protagonist, the subject of the film is primarily focused on Hadley’s journey.
While the male characters were rich and deep, however, the female characters fall flat and into unfortunate and familiar stereotypes: the young, perky, dreamy girl-next-door love interest, the cheating ex-wife, the sexy and emotionally detached sexual interest and the stern career woman. While the actors playing these characters were phenomenal and brought as much life as they could to these women, they were often hindered by the limited character development afforded to them by the script.
While audiences outside the city of Hattiesburg may not be able to appreciate the local landmarks that appear in the film, natives and locals welcome seeing familiar landmarks such as the Keg & Barrel, Nick’s Ice House and many buildings on USM’s campus.
Doleac employed a crisp, clear form of cinematography allowing the viewer to catch every detail of the environment down to the decorative candles in Rhodes’ apartment. This allowed Doleac to showcase the beauty of the campus as well as the rich colorings involved in several of the set locations, contrasting often with the dull grays and beiges of the interior of Rhodes’ office at the university.
Doleac also successfully explores the inherent corruption and politics of higher education, exposing a system of privileges and favors exchanged among the academic community as well as an overarching cynicism about the commercialization of higher education.
For those in any way involved in academia, whether they be a university student, graduate student, professor or administrator, I would personally advise them to go see “The Historian.” While not the perfect film, the range of subjects addressed in the film will find resonance with almost any viewer. It rises above and beyond many films currently produced by large studios and invites the viewer on an in-depth look behind oft-closed doors.
“The Historian” is currently running at the Hattiesburg Grand 18 and will show for a limited time only.