The ongoing collaboration of director Keith Gordon and cinematographer Tom Richmond has so far yielded one of the best love stories of recent years (Waking the Dead), two incisive World War II films (A Midnight Clear and Mother Night), and an inventive postmodern musical (The Singing Detective). This pristine DVD of their first collaboration, The Chocolate War, indicates that right from the beginning, the duo was interested in big ideas and original ways of visualizing them.
Based on the novel by Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War tells the story of Jerry, a loner at a Catholic high school who clashes with his conformist classmates and with Brother Leon, the oppressive authority figure who controls them. When Jerry refuses to sell chocolates as part of Brother Leon’s annual fundraising initiative, the administrator and his minions do everything they can to crush Jerry’s spirit before his independent ways can spread throughout the school.
Gordon uses the battle of the title as a metaphor for all forms of struggle between individuals and institutions, and the film’s framing emphasizes this premise. Many of the compositions are almost oppressively symmetrical, as though the students are being suffocated by the very order of the school, and these rigid images are juxtaposed with handheld camerawork that symbolizes the kids’ desire to break free.
One can read larger societal implications into Jerry’s war against his peers and Brother Leon, but The Chocolate War is most effective as a beautifully observed tale of a young man’s struggle for self-definition. Gordon gets the details of adolescent growing pains exactly right, from Jerry’s awkward interactions with girls to his disillusionment when he discovers what his skirmish has really accomplished.
The complexity of characterization is mirrored in the nuances of Richmond’s lighting, which is impeccably rendered on this DVD. (For years the film was only available on murky VHS and laserdisc editions.) In a strange way, the film’s examination of power and control makes it a kind of teen version of The Godfather, and Richmond’s images are extremely reminiscent of that film in their reliance on shadows to convey the darkness of the characters’ souls and their pervasive secrecy. This transfer preserves the rich blacks of Richmond’s palette without obscuring the subtle details his lighting reveals, and the day exteriors nicely convey the sense of harsh cold that the filmmakers sought to achieve even in sunny scenes.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is equally layered, offering a clear and powerful balance between dialogue, effects and a great soundtrack. The Chocolate War was mixed by Mark Berger (The Right Stuff, Amadeus), and the sound is as detailed and purposeful as every other aspect of the film, with understated effects that add definition to characters and relationships.
The Chocolate War is a remarkably assured debut feature, visually dynamic without being overly self-conscious. On his commentary track, Gordon credits Richmond with helping him develop this style, explaining how the cinematographer would take Gordon’s more flamboyant ideas for shots and modify them so they were beautiful and expressive. The disc also contains an outstanding 50-minute interview with Gordon in which he discusses The Chocolate War in the context of all the artistic and pragmatic considerations that influence a first-time director. There’s some repetition between the commentary track and the interview, but Gordon’s observations are unique and intelligent. His account of The Chocolate War’s journey to the screen and the excellent transfer make this DVD a must for fans of independent cinema.