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Review: "Into the Wild"

10/24/2007

The tragic story of Chris McCandless opened nationwide in theaters last Friday. Sean Penn's adaptation of Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild retraces the final two years of McCandless' life, ending with his death by starvation in the Alaskan bush in 1992.

Chris McCandless was certainly no hero: Those who worship him as such are terribly misguided.

The attraction to McCandless is simple — he lived the last two years of his life on his own terms, something each one of us deep inside yearns to do, but few ever act upon, leaving a void many try unsuccessfully to anesthetize with vices, recreational sin and/or by accumulation of material things.

Stirred by the tales of one of his favorite writers, Jack London, McCandless chose Alaska for his "last great adventure," just as tens of thousands have before him have, and will likely continue to do in the future.

I remember wanting to do the same as a 21-year-old college graduate, after reading John McPhee's masterful book on Alaska, Coming Into the Country.

McCandless was 24: It was time to measure himself as a man like all young men must, to establish their own identity as a man, different than their father's.

His two-year wanderlust and alienation of his family, especially his father Walt McCandless, was driven by his need to exercise the demon of disappointment developed after finding out about his father's bigamist lifestyle.

Sons with unresolved issues with their fathers tend to drift, unable to settle comfortably into their own manhood, and Chris McCandless was no exception, drifting far away after finding out his father's secret.

Yet McCandless was no fool, as some would like to portray him, providing an easy way to explain his tragedy.

Yes, he might have survived if he'd been better prepared and had a map to find another way out after being blocked by a summer river swollen with snowmelt.

But that wasn't Chris.

He didn't live a life that included checking off items on a grocery survival list. He had talked to enough hunters to know what he should bring. And he didn't have a death wish.

But the deadly combination of his minimalist attitude and youthful brashness made him simply choose not to bring those necessary items.

He tempted the fate — and lost.

Krakauer doesn't fault him for this. In the book, he tells of his own solo Alaska rock climbing adventure. He could have easily died but was lucky, and didn't.

I remember my most recent trip to Alaska. On a day adventure, our boat was caught in standing 8-foot haystack waves on the Shelikof Strait. The rushing tide and the vortex it created turned our 25-foot boat on its side twice, the mast going underwater before it threw us back up like a toy boat after being submerged in a bathtub.

There was only one survival suit on the boat.

I didn't go to Alaska wanting to die, but I thought I was that day. I got lucky and survived.

McCandless' luck ran out. And that sealed his tragic fate.

Overall, Penn's version of the story is well done. He pays attention to the details, right down to the final gasping breath McCandless takes before succumbing to starvation.

It blindsided me.

It was the same way my middle son, Sam, died after refusing to eat the final week of his life after battling metachromatic leucodystrophy. His last breath was a gasp as my wife cradled him in her arms begging him, "Don't go yet! Don't go yet! I'm not ready."

The last breath of life, then silence.

I'm sure Walt and Chris' mom, Billie McCandless, weren't ready either. No parents are ready when their child dies.

But Sean Penn has given them a wonderful gift with this movie. Because the greatest fear of the parents of a dead child is that the child will be forgotten.

Chris McCandless truly lived. More than most of us have the courage to do. He will not be forgotten.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God."
— Matthew 5:8