Sean Penn’s new film Into the Wild

This video is the trailer for Sean Penn’s Into The Wild.

By Joanne Laurier:

What drove Sean Penn Into the Wild?

Directed by Sean Penn; screenplay by Penn, based on the book by Jon Krakauer …

Actor-director Sean Penn opens his latest movie, Into the Wild, with lines from Lord Byron’s Childe Harold: “There is pleasure in the pathless woods, / There is rapture on the lonely shore, / There is society where none intrudes, / By the deep sea and the music in its roar; / I love not man the less, but Nature more.”

Byron’s haunting verse, written in 1814, seems strangely out of place as an epigraph for a project that attempts to turn the real-life and tragic account of Christopher McCandless into the tale of a fearless adventurer and social renegade. McCandless’s short life before he perished in the wilds of Alaska in 1992 at age 24 did not allow sufficient time for the young man “To mingle with the Universe, and feel / What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

In the film, Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) is a 22-year-old college graduate with a future marked for success. Disturbed by the materialism and hypocrisy of his wealthy parents, (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt), Chris donates his education fund to charity, and takes off without a word to his family, including his beloved younger sister Carine (Jena Malone). They will never see him again.

Chris literally burns his bridges when he abandons his car and sets fire to his money and identification. Based on the book of the same title by Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild follows Chris’s two-year adventure through various parts of the United States and Mexico, ending with the fatal 113 days in a remote Alaskan region. …

Chris’s guides are his tattered volumes of Tolstoy and Thoreau. Precious to him are Thoreau’s words: “Rather than Love, than Money, than Fame, give me Truth,” which he interprets to mean eschewing civilization for untouched nature. …

Such was his attraction to Christopher McCandless’s story that Penn spent nearly a decade getting the rights to Krakauer’s 1996 non-fiction bestseller. In an interview with MoviesOnline, the director speaks about In the Wild: “It’s about somebody who had a will that is so uncommon today, a lack of addiction to comfort, that is so uncommon and is so necessary to become common, or mankind won’t survive the next century.” The belief that consumerist human beings, not profit-driven class society, are responsible for the destruction of the environment is the film’s underlying subtext. …

Penn replied that “the point of this thing is the heroism of this will and this courage that this young man had. All the rest of it is somebody else’s folly for me.”

But “heroism of will” and “courage” have to be associated with substantial and socially advanced aims. If not, history shows that extreme voluntarism and action for its own sake can find quite right-wing channels. That Penn is oblivious to all this is In the Wild’s greatest “folly.”

The qualities he genuinely and legitimately admires, self-sacrifice and integrity, are relatively rare in America today not because the population has degenerated, but for definite historical and political reasons, including a stagnant and reactionary social climate, which deliberately encourages the opposite: selfishness and callousness. One feels that Penn is driven “into the wild” because of a certain political discouragement. This is simply impressionistic and wrongheaded.

About Penn’s last film, The Pledge, this reviewer wrote: “One needs to be obsessive about something important, one needs to pursue a worthwhile and progressive cause. For the American filmmaker today this means, first and foremost, the need to cut through the lies and myths about American class society. The absence of this sort of criticism, which Penn is fully capable of making, is a fatal flaw.”

Since this was written in March 2001, Penn has proven to be one of Hollywood’s most consistent opponents of the Iraq war. He was also physically involved in rescue operations in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In March of this year, he publicly criticized George W. Bush’s handling of the war and in April appeared on the television show, The Colbert Report, a contestant in Stephen Colbert’s “Meta-Free-Phor-All.” To strong applause, Penn commented: “We cower as you point your fingers telling us to support our troops. You and the smarmy pundits in your pocket—those who bathe in the moisture of your soiled and blood-soaked underwear—can take that noise and shove it.”

However, In the Wild testifies to the fact that in many ways Penn mistakenly sees himself as a lone flare launched into the darkness.

Other reviews of this film: here. And here.

Jack London: here.

Thoreau’s Walden and climate change today: here.

Thoreau’s study of birds at Waldon Pond aids biologists in climate change research: here.

5 thoughts on “Sean Penn’s new film Into the Wild

  1. I’m looking forward to seeing this movie, but this is a terrific review. I’ve been thinking a lot about the failures of the lone will. Hitler, after all, was a great admirer of the will.


  2. Dear Friend,

    Alaska’s Arctic region is under threat yet again by President Bush’s oil and gas plans.

    The wildlife in Alaska’s Teshekpuk Lake need protection, NOT oil drills.

    Send your letter by
    October 29 and it will
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    The Bush Administration wants to sacrifice one of the world’s most important ecosystems in Arctic Alaska to the oil industry. We need your help to stop it.

    A million birds, more than 45,000 caribou, and seven Alaska Native communities depend on the unparalleled resources of Teshekpuk Lake. This fragile, internationally important wildlife habitat has been protected from drilling by every Interior Secretary for the past quarter century. Until now.

    Tell the Administration: “Not on my watch. This is a sacrifice we do NOT need to make.” You have a limited time to speak up.

    Click here to tell the Bush Administration’s Bureau of Land Management that you oppose drilling in Alaska’s Teshekpuk Lake area.

    The BLM is open for public comment about Teshekpuk until November 6, but I’m asking you to submit your message by October 29 so that we can hand-deliver it before the deadline.

    Nearly ninety percent of this region is already open to oil and gas drilling. But the ecologically fragile area around Teshekpuk Lake is so important to Native communities and wildlife that it should not be sacrificed to the oil industry.

    There’s simply too much at stake:

    * The ecosystem. Teshekpuk Lake is one of the world’s most important ecosystems. It should not be spoiled.
    * The wildlife. Teshekpuk Lake draws birds that migrate from all 50 states! The area is a critical habitat for yellow-billed loons, brant, and other species; and is a refuge for caribou herds that settle there each summer to give birth. We must not take away their safe haven.
    * Communities. The Teshekpuk region provides life-giving subsistence for seven Alaska Native communities who have relied on its bounty for centuries.

    Click here to submit your comments to the BLM before October 29 so we can ensure their delivery by the Nov. 6 comment deadline.

    Let’s remind land management officials that Teshekpuk Lake needs continued protection, not new drilling fields. Opening this pristine wilderness to drills isn’t necessary – and could be disastrous for this incomparable ecosystem.

    Thank you for helping us stop this shortsighted plan for one of our nation’s most important wilderness areas!

    Kathy Kilmer
    The Wilderness Society

    The Wilderness Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to conserving American wilderness. Our mission is to ensure that future generations will enjoy the clean air and water, wildlife, beauty, and opportunity for recreation and renewal provided by pristine forests, rivers, deserts, and mountains. As a subscriber to WildAlert, you join more than 310,000 Wilderness Society members and supporters in our efforts to protect and restore America’s wild places.


  3. Penn has visited Iraq twice since the war started, and wrote about his experiences for the San Francisco Chronicle. ‘I don’t know if this is true,’ he says, ‘but I may have written the first published piece in mainstream journalism that actually explained what these contractors were up to over there. I went back and looked for information on this, and the word I kept hearing was “oversight”. Why weren’t we finding out that people were building up these private militias out of the Pentagon with tax payers’ money? Oversight? In the media, nobody’s watching this stuff, and it’s eating away at our democracy.’

    From Sean Penn interview at,,2204699,00.html


  4. Public release date: 27-Oct-2008

    Contact: Ronald Rosenberg
    Boston University

    Wildflower declines in Thoreau’s Concord woods are due to climate changes

    (Boston) Boston University and Harvard University researchers have established for the first time that a study of evolutionary relatedness among plant populations is critical when considering the patterns of species loss due to climate change. Rapid changes in temperature which have led to changes in the timing of seasonal activities, such as flowering, make some closely related groups of species – notably orchids, dogwoods, lilies and many sunflower relatives — more susceptible to swift declines than others.

    These cautionary findings were developed based on a continuing study of 473 species in the fields, wetlands and deciduous forest of Concord, Massachusetts where changes in flowering times were first inventoried by Henry David Thoreau 156 years ago and regularly updated since then.

    A phylogenetic or evolutionary context now provides an important predictive value for thinking about which plant species will be lost due to rapid climate change, noted Boston University conservation biologist Richard Primack. He is an author of the research study titled “Phylogenetic patterns of species loss in Thoreau’s woods are driven by climate change,” that appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online today. Since 2002, he and his students have actively tracked how warming temperatures have shifted the flowering times of plant species in the woods at Walden Pond and elsewhere in Concord. . They now find that wildflower species are also declining and being lost due to climate change.

    The other authors are Charles G. Willis, Brad Ruhfel and Charles C. Davis of the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at the Harvard University Herbaria along with Abraham J. Miller-Rushing, formerly of Boston University’s Department of Biology.

    They concluded that the climate-influenced loss of plant diversity has been so great in Concord, despite 60% of the area being well protected or underdeveloped since Thoreau’s time, that a global approach to conservation prioritization is necessary to minimize future species loss. And conservation strategies will require information both on the current ecology of the species as well as their past evolutionary history.

    Their study, which examines changes in species abundance and habitat along with two separate measures of flowering time response to temperature, notes that since Thoreau’s time species flower an average of seven days earlier. Moreover, the mean temperature in the Concord area has risen 2.4 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years and is expected to climb between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees Celsius during the next 100 years. These temperature changes are linked to flowering times.

    “Species whose flowering time are not responsive to changes in temperature are decreasing in abundance,” the study states. “Most strikingly, species with the ability to track short-term seasonable temperature variation have faired significantly better under recent warming trends. In addition, species whose flowering times have shifted to be earlier in the years over the long-term have also fared significantly better under recent warming trends. Based on our regression estimates, change in abundance over the last 100 years is greatest when assessed against species’ ability to track short-term seasonal temperature versus long-term flowering shifts. Thus, the association between flowering time tracking and change in abundance is a better estimator of species response to rising temperatures.”

    The study also accounted for other plant life cycle influences such as the lack of available insect pollinators or the increased flower or seed predation. The authors found the phonological response to insects may correlate with seasonable temperatures. This suggests that plant species that respond to temperature changes may be better at maintaining important periodic interactions with pollinators or better at avoiding negative interactions such as predation.

    The population declines of specific flowering species – those that did not respond to temperature – included anemones and buttercups, asters and campanulas, bluets, bladderworts, dogwoods, lilies, mints, orchids, roses, saxifrages and violets.

    About Boston University

    Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized institution of higher education and research. With more than 30,000 students, it is the fourth largest independent university in the United States. BU consists of 17 colleges and schools along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes which are central to the school’s research and teaching mission.


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