Hearts in Atlantis is a Stephen King novel that, I believe, is separated into multiple parts involving separate characters. The movie itself is only about one of those sections, although some of the characters eventually gets their own section in the book.
The Hearts in Atlantis movie is about a psychic named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) who is fleeing Hoover’s FBI during the ’50s and winds up in the Garfield house along with Bobby Garfield and his single mother Elizabeth Garfield. The boy, Bobby, happens to be a little bit psychic, too, and learns to use his talents from time to time. As Brautigan, Anthony Hopkins proves once again that he can play any role, become anyone, and you’ll never waste a single doubting about his believability. The man is, bar none, the finest actor I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.
But don’t be mistaken and think Atlantis is some kind of psychic/superpowers movie. Brautigan’s “gift” (or as he refers to it, his “burden”) rarely shows up, and when they do, it’s not of the spectacular variety. This is no X-Men or a child’s fantasy about having superpowers. The real story behind Atlantis is the early childhood of just-turned-11 year old Bobby Garfield, played by a marvelous young actor name Anton Yelchin. It’s Bobby’s life that we’re concerned with, and Brautigan just wanders into it.
The story unfolds as an adult Bobby is called to the funeral of an old friend. There, he discovers that his childhood sweetheart, Carol, has also passed away. The news sends him back to his old home, now since abandoned and condemned, where he relives his memories. Brautigan is one of Bobby’s most vivid memories. Bobby recalls the summer he turned 11 and longed for a bike that his mother refuses to buy him because (as she likes to remind him) they have no money and his father left them broke and in distress. Of course, as Bobby notices, mother sure seems to be able to buy herself a lot of nice new dresses, and her boss is starting to make her spend more and more time at work for some reason. Bobby’s mother has problems of her own as you might have noticed. She’s single, with an 11-year old son, and she’s still young enough to realize that her life means more to her than her son. Her priorities, to be sure, are a little selfish-minded.
Brautigan’s story is the movie’s “B” plot. We don’t really learn much about Brautigan and his story doesn’t surface until more than halfway into the movie. Brautigan is being searched by the “men in black” of Hoover’s FBI. It is the ’50s and America is in the throes of paranoia about the Evil Soviet Empire. In an effort to battle this threat, the FBI are using psychics to “seek out” Communist sympathizers. Sort of a human lie detector. Brautigan sees some ethical issues with that and flees into the countryside. The MIBs that comes to town to look for Brautigan are mysterious figures, shown in atmospheric light and never with any detail. They are faceless men, truly just “men in black” instead of actual “men.”
Which brings us to director Scott Hicks and writer William Goldman (admittedly one of my favorite writers, of novels and movies). Scott Hicks shows with Atlantis that he’s a man with many skills. The movie is great to look at, and Hicks’ choice of angles and lights is truly amazing. The man has a great eye for detail, and even quiet moments are abuzz with electricity. Not easy to do when the bulk of your movie is about 3 young kids and how they spend their summer. There really is little mystery to the movie. In fact, the movie is one big “how I remember my childhood” film, in the same vein as Stephen King’s other work, “The Body,” which was turned into the movie Stand By Me. Atlantis is King’s memoir about small town life and how it is affected by the communist manhunt of that era.
Hearts in Atlantis is also about how slow things are, how time seems to stand still, when you’re young. And that, really, is at the “heart” (forgive the pun) of the movie: the passing of time, and how we remember things, and how as children time stands still, but as adults they seem to pass with a blink.
Ask me again about the ’90s in 10 or 20 years and I might be able to tell you some details about it. I might be able to tell you about how a band called Nirvana came out of Seattle and changed the music scene and changed how teenagers saw themselves and lived their lives. Ask me 30 years from now about what happened on September 11, 2001, and I’ll tell you how my heart sank and the pit of my stomach felt as empty and barren as a desert when I saw the Twin Towers fall on TV. Or maybe I won’t remember anything at all, and it’ll all seem like a dream that zipped on by with the blink of an eye. I would like to hope that I would remember a lot of things in great detail, but judging by my recollection of the ’80s, that might not be the case at all.
Or like young Bobby and young Carol, I might promise myself to remember everything and write often, but time might just take its toll, and I’ll forget. Time is like that. Always fleeting when you need it the most, and always plentiful when you don’t. (Or at least when you don’t think you need it.)
Scott Hicks (director) / Stephen King (novel), William Goldman (screenplay)
CAST: Anthony Hopkins …. Ted Brautigan
Hope Davis …. Elizabeth Garfield
David Morse …. Robert Garfield (Adult)
Anton Yelchin …. Bobby Garfield