Reviewed by David Spencer
Here's the thing about men (and it's usually, if not exclusively, men) who, as artists—be they filmmakers, actors, novelists, dramatists, whatever—specialize in war.
They love it.
Oh, not necessarily the bloodshed or the tragedy or the savagery or the power politics or any of the stunning features that make it among the stupidest and most heartbreaking ways ever devised to solve a problem—but the paradoxical thing about it that inspires extraordinary accomplishments to rise from all that. The strategy of it, for one: the moving around, the faking out of the enemy, the outflanking maneuvers, the inspiration that turns an outnumbered band into a victorious platoon. They also get off on the toys, by which I mean the weaponry, from the primitive sword, shield and mace right through the highest-tech bomb delivery system. But most of all—they dig the rush of it: The intensity, under duress even the bull-headed stamina that infuses certain men, who in the grand scheme of things may only be pawns or at best bit players, to pump with adrenaline and sharpen their focus and refuse to say die—in fact, refuse to die period. And really most of all, the artists who portray war love the men who rise to the challenge.
That superhuman reach is what's at the heart of Beyond Glory, actor Stephen Lang's one-man tour de force adapted (by himself) from the book by Larry Smith. Lang links together eight consecutive portraits (mostly monologues) taken from the first-hand accounts of real men whose heroism won them the Congressional Medal of Honor. Their wars range from WWII to the Korean conflict to Vietnam. Their types and social backgrounds are even more varied. Among others, there's the "simple" country boy who enlists because it's a steady paycheck; there's the Asian-American who enlists to redress the damage the enemy Japanese have done to the perception of his people in America; there's the danger addict who revels in being a death dealer; there's the New Jersey paisan too self-deprecating to let his heroism go to his head, and too honest to overstate his accomplishments; and of course there are Afro-Americans represented as well, dealing with the double challenge of war compounded by racism.
For those new to Mr. Lang, the "seduction" period of the evening (in the best sense, invisibly directed by Robert Falls) might be shorter than for those who are—the word seems of heightened importance here—veterans of his usual performance style, which often features clipped speech, an exaggerated sense of rhetoric and emphasis, and a physicality of muscular gesture and sometimes even sudden pose to mark the transition from one dramatic beat to another. For we've seen that before in the many military types he has portrayed (it pays to note, it was he, not Jack Nicholson, who first uttered the phrase—well, uttered it in the dramatic context that made it famous—"You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!"...for it was he who originated the role of Lt. Colonel Nathan Jessup in Aaron Sorkin's A Few Good Men on Broadway). For even though his first character is an old man, remembering, and seemingly a gentle soul at that (though of course it's peacetime gentility), he still lets the characterization rest within his comfort zone; it isn't until later characters that the familiar tics are put away and you actually get to see Mr. Lang express himself in a whole new way. (Or, in the case of the battle zealot, where you get to see Mr. Lang pull out all the stops and let his natural mannerisms inflate, to effectively create the portrait of heroism that is also deeply unsettling.) But whether you're familiar with Lang or not, he remains always a charismatic presence, and his passion for communicating the experience of wartime conflict, the greatness of its champions, is a singular experience.
How moving you find all this may depend, as well, upon familiarity. If you've read war novels, seen some of the great war films (both pro and anti), grew up watching TV dramas like Rod Serling's The Rack or Stanley Greenberg's Pueblo, the issues are familiar. In the end, war is about two sides going after each other, sometimes one side harshly abusing the other, the stories are about who does and doesn't survive in the cause of righteousness and despite a wealth of personalities, there are no new variations, just new versions of old themes. But if you're less versed, or have a visceral connection by dint of friend, relative or life experience, or simple human empathy, Beyond Glory may well be an evening that reverberates with you for a long time.
They aren't called the echoes of war for nothing...