And while walking to the theater, I ran into Cinequest icon Chris Garcia, who informed me that I am "The Man!" I'm sure there's a story behind that, but he had to leave without telling me. Anyway, I'm the man and I don't know why (there are so many possibilities!)
Anyway, this review will by necessity contain minor spoilers, but in the next paragraph. And I assume not much that's not in the John Krakauer book. Anyway, in a nutshell this movie is excellent and deserves the praise it's getting. Particularly the acting of Emile Hirsch as the main character Chris McCandless (aka Alex Supertramp), who wandered into the Alaskan wilderness and starved to death in 1992. The cinematography was also excellent, both the scenery provided by nature and how Sean Penn uses it (and how he uses Hirsch's physicality). Also, Jena Malone was excellent as his sister--the voice of someone who felt most deeply betrayed by his disappearance.
However, since I saw the documentary "Call of the Wild", also about Chris McCandless (and with footage of Sean Penn shooting his movie) I am burdened with extra knowledge, and you will be too if you keep reading this. When I see him poisoned by the wrong wild potatoes, I'm burdened with the knowledge that the biologist form UAF who preliminarily called it plausible has since proven there were no toxins--he simply starved to death. When I see Chris rail against money, I'm burdened with the knowledge that he had $300 in his wallet when he died. When I see him struggle without ID, I'm burdened by knowing that same wallet contained 8 forms of ID. When I see him finally write his real name--not Alex Supertramp--in his final goodbye note, I'm burdened with the knowledge that the AK state troopers struggled for two weeks to identify him, finally sending for dental records from his parents (don't ask how they missed the wallet hidden in a secret pocket in his backpack. For that matter, don't ask how they missed the backpack). To his credit, Penn steers clear of the purposeful suicide interpretation, insisting that Chris always attempted to come back later in the summer and rejoin civilization.
When I get over the "that isn't how it happened" aspect, the lasting effect is still a great movie, and one that makes a specific moral and philosophical point. But it also makes Penn's Chris McCandless a very different person from Ron Lamothe's Chris McCandless. Penn's is a bright, strong kid with too much idealism about nature and solitude, who finds out too late that happiness is only worthwhile if you have someone to share it with. Lamothe's is much more ambiguous, a character who maybe wasn't so idealistic as just adventurous. Someone who didn't want to leave society as much as test himself. And more importantly, maybe someone who didn't really shun his Chris McCandless identity as much as he just liked being Alex Supertramp.
Anyway, I'll just say these are both great movies, but they work better if you watch them in the right order--"Into the Wild" first, and "Call of the Wild" second. I won't say it's unfortunate that I saw them in the wrong order, because I still enjoyed them both. but I'll acknowledge that there is a right order.