Editors’ note: This is the debut appearance of a new Monday feature, the appropriately titled “Navel Gazing,” wherein House contributors Sean Burns and Andrew Dignan kick around a few recent releases. Feel free to join them in the comments section.
Andrew Dignan: I finally got a chance to see Flags of Our Fathers this weekend, after spending much of the past two weeks dreading it. Somewhere along the way, the film developed the reputation of a dull non-starter that, in a development I know both you and I despise, was deemed “out of the Oscar race” and thus somehow not worthy of serious discussion. So it was with some amount of surprise that I enjoyed the film quite a bit, with special note to the film’s structure which telescopes the timeline of the battle of Iwo Jima with the war bonds drive that found the film’s reluctant heroes rehashing and often trivializing the trauma of what they’d been through in order to package and sell a palatable version of war to the American public. And Clint Eastwood, that sly dog, seems to be grudgingly receptive towards the idea that such things are a necessary evil.
The film would seem to be mining the same bedrock of demystifying our heroes—and with the depiction of Ira Hayes, the way real violence eats at a man’s soul—that Eastwood’s been exploring as an artist for nearly 50 years. Acknowledging that the film is far from perfect (the last 20 minutes gave me something of a protracted, Lord of the Rings-type unease), why is it you think so many people have railed against it, and seem to so pleased to be perpetrating the belief that the film is both a financial and critical failure? Is this a Munich-type situation, where a handful of net-journalists with an agenda are trying to write history—a Paul Haggis backlash as a result of his last two films cleaning up at the Academy Awards? Or have some people simply grown tired of the themes and rhythms that Eastwood chooses to put onscreen? And more importantly, where do you see the film being ranked in his canon?
Sean Burns: I admired the film a great deal as well. In fact, I’d even venture to say I admired it a good deal more than I actually enjoyed it… if only because that unfortunate last third or so settles into redundancy long after we’ve already gotten the point, and to make matters worse a goddamn infernal voice-over starts spelling out in underlined blobs of verbiage everything that’s already been made so wonderfully clear through visual juxtapositions during the previous hour and a half. (In other words, I liked it a lot better when it was more like Bird and less like The Bridges of Madison County.)
The online grave-dances regarding the film’s middling box office performance are indeed infuriating, and your comparison to Munich is apt - as this again was a sight-unseen, pre-ordained Best Picture front-runner that turned out to be a lot more complex, ambitious and a good deal less overtly emotional than traditional Academy fare. (Please, don’t get me started on the inane cottage industry of Oscar prediction web-sites and the endless damage they’re doing to popular perceptions of films that might have a bit more on their mind than pandering outside the Kodak for trinkets. This breathless, months-early prognosticating strikes me as some weird version of Fantasy Football.) Also, you’re dead on about the Haggis backlash. These days, folks like to carry on as if he’s some sort of antichrist and cheerfully score meaningless hit points off his TV background, when in actuality he’s just kind of a clumsy, obvious writer whose reach often exceeds his grasp. Why Paul Haggis is heralded as “The Death Of Cinema” when a scribe as hacky and awful as John Logan gets a free pass these days is frankly beyond me.
What rankles me the most is the received wisdom that somehow Flags has too broad of a canvas for Eastwood and thus is outside his particular wheelhouse. Despite my initial shock at seeing such lavish production values (and, um, extras) in a film by Skinflint Clint, the picture strikes me as 100% uncut Eastwood, through and through. It’s imbued with his restless, questioning spirit. As always, The Tall Man is interrogating American concepts of heroism, this time tackling the sacred cows of The Greatest Generation, and again not seeking to debunk the mythology so much as he wants to make sure we all understand that things were actually lot nastier and more complicated than we’ve always been led to believe. I loved this picture’s gray areas, the way a lie from Ryan Phillippe (who is excellent, by the way) means more to a grieving Mom than the truth ever could, and the blunt necessity of that garish bond-drive. (If this movie year contains a more barbed, cynical image than our “heroes” raising the flag on a paper mache rock in the middle of a football game, I’ve yet to see it.)
The Eastwood canon of which you speak is a massive, terribly erratic body of work. But I personally found Flags of Our Fathers to be a flawed, thoughtful addition. Oscar pundits be damned, it’s a picture well worth considering.
AD: It’s an unfussy, plain-spoken film about an incredibly unwieldy and difficult subject that, like Munich, takes a position critical of an institution we’d all rather believe is infallible. People saw the names Spielberg and Eastwood above the line on this one and I suspect envisioned something a bit more rose-tinted, something they could anoint with year-end awards based on the importance of its subject and the pedigree alone, and what we got is a film that is ill at ease with the balance that needs to be struck between honoring the deeds of these young men and creating a narrative politicians can get behind and newspapers can embrace. It doesn’t take much straining to draw parallels between a situation like Jessica Lynch or Pat Tillman and the Iwo Jima marines, and yet, as you pointed out often the pleasant lie gives more comfort than the horrible truth.
There’s a moment in the film where Phillippe’s character comes across what he believes to be the remains of a friend of his and we understand that whatever’s been done to this young man is unspeakably horrible and dehumanizing (earlier in the film we see that the Japanese have been torturing marines with grenades and the aftermath of this is some of the most unsettling footage I’ve ever seen in a fictional film) but Eastwood never shows us. At first I thought the film was just displaying restraint and allowing the Phillippe reaction shot to fill in the blanks, but then we get the scene later in the film where his character tells the deceased young man’s mother about his death, and it’s implied that he wasn’t completely forthcoming with the details. And in a way, I feel like Eastwood is placing us in a similar situation, where he clearly wants to instill the horror of war in the viewer, but—as though he’s aware that we’ve seen Spielberg’s assault on Normandy Beach already and don’t need to wallow in the viscera—he also seems to be shielding us from the trauma somewhat. It’s as though the actual horrors of war need to remain on the battlefield, and the ideas of heroism and valor are needed in order to continue having wars, and winning the wars we’re already engaged in.
So on one hand we have Eastwood (who’s as open a conservative as you can get in Hollywood, I suppose) seemingly accepting of the propaganda machine as a side-effect of winning a war (which if contemporary parallels are to be drawn, would be something like Fox News and their “selective” coverage of the Iraq war), and yet there’s also a fair amount of resentment and anger directed towards the US government, the media and to some extent the American people for being unable to understand why these men might be unwilling to rehash “the glories of war,” and why society would kick them to the curb after they’ve served their purpose. It’s almost a Catch-22—tell the public the complete and total truth and risk them being appalled or disinterested, or sanitize the facts and face the consequences of a public unable to compartmentalize the toll taken on the troops coming home. It’s as if the film is in conversation with The Best Years of Our Lives in that way.
AD: Another current release that looks at media manipulation is Stephen Frears’ The Queen, which is the stiff-upper-lip Anglo-fest promised by the film’s trailers but at the same time a good deal more amusing and aware of its own stuffiness than one might expect. I think the film will be remembered as a venue for a stoic Helen Mirren performance—no doubt destined for awards of some sort—but to me the key to appreciating the film is Michael Sheen’s performance as Tony Blair. I’m told I’ve seen this guy before in those dreadful Underworld films, but here he felt like a revelation in something of a tricky part. Due to Blair’s alignment with Bush over Iraq and his general vilification in both this country and his own, it’s a little disorientating to go back nine years (my God, has it really been that long?) to when he was a fresh-faced progressive representing a change from Thatcherism. What I thought the film handled well, for the most part, was its depiction of how England’s deep-rooted love for its matriarchy persisted even at a time when the people were calling for reform and modernization.
On one side, you’ve got Blair and the Labour party winning the general election in a landslide, and on the other you have Queen Elizabeth ostracized for what really comes down to a social faux pas that really seems quite laughable both from an American point of view (I can’t imagine this sort of rancor ensuing if Clinton had declined comment on the death of John F. Kennedy Jr.) and in light of recent world events. The film depicts near hatred emanating from Elizabeth’s subjects for her failure to match their perception of how royalty should behave, yet in her mind you have a woman desperately clinging to a manner she feels is becoming of the crown. Then in the middle of all this you’ve got Blair; he could easily exploit the situation for his own gain and yet we see him doggedly steering the queen to try and help her save face. I could have done without the on-the-nose bit from Blair’s wife about how much the queen reminded him of his mother, but I thought the character stood in nicely for England as a nation: they’ve outgrown the need for a monarchy but can’t envision a government without one.
SB: The Queen is certainly much funnier and livelier than you’d ever be able to guess from Miramax’s portentous, puffed-up advertising campaign. I was also pleasantly surprised at how sympathetic it was to HRM Elizabeth II, but maybe, in retrospect, a lot of that has to do with the fine, minute calibrations of Mirren’s performance. (It’s really a wonderful piece of work, one that becomes more impressive when you stop to consider how thoroughly this foxy old bird has strangled her natural sex appeal.)
It’s got lovely acting and some sharp conversations, but I think the film is also rather poorly made. (I spent the first third or so mistakenly believing that Frears was attempting some sort of formal analogy to the script’s “modernization” theme by shooting all of Blair’s solo scenes on crummy-looking digital video. Then I realized that I was overthinking things and the cinematography just plain sucks.) Those endless helicopter shots of Balmoral struck me as a desperate attempt to open up what is basically a play, and the observation by Mrs. Blair’s that you cite is, for me, by far the least of the film’s on-the-nose groaners. That doomed fourteen-point stag standing in for Diana is the kind of overwrought symbolism that would make Merchant-Ivory (who once crushed a character to death with a shelf full of history books) wince. There’s also an inadvertently hilarious shot of Blair in his soccer jersey, taking a phone call beside a conspicuously placed electric guitar. Subtle, the picture is not.
Still, whenever James Cromwell swishes into a scene all haughty and harumphing in his kilt, the dishy pleasures of this thing simply cannot be denied. And hats off, again, to Mirren. What she does with her eyebrows in that final scene is the kind of consummate control that should be taught in acting classes everywhere.
SB:Switching gears quite a bit, I’ve fallen madly in love with The Prestige. Christopher Nolan’s rabidly over-praised Memento always struck me as a gimmick in search of a movie, but between this and his Batman Begins, Nolan has finally won me over and announced himself as one of the craftiest storytellers in town. An epic, wildly homoerotic dick-measuring contest between two turn-of-the-century magicians played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, The Prestige is an intricately structured, relentlessly propulsive puzzle-box—one that, unlike the modern “twist movies” I so frequently despise, actually plays fair with the audience, and becomes richer and more rewarding after you’ve finally parsed out its many secrets.
It’s difficult to discuss this film without ruining it, but it is safe to say that I adore the movie’s grungy, blood-flecked atmosphere of menace, and that Bale again proves himself one of the swarthier, more intimidating screen presences around. The movie roots around in some potent themes of duality and obsession, but on repeat viewings I’ve grown particularly fond of that final turn—one that’s been criticized in some quarters as a bit of a cheat. I feel it’s more like a philosophical coup-de-grace that cuts straight to the appeal of films like this one, and is summed up when Michael Caine all but scolds the audience: “You just want to be fooled.”
AD: The final reveal of The Prestige may not be a cheat, but that’s not to say it’s especially rewarding for the viewer either. I’m treading lightly here, as I myself had to endure a couple of perilous weeks where the film was in wide release and I was the only person in the world who hadn’t seen it (or it seemed that way anyway), but just as the audience at the end of a detective novel likes to be able to pull together the various clues laid out and solve the mystery at the same time as its hero, I think there’s a similar desire to “solve” The Prestige that goes unfulfilled. Here we have a film that goes deeper into exploring the mechanics of magic tricks than any film I can remember (it certainly dances circles around this summer’s stodgy yet inexplicably popular The Illusionist) and is really quite straight-faced in the way it acknowledges the smoke and mirrors behind the act, yet it ultimately employs a deus ex machina (ahem) to explain away a great deal of the plot. It may be thematically apt, and in the process makes a sly comment on American values, but I couldn’t help but feel shortchanged.
There’s also the niggling problem that this particular lake is fresh out of red herrings. I don’t know of anyone who’s seen The Prestige who didn’t have the film figured out well in advance of its third act. There’s an argument going around that the film is intentionally direct in this regard—that being surprised by the twists and turns of the story is secondary to the craft of the filmmaking—but again, I aint buyin.’ The Prestige is a Swiss timepiece of a film, perhaps. But it isn’t really saying much, and the characters are largely ciphers (this latter crime is excusable in light of the plot), so the audience mostly sits around waiting for the twists and turns of a magic trick they’ve long since debunked—or at the very least, identifying the not-very-well-orchestrated bits of misdirection.
It’s a tough film to really critique. I enjoyed it quite a bit and I suspect it will hold up well under repeat viewings, since unlike most films that are contingent upon misleading the audience, it doesn’t fall apart once you know what’s coming. I’m a total sucker for Nolan’s “persistence of memory”-style filmmaking, which is instantly recognizable no matter what the piece, and I have no idea why DP Wally Pfister isn’t used much by other filmmakers, as I don’t know of anyone who makes natural light and “naturalism” look so evocative. I also agree that Bale’s performance will benefit greatly from repeat viewings; it’s precisely-modulated scene by scene, and it fits nicely into Nolan’s body of work in the way it explores self-destructive men and their vengeful obsessions. But the film really is nothing more than craft and an exercise in genre, a distressing trend from our best filmmakers this year. I can’t discount the vague hollowness I felt as I exited the theater, no matter how pie-eyed I was while watching it.
And I know you’re just trying to goad me with the Memento cracks, but I’m not falling for it this time.
Andrew Dignan’s articles for The House Next Door include analyses of Project Greenlight and the opening credits of The Wire and a weekly column about Lost. Sean Burns is a film critic for Philadelphia Weekly and Improper Bostonian.