Hot Button Archive for October, 2006

Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers

Week Of October 9, 2006

October 9, 2006

The first true shock of the Oscar season has landed. And much to the amazement of many, it is Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers.

Simply put, the film is a Midnight In the Garden of Good & Evil level swing and miss by a very fine director and creative force. It is thematically muddled, emotionally simplistic (if not retarded), and it commits the worst sin of all… it is a dead bore.

Before getting into any details (no real spoilers to come, except in the broadest sense), I think that it is easy to figure out where the core of this failure is. And it is in Eastwood himself.

All great directors have voices. These voices come in different pitches and tones from film to film, but the voices can be distinguished over time. As a movie lover, the filmmakers I am most strongly drawn to tend to work in the area of human hypocrisy and the emotional drive to overcome it and to be better humans. This is one reason why Clint Eastwood has been one of my favorites. His work is as stoic behind the camera as it is in front of the camera. But the power of that is that when he allows the façade to crack, the emotional wallop is like a tsunami. (And the Eastwood haters seem to hate him for much the same reason.)

Even though the flag raising on Iwo Jima seems like perfect Eastwood material, it is not. Not because he can’t handle a war film or that it is too complex. His strength is working from simplicity and then turning it upside down and inside out. The problem is that there is no villain in the story. There is no standard from which hypocrisy can rise and, ultimately, fail under the weight of good, flawed men. The story of Iwo Jima and the flag raising – at least as Eastwood and Haggis tell it – is not that interesting and, more importantly, the life and death of soldiers was as random as the flip of a coin. In the specific of the flag raisers, three survived the island and three did not. And for all the “he was the best soldier ever” crying, it could have easily been the three who died that survived and vice versa.

This is not an Eastwoodism.

In all of his best work, there is good and there is bad and then there is a wide gray swath where human frailty flourishes. Here, he removes “the villains” (the Japanese) and dwells in the moral ambiguity of living and dying and manipulating the public into supporting an unpopular war. (By the way, I will explain later why the notion that this film is reflective in any way of Iraq is absurd. But let’s have this appetizer… no one in this film ever doubts for a second the validity of the conflict. And I doubt any of the “it’s about Iraq” contingent disagree with that. But people love to cherry pick to serve their wishes.) But even in that, there is no villain. The armed forces are not a bad guy, however flawed. The fund raising effort, as flawed as it is, is necessary. And again, The Japanese are non-existent, whether you personally see them as aggressors or, at that stage in WWII, defenders of their home turf as we move in, with The Bomb to come… an unspoken black cloud.

Show me any episode of Law & Order and I can show you three or four emotional, realistic, well-acted victims who are as well drawn as the characters in this film. They will all be red herrings of a sort, as is the structure of that show, we roll around to the real central character in the second act of the TV show. We will forget them by the next episode, while the killer and the direct victim remain in our minds (at least, for a while).

The genius of that first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan was that the randomness of it all was the point, not a byproduct. We knew Tom Hanks would survive. And we figured on some of the other familiar faces. But the assault of the island was a true journey into the inferno. Here, the intensity of image is there, but the feeling of importance about coming through the other side is not. Young men will die randomly. And that is, oddly, correct for the story that is being told. But it is not where Eastwood’s heart lies. So it turns into bad drama.

The core question going into the movie and after seeing it twice is, “What is it about this story that makes it a great movie?” And unlike any great Eastwood movie, the answer seems to be, “Lots of stuff.” But Eastwood is not a “lots of stuff” director. When he really gets the bat on the ball, it makes a distinct, powerful noise. In Unforgiven, only the cowards and The Devil Himself survive. Here, the strong man comes out strong, the climber fails to climb, and the weak hearted man ends up broken hearted. But there is no devil and there is no coward. And there is no statement except the one we walked into the theater with… war is hell.

It is, unfortunately, not even a good story well told. This movie, amazingly, seems to want us to know that it isn’t even really that great a story. That is the element in which Eastwood seeks the irony that is so much at the core of his work. But the problem is, it leaves us without a great story.

The good news is that even as I watched Flags of Our Fathers, I was craving Letters From Iwo Jima, the Japanese side of the story, due in February. My guess is that it will be a much, much better film because without the War Bond Tour as a focal point, it will have a clear focus. We, the Americans, are the villain. And death is the villain. And the villain will have a complete victory from their perspective. But the Eastwoodian element is that in that single focus, there will be honor and passion and faith… things truly missing from all but the surface of Flags of Our Fathers.

If I were Clint Eastwood, I would be pushing to qualify Letters From Iwo Jima because Flags of our Fathers is now a long-shot, at best, for a Best Picture nod. It just isn’t the kind of work that speaks to Clint’s strengths.

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