Clint’s Flags Flying High

Airplanes crashing into New York apartment buildings. Teenagers shooting up their classrooms. Rising death tolls in a meaningless war nobody

Airplanes crashing into New York apartment buildings. Teenagers shooting up their classrooms. Rising death tolls in a meaningless war nobody understands. New dance companies that require audiences to watch their ballets on iPods. Millions of dollars spent on—and miles of newsprint devoted to—time-wasting junk Web sites like YouTube. And have you even tried to reach a human voice on the phone to book an airplane ticket, check your bank balance, get an appliance repaired or question your cable-TV bill? Nothing much makes sense anymore, which is all the more reason to cherish the films of Clint Eastwood. They all make perfect sense. Every year since 1993, when he won the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for Unforgiven, the yearly awards roll around and the man who used to look as stoic and ossified as Mount Rushmore flashes a Cinemascope grin as he figures prominently in the honors.

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Flags of Our Fathers, his latest triumph, will be no exception. Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Mr. Eastwood with power and perception, it is a film that will stop your heart. Brilliantly conceived, articulately written, sensitively acted, filled with deeply penetrating emotions and breathtaking action, it is the greatest cinematic canvas of war since Saving Private Ryan. I didn’t think he could top Million Dollar Baby, but I was wrong. With Flags of Our Fathers, the enshrinement of Clint Eastwood is manifest.

This is a chronicle of the lives of the five Marines and one sailor who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945. The movie tells the story of how they got there, focusing on the three survivors, who spent the rest of their lives coping with the life-altering shame, prejudice, guilt, injustice and government propaganda that resulted from that famous photo, as well as the shocking truths surrounding it. The boys were Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), Navy Corpsman John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), and Native American Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). Mr. Eastwood cross-cuts between the violence and bloodshed on Iwo Jima (a battle, deemed “unnecessary” by history, that sacrificed thousands of American lives to turn one small, narrow strip of island into an air base for U.S. war planes on their way to bomb Japan) and the domestic difficulties that the agitprop-manipulated heroes faced when they returned from the Pacific front to the postwar American home front. The war footage has a lot of the same chaos, confusion and terror as Private Ryan, contrasting the quiet before the invasion with the bloodshed and noise of human carnage. I dare anyone with a sense of humanity to remain unmoved by the sight of courageous, trembling, terrified boys sacked out in foxholes listening to Tokyo Rose pierce their hearts with memories of peace and apple pie while the voice of Dinah Shore punctures the silent night singing “I Walk Alone.”

Then the director captures emotions of a different kind—arduous passions of anger and fury that will rise in you when you see how the military sent the three survivors home against their wishes and forced them to capitalize on the impact of a photo that turned out to be less than honest. The famous photo that captivated the hearts and minds of the free world, appeared on just about every front page in America and won a Pulitzer Prize for Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal was a fake. Rosenthal’s exposed film rolls of the original flag-raising were unusable. After an officer who craved the flag for a souvenir ordered it taken down and replaced, Rosenthal snapped another image, and it was this one that ended up on postage stamps as a symbol of world victory for mankind. The original flag-bearers, whose bravery climbing Mount Suribachi was never recorded, all died in the ensuing slaughter, while the three surviving soldiers were cast against their will as star-spangled all-American poster boys for the war effort. They even tried to explain to the War Department and the press that one of the dead “heroes” in their photo had been wrongly identified, but their attempts to set the record straight fell on deaf ears, as the U.S. government exploited them like film stars to raise a ton of money for war bonds.

Americans were broke, struggling and cynical. They needed heroes, and the fame of these three reluctant men marked the beginning of a new chapter in celebrity worship. Congressmen and politicians handed out business cards, promised them civilian careers, and then never returned one phone call. Mr. Hayes had the toughest time of the three. At the same time he was praised, decorated and toasted as a hero, there were bars and restaurants that wouldn’t even serve him because he was a “redskin.” One U.S. Senator even slapped him on the back and congratulated him for killing off the “Japs” with a tomahawk. Even Harry Truman called him “Chief.” When the truth came out after the war, the three “heroes” were forgotten by a nation with a short attention span, and to rub salt in old wounds, rumors even circulated that they had staged the photo for publicity. At the unveiling of the statue commemorating the historic photo at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Virginia, some of the parents of the boys who raised the original flag weren’t even invited. Of the three “hero myths” who got the credit, John (Doc) Bradley lived the longest, and it was his son James who sifted through his father’s decorations and medals, interviewing his World War II comrades and trying to find out why his dad always refused to talk about that famous photo. The results became Bradley’s distinguished war memoir, on which the film is based. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for 46 weeks. Among the tragic facts it reveals, we learn that despite his potential as the most likely to succeed, Gagnon’s only employment was as a janitor, while Hayes ended up a disillusioned drunk who spent time in jail and died of exposure, face-down in a pig sty. One of the things Mr. Eastwood seems to be suggesting with elegance and restraint is that someone should be held accountable for these injustices. Sure. As if anyone on Capitol Hill today even gives a damn.

No amount of lavish praise can do justice to the balanced and keenly researched screenplay by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, or Tom Stern’s staggering cinematography. The enormous cast is irreproachable, with solid contributions from Len Cariou, George Grizzard, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Jamie (Billy Elliot) Bell, Barry Pepper, Paul Walker and Judith Ivey. Mr. Eastwood knows how to handle his actors. They respond with inspiration. He also provides a footnote to the last great war that meant anything and gives us something new to think about, while reminding us that no war is ever as simple as heroes vs. villains, good vs. evil or winners vs. losers. War is about many things, and so is this picture.

You can debate his limitations as an actor with three facial expressions, but as a director, Clint Eastwood has become American royalty. Did anyone dream that a poor lumberjack with no formal education from the hill country of Northern California who started out as an actor doing bits with Francis the Talking Mule would turn out to be a veteran director with so much authority, artistry and grace? He makes films with beginnings, middles and ends that are contemporary, influential and timeless, but with a healthy reverence for the narrative traditions of the past. As a businessman, he runs one of the most prodigious production companies in the industry. As a community leader, when he became the mayor of Carmel, he was the first actor ever elected to a political office that I would trust with so much as a skate key. As a professional filmmaker, he has never stopped learning, stretching, improving and perfecting his craft to make movies that matter. Flags of Our Fathers is one of his best. This is as it should be. Who better to make a movie about heroes than a hero himself?

Strange Magic

The Prestige is the biggest pile of incomprehensible gibberish to hit the screen since M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. This is the latest product of loopy brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, whose libidinous fantasies work overtime to turn paranoia, confusion and insanity into art movies like the despicable Memento. On his own, brother Christopher also directed the paralyzing Batman Begins, the worst Batman movie ever made, which was also the only pretentious Batman movie ever made. Dedicated to the premise that no movie that makes sense is worth making at all, these hacks have dumped their worst faults into The Prestige. Worse yet, it’s a whacking bore.

Jumping around in time like a jet-propelled pogo stick, it tells an incoherent tale of rival magicians in the 19th century that derails the talents of Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. Mr. Jackman has the best act, but Mr. Bale has the best trick (getting out of his chains inside a water tank), so his jealous opponent sends his mistress (Scarlett Johansson, who seems to have a new movie out every six weeks) to steal his secrets. Nice to see her reunited with her co-star from Scoop, but she foolishly betrays him by falling in love with Mr. Bale and sleeping with them both, which turns their rivalry deadly. To get even, Mr. Bale switches the locks, Mr. Jackman goes to a watery grave, and Mr. Bale goes to the gallows. Or do they? After making an object disappear, “the prestige” is the part of an illusion where the sorcerer brings it back. It’s like The Illusionist, a movie that was more clever and entertaining, only in The Prestige both magicians have doubles in disguises, giving you two magicians for the price of one, and providing Mr. Jackman and Mr. Bale with four roles to play instead of two. Chock full of betrayals and double-crosses too complicated for a rational viewer to even begin to figure out, the movie is more infuriating and contrived than suspenseful and clever. At the end, critics stood around in clusters asking things like “Who was the man in the beard?” “Why did Christian Bale cut his finger off?” “If Hugh Jackman came back to life, then who drowned in the tank onstage?” “We saw his body at the morgue, so how could he appear in the end?” In my opinion, movies shouldn’t be this much work. The older Michael Caine gets, the thicker his accent grows. In this film, he needs subtitles. David Bowie is unrecognizable. If somebody is going to turn me into a puzzlehead, let it be Pedro Almodóvar. And if somebody is going to convince me that it is safe to go back to the movies, let it be Clint Eastwood. The Prestige is handsome to look at, but it doesn’t make one lick of sense, nothing about it is worth the trouble of untangling the muddle, and Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson should have stuck with Woody Allen.

Scottish Dross

It’s a shame they have to grow up. While Daniel Radcliffe, a.k.a. Harry Potter, goes naked on the London stage in Equus, his nerdy, orange-popsicle-haired sidekick Rupert Grint, a.k.a. Ron Weasley, appears on the big screen in a woeful British effort called Driving Lessons. He plays Ben, a weird 17-year-old going on 12, who lives with an overbearing, religiously obsessed mother (“Whatever happens behind these walls, we’re God’s ambassadors!”) played by a sadly miscast Laura Linney, and a somber, evangelical vicar father (Nicholas Farrell) who puts out a parish magazine called Hello, Jesus! No wonder Ben is depressed and shy to the verge of catatonia. He has so little interest in life that when he meets a rude, tipsy and terminally eccentric old has-been named Dame Evie, who says the F-word a lot and performs Shakespeare in her garden, it’s love at first sight. He doesn’t have a driver’s license, but she hires him as her chauffeur by falsely convincing him that she’s dying, and they’re off to one adventure after another that are only slightly less exhilarating than clipping toenails.

Dame Evie is played by Julie Walters, who plays Mr. Grint’s mother in the Harry Potter franchise and chews scenery like gum. This odd movie gives her a role that would be better off in the hands of Dame Maggie or Dame Judi, as well as the chance to say things like “My tits are time bombs!” She can often lighten the darkest scenarios, but surrounded by this dross, she only occasionally manages it. She does, however, light a fire under Ben, who takes her on a camping trip and leaves home without permission to escort her to a poetry reading in Scotland. He’s too proper to have any fun, but he does manage to lose his virginity with a sexy publicist at the Edinburgh Festival. “Thank you for having me,” he says the next morning. Life was never like this at Hogwart’s.

Driving Lessons was directed and written by Jeremy Brock, whose famous film Mrs. Brown served as a much better vehicle for Judi Dench. The talents of young Mr. Grint do not appear to extend beyond the ability to look terminally befuddled. A Scottish Harold and Maude, with none of the charm.

Clint’s Flags Flying High