War is tragic until fed through the media, then it's heroic. Flags of Our Fathers opens with an anguished soldier running through a pulverized battlefield; the camera zooms into his horrified eyes to reveal it as an old man's memory, or the lingering toll of the past on a collective consciousness, perhaps. In any case, Americans prefer history with "easy-to-understand truths and damn few words," and Clint Eastwood thusly analyzes his subject, namely the snapshot of the six U.S. flag-raisers atop Mt. Suribachi during the taking of Iwo Jiwa. Joe Rosenthal's 1944 photograph made the front page of the New York Times to become an indelible WWII image and an instant symbol of Yankee courage and perseverance; a pose requires faces, so three surviving flag-raisers, John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) are promptly shipped from the battlefront to the spotlight as hero-celebrities. The iconic moment was really a flag-replacement maneuver, but war bonds must be sold, and "that's the story we're selling, boys" -- they become war-effort mascots, shaking hands at ceremony after ceremony. Eastwood shoots in ashen, naval grays, sallow uniform tones, and engulfing darkness, and cuts from a man being bayoneted to a raucous ocean of red-white-and-blue, the "Vict'ry Polka" welcoming the protagonists; shelling turns into fireworks as they are made to climb a papier-mâché replica of Mt. Suribachi to cheering crowds, tragic reality reenacted as entertainment, a most withering critique of United 93.
Crash came in between Million Dollar Baby and Flags of Our Fathers, so patronizing blabbermouth Paul Haggis's unmistakable hand in the screenwriting is clearer here -- the director can try to cut away at the blubber, but he's still left with Haggis's exclamation points (Bradley's "So much for no man left behind" as destroyers sail past a drowning grunt, "Goddamn Indians" as Hayes finds that his uniform can't dim prejudice). Steven Spielberg, who co-produced, is as dubious an influence in this project as he was in Poltergeist: Eastwood's intimate, handheld scuttling on the beachfront segues into a tracking shot following two men carrying a mangled body, then cranes up for a panoramic view of the CGI-filled slaughter. So this may not be a "pure" Eastwood work like, say, True Crime or Blood Work, yet its scrupulous scrutiny of societal notions of heroism and masculinity projected on troubled characters is closer to Ford's They Were Expendable or Wellman's The Story of G.I. Joe (to say nothing of the filmmaker's own gnarled loners) than to Saving Private Ryan -- not a last word on WWII epics but a human-sized contemplation of propaganda and fame, battlefield experience and its public packaging, moral exploitation and personal dignity. No squinting is needed here to spot the toppling of Saddam's statue or Bush's "Mission Accomplished" strut, though some critics insist there's no need for another heroism-debunking portrait, just as they miss the pared-down poetry of a veteran who continues to slash deep in his inquiry. (The film is only half an epic: Letters from Iwo Jiwa next year provides the myth's alternative perspective.) Eastwood questions the printing of the legend, but a more appropriate John Ford quote for his ambivalence might be Anna Lee's line in Fort Apache about the departing soldiers: "All I can see are the flags."
The cellophane-wrapped lollipop Marie Antoinette might be the polar opposite of the strict military ration of Flags of Our Fathers if both movies weren't equally bent on examining characters caught in the flow of history and in their own entrapping iconography -- while Eastwood cracks the bronze mold of heroism to find the anxiety within, Sofia Coppola eases her kittenish heroine into historical privilege only to subtly reveal the airlessness of the dollhouse. Infamous as an inveterate squanderer shopping till dropping while the unwashed masses starved to death in 18th-century France, Marie Antoinette arrives with plenty of baggage, though, as Flags notes, icons are fabricated -- imported from her native Austria in 1770 to marry the shy, awkward French dauphin (Jason Schwartzman), 14-year-old Marie (Kirsten Dunst) startles the welcoming committee by spontaneously hugging the severe courtier (Judy Davis) after a long carriage ride. Soon she's been stripped, corseted, powdered, rouged, bewigged and parachuted into the lavish expanses of Versailles, where her every gesture is on display for the court and getting dressed in the morning is a momentous ritual attended by hordes of servants. The wedding goes unconsummated for years, the need for an heir becomes more pressing as the King (Rip Torn) dies and the dauphin is crowned Louis XVI; Queen Marie, rattling inside the palatial walls, digs into the luxury of possessions and parties, although a reverse tracking shot from the balcony reveals a soul lost and dwarfed by the role imposed on her.
Lacking Eastwood's somber, manly introspection, the giddy feminine meditation of Marie Antoinette becomes all too vulnerable in circles where a young woman's essence is far less worthy a cinematic subject than men in war -- Coppola's unmissable identification with her protagonist has predictably turned the film into her own let-them-eat-cake gesture in the eyes of many a reviewer, who readily trotted out the Valley Gal lingo for knee-jerk derision. Since they were unmoved by the tableaux and baffled by the wittily anachronistic soundtrack (Gang of Four, New Order, Aphex Twin, Bow Wow Wow), maybe a Paul Haggis rewrite might appease the writers who have come to Coppola with torches and pitchforks demanding political critique. But the film's trajectory is not so much into regency as towards adulthood, a process that, after The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, has become so dreamily expressive for the director that David Edelstein can officially identify Marie's nude ass as Coppola's "signature shot." It's less an image than a mood that Coppola is after, however, the fragilely evanescent timbre of Dunst's Marie toasting the rising sun with champagne on her first morning as an 18-year-old -- the passage of time in a rarefied world where one's existence remains achingly uncertain. Shopping and partying virtually become the displaced heroine's way of leaving an imprint in life, and, in a way, her own revolution; as tenderly as the film photographs both the queen and all her surrounding opulence, Coppola is in the end no more indulgent of Marie's stunted ignorance than Rossellini was of Louis XIV's luxurious surfaces. Marie Antoinette is the tragedy of a woman's hermetic reverie, into which reality at last intrudes only to propel her from life into history, from one stiffling cocoon to another.
Eastwood and Coppola gaze back to connect to human truths, but to Christopher Nolan the past is nothing more than resplendent sets of clothes to dress up his vacuous pretensions. Victorian London is sumptuously mounted in The Prestige, although the recreation is set for the kind of ludicrous blockbuster showdown better fit to, well, the filmmaker's own silly Batman Begins. Indeed, the new picture is also about superheroes and superpowers, only here under the guise of the turn-of-the-century stage conjuring that brings the dueling adversaries (Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale) together. The key to the magic trick can destroy lives, but the maker of Memento has always preferred gimmicks and shallow cleverness over people, so his usual fractured rhythm palpitates more around the paraphernalia of trickery than the fate of the characters. "People are happy to be mystified," a top-hatted David Bowie murmurs, which may explain the success of both The Prestige and The Illusionist (the hocus-pocus period thriller -- my new least favorite genre); critics likening this risible inanity to the dark arts and to the magic of cinema itself are only encouraging more of the same.
Reviewed October 26, 2006.