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Battle cry: Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers.

The Price of War

By Laura Leon

Flags of our Fathers

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Growing up, we spent every July 4th parked on the lawn of the country club, sitting on blankets atop big Buicks, anxiously awaiting the big fireworks display. My father would stand next to the car, his arm protectively guarding me from toppling down off the top. Usually calm, he would be uncharacteristically rigid during these times, like he could barely stay within his skin, his arm and jaw tensed to the breaking point. It wasn’t until years later, when my mother mentioned in passing that Dad could barely stand the sound of firecrackers, that the reality of his memories of his four years of active service in the Pacific during World War II hit me. Here was a normal guy, living a normal life with wife, children, and job, and he was haunted daily by the horrors of what he had seen and done.

I bring this up because it encapsulates perfectly the heart of Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers. Based on the book by Thomas McCarthy and Ron Powers, and adapted for film by William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis, the movie tells the story of three of the raisers of the flag at Iwo Jima (one of the more brutal battles in the Pacific), their ensuing fame, and, most important, the aftereffects of battle. Joe Rosenthal’s accidental shot of the flag raising—actually, the second such raising that day—created an iconic image that spoke of heroism, hope and determination. Not incidentally, the picture became a rallying point for the government to raise much-needed money to continue to finance and finish the war, and so, flag raisers Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) were plucked from battle and sent home to embark on an ambitious war-bond drive.

The movie goes back and forth in time, following three narratives. The weakest of these is the attempt by Doc’s grown son James (Thomas McCarthy) to piece together the story of what really happened on Mount Suribachi and to the men who were there. The other two narratives are strong enough that we, the audience, don’t need to hear the aged veterans in the son’s story tell us things like, “You don’t die for a cause, you die for your friends.” As the servicemen traverse the country, being feted by politicos and fawned over by adoring females, they experience anguish over what they’ve witnessed, and a profound sense of loss for their dead comrades and those left behind to finish the battle, which took several more weeks. The flash of a camera bulb, or an ice-cream mold of the flag raising, can immediately transport them back to the nightmare that was Iwo Jima. Ira, in particular, can barely function in the face of such loss, and increasingly relies on alcohol to get him through.

By far the most effective moments are in the battle scenes, aided by Tom Stern’s outstanding, stark cinematography. While bravery is certainly acknowledged, the underriding element is that soldiers do what they have to do in order to survive; what is so often mistaken as heroism is, more often, dumb luck. Doc, Rene and Ira know this all too well, but it’s a truth that the people back home, then as well as now, don’t really want to know.

If there’s something wrong with Flags of our Fathers, it’s that there is no emotional payoff, perhaps because the movie wanders too far into the story of Tom’s search for the truth. The servicemen have their moment in the sun, they do the job of raising the necessary money needed to supply our troops both in the Pacific and in Europe, and then, they go home, or back to the front. Doc and Rene end up living normal lives, whereas Ira, shattered by his memories, limps along for years. As the saying goes, old soldiers never die, they just fade away, and in this, the movie is true to the spirit of countless other veterans who came home and tried to resume “normal” life. That said, the actual photographs that appear on the screen during the closing credits bring home, almost more than anything that went on before, the extent of the price we extract from the men we send to fight.

Tasty Pastry

Marie Antoinette

Directed by Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola’s candy-colored film about the doomed 18th-century French queen looks good enough to eat. Almost every shot is an explosion of reds and blues and golds and greens as extravagant as the wealth of the era being re-created. Of course, there’s also the not-incidental point being made that the brilliant hues of the clothes, food and décor are as irresistible as many of the people whose lives they are meant to ornament are repellent.

But the latter category does not include the title character, because Coppola clearly admires and—being Hollywood royalty herself—empathizes with her protagonist. Coppola’s sympathy for Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst, as perky and pleased with herself as a head cheerleader) and her lump of a royal husband, Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman, amusingly dull), isn’t new; the 1938 MGM version, just out on DVD, is one long, tedious orgy of sucking up to royalty and privilege.

What is new is an absolute absence of judgment on their obscene wealth. There are no cutaways to the suffering masses; the only suffering is Marie’s, at the hands of her court rivals. It could be argued that this is sort of grotesque, but having the film hew so closely to Marie’s point of view gives us an insight into and sympathy for her character that feels fresh.

The bare outlines of Marie Antoinette’s life are familiar: An Austrian princess is married off to the heir to the French throne; becomes queen; lives it up for a couple of decades; and, finally, loses her head to a revolution she neither foresees nor understands. Coppola covers this territory dutifully, but playfully: Her cheeky blending of ’80s pop by the likes of Bow Wow Wow and New Order with gorgeous period music by Jean-Philippe Rameau is only the most obvious provocation.

Coppola revels in the insane minutia of French court procedure. Marie gets her first taste of this when she first arrives at the French border, and is forced to strip naked and change her clothes, so as not to pollute France with the presence of Austrian-made garments. This is very amusing, but Coppola soon establishes that there is as much terror as humor in the rigid rules for royals—and it doesn’t hurt that the finger-wagging comtesse hovering over Marie is played by the coolly fearsome Judy Davis.

In addition to the leads, there are entertaining performances by Rip Torn as randy old Louis XV and Asia Argento as his mistress, DuBarry; Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson as vicious court ladies; and Steve Coogan as the well-meaning Austrian ambassador.

The real star, however, is the director herself. While some may find this too-long-by-20-minutes biopic a bit too indulgent to its subject, it’s hard to imagine the filmmaker taking this criticism to heart. Coppola might even suggest that her detractors eat, well, cake.

—Shawn Stone

Now You See It

The Prestige

Directed by Christopher Nolan

In the opening narration to Chris topher Nolan’s astonishing new puzzler, The Prestige, a theatrical engineer named Cutter (Michael Caine) explains the three parts to a successful illusion. The parts are the Pledge (promising the trick), the Turn (performing the trick), and the Prestige, in which the trick is honorably transposed, and which has multiplying meanings within the film. Even more so than in Memento (also co-written by Nolan with his brother Jonathan), The Prestige is a puzzle box of a film that takes on added resonance with each twist of the plot.

Based on the novel by Christopher Priest, the film reveals those twists with escalating speed. The plot revolves around a magic trick called the Transported Man, an illusion that requires the magician to enter one door and exit from another door in an inhumanly short amount of time. Alfred Borden (Christopher Bale) invents the trick but doesn’t have the showmanship to perform it to its fullest potential. Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) is a consummate showman, but his repertoire doesn’t have the originality of Borden’s tricks. Their obsessive rivalry will devour almost everything in their path, and that’s saying a lot: Set in turn-of-the-century London (a time when magicians were among the most famous celebrities of the day), The Prestige summons and transforms this era of convulsive change with mesmerizing aplomb.

Cutter’s opening narration is delivered from the witness box in a murder trial. The film then flashes back to the early in the careers of Borden and Angier, who work as stagehands for an aging magician. Prophetically, they argue over what knot to use on the stage assistant, who is Angier’s wife. The story then covers their alternating rises to fame and misfortune, during which Borden marries an impoverished Cockney girl (Rebecca Hall) and Angier hires a gorgeous assistant (Scarlett Johansson). Though slightly obvious as symbols of Victorian romanticism, both women are fully realized emotionally. Much of the film’s appeal comes in the discussion and presentation of historic tricks such as the Bullet Catch (a trick so deadly Houdini wouldn’t perform it); each act serves as a setup for ensuing developments, even as the storyline doubles back on itself.

Several historical people (Chung Ling Soo, Thomas Edison) walk on the cusp of the magicians’ dizzyingly psychological vortex; of them, Nikola Tesla (David Bowie, in a terse gem of a performance) makes the most dramatic entrance, walking unscathed through bolts of alternating electric currents at his laboratory in Colorado. Tesla’s involvement allows the filmmakers their most haunting imagery (a field of light bulbs glows like irradiated seedlings) and dialogue: “Tesla isn’t a magician,” says one character, “he’s a wizard.”

Elegantly atmospheric, the film captures the arrival of a new era in applied science with subdued panache. An extraordinary feat of filmmaking, The Prestige ends with a denouement that serves as a reminder that “prestige” is Latin for illusion.

— Ann Morrow


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