Friday, October 20, 2006

The Queen

Early on in Stephen Frears’ The Queen, Elizabeth II sits for a portrait. It also happens to be Britain’s election day. When the painter remarks that he’s already gone to cast his vote, Helen Mirren’s QEII tells him she envies him—he and his private right to “the sheer joy of being partial.” It’s a telling moment, to be sure, and many reviewers have picked up on the line as a touchstone to appreciating what Frears does with the backstory of Princess Diana’s death. But that angle—the reigning monarch’s serious and sacrificial vow to live for the country first and self second, and for as long as she lives (as the Queen Mum has to remind her daughter at one frustrated point)—really only deals with part of the story.

The setting for the film is the fateful days 1997. Just months prior to the tragedy that would cause almost an entire nation to grieve, Labor Party candidate Tony Blair sweeps into power in what is tantamount to a populist revolution against the conservative regimes of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Of course, according to British Law, the election results mean nothing without the formal invitation of the reigning monarch; so Prime Minister-elect Blair and wife Cherie pay their first visit to the Queen. And Blair gets a concise education about status, privilege, and protocol. Quite coolly. The Queen is not amused with the Blairs’ informality, or Cherie’s openly anti-monarchist sentiments, and arranges for a pre-emptory termination to the interview.

The ice of the relationship eventually thaws due to Blair’s handling of government affairs in the wake of Princess Diana’s death on August 31 of that year. As the royal family sequesters itself in its Balmoral, Scotland estate that first week of September, Blair—completely at sea with the stiffness, emotional distance, and political myopia of royal tradition—is left to handle both the media and the populace alone. Oddly enough, while some parties (including both Blair’s wife and speechwriter) see in the moment an opportunity to bring pro-monarchy sentiment to its knees, Blair ends up seeing something quite different. So the film becomes not only about the Queen’s sense of isolation and duty, but also about Blair’s sensitivity to the royal predicament.

In addition, the film is—and perhaps most tellingly—about the pursuit of beauty. There’s a reason that the royal family treasures its privacy so, and it’s more than mere issues of stodgy respect and decorum. As the film delicately reminds us, there’s a certain level of danger attached to the public fascination with personalities. That pursuit can kill people, as it so tragically did with Diana; and there’s a certain gory irony in Frears’ incorporation of actual paparazzi footage of Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Luciano Pavarotti, and Elton John at Diana’s funeral. Frears pulls no punches in emphasizing the culpability of the overly-aggressive press who are intent on sating the public’s endless appetites. In one fine moment, Frears’ camera punctuates the point by refusing to follow Prince Charles into the room where Diana’s body lies.

But Frears isn’t satisfied with even that direct or delicate a commentary. Instead, he uses a wry parallel to the pastimes of the royal family to make a more universal statement.

The very day that Diana’s death is confirmed, Prince Philip suggests some outdoor activity to distract Harry and William—a deer hunt. A magnificent stag has been sighted on the estate, and the men of the family take to the hills in wet and patient pursuit. “How cold!” the movie asks us to react. “How crass!” But screenwriter Peter Morgan isn’t done with that storyline yet.

A couple of days later, the Queen drives out alone to join the hunters. As she comes to a river crossing, she reluctantly guns her Land Rover into the ford. But the vehicle breaks down in midstream, and Elizabeth is forced to summon help. As she waits, the weight of her emotions overwhelms her and she, too, breaks down—and the stag appears on the river bank behind her, magnificent, glorious, beautiful, spiritual, and earthy. She stirs from her emotional reverie and urges the stag to flee. She turns away to look for the hunters, and when she turns back the stag has vanished, as if it were an apparition.

When the family finally agrees to travel to London for a memorial service, the Queen gets news that the stag has been killed on a neighboring estate. And Diana’s death seems to take on new significance for her. She understands the public fascination with beauty, and she grasps the persistent pursuit of the ultimate headshot.

What is “stalking”—the British term for hunting—all about? Is there any difference between what Philip and the boys do, and what a photographer does on back of a motorcycle in France? Frears seems not to think so; and yet he finds neither crass irony nor indictment in that observation. Instead, like Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair, he finds that we are all a great deal alike, and that there is profound humanity in us all.

Mirren, not incidentally, is a marvel as the queen. I have never been a big fan of Mirren’s work, as it’s difficult for me to separate Mirren the actor from the characters she plays. But she won me over here, and may have for life, regardless of her personal quirks and politics.

This is filmmaking at its best, if not its most titillating or expensive. If you’re looking for a Disney theme park ride, rent Dead Man’s Chest again; but if you’re looking for a thoughtful and brilliantly written, performed, and directed commentary on why we find Johnny Depp and Kiera Knightly so fascinating—and what the cost of that fascination can be—then this is the movie for you.

The Queen is rated PG-13 for “brief strong language.” Good heavens. I doubt many children under thirteen would have the least interest in this film; but the language would scar them far less than fifteen minutes in any grade school restroom. Once more, the comparison to any PG-13 Ace Ventura movie makes this rating seem preposterous. How about “Rated PG-13 for a bit of strong language and soberly adult content that will try the patience of most children”? That I could live with.

Flags of Our Fathers

Somewhere back in my teenage years, I sat down of a Saturday afternoon and watched a black-and-white film about Ira Hayes, the American Indian who was one of the soldiers in that famous flag-raising photo atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi. The film was The Outsider, starring Tony Curtis as Hayes and directed by Delbert Mann (Marty, Desire Under the Elms, That Touch of Mink). It was a startling portrait of the dark side of World War II, and of the ill treatment of at least one of our soldiers. Here’s hoping that Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers affects others in the way that The Outsider affected me. I think it was a good thing.

Certainly, the script by William Broyles, Jr., and Oscar-winner Paul Haggis heads the same direction. Based on the memoir that James Bradley wrote of his father (Hayes’ comrade-in-arms and medic “Doc” Bradley), the film tells an alternate history of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. That is, it tells the “true story” of what “really” happened on that day, and to the six men who raised that flag, rather than the various apocryphal versions that were either invented for publicity purposes or were passed on through poor recollection or whisper-game hearsay.

The story is told mostly from Doc Bradley’s point of view—and from the point of view of his son, James, who is trying to understand what really happened on Iwo Jima and why his father would never talk about it. James does not uncover the real story via TV, as I did, but in letters he finds after his father dies. In those letters, Doc speaks of the dreams and nightmares that haunt him—like the one that opens the movie. The voiceover narration declares, “Every jackass thinks he knows what war is.” Off we go. And Clint Eastwood more than willingly adds himself to that list.

It just so happens that the jackass writing this review is very sympathetic to what Eastwood’s film has to say, particular given my indoctrination at the hands of The Outsider. Right away, Flags’ script affirms that heroes and villains are “not what we think they are,” and Eastwood unfolds the action in such a way that we see the sense in that statement.

First, the film jumps back and forth between James Bradley’s contemporary sleuthing and his father’s recollected war experience. As we work out the relationship between mystery-figure father and son, we are also slowly introduced to Doc’s fellow soldiers—so slowly, in fact, that often we are confused about just who Hank is, and who Harlon is. We don’t exactly know who Iggy is in relation to these men, or where he’s gotten to. We aren’t at all sure what makes Hayes tick, and whether Gagnon is a good egg or a potential backstabber. Yet the confusion, while counterproductive to straightforward narrative, does help communicate Doc’s bewilderment in that final, fatal foxhole.

Next, the film crosscuts between the action on Iwo Jima and the equally disturbing follow-on campaign on the homefront. Gagnon, Bradley, and an extremely reluctant Hayes, as the surviving three members of that squad, are recalled to the States to help the Government wage the financial battle that the struggle in the Pacific represents. Three years into the war, public sentiment for the effort is flagging, and that means empty coffers. There’s no more money to be lent by foreign governments, so the only remaining way to finance Japan’s defeat is through war bonds. That famous photo (plus these three soldiers) is the key to turning the corner. If the latest bond drive fails, the U.S. might simply have to sue for peace and throw in the towel. As photographer Joe Rosenthal observes in the film, “The right picture can win or lose a war.”

So what kind of picture is Flags of Our Fathers, and is it the right kind of picture to sway public sentiment one way or the other?

Well, first, Flags makes the same kinds of points that The Outsider did, and probably just as effectively. It tells us that there are fine lines between heroes and villains, that there are sometimes good reasons that our heroes don’t want to talk about their deeds—that the cruelty of war “is unbelievable.” As Hayes says in this film, “Some of the things I did, I saw… They weren’t things to be proud of.” Or, as Iwo Jima vet and author Bob Allen has remarked, “The Marine I worked most closely with in my squad collected two tobacco sacks of gold teeth on Iwo. I would trust the man with my life, but I did not cotton to his values, and there are others I would trust with my life, but I would not trust them with my sister.” War does strange things to men, and to their souls. But this is not a new message. We’ve heard that story many times before.

Second, I’m not sure if Flags is a strong enough or compelling enough statement to sway anyone’s opinion about anything. The first complicating factor on that score is that Clint Eastwood’s films are always somewhat ambiguous, allowing a viewer to draft a variety of conclusions. The only clear statement I get from the film seems to be, “If a nation has the stomach to start a war, knowing what war does to people, it had darn well better have the stomach to see it through.”

The second complicating factor is that Flags didn’t tell me anything I already didn’t know, or wasn’t convinced of in the first place. It didn’t particularly engage or move me. But given that The Outsider was such vista-opening experience for me in my teens, it’s entirely possible that Flags may do the same for others. As with most Eastwood films, it’s certainly competent enough and well-acted.

But the final question is: Is Eastwood even trying to make that kind of picture, the kind that can make or break public opinion? We won’t really know the full answer on that score until we see part two of this story next February. Letters From Iwo Jima will tell the story from the Japanese point of view. But Eastwood has said, “I just want the people who see the picture to feel how the story happened, how these skinny kids were affected, and how they were a lot tougher than we are today.”

Still, the film’s official website declares, “A single shot can end the war.” That’s an interesting spin, isn’t it? Perhaps Eastwood thinks that the digital treatment of Abu Ghraib has already done the trick. Those have certainly been the definitive images of the Iraq War thus far. So much for ambiguity.

Flags is rated R for “sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language.” Fair warning. Still, I did not find it as graphic or foul-mouthed as Saving Private Ryan, if you’re looking for a benchmark. I also did not find it as propagandistic as Spielberg’s film; but that’s probably because Eastwood’s sensibilities typically appeal to me more than Spielberg’s do.

Sergeant Mike Was Here

When the Flags of Our Fathers press tour came to Seattle, MovieFreak’s Sara Fetters and I had a chance to talk with Barry Pepper, the veteran actor of Saving Private Ryan and We Were Soldiers, among other films. In Flags, Pepper plays Sergeant Mike Strank, the platoon leader who shepherds his grunts through the opening days of the battle for Iwo Jima.

GW: What do you feel that Flags of Our Fathers adds to the war genre, in particular?

Primarily, for me, the reason I was as excited as I was to sign on to the project was that there was a complementary film being done right after we shot Flags of Our Fathers, called Letters From Iwo Jima, with Japanese actors, in Japanese, in Japan. For me, this revolutionized the war film genre. Not since maybe Tora, Tora, Tora! has there really been a project that has humanized the enemy perspective the way that Eastwood has undertaken with that project. If you would have asked me ten years ago if I would have been part of three war films, I would have said, you’re ridiculous! But an opportunity like this is so new, and so interesting and unique—that particular approach to the war-film genre, and primarily it’s the story—I thought that was really interesting and courageous.

GW: Do you know if that film is going to include clips of the American characters from Flags of Our Fathers the way this film included clips of the Japanese characters?

I think some. But as you probably noticed in watching Flags, there weren’t a lot of Japanese shots. That was just the way that Iwo unfolded. It was just a subterranean deathtrap. They didn’t see the enemy for those thirty-six days. Very rarely did they see a live Japanese soldier. And so Clint shot it that way consciously; that’s why he went to do Letters from Iwo, so you could see the Japanese side of the story. So yes, the movie will share some footage, but it’s an entirely unique storyline.

GW: Right. The Iwo scenes in this movie are shot from Doc’s point of view.

And Iwo will be more of General Kuribayashi and his men, their point of view. I think it’s quite different in the sense that the iconic image of the Mount Suribachi photograph is at the center of our film, whereas theirs is quite different, probably the preparation and design of Iwo Jima, the sixteen miles of concrete-reinforced tunnels and network system, the twenty-one thousand Japanese soldiers that were there in place—all the politics that went into Kuribayashi being assigned the post. The Bushido bloodlines in his family were samurai, so for him to be assigned Iwo was quite a humiliation. He knew going in to Iwo Jima that he would lose the island emphatically, and General Holland M. Smith knew that he would win at Iwo Jima. It was just a matter of attrition, and what they were both willing to lose to achieve that result. But Kuribayashi absolutely knew that he would lose Iwo, and that he would die there, so he ordered his men to each take ten American Marines before they died. The Japanese soldiers knew they would die there, so it was just a matter of taking those ten American lives before they met that end. It was a very different approach to the battle and I think each side lost twenty thousand casualties, so it was heavy, heavy losses in those thirty-six days. But I think Clint found it fascinating, those two different perspectives. The Marines trained with more emphasis on survival, whereas the Japanese trained with the idea that surrender was the ultimate humiliation, so survival really wasn’t a focus in their training.

SF: As you said, this is your third big war film. How do you prepare for these now?

This was very different. We knew coming in that there would be no formal rehearsal and no boot camp training, so we all came very prepared. As much as we could, we researched on our own before we got there. Obviously, James Bradley’s book, Flags of Our Fathers, was incredible source material for all of us. You could have made ten films about it. There were a tremendous number of other books and websites about Iwo Jima. Personally, that’s how I prepared. And of course, you prepare physically. But when we got there, I think we had maybe two or three days to get to know one another before we started the invasion sequences, the battle sequences, so we really had to bond quickly. People just kind of fell into their roles; it happened organically, which was nice. You never know what is going to happen when you arrive in a situation like that. There are so many different methods and styles that actors approach their work from, and it can be a pretty fragile ecosystem at first. You don’t want to step on each other’s toes. But you’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do, so you try to get along. We were fortunate that we had a great group of guys that were really excited to get down to work. We also knew by default that we would be left in the dust if we didn’t. Clint just works so fast, and he doesn’t spend any time holding hands and explaining motivations, and that sort of thing. He just expects that he’s hired a thinking actor who can work his way through the film. I remember one day there was a series of explosions and machinegun fire, a very chaotic sequence that we had to run with grenades and live weapons to take this Japanese bunker. And I was just going through the pattern of it with him to make sure that I didn’t do anything that would mess up the shot, and he looked at me and said, “We’ve come this far; let’s not screw it up by thinking.” This was in the first few days, so you learn right away that that’s his style, and after a while you learn to thrive on it, because it’s electric. On other films, there’s so much down time and you over-rehearse things, endlessly. You dialogue about things endlessly, and it takes the energy from it. You almost find yourself having to act because you have to get yourself back to that raw, organic place that you were in before you ever thought about it. If you have to just sort of leap into it, like Clint asks you to, you don’t ever think about it. You’re in the moment completely.

GW: Reacting rather than acting.

Exactly. John Huston directed the same way, minimalist and unintrusive. You soon realize, what a wonderful way to work as an actor. “He really believes in my ability! He hired me for a reason, he saw that I had these sensibilities as an actor that could handle this approach.” It’s a maturing process, for sure, because you do often get your hand held by a lot of directors in the business. They’re so nervous that their $90 million epic is just going to get away from them, so they go over everything meticulously. Sometimes that can be a real stifling way to work.

GW: Now, you’ve worked with some of America’s best directors—Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, obviously. Is Clint’s approach more typical of the big-budget directors?

Absolutely prototypical. The best and most courageous directors in the business are very much like that. Steven was that way, so was Spike, Tony Scott—and Tommy Lee Jones, too. I just finished working with him, and he’s a tremendous director. And also Billy Crystal. It’s interesting with Tommy Lee and Billy, both actors with tremendous filmographies, they really understand the neurotic mind of the actor, that you can’t really approach actors directly, that you have to kind of have to couch everything in stories and jokes, in interesting anecdotes. It’s like planting a seed that will later blossom. The actors feel like they came up with it themselves. It empowers the performances to feel organic, but really there’s probably been years of thought have gone into that approach. Yet they never reveal it to you, which is wonderful. All of those men that I just mentioned, they’re very, very intelligent, interesting people who have led tremendously fascinating lives. So they have lots to draw on, but what’s nice is that they don’t overwhelm you with too much literal direction. That takes away the exploration of it for the actor.

SF: This movie is really concerned with what heroism is, the definition of heroism. Did you go in with your own definition, and did that change by the time you finished the film?

I think I already had a broader, more libertarian view of that definition from doing Private Ryan, just because I had had the opportunity to meet veterans and speak on military bases where there are these young men and women who are going off to Afghanistan and Iraq—you’re meeting them either coming or going. And I sat with young veterans at dinners in Washington, and at Viet Nam memorial dinners—and here’s a young Army captain who’s lost her arm in Iraq, and she’s got a prosthetic arm. She’s just this lovely young woman who has dedicated her life to the military and was in an IED explosion in Iraq and lost her arm. She was a star basketball player before she left. And so you start to get the background on these young people, and what they’ve sacrificed. And then you turn on CNN and see these families in Alaska who are expecting their loved ones home, and there’s kids at home, or young wives or young husbands—and either these soldiers die just days before they’re about to return, or their tours get extended. And those things really redefine your view of heroism right away. You start to realize that it’s not just somebody who saves the cat out of the tree. Nowadays, it seems like “hero” has become an epithetical term for anyone who does anything mildly generous. So Flags reinforced that, that these necessary illusions of heroism are not anything unique to this movie or this iconic photograph—this is just part of the propaganda of war that is time-eternal.

GW: For Sergeant Mike, it seems like his pivotal heroic moment is when he declines a promotion so that he can fulfill his promise to his men to bring them home, so that he can actually be in the field with them. But this has got to be kind of a different experience for you, because in We Were Soldiers, your character’s point of view drove the storytelling. Here, Sergeant Mike is kind of peripheral to the storytelling. How is that different for you as an actor, in terms of interacting with the storyline from that point forward?

Not too different in the way that I approach it. You obviously commit the same amount of passion and energy to your character. You’re serving the story, serving a greater story, so you understand going into it that you’ve got a certain select amount of scenes and that you’re not the lead, and that it’s a huge ensemble so you’re serving a broader theme and not just your character’s actions. But I absolutely connected with that character as soon as I read the script and the book. In fact, I’d been offered another role, and I asked Clint if he would consider allowing me to play the role of Mike Strank because he wasn’t your prototypical Marine—the sergeant barking out orders and yelling at his men, getting in their faces and chomping on a cigar and this kind of stuff. He was just this 24-year old kid. But what was kind of amazing about him was that he was a veteran of some of the bloodiest campaigns in the Pacific—Bougainville in the Solomon Islands, Pavuvu and Uvea and all these really horrible campaigns that he’d seen before Iwo Jima. And at 24, all these 18 and 19 year old kids in his unit looked up to him like he was the old man. And yet he was just a baby himself. I really liked that dynamic of their friendship. Here he was, their commander, their leader, and yet in the film you’d never know that because we created a lot of scenes where he was just playing cards and hanging out with the guys and listening to music. I just thought that was so unique, these young kinds just relying on one another to get themselves through this extraordinary circumstance.

SF: And your character is very important to the three main characters that we follow through most of the film.

Yes, these men loved each other. They were surrogate family. That’s a very common theme in combat. It’s not anything unique to Mike and his men, or Iwo Jima for that matter. It was just the first time I’d seen an opportunity to play a character like that. In war film history, anyway, you don’t see that too often, where the sergeant is just one of the guys even though he’s having to lead them and order them to their deaths, essentially. They would have walked across the hot coals of hell with him because he led by example and he truly loved them, and promised, perhaps naively, each of them that he’d bring them home to their mothers. It’s probably just the innocence of youth that connected them. He wasn’t that much their senior. Again, it’s not that unique in war. You see that in Iraq, you see that in Afghanistan. We just don’t get to see it on film because everybody wants to play the tough guy and the hero. As soon as you put on that uniform and you get handed your weapon, all of a sudden you see people change. They want to deepen their voices, and chomp on a cigar.

SF: It must kind of a kid-in-a-candy-store experience when you walk on to the battlefield all dressed up.

For me, not so much on this project or We Were Soldiers, but when I first stepped onto the battlefield in Saving Private Ryan, that kind of thing was certainly in the air. “Wow! We’re playing soldiers with Tom Hanks!” Then you slowly start to realize that there’s a huge responsibility that comes with this, and I’m going to enjoy this thoroughly—but there’s a lot of work to be done. You realize that in releasing a film like that, being part of a film like that, you have to answer to a lot of questions, and there’s a lot veterans that want to talk about it. It releases a lot of dialogue for people—emotions, maybe even closure for a lot of veterans. So you realize, wow, I’m a part of something a lot bigger than just playing soldier.

GW: In early talk about the casting process, Eastwood was reportedly looking for actors who were actually the age of their characters.

And he did. He had Joseph Cross and Jamie Bell, who were 19 when we shot. When I first heard that, I thought, this is impossible. How are you going to find young actors who have the kind of ability to handle this subject matter? And he fortunately found some tremendous young guys.

GW: And your casting as Mike was perfect because of your past experience with Private Ryan and We Were Soldiers.

Yes, it just worked out that way.

GW: It brings not only the audience the weight of their past exposure to you, in those pictures, but it also seemed to work for your character.

It worked great for us as a group, too, because as I said we had no boot camp and no rehearsal. So anybody who had any problems with their gear or weapons jamming or anything, they’d just come to me. We learned to rely on each other rather than going to the military expert or the weapons master, or even the on-set medic. We’d go to Ryan Philippe, who played Doc. He had all of his real medical gear in his bags. And this was unique because, as I said, you never know when you get together with an ensemble of actors how they’re going to want to work, what their method is going to be. Sometimes it’s just, “Piss on this! I’m just going to show up when the cameras are rolling, and I’ll get into character.” But all the guys knew that would be a dire mistake on an Eastwood film, because you’d be left completely in the dust. You wouldn’t even be on camera if you weren’t completely prepared and constantly in the moment because he just shoots so fast. One take, no rehearsal, moving on. The chaos and the energy of those sequences were just enough to overwhelm you, if you weren’t ready. So they called me “Sarge” and I called Ryan “Doc,” everybody did; and if you got cut or hurt, or had a headache, you just went to Doc. You didn’t go to the on-set medic, who was supposed to handle those types of things. It just worked great because it kept all of us cohesive and just absolutely in character. There again, that was probably a seed that was planted by Eastwood. Unbeknownst to us at the time, he put us in the pressure-cooker immediately and you just have to figure it out. It’s not rocket science, of course, but he didn’t have to come to us and say, “Now, you guys are going to have to rely on one another. A good idea would be to stay in character.”

GW: No, that doesn’t seem like Eastwood.

SF: That doesn’t seem like something he’d do.

No. You know, you just got so caught up in the moment of the sequences, because they wouldn’t tell you, often, where the explosions were going off. So you’d get these amazing reactions from everyone, especially the young guys that hadn’t had much film experience. This giant mortar explosion would go off ten feet from you, and you’d get the concussion in your chest and the ground would shake. Not dangerous, because it was just an explosion of sand and no shrapnel. But it just lights you up. Your heart’s pounding and you’re tripping and falling, and you’ve got sand in your eyes. It’s just so real. I remember one sequence we had, we were in our foxhole and there were squib hits lit up all across the foxhole. One blew up in my face and split my lip open. At the end of the scene, I tasted blood in my mouth and the medic came up to me and said, “You’ve got to go to the hospital and get stitches.” And I went straight over to Clint and said, “They told me I’ve got to go to the hospital and get stitches, but I’m not leaving because I know you’ll shoot the whole day without me! I’ll be out of the movie!” And he laughed and nodded, knowing that he’s not the kind of guy who’s going to wait for you. He’ll shoot around you. So I said, “I’m staying.” And he said. “Good. Your lip’s a long way from your heart.” And this was exactly what I’d hoped for—when you do an Eastwood film, that’d you’d get to see a bit of that High Plains Drifter. And every now and then he’d let slip a little bit of Dirty Harry, and that was so much fun.

SF: How much did you film in Iceland?

The first two months. All the battle. It’s very detailed, a lot of very involved shooting. So two months there, and then we did some filming back in California, just some pick-up shots and decks of ships, things like that, where it was isolated to a room or a set. And then the three guys went and shot the bond tour in Chicago and various other places—Washington, and at the monument in Arlington.

SF: Did you actually visit Iwo Jima?

No, it was by military invitation only. It’s a very sacred memorial site for the Japanese. Clint did. But he shot there with a very select, skeleton crew. Just probably himself, Rob Lorenz (the producer), and cameramen. There are a few scenes in the film, and then in Letters from Iwo they may have shot more there. I’m not positive. The difficulty with it is that the Japanese aren’t souvenir collectors, so everything is just as it was—packages of cigarettes, shell casings and gear. In America it would been—

GW: Stripped clean.

Yeah. But Clint said he was just amazed to see everything just there, sixty years later. So we just kind of blew the tar out of Iceland, with their black sand beaches. So to do that on Iwo would have just been sort of sacrilegious. But there’s one scene at the end of the film you might remember—there’s a memorial with the dog tags clicking in the wind? That’s actually on the top of Suribachi looking down on the beaches of Iwo. And there’ll be various other plate shots that they shot for the Corsair perspectives and the wide shots. But I don’t know about Letters from Iwo. There might have been some scenes shot there with Ken Watanabe. But Iceland was perfect.

GW: The film seems to be addressing two different aspects of war—the experience of battle, the cruelty of war specifically, and on the other hand the need to fight the war on the home front as well. In terms of that political will to war, two questions, really. Do you feel that Eastwood was trying to make a connection between the political will in World War II to the will to war today? And if that’s the case, do you feel that this picture will have some impact on public perception of the war in Iraq?

From what I know of Clint and his sort of libertarian point of view of the world, he’s always maintained that he makes apolitical films, that there’s no political or noble purpose behind it. But what I think is wonderful about this film, or stories like these, is that everyone can take away what they like from it. It’s like the three blind men and the elephant, where all of them come away with a different idea of what they’ve experienced. Yet I do think that there are very strong parallels with the eternal nature of conflict, and it’s not difficult to draw parallels to what’s happening today in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s the nature of the necessary illusion of conflict, of propaganda as it has been used forever. But I think that the themes that he was more focused on were themes of friendship and love and sacrifice, and the more intimate human drama of it. He thought that was more entertaining and compelling than trying to draw parallels to how we’ve ended up geopolitically. But I think you could do a film about any conflict in history and draw parallels with what’s happening today. It’s such a recurring agenda.

Marie Antoinette

The problem of leisure: what to do for pleasure?

About three-quarters of the way into Sofia Coppola’s exploration of France’s pre-Napoleonic monarchy, I finally got some idea of what Coppola was after. Boy, was I relieved. To that point, all I seemed to be seeing on the screen was an extremely languorous tour of French cuisine and fashion at the height of pre-revolution excess.

The 1979 Gang of Four song that runs under the opening credits (“Natural’s Not In It”) sets the thematic tone. From the moment that teenage Austrian duchess Marie Antoinette is sent by her mother to wed France’s dauphin Louis XVI, she is forced to leave everything behind—literally, including her undergarments and pet pug—and enter a totally foreign world of material pleasure. It’s not that “the problem of leisure” was so different in Austria; she was just used to the rhythms and customs there.

The first quarter of the movie, which Coppola paces with the same lingering scenes that characterized Lost in Translation (there so expressive of Bob Harris’ ennui), is essentially a Marie-out-of water story. She must familiarize herself with courtiers whose rank grants them privilege in dressing the dauphine-to-be, with an inexperienced husband who doesn’t know how to make children, and with customs that prevent her from being her free-spirited self.

The second quarter then illustrates how, as Marie settles into a groove and Louis accedes to the throne, life becomes comfortable—very, very, very comfortable—and the issue of “what to do for pleasure” becomes pretty much settled. She buys shoes, shoes, shoes. She drinks champagne, and lots of it. She parties into the not-so-wee hours of the morning. Louis finally learns the ins and outs of love-making. The couple has children.

Then, rather surprisingly, the movie’s third quarter takes an odd turn in to Marie’s pastoral phase. Louis builds her a country chateau where she can retreat from court life with her friends and children. Here, Marie learns how to walk among the flowers, to cuddle sheep, to embrace nature in the same leisurely, pleasurable way that she enjoyed the excesses of the French royal court. She reads Rousseau. She also learns to really enjoy sex, courtesy of a Swedish officer home from assisting the war effort in America.

And here, I finally caught what appears to be Coppola’s message. And “natural” is definitely in it.

It was certainly easy for France’s revolutionaries to behead royalty who indulged their excesses while the populace couldn’t even afford bread. It’s also easy for me, as a critic, to watch the greater part of Coppola’s film and squirm at the excesses portrayed. I even found myself asking, “Is it justifiable to waste so much food just to make a statement about waste and excess?”

But waste is not Coppola’s point. Instead, she illustrates that Marie Antoinette’s lifestyle was as natural to her—and no more excessive—than a sheep’s luxuriant meal of wildflowers, or a bumblebee’s wallow in a blossom’s pollen. Do we criticize a lamb for being a lamb, or a bee for being a bee?

And from there, Marie herself even seems to learn the lesson—and to accept that she doesn’t need to revel and glory quite so much in her own naturalness. Unfortunately, the final quarter of the film, in its relative rush toward the inevitable historic conclusion of Marie’s tale, seems completely out of step with the rest of the movie. And to be honest, I didn’t even care for the style or pacing of the first three quarters.

But in the spirit of the film’s point, I certainly won’t criticize Coppola for merely being Coppola. I think a lot of audiences will probably enjoy the vast majority of this film—and Kirsten Dunst’s winning performance as Antoinette—a great deal.

Nonetheless, the closing sequences simply do not work, as interesting as Coppola’s point may be. At least two times too many, the script calls for scenes to transition with a courtier or advisor rushing in to breathlessly declare, “Your majesty!” It’s the narrative equivalent of a repeated bonk on the noggin to move the hero from one thinly-plotted three-page chapter to the next.

Coppola will also likely be criticized for her anachronistic use of post-punk tracks throughout the film. Much, indeed, has been made about this aspect of the film in advance press coverage. In the final cut of the film, at the very least, Coppola’s choices in this regard are neither overdone nor excessive.

In fact, given Coppola’s very carefully chosen songs and visual references to the punk era, Marie Antoinette comes off as a very wise and observant commentary on punk’s valid (if equally self-indulgent) critique of Western capitalist materialism—all the while studiously avoiding the relatively irrelevant political complications of both 18th century France and 21st century America. “This heaven gives me migraines,” indeed.

It’s just too bad that I don’t connect with Coppola’s storytelling style. It bores me terribly. And I really wish that she had found a better way to conclude—or truncate—Marie’s story after bringing it to a head.

Marie Antoinette is rated PG-13 for “sexual content, partial nudity and innuendo.” While I don’t quibble with the MPAA’s rating or reasoning in this case, it does illustrate a bit of a double standard. To consider the sexual content and innuendo of this film the rough equivalent of Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls is patently absurd. Here, nothing is gratuitous and all is tastefully handled, particularly given the subject matter.