Monday, December 11, 2006

The Year's Best?

Last week, we noted the avalanche of awards handed out at the end of the college football season. But the month of December also marks the beginning of awards season in Hollywood, with various critics' associations (and the American Film Institute) releasing their lists of the year's best films.

Let me state up front that I am hardly a film buff, let alone a critic, so I'll leave serious discussions on this topic to experts like Roger L. Simon. But if you look at the lists issued so far, you'll find a curious--and predictably liberal--trend emerging. Both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the AFI named Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima" among the best films of 2006; in fact, the LA critics selected it as the Best Picture of the Year.

In some ways, Letters is an unusual selection. It depicts the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese point of view, and was filmed in that language (with English subtitles for western audiences). Eastwood decided to make the "Japanese" version while preparing his "other" Iwo Jima film, Flags of Our Fathers, which was released in October to critical acclaim. Originally scheduled for release in early 2007, the film's distributor (Warner Bros.) decided to move up the release date for Letters, making it eligible for the 2006 awards cycle.

Releasing a film "early" for Oscar consideration is hardly new. But it's rather interesting that Eastwood's Japanese "version" of the Iwo Jima battle appears to be eclipsing his first film, shot from the American perspective. Flags tells the story of the five U.S. Marines and a Navy Corpsman who conducted the famous flag-raising on the island, captured in the most famous photograph of all time. Three of the flag raisers died on the island, in brutal combat that claimed over 7,000 American and 20,000 Japanese lives. Among the survivors, only the Corpsman (John Bradley) achieved normalcy and success in his post-war life; the others died young, consumed by memories of war, or the elusive promise of fame and fortune stemming from their deeds on Iwo Jima.

I haven't seen either film, so I can't comment on their relative merits. However, it is a bit ironic that critics seem to favor Letters over Flags, despite the fact that both films have the same director, the same production team, near-identical locations, and at least one common screenwriter (Paul Haggis). As a film-maker, there is little doubt that Eastwood (at age 76) is at the top of his game, and that's reflected in both productions. At a period in life when many directors have retired, Eastwood has produced his best work (or, at least, his most critically-acclaimed), including Unforgiven (1992), Mystic River (2003), and Million-Dollar Baby (2004). One could also argue that it took the critics 20 years to catch up with Clint, since his "best" films display the same lean, minimalist style that is evident in his earlier works, and those of his mentors, Don Siegel and Sergio Leone.

Is Letters a better film than Flags? I would be very interested in the opinions of those who have seen both movies (other than critics). Letters is currently in very limited release, so the number of Americans who have seen the two films is decidedly small. From what I've read, Mr. Eastwood wanted to tell both sides of the Iwo Jima story in making these films, and there was never any overt attempt to make one version "better" or more politically correct than the other.

But the critics don't operate under those restrictions. With their apparent preference for Letters, you can only wonder if this is a case of one film being clearly superior (as they would claim), or another example of the anti-U.S. (and anti-U.S. military) bias that often infects their work. Both the critics--and director Eastwood--ignore the Imperial Army's abysmal human rights record during World War II. From the Rape of Nanking, to the Bataan Death March, the public beheadings of downed Allied airmen, and the forced enslavement of Korean and Chinese girls as prostitutes, the Japanese Army committed atrocities that remain a source of contention in Asia to this day.

Howard at Orculations has an excellent rebuttal to Eastwood's depiction of a kinder, gentler Japanese military.

Meanwhile, OpinionJournal has a timely interview with a prominent Japanese novelist wonders when his country will come to grips with its dark past.


In fairness, I should also point out that some of the same critics have included United 93 on their lists of this year's best films. I saw United 93 earlier this year, and it certainly deserves to be on any list of the best films of 2006. British writer-director Paul Greengrass doesn't sensationalize the 9--11 terrorists, but he doesn't try to humanize them, either. On the screen, the systematic evil of their deeds speaks for itself, as does the heroic efforts of the passengers to retake the doomed jet. In today's Hollywood, such straight-forward story telling is both rare and noteworthy.

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