NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Oscar nominations came out earlier this week. A few surprises here and there---no nomination for Sacha Baron Cohen??? If nothing else, Borat was a brilliant performance piece---but overall this year's Oscar noms pretty much stayed on the dull, unadventurous side of the fence, especially with its Best Picture nods. I mean, you can't get much more well-meaning than this year's frontrunner Babel. I think it's undoubtedly superior to last year's pernicious multi-narrative Oscar winner Crash, but on its own terms it strikes me as a noble, occasionally moving failure at best (and so melodramatic by the end of it that all the film's credibility jumps out the window, even as your heart may bleed for its tortured characters). But, as ever with the Oscars, artistry---of which Babel undeniably has a good deal---takes a backseat to good intentions (although I must admit that I think the good intentions behind Babel---its ambition to embrace all forms of communication and miscommunication in ways both personal and political---is at least more interesting to contemplate than those of Crash).
As for the others: maybe I need to see it again (it's being re-released in theaters nationwide today), but at this point I still don't see Martin Scorsese's The Departed as much more than a once-great director pandering to those fans of his who only seem to like him for his violent machismo and his hyper style. (And I don't feel an ounce of shame seeing Jack Nicholson get snubbed: was Scorsese so intent on crowd-pleasing that he intentionally allowed Nicholson to get away with the blatant scenery-chewing he commits here?) The Queen has a fine script by Peter Morgan (miles better than the vile one he concocted with Jeremy Brock for The Last King of Scotland---more on that later) and good performances (Helen Mirren's sympathetic in the role, but I think Michael Sheen should have gotten some kind of nod as Tony Blair---the closest the film has to an audience surrogate), but it's so insistently TV-ish that I honestly don't know what it's doing in the Best Picture category. (Little Children, an equally prosaic movie, would probably have been a more interesting choice.) As for Little Miss Sunshine: in hindsight, perhaps I was a little hard on it in my initial review, not giving enough credit to the film's sharp jabs at American's success-at-all-costs mindset and perhaps fixating too much on the occasional moments of condescension (come on, that bereavement liaison was just doing her job!). Nevertheless, despite a brilliant cast, I still think the film is at best an entertaining, occasionally inspired big-screen sitcom---a movie that takes nearly every opportunity to remind you of how darn quirky! it is. (Now it seems like the people at this year's Sundance Film Festival---currently going on right now---are looking for the next Little Miss Sunshine---God help us.)
Which leaves Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima (***½ out of ****), which overall isn't as aesthetically daring as parts of Babel are (Letters doesn't have an equivalent to the Japanese nightclub scene in Iñárritu's film), but which is so warmly humanistic and compassionate toward its doomed Japanese soldiers, and takes so contemplative and even ambivalent an approach toward typical Hollywood war-movie themes and conventions, that I think it's the best of a fairly unexciting crop by a considerable margin. (In fact, so good it is that I might be inclined to consider it my favorite Eastwood film since Unforgiven.)
I got a chance to see Eastwood's film---his "Japanese" take on the battle of Iwo Jima, and a companion piece to his Flags of Our Fathers, released earlier this year---on Monday night, and for the most part I embraced it with nearly every fiber of my being. I needed this movie after sitting through the near-atrocity that was Kevin Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland (*½ out of ****).
Earlier in 2006, when United 93 came out, critics and non-critics seemed divided as to whether the film was an exploitation of a real-life tragedy or presented a legitimate way of working through our anguished memories of what happened on Sept. 11. I'm still in the middle on that issue: I recognize and half-admire its skill and director Paul Greengrass's ruthless dedication to its docudrama aesthetic, but I wonder what value a fictionalized reenactment of what happened both in the air and on the ground on that day really has for us as far as healing and catharsis goes. Still, it's a miracle of scrupulousness and taste compared to the exploitation of real-life atrocity on flagrant display in The Last King of Scotland. This movie is so seemingly inhuman that, by the end of it, I was on the verge of throwing up. Literally. It's only in hindsight that I can even begin to give it any glimmer of credit for being something other than a shamelessly manipulative Hollywood-style thriller which pretends to have some kind of political point to make.
For those who've been living under a rock, Forest Whitaker has been getting a lot of acclaim for his against-type, scary-black-man performance as the undeniably awful Idi Amin, the Ugandan despot who led a popular government coup and who eventually began to rule the nation with an iron fist, destroying any perceived enemy for any little offense, and even feeding human remains to crocodiles. But Amin isn't technically the film's main character. Nope, this is another movie in which real-life African struggle is seen through the eyes of a white lead character: in this case, a fictional medical student, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), who has come to Uganda deluding himself that he wants to help the Africans when, really, he just seems to want to bask in privilege and be a part of the Amin team, so to speak.
The Constant Gardener redux? In retrospect, The Last King of Scotland actually does something more interesting than usual with its white hero: he isn't made to be noble or insufferably do-goody. In fact, he's unabashedly selfish and naive, unwilling to see the realities right in front of his eyes before it's too late for him to get out scot-free. By the end of the film, as he's desperately trying to get out of dodge, the film has turned into an oblique parable about British imperialism in Africa (I'm paraphrasing, but at the end Amin says to Garrigan something to the effect of "you really thought you could come in here and change the world?") instead of simply a Hollywood melodrama using African suffering as a backdrop.
So why, in the end, was I so pissed off at The Last King of Scotland? I can accept the use of Garrigan, however unappealing he's made out to be (especially since McAvoy---last scene as Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe---does a pretty good job in the role); that's not the problem (although, of course, a movie that had dared to tell the story entirely through Africans' eyes might have been more challenging). The problem is the baldly manipulative Hollywood-thriller style director Kevin Macdonald employs in telling this story: emphasizing close-ups in trying to magnify Amin's bad-guy status, turning up the volume of the dreadfully bombastic score in order to create superficial "excitement," and, worst of all, using the atmosphere of violence and death surrounding Garrigan simply for what Pauline Kael, in her review of The French Connection, called "zaps." There's pretty much no psychological depth or even an attempt at understanding to be found in this film: Macdonald and screenwriters Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock seem more interested in exploiting their white-guy-in-Amin's-Uganda scenario for the maximum amount of thrills and bloody spills. Hopefully I'm not the only one to find this kind of exploitation distasteful to the utmost!
Consider this following comparison. In Hotel Rwanda a couple of years ago, director Terry George included a scene in which its main character, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle, arguably superior to Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles impersonation that year), reacted in horror at a street strewn with corpses resulting from Hutu slaughter during the 1994 ethnic cleansing in Rwanda. There's an equivalent image in The Last King of Scotland when Garrigan discovers what has happened to a poor African woman---she is glimpsed dismembered on an operating table, and Garrigan reacts in an equally horrific manner, barfing on sight. Both images of slaughter and atrocity serve similar purposes in their narratives: it signals the respective heroes' awakening resolve and sense of desperation in terrifying circumstances (although, to be fair, in Last King, that true turning-point moment probably comes much earlier). But the way both directors treat those similar moments are instructive as to why Last King is mostly disgusting trash compared to the effective, sometimes powerful (if admittedly still fairly Hollywoodized) Hotel Rwanda. In George's film, the shock of the moment comes through viscerally, and Rusesabagina is allowed to contemplate it afterward (Cheadle has a marvelous scene in which he breaks down in private as he tries to tie a tie; it's an emotionally wrenching, honest moment that still stays with me). For Macdonald, however, that dismembered body isn't so much a symbolic horror as it is an empty thriller jolt with which to shock the audience. In Hotel Rwanda, you might say "Holy shit" and then reflect on the full extent of the atrocities being committed in that country; in Last King, you might say "Oh shit" and then breathlessly try to move on to the next thriller setpiece. It's the difference between humanity and a distinctly Hollywood-based soullessness, and it's the latter that The Last King of Scotland has in abundance.
Of course, the big question for Oscar nuts: how is Forest Whitaker? Well, if anything, he's probably the one shining bright spot in this hateful brew, as he seems to valiantly try to turn Amin into something close to a flesh-and-blood human being, however reprehensible and frightening. Note that tear that you see come from his eye towards the end of the film after he's tortured Garrigan (in a repulsive manner that I will leave you to discover for yourselves, if you dare); even as that damned music tries to beat you into a Renny Harlin-like submission (it's even more inappropriately bombastic than Trevor Jones' Cliffhanger score), Whitaker seems to try for a hint of understandable regret---Garrigan was once a close friend of his, and so he's saddened that he has to torture him even as he tries to scare the crap out of him. It's that kind of sensitivity to nuance that should have been in a better, less inhuman movie than this one. (I wonder if Whitaker was horrified by the end result of shooting this film...not that he would say so in public as he does his awards-season rounds.)
After such vileness, Letters from Iwo Jima comes off as a balm that soothes the spirit even as it pokes some pretty potent holes in our views of not only war, but also our experience of war in other, older Hollywood movies. Because, if nothing else, Eastwood, in this startling late run of his, has been all about trying to elucidate the harsh realities of classical Hollywood narratives even as he remains a fairly staunch classicist himself.
The film, of course, is the second-half of his Iwo Jima diptych this past year; the first was Flags of Our Fathers, an ambitious, half-successful film which, among other things, tried to expose the anguished, guilt-ridden human beings underneath the artificial heroes they were painted as by the American war machine. In a way, you could see it as a critique of blind patriotism, or at least the forces trying to create such a feeling in support of such a morally troublesome thing as war. Letters from Iwo Jima---which deals with the battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese side---explores a similar theme: these Japanese soldiers are raised by custom (the bushido code, specifically) to believe that anything is better than surrendering to the enemy, and some of the characters' attempts to try to turn their deaths into something meaningful provide some of the film's most gutwrenching moments.
I've read some criticism of the film that suggests that Eastwood's attempt at multicultural sensitivity both a) distorts the brutal, ruthless character of the Japanese during the conflict just so we can sympathize with them more, and b) humanizes the Japanese to such an extent that Eastwood and screenwriter Iris Yamashita basically turn them into versions of us. I guess I can see where such criticisms come from, and yes, there are certain moments where Eastwood indulges slightly in the kind of Hollywood-bred sentimentality that marred the extended final half-hour of Flags of Our Fathers (not to mention Million Dollar Baby). And yes, mostly what we get from this movie is its contention that, however brutal some of them may have been, they were indeed just like us Americans---and, as Eastwood dramatizes in the film, Americans weren't above committing atrocities of our own (two of the American soldiers in the film, for instance, shoot two Japanese just because they don't feel like watching over them for an entire night). But this is war, after all.
Overall, I think Eastwood is trying for something more universal in nature than its historical particulars may indicate---so to condemn the film simply because it may not be absolutely true to either history or to Japanese culture is to fall into the trap of---cliché alert!---missing the forest for the trees. Letters from Iwo Jima---and, to a lesser extent, Flags of Our Fathers---stands apart from most war movies by trying to sincerely explore some of its most pointed questions. Can one truly die an "honorable death" in war? Can death actually mean something in such a barbaric activity? And what constitutes heroism in war? In Letters, Eastwood shows characters both killing themselves before surrendering or simply trying to live. And really, isn't that the ultimate human impulse: to live? Well, perhaps not when you pledge your life to a cause---even one as gruesome as fighting a war. As much as Eastwood seems to want to believe in some the old sentimentality of older Hollywood war pictures, he simultaneously seems to realize that in war, moral relativism always wins out.
Perhaps what ultimately attracted me to Letters from Iwo Jima is the sheer sense of one director taking on large issues in such an intimate and discursive tone. It's the kind of movie that doesn't seem to be sure what it's trying to say, as if it's working out its ideas as it goes along. That, to me, is exciting. By the end, instead of feeling my preconceived notions of war confirmed, I actually felt challenged to think about issues of humanity and patriotism within the context of an activity that Eastwood seems to have concluded a priori is barbaric and inhuman. Not even Unforgiven managed to accomplish that for me.