Why is Warner Bros. opening two high-profile movies about the World War II era, Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima and Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, in a single Triangle multiplex this weekend?
If you know how to read the industry tea leaves, that one's not too hard to decode. Warners has important, longstanding relationships with Eastwood and Soderbergh, plus a sizable investment in each project, so they must open the movies somewhere. Yet they're not putting them into more theaters because they anticipate that viewers are going to treat the films like month-old popcorn.
And they're right about that. Neither movie is going to draw flies at the box office, I suspect, and that's not because filmgoers can't deal with tough-minded, austere investigations of a period in history that Hollywood too often has turned into high-gloss myth. It's because both movies are turkeys—though of an interestingly similar sort.
Dramatically turgid and stylistically precious (both are in shot in arty monochromes), the films confuse soft-headed "revisionism" with historical incisiveness and honesty. Rather than offering clear-headed examination, they trade in moral relativism and end up saying—if you bother to parse their meanings—that there was no real difference between the Americans who fought WWII and their enemies. And this brilliant insight comes off as a product not of intrepid analysis but of fashionable attitudes—woozy "humanism" on Eastwood's part, facile cynicism on Soderbergh's.
Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima is a companion piece to his Flags of Our Fathers, and I'd say it's a coin-toss as to which movie is worse. Both ultimately derive from the book Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley and Ron Powers, which examines both the Japanese and American roles in the horrendously lethal Battle of Iwo Jima, as well as chronicling the unhappy fates of the soldiers who were captured in that famous raising-of-the-flag news photo.
In telling the American part of that story in the first movie, screenwriters Paul Haggis and William Broyles Jr. made two fateful decisions. First, they subjected their narrative to the kind of chronological intercutting that's trendy as hell these days, but that can leave even the most compelling story feeling jumbled to the point of incoherence. Second, they downplayed the battle itself, and any mention of the historical circumstances which produced it, in order to play up the ways the GIs from that photo were manipulated and used by politicians and the media back home. The message here, in a nutshell: "Americans not so good."
With Letters from Iwo Jima, we get the other half of that revisionist bombshell: "Japanese not so bad." Sure, it's pretty amazing that Clint Eastwood has made a large-scale war movie full of Japanese characters speaking Japanese. But beyond its curiosity value, the film simply substitutes a new set of trite clichés for the old one. In fact, the cadre of characters here—the conflicted commander, the hard-ass officer, the baby-faced recruit, et cetera—might have come out of any Hollywood war movie of the 1940s. But we're supposed to be amazed because, by gosh, they're Japanese!
The movie wants to startle us with the revelation that "They were human too—heck, they're just like us." But this line of Panglossian equivocation can only be achieved by ignoring the historical actions that brought the Japanese to this doomed last stand, as well as the culture of emperor-worshipping militarism that lay behind those actions. A really tough-minded view of this battle might have given us a sense of the Japanese as humans and why America found it necessary to sacrifice so many lives to defeat them. Minus the latter, we end up with another exercise in self-congratulatory Hollywood magnanimity. Naturally, the film has been well received in Japan, a country still notorious for its official avoidance of recognizing its pan-Asian crimes of the 1930s and '40s.
For anyone not captivated by its dubious message, Letters proves a tiresome slog. Though Haggis and his co-scenarist this time, Iris Yamashita, thankfully forsake the jigsaw structure of Flags for a more straightforward telling, the story—which takes place largely in the grim caves of Iwo Jima, with occasional flashbacks to prewar Japan and America—is a slow, grinding descent from desperation to defeat. Clint no doubt wants to show how punishing war is, but with the movie's grossly excessive length of 140 minutes, it's the viewer who gets punished. About the time the Japanese seemed to have lost the battle, I looked at my watch and realized there was an hour and a half left to go! It may have been the single most depressing moment I experienced in a movie over the last year.
The film's visual style, in which most color has been drained from the image leaving stark grays and blacks, has drawn praise from some, but I found it consistently annoying and have been surprised that no one has pointed to the most likely reason for it: To save money, Letters and the battle scenes in Flags were shot in Iceland, of all places. How do you make the gray North Atlantic look like the Pacific? Well, you haul in a few palm trees—and scrub the color from the cinematography. Duh.
Letters from Iwo Jima opens Friday at Crossroads 20.
With Eastwood, you at least get the sense that he cares about the story, the characters, the history. With Soderbergh, these all take a backseat to what really seems to count in The Good German: camera lenses.
The most idiosyncratic and indie-minded of Hollywood directors, Soderbergh has recently gone on record with the apparently preposterous claim that he wishes he'd had a career like Michael Curtiz, the studio workhorse with little creative control responsible for Casablanca and other classics. Invoking the era when Curtiz worked, the younger director shot The Good German—which takes place in Germany shortly after the end of WWII—using only equipment and techniques that would have been used in the 1940s.
The obvious aim was to recreate some of the magic of the black and white films of that era, and on this level the movie is a remarkable and pretty much complete failure. Where a film like Casablanca sports a lustrous spectrum of tonal shadings, and virtually apotheosizes a star like Ingrid Bergman, The Good German—which Soderbergh shot himself—is full of baldly lit high-contrast images that make co-star Cate Blanchett look like a refugee from a Weimar porn loop.
How Soderbergh could have botched his own self-created technical exercise would make a fascinating film-school master class. But Variety's Todd McCarthy was right on the money when he cracked that, rather than some luminous nugget from golden-age Warners, The Good German resembles a 1962 Twilight Zone episode intercut with outtakes from Rossellini's Germany Year Zero.
The film's drama is hardly more appetizing. Adapted by Paul Attanasio from the novel by Joseph Kanon, the tale has George Clooney as a journalist who returns to war-ravaged Potsdam at the war's end and discovers that his former mistress (Blanchett) has hooked up with the tough soldier (Tobey Maguire, in the year's most ludicrous bit of miscasting) who's been assigned as his driver. Soon after, a murder propels the reporter toward the suspicion that various nefarious doings are transpiring underneath the occupation's stolid exterior.
(Interestingly, Soderbergh's film shares the post-war Potsdam setting with Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd. I still think they should've combined the two films into one: The Good German Shepherd.)
I won't go into any more detail about the plot because, besides exhibiting no joy in the talents of stars Clooney and Blanchett, the film is one of those clotted suspense-novel adaptations where characters deliver static, wordy explanations of this and that until the viewer's mind finally glazes over or tunes out. But its thematic gist is evident in the heavy-handed irony of the title: A German is as good as an American, a Russian or even a Jew in the dog-eat-dog world of the late 1940s, when the fires of global conflict are chilling into a cold war where neither side will play fair.
Soderbergh no doubt intends his film to convey some of the world-weary knowingness of one of its obvious models, Carol Reed's The Third Man. But Reed's masterpiece builds its case from a position of firsthand engagement and discerning conviction. Next to it, The Good German is simply a rich film geek's self-absorbed wank, as vapid intellectually as it is uninspired visually.
The Good German opens Friday at Crossroads 20.