Among film critics, there seems to be a longing for a filmmaker who can assume the mantle of American master. And for many of them, Clint Eastwood is just the man. Choosing Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima as the best movie of 2006, The New York Times' A.O. Scott wrote that with the death of Robert Altman, Eastwood became the greatest living American filmmaker. That's a depressing prospect: It's as if, with Altman's maverick crapshoot approach to filmmaking out of the way, American movies can return to the static genre familiarity that his films made look unutterably square.
Eastwood's films -- in which well-worn genre conventions are rendered with the slow, heavy solemnity that is often taken as a signal that art is being committed -- offer the comfort of seeing B-movie tropes become respectable objects of critical contemplation. For all the talk of Eastwood's originality, nearly everything he has gotten credit for as a director has been done before, and done better, by other filmmakers -- filmmakers who may have won some critical favor in retrospect, but who have never managed the transition to respectability that Eastwood has.
The moral complications that his Unforgiven supposedly injected into Westerns, for instance, were present in the 1950s Westerns directed by Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher (to say nothing of the later work of Sam Peckinpah). Eastwood's lumbering, inflated Million Dollar Baby couldn't match the sweat-and-liniment haze of small-time boxing captured so indelibly by Robert Wise in his 1949 film, The Set-Up. And you can find some of what Eastwood is getting at in his currently playing Flags of Our Fathers (the movie that, along with Letters From Iwo Jima, comprises his World War II diptych) in Mann's Men in War (1957) and in Samuel Fuller's grungy combat films like Fixed Bayonets! (1951).
What distinguishes those earlier films is the terse, economical direction that harnesses the no-nonsense energy of B movies to moral and emotional complexities. By contrast, Eastwood simply inflates B-movie convention and makes them solemn and humorless, qualities that rarely result in good art, and almost never in good American art. In front of the camera, Eastwood can show glints of dry wit, especially in the affectionate, pleasantly laid-back Space Cowboys. With a group of old pros -- James Garner, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland -- Eastwood relaxed into Space Cowboys' wily gags about aging. He played the sarcasm of a man comfortable with his age who resented being treated like a decrepit coot. And in his botched but still enjoyable film of Michael Connelly's thriller Blood Work, he put a sly capper on a lifetime of characters who put themselves in harm's way. Neither The Man with No Name nor Dirty Harry ever performed anything as risky as the moment in which Eastwood's character, a detective who's survived a heart transplant, bit into a Krispy Kreme doughnut with nary a whit of guilt or fear.
But as an American director, Eastwood shows next to no grasp of the casual, disrespectful, smart-assed tone that characterizes our national style. And that suits the take-your-medicine ethic that, for many film critics, has become the mark of worthiness in a filmmaker.
Flags of Our Fathers shows all the Eastwood defects. It's clumsy, overlong, earnest -- and a structural mess. But far more than Steven Spielberg's glorified boys' book adventure Saving Private Ryan (1998), Eastwood's Flags gets at the way that the horror of battle is co-opted on the home front -- as if to soften, or even erase, the experience of the men who actually fought. But the rapturous critical reception accorded to Letters From Iwo Jima seems to have deleted Flags of Our Fathers (which received respectful, unexcited notices) from the collective critical memory. In Letters, Eastwood has hit the critical jackpot. His stoic, anhedonic Americana has connected to the national disgust with George W. Bush's disastrous Iraq War. And it's hard to avoid the suspicion that the critical hosannas are evidence that at this moment in our history, many critics -- and other Americans who consider themselves progressive -- may think it's a sign of national self-absorption to show more sympathy for American troops than for the people the troops are fighting.
Which is not to imply that as a nation we are near to a replay of the demonization of American soldiers serving in Vietnam. (Some of the credit for that can go to the current antiwar movement, which has tried to avoid the mistakes of its predecessors.) But while we can see the soldiers serving in Iraq as pawns of an administration that lied in order to realize a neoconservative fantasy, we may not be able to get beyond seeing them as the ones who are carrying out the policies we find so repugnant. And so, just as the Indians in the Westerns made in the late 1960s and early 1970s became stand-ins for the Vietnamese, the Japanese soldiers in Letters From Iwo Jima become honorary Iraqis. A movie that attempts the honorable task of humanizing the Japanese in the way this one does, that comes along when our national policy is characterized by lies and carnage, can play into the notion that if America labels someone the enemy, we should never quite believe it.
This is what David Ansen of Newsweek appears to be saying when he writes of the film, "It looks beyond politics into the hearts and minds of the men we needed to call 'the enemy,' and lets us see ourselves." It's one thing to go beyond politics, but that is not the same thing as going beyond historical fact. We didn't need to call the Japanese the enemy; they were the enemy -- because they bombed Pearl Harbor, because they pursued a vicious method of combat based on the belief that the weak were not worthy of being considered human, because their prison camps violated every principle that had been laid down for the humane treatment of prisoners of war.
Of course, one of the noblest things art can aspire to do is to make us feel a common humanity with people we've regarded as less than human. And in Letters From Iwo Jima, Eastwood has set himself a particularly tough task. It's true that it was easy for us to dehumanize the Japanese during WWII because they were not white Europeans -- you need only look at the wartime film and cartoon caricatures of the Japanese as rodents for proof. It doesn't follow, however, that the Japanese reputation for viciousness was entirely due to Western prejudice. Certainly not according to the Chinese who survived the rape of Nanking or the invasion of Shanghai. And it may be that the racist way in which the Japanese were depicted, as well as the pacifism their country has practiced since the end of World War II, has made people reluctant to condemn the racism and imperialism and brutality of their methods in a way those same people would not hesitate to do with Germans.
But Eastwood has replaced the stereotypes of the Japanese as vermin with benign stereotypes familiar from other war movies. There is the tough but essentially decent commander, General Kuribayashi (played by Ken Watanabe); the Olympic athlete (Tsuyoshi Ihara) who arrives on horseback as if war were still a 19th-century romance; the poor working stiff (Kazunari Ninomiya) who only wants to return to his wife and child. The extremists, like the few who show up now and then to countermand Kuribayashi's more sensible orders with some suicidal plans, are presented as exceptions. Although we see Japanese soldiers being shown a red cross so they know to fire on American medics trying to evacuate the wounded, damned if we see them actually firing.
This is how, in the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan can claim that Eastwood "underlines the futility that so many have to die because of the misguided ideology of a few in leadership positions." Can anyone who has read anything about the Pacific War buy this guff? On Iwo Jima, where the Japanese were badly outnumbered, more than 20,000 Japanese soldiers were killed. You don't persuade entire armies to embark on a 40-day suicide mission with only "the misguided ideology of a few in leadership positions." Only a Neanderthal would doubt that Japanese soldiers were as scared and homesick as Eastwood depicts them. But an army doesn't engage in the almost unthinkable barbarism the Japanese did throughout their theaters of war without a widespread, unquestioned belief that the enemy should be shown no mercy and that death was preferable to dishonor. In his expansion of Henry Steele Commager's The Story of World War II, the historian Donald L. Miller writes of the Nanking Massacre, "To the entire world, the Japanese served notice that this was the new meaning of Bushido, the medieval code of the Japanese warrior that originally called for compassion towards one's enemies."
Apart from a few fleeting references to Americans being "weak-willed," that is the national mentality that Eastwood utterly fails to examine. In Flags, he is mercifully discreet when he allows the look of disgust and shock on Ryan Phillipe's face to register the discovery of a comrade's mutilated corpse. But Letters is filled with evasions that support not art but the conflation of many things, and the hedging of moral responsibility. Should you confront this film with any facts about how the Japanese conducted combat and treated POWs in WWII, you won't have to wait long for someone to say the magic words "Abu Ghraib."
We are far from the national self-loathing of the Vietnam and Watergate years. But we may be at the point where some Americans believe that we have no right to even mention another country's wartime brutality. That approach makes nonsense of history. But if comparisons are going to be made, let's be clear: The disgust Americans have expressed over Abu Ghraib would not have been possible -- indeed, would have been unthinkable -- in World War II Japan because that country's most brutal acts toward its enemies in combat, toward its prisoners of war, toward the people it subjugated by conquest, were considered honorable and heroic and glorious: a perfect expression of everything Japan stood for. Eastwood's tepid, whitewashed treatment of those horrors suggests that people have chosen to ignore Japan's sins as a way of doing penance for our own.
Charles Taylor is a columnist for The (Newark) Star-Ledger. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications.