Martin Scorsese's The Departed seems to have everyone on its side (save for a few important detractors listed below), scoring a box office victory in week one, registering a considerable 93% "fresh" rating among America's critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and placing 48th in IMDb's on-going survey of its reader's favorite all-time films. It is, as the story is seeming to be written, "His most purely enjoyable film in years". So why then did I find The Departed to be a deeply troubling, magnificently flawed foray into pornographic violence? Well, if we keep reading David Ansen's review, that's because "it's not for the faint of heart."
Before we get to the charge that Scorsese's film is "pornographic," which I am strongly convinced it is, let us first consider the picture's visual style. Note the use of visual, and you may already have guessed what I'm up to: The Departed is one of the vaunted director's laziest visual works of art, which is to use that latter term more than generously. There basically is no visual in The Departed, as Scorsese and his cinematographer (Michael Ballhaus) have foregrounded most of their subjects, often keeping one figure out-of-focus in the extreme foreground, while another character interacts with them in the recesses of that same close-in space. Moreover, as film scholar David Bordwell points out on his blog, the average shot length for the over 3200 shots in The Departed is approximately 2.7 seconds a piece -- compared to 7.7 seconds in such superior Scorsese pictures as Mean Streets (1973) and The King of Comedy (1983) -- making it difficult for the viewer to focus upon what little there is in the film's mise-en-scene.
All of this is to say that The Departed could just as well be heard only as it can be seen (as always, Scorsese's film seems to score with respect to its soundtrack). In saying this, one could easily object that scant visualization is by no means a signifier of bad filmmaking, to which I would agree. Then again, as opposed to the paradigmatic cinema of the austere, Robert Bresson's, where the spare visuals call attention to that which exists beneath the surface, namely to the spiritual dimension of life, in Scorsese's film, there is nothing beyond his flat visual. Indeed, what is perhaps most troubling about The Departed is this absence of a moral core, its failure to critique the misanthropy which the film depicts (as critic Armond White argues rather cogently) even as it revels in the carnage on screen. With The Departed, Scorsese seems to have crossed over into postmodernism, while in the process revealing a sensibility and personality that is nothing if not cruel.
Of course, I would be remiss were I not to mention the film's redeeming facet (in the parlance of Jonathan Rosenbaum) which in the case of The Departed I would say is its fine male lead performances by both Leonardo DiCaprio -- who my girlfriend really thinks I look like, which makes me feel good -- and especially Matt Damon. Then again, the film's original, far superior incarnation, Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak's Infernal Affairs (2002), equals if not surpasses Scorsese's on this front as well in its awe-inspiring teaming of Andy Lau and Tony Leung. And at least the Hong Kong version does not have to contend with Jack Nicholson being "Jack Nicholson" for every split-second of the actor's screen time.
Further, the earlier version also does not manifest the insistent psychologizing of the Scorsese version, in part no doubt to that national cinema's tendency toward episodic narratives, and away from the psychological naturalism of the American cinema. (Both Bordwell and another of the picture's high-profile critics, Dave Kehr, make mention of this cloying proclivity.) Similarly, in its usage of more naturalized violence, The Departed attains a degree of the pornographic that the stylization of Infernal Affairs mediates. The Departed is a viscerally experience, to be sure. My only question is how can we endorse such brutal violence at the service of such facile nihilism?
Moving on, I was hoping to construct this piece as a portrait of two directors moving in very opposite qualitative directions, that is of Scorsese becoming less and less a major director with each passing film -- though the first half of The Aviator (2004) showed a great deal of acumen -- while Clint Eastwood further solidifies his standing as America's greatest active director with each passing film. While Eastwood has done nothing to jeopardize this status (so long as he remains the creator of The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976), The Gauntlet (1977), Bird (1988), White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), Unforgiven (1992), the sublime A Perfect World (1993), The Bridges of Madison County (1995), Space Cowboys (2000), Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) -- all of which are major works of art) he has done nothing to help it either. In fact, I would not hesitate to call his latest, Flags of Our Fathers, the director's weakest film since his thoroughly dispensable Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997).
While there is just enough in Flags of Our Fathers to make it an Eastwood film -- and therefore worthy of our attention -- such as the film's rethinking of myth (The Outlaw Josie Wales, Mystic River) the picture's anxiety toward inadequate parenting (True Crime , Million Dollar Baby) or even a visual style marked by both volumetric interiors represented via wide-angle lenses (The Bridges of Madison County) and also strong chiaroscuro (Million Dollar Baby), there isn't enough otherwise to mark this as essential cinema, though it does flirt with summarizing our moment. To this end, if The Outlaw Josie Wales said something profound about America's loss of faith in itself in the years following Vietnam and A Perfect World encapsulated the early 1990s anxiety concerning children raised in single parent households, Flags of Our Fathers should have said something about our contemporary anxiety with respect to Iraq, which again it almost does. As the film frames the issue, war is made palatable by symbols, and particularly photographs, be it the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima that is the focus of the film's narrative, or the execution of the Southeast Asian that made us doubt American's virtuousness during Vietnam. (Is Iraq's image Abu Ghraib, or are we still waiting for that one image that helps us to redouble our will? Eastwood leaves us to speculate.)
Of course, to criticize a film for not summarizing its moment is a bit unfair, even if its director has done this so successfully in the past. The larger flaw of Flags of Our Fathers is in its utilization of a flashback structure, which its narrative would at the same time seem to necessitate. Specifically, there is one sequence wherein we are directly delivered from a close-up of strawberry syrup covering a bowl of ice cream (made to model the film's image-subject) to a placement on the battlefield that cannot help but strike one as a painfully literal. While at least Eastwood does not succumb to producer Steven Spielberg's propensity to connect character subjectivity to incidents beyond their possible range of experience (he does this in his own World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan, 1998) this frequent movement between past and present does not seem to serve the director's greatest strengths as a director. At the same time, Eastwood does share Spielberg's bleached-out color schema, as he does his interventionist camera work during battle.
Then again, his direction of battle scenes, in particular, does show his enormous range: as when the black sand explodes in front of the intervening camera producing substantial visceral impact. On this basis alone I hold out hope that Letters from Iwo Jima (2007) can still give the director his great World War II film. If only he hadn't changed the title from "Red Sun, Black Sand," which was in itself a masterpiece.
Matt Singer responds:
So now you look like Leonardo DiCaprio? Is it possible Lisa was taking a piss?
And I think you missed the boat on Flags (haven't seen The Departed yet). You seemed to review a movie that didn't exist -- the movie you wanted to see -- instead of the movie that Clint offered. Plenty of people have tried to make the movie into something about Iraq, and you seem to wish that it was a movie about Iraq. Why can't it be a movie about World War II? I don't understand that.
And I thought the flashback structure was ingenious and, the moment you singled out as too literal, the ice cream sundae, was perhaps my favorite moment of the picture. Granted, Eastwood takes liberty by using the moment as a key into a flashback, but given this is based on true stories, I took this to be based in something that really happened (I haven't read the book -- someone correct me if it doesn't appear in Bradley's book). Is something is too literal if it actually happens?
Comparing this movie, even in passing, to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is a really low blow. And you like Clint! How could you do that?!?
Michael J. Anderson replies:
As to your criticisms, I think most are well grounded -- basically I did not make my case well enough, which I will admit. So let me grasp at what I think is Flags fundamental flaw: its flashback structure. If we are to look for a superior treatment of the same motivating theme -- the persistence of trauma -- I would call your attention to Eastwood's Mystic River. In the case of this work, the trauma depicted is in childhood, which coalesces with a key theme from A Perfect World, namely that children are made to grow up too fast -- in the case of the later film, to disastrous results. In both cases, this theme is subsumed by a linear narrative that provides just a hint of circularity with its opening and closing images -- a primary Eastwood trope. Likewise, with Mystic River, where this theme is more explicit, said trauma has implications for the actions and therefore for the plot of the film.
To the contrary, Flags of Our Fathers depicts this element for its own sake, which has a stifling effect on the narrative. Let me make this analogy: say you are driving on an interstate and you slide over onto the shoulder. As you do so, you feel a series of jarring bumps as you have driven over a "rumble strip." I think we could say a similar experience occurs during each instance of shell shock structuring the narrative -- sure it gets the point across; but it lacks in the subtlty that the director often achieves in expressing human psychology through action. I guess my basic critique is that the film lacks the director's characteristic economy, which in the opinion of this writer links the director to Hollywood's finest. (Also, for an Eastwood devotee like myself, this flaw as noted above strikes me as all too similar to the key problem with screenwriter Paul Haggis's monumentally over-determined Crash, 2004; so it's all his fault, in other words.)
Eastwood himself has admitted that he tried to re-construct the narrative without this structure to no success, which I think points to its weakness: that it doesn't lead anywhere other than this most basic point of that enduring trauma flows from wartime experience. Eastwood at his best, i.e. A Perfect World or Mystic River, would have expressed these ideas through action, that is in the subsequent actions of the characters, or even in what we as spectators might (wrongly) think that the actions of the characters were, again as in Mystic River. And from this subsumption of action within the contours of plot, moreover, it would be possible to universalize from the narrative what precisely this trauma signals in our current experience -- as Eastwood has communicated the theft of childhood (endemic to our times) in both, or the mass trauma of 9-11 in Mystic River. No similar conclusion can be drawn here, because again the (literal) image of Iraq is unclear, and we have no entry point through which we can extend the film's critique.
All of this is to explain why Flags of Our Fathers is not Eastwood at his best. I hope my feelings have become more clear.
You have written more, and written far more clearly, but my initial statement stands. You are upset at the movie for not what it is, but for what it's not. Specifically, you are upset that Eastwood's depiction of trauma in Flags differs from his depiction in earlier films like Mystic River and A Perfect World. You give a lengthy and cogent explanation why the earlier model is superior, but I think that's mostly an excuse for your belief, rather than the basis for it. The unspoken (but more genuine) reason you hold for opinion -- in my eyes -- is that you, as a devout auteurist, want Eastwood to depict trauma as one way across all his films, because that strengthens your auteurist reading of his films. By trying something different, he skews from one of the things you've found in his films to link them all together.
I certainly agree that the choice of using the flashbacks throughout instead of as prologue and epilogue is less subtle and more blunt: but in a war film, I don't think subtlety is necessarily a plus. As much as it is about trauma, I took Flags to be about perspective. When the American people see Joe Rosenthal's photograph, they see heroism and triumph. When the men in the photograph see it, they see the horrors they've endured. And because everyone loves that photograph, the men in it can't escape it. And every time they see it, they are confronted with what they'd done. I wrote in one of my reviews of the film that my grandparents, both WWII vets, did not like dwelling on anything from the war except the most frivilous stories — just as Bradley, author of the Flags book, didn't even know his father was in the famous Iwo Jima picture until after he died! The more I've thought about it, I've considered what a great sacrifice those brave men made when they came back home. They smiled and sold those war bonds, and pretended like being atop that mountain in the Pacific was a great accomplishment, not day 5 of a 30 day trek through hell. As good as Mystic River is, I thought Flags was even more moving and poweful.
And it was manly, too. And manliness is awesome.
And now you've gone from comparing Flags to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil to Crash?!? Wow.
By Mentioning Crash -- and really, as underwhelming as I think Flags is, it remains light-years ahead of the Haggis picture in terms of its quality -- I meant to step outside my little auteurist framework and ask whether this deviation could be due to a collaborators' contribution... which is another way of me saying, 'why do I think this film is so far inferior to the director's better efforts?' (So yes, you're right in your critique.) But, Midnight in the Garden... is material ill-suited to the director, as is this picture. Hence the comparison. And that it is material shaped by Haggis leads one to the second comparison. I might throw in Spielberg as another check on the film's quality, though a producer's role in shaping a film is far more unclear often times. Then again, perhaps the film's scope can be related to his participation. And if anything, those parts that look and feel like Saving Private Ryan are among the better moments in the film.
I concede your cleverness, turning my auteurist argument about you against me. Perhaps the Yale debate team could use your skills.
But I press on nonetheless! Midnight in the Garden is a terrible movie but a remarkable soundtrack: I remain convinced to this day that Eastwood made it mostly so he could put that soundtrack in his CD collection. And I'm glad he did; it's in mine too. If you wanted to make an Eastwood auteurist argument related to jazz and his movies, Midnight in the Garden can be recouped. A little, anyway.
I'll agree that the main Iwo Jima battle resembles Saving Private Ryan with one distinct difference, though I should warn in advance that I haven't seen SPR since 1998 so my recollection isn't perfect. The thing that Flags has that SPR does not is a remarkable number of shots designed to ape what a real war photographer's shots might look like — I'm thinking specifically of the shots of the camera falling into the water as it leaves the transport for the beach, and also of a camera getting covered in dirt as men storm past it — images I took as a credit to the work of men like Joe Rosenthal who were yet more unsung heroes of that battle (you don't see Rosenthal touring America with his subjects, after all). Spielberg's version is a grunt's eye's view, but it is a beautiful, perfect one in its own grisly way. Eastwood's shows the seems a bit more, yet another element that ties into his showing the reality behind a legend, and another perspective to the multitude he shares. I quite prefer Flags to SPR.
You won't find many people who hate Crash more than me. Maybe it helped that I didn't know Haggis co-wrote this movie until I saw his name in the end credits, maybe not. I think even if Flags wasn't based on true lives, it would still feel infinitely more authentic than Crash.