Truth behind a baptismal banner

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Seriousness can be a thrilling virtue. In Hollywood it can be as thrilling as an archaeological find. Like cinematic Schliemanns we scrape away the layers of schmaltz and tinsel, we strike living or once-living bone and we cry “Eureka!” Clint Eastwood almost is a dinosaur. They don’t make many films like Flags of Our Fathers today. We can hardly believe this one has been made. Yet somehow the director who was once just a pin-up superstar in action thrillers has become the conscience of commercial American cinema. In that role he is an endangered, all-but-extinguished species

I love this film because it is un-Spielbergian. Even though Spielberg co-produced it, it has none of the maudlin manipulations of Saving Private Ryan or the last-reel sentimentalities of Schindler’s List.

It plods a little, yes, at the start, as the narrator son of the Iwo Jima survivor played, in the extended youthful flashback that the film becomes, by Ryan Philippe contemplates his dad’s role, 60 years ago, in the sombre, momentous farce of the famous flag-raising.

We all know the photograph. It symbolised a war’s heroism. In 1945 it reinvigorated a nation’s near-exhausted self-belief. Six men crouch, on a sliding visual height-scale, at the base of a rearing talisman. It is as perfect compositionally as a temple frieze, as muscular-hieratic as a Rodin sculpture. And it was a photographer’s accident, even though – the departure point of this movie – it was a second raising of the Stars and Stripes by a group of island-conquering US marines who had barely begun their conquest (three flag-raisers were soon to die) and who had not been the original, hill-taking heroes. Those latter raised the first flag, but their baptismal banner was snatched down to become an officer’s souvenir.

Then again – theme of this movie – what is a hero? The three survivors of the follow-up flag deed, which the world believed to be the founding one since its image featured on every front page, are flown back to the US for rallies, interviews, a bond drive. They smile and gladhand; they statuesquely pose under a show-flag on a papier mâché mound in a victory stadium. The movie’s sweetest conceit comes in this scene. Before we get a location-check, as the men climb the shadowy mound, the noise and bluster of rockets and flashbulbs seem a real war front. This moment of ambiguity engenders, now and later, mini-flashbacks within the greater flashback, cuts to Iwo Jima’s own strafings, slayings, screamings. We start to wonder: in what way were these “non-heroes” any less the true heroes in this turning-point conflict in the war against Japan?

Like Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach sequence, Eastwood drains colour from the battle scenes, giving us newsreel ferocity ragged and raw. (Only the explosions are tinged orange-yellow, like nightmarish flowers of lightning.) Unlike Spielberg, Eastwood nerves himself not to restore the colour later, chromatically or emotionally. This film is troubled, tense, tormented. It is a post-Iraq posting for Christmas: an envelope that contains a blank card or maybe just a new-millennial question mark placed against John Ford’s famous dictum (in the newspaper editor’s mouth in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), “When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.” Flags of Our Fathers says: “Print them both.” We need the childlike wonder and exhortations of myth and of heroic hearsay. But we need, too, when the time is right, to grow up.

In a strong movie week, Into Great Silence is the strongest in show. Philip Gröning’s 164-minute German documentary, the last masterpiece of 2006, is about life in the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse. Life? Some might think it living death. Yet there is something symphonic, tremendous, cosmically impudent about this long film in which Nothing Happens.

Little is even heard. The monks’ vow of silence is barely broken. They are allowed to pray and plainchant. They are allowed to chatter like schoolkids on a once-weekly walk in dazzling mountain scenery. One blind monk gives an interview near the end. Mostly the film observes and mutely marvels. The semaphore of Carthusian ceremony and observance is enacted in compositions where source lighting has its own sacred beauty (iceberg shafts of sunlight coming through windows, the gorgeous flicker, grainy in close-up, of a ruby-bowled votary candle) and where the rituals, steadfastly unexplained, are like a ballet of the beyond.

Gröning sought permission to film the monastery 18 years ago but secured it only five years ago. It must be a personal obsession and obsessions create wonderworks. With a Rembrandt intensity he watches light crawl across floorboards, a hand count rosary beads, a face never before exposed to a camera hold itself, serene yet suspicious, for the lens.

Elsewhere, shots sculpted in light and shade catch monks sitting, or prostrate, or in some serendipitous way “agonistes” in chapel. There is no voice-over. The silence is the story. Look and write your own narrative. You don’t need to be a Christian to find Into Great Silence miraculous. The time-lapse stars scudding across the Alpine skies emphasise Gröning’s portrait of a defiant continuum. Even “up there” is dizzily ephemeral compared with this particular “down here”. Belief is not just for Christmas: for these men it is for all time.

Some people open up a gap in terrestrial experience through which they plunge into hell. In Deep Water the documentarists Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell tell the story of the British amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, who “cheated” in a much-publicised round-the-world race by staying in the south Atlantic from the winter of 1968 to the spring of 1969, planning to sail back on the tail of the
winners.

But it went nightmare-shaped. Presumed to have thrown himself overboard – the body was never found, only the drifting boat – Crowhurst was survived by his logbooks. These tell of a mind falling apart, assailed by guilt and paranoia, doodling bits of poetry and philosophy. Deep Water collates all the evidence, with explanatory interludes by witness-bearers, including Crowhurst’s widow and son.

Where Into Great Silence put before us the comforts of eternity, Deep Waters presents the horrors of infinity. Crowhurst had gone so far – across a sea, across a moral threshold,
across the bleak vastnesses of his mind – that extinction seemed the only port left as an option. This is a riveting story, rivetingly told.

Night at the Museum and Perfume are for the filmgoer who has pulled the short end of his Christmas cracker. In the first, he gets a feeble joke about a natural history museum that comes to life. Ben Stiller operates two facial expressions – scared silly and scared sillier – as the nightwatchman pursued by dinosaurs, grizzly bears, Attila the Hun and Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt. (In a natural history museum?) Long, hectic, witless.

In Perfume the failed cracker-puller gets a fistful of crepe paper and silver foil with a nasty smell. Dressed in tatty flummery, this ill-crafted Euro-stinker is based on Patrick Süskind’s bestselling novel about an 18th-century murderer (Ben Whishaw) who killed prostitutes to garner the fragrance of their flesh. (Very timely right now in Britain.) Alan Rickman and Dustin Hoffman mug away in underwritten cameos; Whishaw is a deer caught in the headlights. It’s all so bad you want to go to bed and wake up in a world where it never happened.

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