CHILDREN OF MEN
starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam
screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, based on the novel by P.D. James
directed by Alfonso Cuarón
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA
starring Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase
screenplay by Iris Yamashita, based on the book Picture Letters from Commander in Chief by Tadamichi Kuribayashi and Tsuyoko Yoshido
directed by Clint Eastwood
by Walter Chaw Stop on any single frame of Alfonso Cuarón's remarkable war idyll Children of Men--a film that's rarely in repose, sometimes seeming composed of one long, frantic shot--and I suspect the sharp-eyed, educated viewer would be able to cull a reference to modern art, most likely one about men reduced to their base animal nature. For me, the two visual landmarks come in the form of a cue to the cover design for Pink Floyd's 1977 "Animals" when hero Theo (Clive Owen) goes to see his industrialist cousin Nigel (Danny Huston) for help and a re-creation of Richard Misrach's remarkable series of 1987 photographs documenting, among other things, a dead-animal pit in Nevada purportedly used to dispose of victims of a plutonium "hot spot." Both share a space with surrealism in the positioning of animals (artificial or deceased) in industrial spaces (London's Battersea Power Station is the iconic backdrop of the "Animals" cover) as mute commentary, perhaps, on man's destructive relationship with his environment--a read that jibes comfortably with the thrust of Children of Men, in which we're told that one day in the not-too-distant future, humans suddenly stop reproducing. (Fertile ground for science-fiction, this obsession with progeny (see: everything from Frankenstein to I Am Legend).) The picture opens with a Fleet Street terrorist bombing, a little like Terry Gilliam's dystopic Brazil--though rather than take the easier route of satirizing our current state of instability and free-floating paranoia, Children of Men makes a serious attempt to allegorize it.
It's home to the year's best action sequence in an extended, terrifying chase through the 2027 British countryside that establishes the stakes in this uncompromising enterprise as surprisingly high. And like most of 2006's best films, it expresses its violence as flat and unromantic, an ugly and insect pastime. As a reflection of our contemporary society, it's most effective in an Abu Ghraib/Guantanamo Bay sequence where refugees ("fugees," in the film's vernacular--essentially people without a British passport in a totalitarian future) hooded, tormented with dogs, are forced to stand, arms outstretched, in man-sized cages. Theo's father-figure Jasper (Michael Caine), a rural recluse who grows his own pot and tends to his catatonic wife, represents the failed idealism of the previous generation to express any real activism, tuning out a world made barren by its polarization and left to relive past glories in the hopes of one more chance to rebel. Religious fanaticism feeds intolerance, leading to a state of violent conformity and martial law as competing ideologies in the picture's present, serving to further obfuscate the ties that bind men to one idea of tolerance and understanding.
For all that, though, Children of Men isn't pessimistic. Theo, burnt-out and busy dying, discovers new purpose in the shepherding of Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), possibly the only pregnant woman on the planet, into the arms of a rumoured scientific resistance that has cast itself adrift in a boat to unearth the answers that will avert the slow death of humanity. When all human relationships fail, the film offers, it's that inability for humanity to quiet hope and forsake grace that'll save us. As in Mel Gibson's own apocalyptic vision of doom and the courage of the individual in the face of it, the picture climaxes with a birth (real or metaphorical, it hardly matters); a scene where the bloody storming of a tenement by Her Majesty's Finest is briefly suspended in mute, mutual genuflection before the sound of a baby's cries stands as very possibly the single most life-affirming moment in film this year. In the end, we're all of us here to defend our children. It's a simple message and simple messages are easy to forget. The miracle of Cuarón's films is that he presents the sanctity of our feelings for our children in ways as rugged, terrifying, and unsentimental as childhood. Children of Men is about a lot of things, including a sense of wonder in ourselves: how we're able to persevere in the face of our own mortality if we're just given (reminded of?) a cause worth fighting for.
Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima unfolds during the last days of the futile stand of twenty-thousand Japanese soldiers on the black-sand shores of barren rock Iwo Jima, the conclusion to a conflict they started in China and Pearl Harbor with American steel. Commanding officer General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), having received military training in the United States, tries in vain to rally his charges behind an idea of modern guerrilla warfare principles at almost complete odds with the Bushido code of valour and honour to which most of his underlings subscribe. Ultimately, it's his desire to offer a meaningful sacrifice for the children of his homeland (the kids of his home town sing a song of encouragement, broadcast to Kuribayashi in the final hours of the battle) as opposed to the meaningless sacrifice of caves full of auto-detonating footmen that is the picture's most complicated movement. It advocates honour in significant self-sacrifice, and it uses the example of a few of the enemy in our last popular war to illustrate it. Its obvious terrorist, fanatical stormtrooper Ito (Shido Nakamura), strings himself with landmines and vows to blow up an American tank by disguising himself as a corpse in a field of his fallen countrymen, yet in changing the perception of the Japanese soldiers entrenching themselves in an impossible situation, doesn't Letters from Iwo Jima posit the possibility that enemy combatants have intelligence, bravery, and integrity?
Treasonous in much of our current environment to even suggest such a thing, although the outrage over the indignity surrounding the recent execution of Saddam Hussein suggests a step towards recovery. Eastwood re-establishes his credibility with this, his own remarkable war idyll, finally finishing a thematic trilogy begun with Unforgiven and A Perfect World that deals with the idea that there is such a thing as an overriding morality guiding our lives. Letters from Iwo Jima is not so very different from Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line in not only its single-voiced narration and disconnected narrative, but also its inspiring humanism, which essays the ugliness of either side of the conflict without damaging the idea that every combatant in every conflict in every period is as little and as much as a child of man. Through the simplicity of that message, Eastwood finds the freedom to explore the democratizing affect of war as it levels aristocrats with intellectuals, cowards with Olympians; the horror of modern warfare (eloquently in a moment with a dying horse, the last hurrah of the cavalry charge); and, as in Unforgiven and A Perfect World, the total incapacity of man to escape the brutal rites of passage that litter the way to self-awareness. Its moral relativism is liberating instead of restricting and, as is typical lately, saccharine--the triumph highlighted by a moment in which Olympian Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) reads a dead American's letter from his mother and comes to a line ("Remember, always do what is right, because it is right") that lands as a potent condemnation of this country's foreign and domestic policy (since, ironically, somewhere around WWII) while also scoring a sour point as precisely the aegis behind which dangerous ideologues will veil their ignorance, intolerance, and bloodlust. Letters from Iwo Jima is about actions and consequences--that sense of wonder that we can embody the best versions of ourselves in the worst situations. That we can still do what's right when everything's wrong. Originally published: January 5, 2007.