Director Clint Eastwood Keeps Taking Risks, Says Essayist

January 25, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: As the Oscar race heats up here in Hollywood, the newspapers are now full of daily stories and ads touting this or that best movie contender, while the various stars, from Helen Mirren, to Kate Winslet, work the talk shows, even the august “60 Minutes.” ‘Tis the season of frenzied availability.

Standing calmly in the midst is a previous winner, the iconic, laconic actor-turned-director Clint Eastwood, with his duet of World War II movies, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

It always seems to be a surprise to see Eastwood in contention, though he and his films have been nominated three times for best director and best picture, and won each twice, most notably in 2004, when he bested auteur Martin Scorsese with his boxing movie, “Million Dollar Baby.”

Part of the surprise is just the enduring memory of his acting days, the chiseled cowboy and smoldering cop he once was.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: What do they want?

CLINT EASTWOOD, Actor: They want a car.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: What are you going to do?

CLINT EASTWOOD: Get ’em one.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: It’s also about age.

CLINT EASTWOOD: I am going to disconnect your air machine. Then you’re going to go to sleep. Then, I will give you a shot, and you will stay asleep.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: In his late 70s, Eastwood is still making movies, big-time, big-issue pictures, bigger and bigger. And there is something thrilling in his continual evolvement, his willingness to keep taking risks.

And no film — make that, no films — have been riskier than his current war duet. The first, “Flags of Our Fathers,” tells the American side of the battle for Iwo Jima, specifically, the story of the men in the famous flag-raising photograph taken on that island and how they were — skillfully, if cynically — used and exploited in a public-relations campaign to raise war funds.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I can’t take them calling me a hero.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: With its textured message and beautifully shot carnage, it is a strange movie, a little disjointed and old-fashioned, shot full of sorrow. And it did not do very well when it opened last fall.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Some of the things I saw done, things I did, they weren’t things to be proud of, you know?

Giving the Japanese perspective

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: What do we want from our war movies? What do we need, especially at a time when again we are at war, facing the daily tally of our new young casualties.

Think of the great ones, "All Quiet on the Western Front," and "Paths of Glory," about World War I battles...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Order 75's to commence firing on our own position.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: ... and the dozens of movies about World War II, from "Bridge on the River Kwai," to "Patton," to "Saving Private Ryan."

They stir and provoke and show us the savagery and camaraderie and bravery, the wreckage and missteps and often checkered leaders.

I, like a lot of the critics, did not think "Flags" made it quite into that company.

But then came its companion, "Letters From Iwo Jima," the same story of the same battle, but told from the Japanese point of view, in Japanese, and, taken together, Eastwood's movies do make an original and notable contribution to the cinematic war archive.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR (through translator): I'm not in the coffin yet.

"Letters" threads a fine moral needle. It humanizes the badly outnumbered Japanese, who were, in effect, on a suicide mission, and they knew it. Watching them is painful, no matter one's viewpoint on the ultimate wrongness or evilness of their cause, and it offers an insight into a culture that sees suicide as a sacred act.

In short, Eastwood pushes buttons. Yes, he might do it in an earnest, straightforward, sometimes overly controlled way.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: He didn't serve me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I don't make the rules. We don't serve Indians.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: And maybe he doesn't let your heart or senses breathe quite enough. But these movies are seriously meant, the work of a man who, as he ages, risks more, not less.

I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.