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Whereas Flags became a story of manufactured heroism, Letters is a poignant dirge for the defeated. In anticipation of the U.S. attack, Japanese soldiers have dug miles of tunnels to live in and fire from. But everyone, from the stalwart general (Ken Watanabe) on down, realizes that this anthill is to be a mass tomb. Waiting for an enemy with superior firepower, knowing you can't leave, knowing you can't win, knowing you will die--this is the tersest summary of war.
Terse is the word for Eastwood's directorial style. It rarely editorializes; it doesn't emote or orate. It just tells the damn story of a soldier's honor, which means doing the job no matter the odds--indeed, no matter the mission. And like Flags, Letters offers a metaphor for the war in Iraq. The movie says that to live another day, in a mortally dangerous hellhole, is the best one can expect and the most one can do.
THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS That most agreeable of actors, Will Smith, keeps (as they say) "stretching." The question posed by The Pursuit of Happyness (the bad spelling is part of the story) is whether he's eventually going to bend himself completely out of shape. You have to wonder if making us feel bad for about 99% of a movie in order to make us feel good later is really a healthy thing for the actor or for the audience patiently enduring a string of bitter blows as his character, Chris Gardner, struggles to claim his share of the American dream and maintain his loving relationship with his son (played by Smith's own child, Jaden). You also have to wonder why director Gabriele Muccino chose to dramatize the poor man's plight by having him run constantly through the streets of San Francisco. What ever became of quiet desperation?
Gardner is based on a real character, a bright and ambitious young man who had everything required to succeed--except the right skin color. Do we believe he will triumph? Of course we do; they don't make major motion pictures about uninstructive failures. Do we care about Gardner and son? Oddly, we do, because they are so appealingly played. What more might we wish for them? A movie that's a lot less repetitive.
THE GOOD SHEPHERD Skull and Bones, the most notorious of Yale's secret societies, must have been--and for all we know still is--pretty weird: nude initiation ceremonies, people singing The Whiffenpoof Song at inappropriate moments, a range of blond debutramps with permanent lockjaw to meet and marry. As The Good Shepherd would have it, Bones was the perfect breeding place for another, grander secret society, World War II's Office of Strategic Services, which morphed into the CIA. Robert De Niro's movie (skillfully written by Eric Roth) is a very persuasive and thoughtful study of how the youthful and more muscular scions of the Wasp patriciate imposed their values, their sense of entitlement, on the U.S. and what that endeavor cost us--and the patricians.