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That humanizing view of "the enemy" is central to Letters, which, like Flags, unfolds from the perspective of the low-ranking conscripts who Eastwood calls "young men asked to live a very short lifetime." As the war in Iraq nears the start of its fifth year amidst talk of a renewed military draft, Eastwood, who tends to be terse with regard to his films' thematic implications, says the contemporary parallels aren't lost on him. But with their reciprocal depictions of wartime rhetoric and thoughtless atrocities committed against POWs, Flagsand Lettersseem less an anti-war diptych than a troubled inquiry into the moral relativism of the battlefield. As handily as Unforgiven muddied (literally and figuratively) the mythology of the classical western, Eastwood's latest films shatter the clear-cut notions of heroism and villainy ingrained in almost every Hollywood WWII movie, up through and including Saving Private Ryan.
"At some point, you have to get real about things," Eastwood says. "That may not be appealing to audiences who want a kind of escapism, but these pictures aren't necessarily for the escapist." He's right: The audience did not embrace Flags, which has performed well below Eastwood's usually robust business since its release in mid-October. Eastwood admits he's disappointed, but says he doesn't have anything left to prove to anyone, save for himself. "All you can say in the end is, 'Do I like it?' Yes. It's what I intended to do, and because of that, I'm happy."
Indeed, Eastwood seems content, and with no new projects in development, he says he's only interested in making films that ignite his passions as fully as the Iwo Jima saga. "When you're younger and things first start happening to you for me it was the 1960s you say yes to a lot of things. Your agent says, 'Do this, play in this picture because you're in it with Richard Burton.' Then someone asks Richard, 'Why are you in the picture?' And he says, 'Well, because I'm in it with Clint.' But why are we here? I did a lot of pictures like that you could go through a whole list of them. People lean on you, and like all actors, you think every job's going to be your last job. At that age, you don't wait for the perfect thing that may or may not come along in ten years. But now, if this is the last picture I do, that's fine."
Made when he was a stripling of 24, Argentine filmmaker Daniel Burman's first feature, A Chrysanthemum Burst in Cincoesquinas, was a violent story of love and revenge. He must have gotten that out of his system: Though Burman's subsequent movies also traffic in what he calls "the great transitions of life" identity, marriage, parenthood and death, not necessarily in that order they embrace an ambivalent but warm view of domesticity that has made Burman, now 33, a film-festival favorite.
Burman's self-deprecating Jewish humor has also invited inevitable comparisons with Woody Allen. "It's not a measurable comparison," said Burman during a recent trip to LA for the AFI Fest screenings of his wonderful film, Family Law. "But I'm very happy with it. I admire him more than anyone else in the world."
Burman's modesty becomes him, but the analogy only goes so far. Certainly, his work bears some resemblance to early Woody Allen, before Allen's work took a turn for the rancid, lewd and bitter. Burman's three most recent films feature neurotic Jewish men (all played with minimalist delicacy by the seraphic young Uruguayan actor Daniel Hendler) suffering crises both Oedipal and existential. But where Allen's movies are fueled by an unprocessed hostility and, at their lowest ebb, contempt for his Jewishness and his family, Burman's tone is wry, loving and tender even when, as often happens, things fall apart. I suspect that worn-out term "dysfunction" would make him shudder.
Waiting for the Messiah (2000), about a young man caught between love of his family and the need to separate, and Lost Embrace (2004), in which a similar young man struggles to sort out his relationship with an absent father, are both set in Burman's beloved Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires, where he grew up and about which he made a documentary, Seven Days in Once. Family Law extends Burman's meditation on the tug between belonging and self-definition that challenges even the most loving father-son relationships. In this case, the son is a university lecturer and new parent accustomed to keeping the world at bay through compulsive routine, while his father is a public defender deeply engaged with his mostly poor clients. Burman's own father was a lawyer, and he himself went to law school. But though there are bits of Burman's life in all his work (Family Law grew out of his experience of becoming a father twice in the last four years), the autobiography in his movies is always internal, which is to say an expression of his responses to the changes in his life.
Listening to Burman a fast, funny and hyperarticulate talker even when mediated by an interpreter deconstruct his movies is almost as much fun as watching them. He uses the word "dialectic" a lot, not in the Marxist sense but to describe the friction between thought, feeling, word and deed when his characters are hit by life's big changes. "There's a moment in life when one decides whether one's going to turn into one's father or the opposite," says Burman. "It's difficult to be in the middle." I ask Burman which one he is, and he lobs me another dialectic. "I'm the opposite of my father," he says. "Until now."