What might be described as Showbiz Syndrome is the core of the year’s most intricate screenplay. Christopher Nolan finally meets his hype with The Prestige’s genre fantasy about the agony of success. Nolan (co-writing with his brother Jonathan, and based upon a Christopher Priest novel) knows this doesn’t entail the usual portrait of fame as a whiny drug-addicted hatred of the limelight.
Competing 1890s stage magicians Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Borden (Christian Bale) balance true innovation with the illusions that win a crowd. It’s a knowing filmmaker’s dilemma interpreted as moral drama. What elevates it is the sheer fun of the puzzle the Nolans create. Victorian-era science fiction co-exists with practical magic.
The magicians’ feud hits full swing after Angier accuses Borden of sabotaging a magic trick that ended up killing his wife (Piper Perabo). Angier becomes obsessed with rising above his competitor; a professional brand of vengeful justice. The Prestige pinpoints an unspoken torment of creative artists, where being second-best represents failure when first place is within grasp. From here, everything in The Prestige takes on a mirror counterpart. Even Nolan, delivering his own magic trick, becomes a reflection of his subjects. His technique is to show where all the pieces fit, and then leave viewers the pleasure of assembling them.
The Prestige’s sophisticated take on the divide between reality and illusion is miles above the similarly themed Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood’s latest. It’s his most recognizably “human” film since Space Cowboys, but that doesn’t forgive its dressing up of obvious points and rote drama in a message against media simplicity.
The iconic photo of Marines raising the US flag on Pacific island Iwo Jima is a jumping point for three timelines. Flags of Our Fathers intercuts the WWII battle with the following publicity tour, and the veterans reflecting upon both in their old age. The hidden truth is that the flag in the photo was a replacement following orders to remove the first one. It’s as though Eastwood expects audiences to be stunned at his insight that the truth is more multifaceted than wartime reporting usually lets on. History, as approached imaginatively in The Prestige and emotively in Marie Antoinette, is respected as fact in Flags of Our Fathers. While honourable, it’s also a futile bar to set in a dramatic feature. The downfall of Flags of Our Fathers is in never breaking past the two-dimensional thinking it accuses others of. Decrying simplistic accounts doesn’t stop Eastwood from making honoured Native American flagbearer Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) an alcoholic who threatens the group’s public appearances through drunkeness.
Bear in mind, Eastwood and co-writer Paul Haggis are also responsible for Million Dollar Baby—a movie that soothed the middlebrow with the most helpless takes on disability and the lower classes in contemporary Hollywood.
Spielberg (serving as executive producer) revolutionized the way war action is shot in Saving Private Ryan, and it follows that only Flags of Our Fathers’ battle sequences have cinematic charge. The long shots of rows of boats and planes encroaching on their target display a scope and wonder in their special effects. The rest steps through the noble paces of sentiment, never making questions of heroism and truth as pressing as those about its makers’ attitudes.
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