HOLLYWOOD is always being accused of having a pernicious influence on our personal values, of preferring to promote sex, violence, moral equivalency and other horrible perversities. Yet two of the fall’s best films -- “Flags of Our Fathers” and “The Queen” -- honor an especially timely traditional value: people who choose reticence over shameless exhibitionism.
The heroes of “Flags of Our Fathers” are the five Marines and a Navy corpsman who raised the Stars and Stripes atop Mt. Suribachi after a bloody battle on the island of Iwo Jima in 1945, a flag-raising that would be immortalized with a photo splashed across front pages all over America. The accomplishment provided such a morale boost that the War Department sent three of the men around the country to help sell war bonds. The sales pitch was a success, but it came with a price. The fundraising spectacle transformed the men into cheesy circus performers, forced to replicate the flag-raising over and over, once atop a papier-mache replica of Mt. Suribachi at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, offers a barbed critique of wartime propaganda, but its most poignant moments involve the troops themselves. Stoic and taciturn, not unlike so many characters Eastwood has played over the years, they are guilt-ridden by all the acclaim. “The fakery got to them,” Eastwood told me the other day in his bungalow on the Warner Bros. lot. “Having been on the real Suribachi, it must’ve seemed incredibly cornball to go on a papier-mache version of it, especially knowing half the people who really did it were dead.”
To men of that era, war was usually accompanied by so much death and destruction that when you came home, you never wanted to talk about it again. John “Doc” Bradley, one of the three flag-raisers portrayed in “Flags,” won the Navy Cross during the war. “But he didn’t want any part of it -- he forgot where he put the medal,” Eastwood explains. “His family didn’t even know he had it.”
In today’s hyped-up media age, when soldiers like Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch were breathlessly sold as heroes, a man like Bradley wouldn’t get to put that medal away for long, not with Oprah and Diane Sawyer around. “Today, no matter how reclusive the guy would want to be, it would be an endless topic of conversation,” says Eastwood. “They’d beat the hell out of him; they’d never let up. Between the press and the government, they’d convince him to be a celebrity.”
This reluctance to express private feelings is also a central theme of “The Queen,” Stephen Frears’ sublime film about how Queen Elizabeth II is forced to pander to her subjects with a public show of grief in the days following the death of Princess Diana. Afterward the queen, played by Helen Mirren, confides to Tony Blair that she is puzzled by how much the world has changed.
“Ever since Diana, people want glamour and tears -- the grand performance,” she says. “And I’m not very good at that. I prefer to keep my feelings to myself. Foolishly, I believed that’s what people wanted from their queen. Not to make a fuss nor wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve. Duty first, self second.”
Doc Bradley couldn’t have put it better. The World War II generation believed in showing up, not showing off. A big part of the appeal of “The Queen” is how deftly it captures the tension between Blair, a creature of our confession-minded media age, and the old-school monarch. When the prime minister suggests that Diana’s mourners be mollified with a grand send-off, the queen frostily replies: “This is a family funeral, Mr. Blair, not a fairground attraction.”
As the film unfolds, much of our sympathy turns to the queen, who though coddled and cloistered is the most authentic character in the film. Still, it’s clear that Blair best reads the mood of the modern age, even if his grasp of the public taste is largely like that of a network programmer who senses viewers prefer the folly and narcissism of reality TV over the emotional depth of an hourlong drama.
Why has stoicism given way to runaway exhibitionism? One explanation would be the postwar popularity of psychiatry and other forms of therapy that encouraged people to talk about themselves. Another would be the meteoric rise of media culture. “It’s Los Angeles; the whole culture of celebrity has taken over,” Frears told me on a recent visit here. “It’s what you see on ‘Oprah’ and all the other shows, people going public with all sorts of private things.”
It’s quite a surprise to see Frears, whose class-conscious films (“My Beautiful Laundrette” and “Dirty Pretty Things”) have been full of respect for immigrants and the working class, so sympathetic to the monarchy. “Call me a queenist,” he jokes. But the queen’s grace and sense of duty have a huge attraction for Frears, especially when compared with the political opportunism of Blair and the vitriolic British press.
In the film, the queen wonders why Diana should get a lavish funeral when she was no longer a member of the royal family. What the queen can’t grasp is that Diana, as the people’s princess, was a celebrity in a society in which having a public persona carried far more clout than any royal lineage.
“Everything about Diana was public -- her marriage, her affairs -- it was all a movie for us to see even before there was an actual movie,” says Neal Gabler, who wrote about similar phenomena in “Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.” “This is what we have today. In a YouTube culture, there’s no distinction between people’s private and public self. There’s only the public persona.”
Referring to the war bond tour in “Flags of Our Fathers,” Gabler added: “Now you don’t need to re-create the performance, you just create your own narrative, like lonelygirl on YouTube. Everyone is performing all the time. The old-fashioned belief that no one can really know us is over. In the 21st century, when you can put your whole life on a computer screen, everyone can know us all the time.”
Today we have no secrets. Karl Fleming, author of “Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir,” recently wrote an arresting op-ed piece for The Times about how men of his age -- he’s 79 -- are only now able to tell each other, in their twilight years, that they love each other. One key reason, he told me, is the role of 12-step programs used to treat alcoholism and drug abuse.
“It’s had a tremendous influence on our culture,” he says. “Part of the slogan is: You’re only as sick as your secrets. So the sooner you get rid of the shame, you can be cured. When I was growing up, tough guys didn’t talk about their feelings. To show your feelings was to show weakness. I couldn’t tell anyone I’d been molested as a kid until I was 60. I let it rule my life, because to show your feelings was to show weakness. Now I can tell my old friends that I love them. Believe me, when we were young, we would’ve never talked that way.”
Everywhere we look, we live in a confessional age. The novel has been replaced by the memoir as our most talked-about literary genre. The sitcom, for years TV’s water-cooler conversation starter, has been superseded by reality TV and talk shows, forms that thrive on exhibitionism. Hip-hop has done such a good job of blurring the lines between self-expression and self-promotion that it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between Jay-Z’s new album and his beer ad.
If you’re a star with a problem, be it Madonna or Mel Gibson, the true path to rehab goes through Oprah or Diane Sawyer. Out promoting her solo album, Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie has given so many interviews describing her onetime addiction to crystal meth that the Onion joked that if the singer gave an interview to Hello!, Britain’s celeb-friendly magazine, the exchange would go like this:
Hello!: “How are you, Fergie?”
Fergie: “I was once very addicted to crystal meth, if that’s what you mean.”
It’s enough to make a crusty old guy like Eastwood want to gag. “Everyone today can’t wait to spill their guts about all their feelings” or who they’re sleeping with, he growls. “Well, I don’t give a crap about that or the inner workings of Ang and Brad and whatever they’ve got going. I’m just tired of looking at it.”
One reason why the Hot Young Things disappear so fast while Eastwood’s star remains as bright as ever is Eastwood’s refusal to court attention. It’s people who keep something to themselves who keep their mystique. Perhaps that’s why Queen Elizabeth II and the tight-lipped men of “Flags of Our Fathers” cast such a spell over us. They aren’t clamoring for our attention, which makes us all the more eager to spend time in their company.
When I ask Eastwood where he keeps his Oscars -- the showbiz equivalent of Bradley’s wartime medal -- he points to a corner of the room. “There’s a couple behind my desk over there. They’re just sitting where they were put after the event.” He shrugs, already a little uncomfortable talking about his achievements. “I appreciate the honor, but the question is -- how far do you want to carry it?”
“The Big Picture” runs on Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions or criticism, e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org.