Monday, June 21, 2010

Great American Directors

There seems to be a propensity in Hollywood to seek out foreign talent. And, in point of fact, there is. Of course, this is not due to some overbearing conspiracy to "de-Americanize" the American film industry, it's merely the result of reaching out to aesthetically-different filmmakers and actors to cast in appropriate ethnicities. Sure, Hollywood's got a ways to go as far as being "equal," but it's closer than most industries. Regardless, this is not a rant about the film world's inequities... this is a celebration of my favorite (living) American directors.

Let's face it, though devoid of an international reputation for art (pop-culturally speaking... the reality is quite different), America is the home to its fair share of capable artists. And I'd like to share my thoughts on two American film directors who absolutely rule their preferred genres, and a third who I think is in honest contention to being labeled the Best Director of All-Time (American or otherwise).

Arguably the least well-known of the three, but easily the best war-film director, is Edward Zwick. Known for critical darlings Glory and Courage Under Fire, he's also been responsible for the underrated The Last Samurai and Defiance. Drama in storytelling is inherently conflict, and while Zwick fills his films with ample amounts of emotional drama (the rivalry between Denzel Washington's Private Trip and, well, everyone else in Glory), he excels at presenting physical conflict.

For many filmmakers, such a tactic would be considered a cheap trick (think the finale of The Matrix trilogy or the third act of Danny Boyle's otherwise brilliant Sunshine). For Zwick, however, whose love of history and geopolitics permeates nearly every frame of his motion pictures, such a tactic is built into the story from inception. And, very nearly to perfection, the payoff works every time.

Still, he has endured his fair share of hiccups (1998's The Siege), but his war film resume, along with the good but often derided (usually by men) Legends of the Fall, more than ensures Zwick's place in the highest pantheon of film direction.

More famous than Zwick is Michael Mann, whom many remember as the progenitor of the campy 80s television series, Miami Vice. Actually, given that he also directed the misguided film version, he'll probably only be remembered for Miami Vice. Such a remembrance would be a little sad, however, as Mann has long been bringing powerful and ostensibly realistic crime films to the screen (then again, perhaps he wouldn't mind).

Little known for the fact that he was the first director to bring Hannibal Lecter to Hollywood (in Manhunter, later remade as Red Dragon), Mann initially burst into the crime scene with the brilliant and brilliantly subdued Thief. Starring James Caan as an extremely professional and increasingly reluctant safecracker, Thief laid the groundwork for many of Mann's crime films to come.

Along with Thief, Mann's greats are Heat (a remake of his own L.A. Takedown) and Collateral, the first film to star Tom Cruise as a villain. There was also the aforementioned film version of Miami Vice (again, misguided, but entertaining) and the under-appreciated Public Enemies, a charismatic film criticized for its historical inaccuracies. Mann's resume also includes the most recent The Last of the Mohicans and Ali.

By far the greatest living American director (in my opinion, anyway), Clint Eastwood began his career as an actor. Upon undertaking his directing career in the early 1970s, Eastwood helmed film after film (usually casting himself) in a professional, competent, and somewhat unspectacular manner. Though many of his earlier efforts remain guilty pleasures (High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Firefox), it wasn't until the phenomenal Unforgiven in 1992 that he truly hit his stride. Though his follow-up schedule would be peppered "old Eastwood" directing efforts such as Absolute Power and Space Cowboys, more and more of his films entered the realm of true greatness.

Shifting away from his action-oriented past and into contemporary relevance, Eastwood delighted and disturbed us with cautionary tales of revenge (Mystic River), controversial and loving depictions of euthanasia (Million Dollar Baby), and the perspective of enemies at war (Letters from Iwo Jima). One of his latest efforts not only sealed his place on any list of great film directors, but marked his return to on-screen star-power with quite possibly the greatest character he's ever portrayed (Gran Torino).

Effectively, Eastwood has become what other great and once-great American directors have failed to become... one who gets better with age. Many argue that such lions of film such as Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola have lost their touch (confirmed for the latter), but few lay claim to such a thing happening to Eastwood. Eastwood, effectively, is the anti-Spielberg (think The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). And even with Martin Scorsese's resurgence, Eastwood seems to stand alone when considering quantity, quality, and consistency of work.

I can't wait to see who comes along next.


  1. Courage Under Fire was dull when it didn't have to be. I liked Glory.

    Eastwood knows the basics: good story, good characters, good acting. While other movies seem hopelessly swallowed up by overly-complex stories, special effects, political agendas, and egos, Eastwood just lets the story unfold and the drama follows. It works simply and beautifully.

  2. No argument from me although some of Eastwood's directing is painfully slow and laborious. I'm one of your few readers I'm guessing who actually saw Dirty Harry et al a the movies as a new release and long before he got behind the camera. Unforgiven, Pretty Baby and Gran Torino, really were something out of the box. Loved them and I'm hoping that his last well, isn't his last.

  3. Eastwood is a genius, and down to of the people i'd love to have to dinner, just to hear him talk...another would be Woody Allen--he's a scoundrel, but man is he interesting, and a great director.

  4. Eastwood is okay. Not my favorite. I'd have to say my favorite directors are not American, like the great David Lean. It's also tragic Anthony Minghella did not live to make more wonderful films. I love Woody Allen's work.

  5. Clint Eastwood is great. But I've always liked Joel Coen (like him a lot), Robert Altman (though I haven't noticed much from him in recent years) and Martin Scorcese. And for funky, I have to mention Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch.