Big canvases perfect for last classicist

Zwick's pics a throwback to serious post-War dramas

Whenever people say, “They don’t make movies like they used to,” they’re not reckoning on Edward Zwick.

The helmer of “The Last Samurai” and the forthcoming “Defiance” is the last classicist, defiantly bucking the popular appetite for frat-boy comedies and comicbook stunts in favor of epic dramas with something to say.

If you were to pin him down within the Hollywood tradition, you could say he combines the left-wing/humanist leanings of Stanley Kramer with the visual sweep and thematic ambition of Otto Preminger — two giant but often underappreciated filmmakers.

For instance, 1989’s “Glory” — celebrating the all-black 54th Massachusetts Civil War regiment — relates to the films of Kramer, the fighting liberal who examined race relations in dramas (“The Defiant Ones”) and comedies (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”).

Zwick’s films eagerly take on imposing institutions threatening individuals’ honor and freedom, from a U.S. Army cover-up in “Courage Under Fire” to the international jewel cartel’s exploitation of Africa in “Blood Diamond.” Kramer and Preminger did likewise, of course, the former filing a brief for open scientific inquiry in “Inherit the Wind,” the latter challenging religious orthodoxies in “The Cardinal.”

All three filmmakers dove into a paramount issue of our times — the prospect of peace in the nuclear age — though Kramer arrived early with “On the Beach,” and Preminger late in his terrorism thriller “Rosebud.”

Neither film possesses the power of Zwick’s 1983 pic “Special Bulletin,” depicting live TV news coverage of a terrorist group threatening to detonate a nuclear bomb in Charleston, S.C. With startling realism, the pic juggles live handheld feeds with fact-based essays on the impact of a nuke on American soil, leading to a sobering finale.

Even more chillingly, Zwick’s 1998 feature “The Siege” presciently addresses the dilemma of Arab-Americans during multiple domestic terrorist attacks, creating a Ground Zero at Manhattan’s FBI headquarters disturbingly close to the real-life images that would haunt us three years later.

But Zwick, creatively, has taken many a break from life-and-death concerns with such projects as TV’s baby-boomer chronicle “thirtysomething,” co-created with Marshall Herskovitz; ably taking on contemporary sexual politics in adapting David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” as “About Last Night … “; exec producing teen angst diary “My So-Called Life”; and helming American epic “Legends of the Fall.”

What Zwick lacks — and in fairness, so do most other filmmakers today — is the ambiguity of which Preminger was a master. He produced a courtroom drama (“Anatomy of a Murder”) in which the crime’s truth is left open, and a political thriller (“Advise and Consent”) in which the politicians’ parties are never named — all are tarred with the same corrupt brush. Though a Jew and staunch supporter of Israel, in “Exodus” he laid out the Palestinian position with fair-minded lucidity. A Preminger widescreen frame encompasses a set of disparate characters and challenges us to sort out our own sympathies and alliances.

Critical response

By contrast, both Kramer and Zwick have been taken to task for moral certitude and one-dimensional characters. Just as Pauline Kael criticized Kramer’s “Ship of Fools,” a panorama of pre-WWII attitudes, for being “brutally sure how everyone should have acted,” surely “The Last Samurai” could profitably have admitted more Westerners (other than its hero) who weren’t mere martinets or fools.

Yet Zwick may be moving in a Premingeresque direction in his new film “Defiance,” which pits two brothers — leaders of Jewish resistance in war-torn Belarus — in an incisive dialectic over means and ends.

Each makes a passionate, plausible case — Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) arguing for saving as many people as possible through mutual defense; Zus (Liev Schreiber) opting just to kill Nazis, every man for himself — and the debate goes unresolved as the film ends.

It’s exciting to imagine more Hollywood films willing to let an audience draw its own moral conclusions, and Zwick may be the man for the job. Surely he possesses the taste and intelligence to leave complex questions unanswered, even as his characters live up to the idealistic Emersonian code quoted in “Glory” and echoed throughout his movies: “A deep man believes that the evil eye can wither, that the heart’s blessing can heal, and that love can overcome all odds.”

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