Flags of Our FathersReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/19/06 23:58:58
The directorial output of Clint Eastwood–26 feature films to date with a 27th scheduled for release in February–can be roughly broken down into three distinct categories. The first are the quick-and-dirty boilerplate films that he occasionally fires off to keep busy or to repay studios for indulging him in his artier efforts–these range from such winning but unessential entertainments as “Space Cowboys” or “The Gauntlet” to such derivative nonsense as “The Rookie,” “Absolute Power” or “Blood Work.” Then there are the films where he sets out to tell a solid story in a lean, efficient and unfussy manner–when he does these films, the results are often very good (“Play Misty For Me,” “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and “The Bridges of Madison County”) and occasionally quite a bit better than that (such as the perennially underrated gem “Bronco Billy” and his Oscar triumphs “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby”). Then there is the third group, the films in which Eastwood consciously sets out to make a masterpiece from the get-go by dealing with weighty topics in a solemn and overtly artsy manner. Ironically, it is precisely when he sets out to make a Great Film that he usually winds up stumbling badly with such murky and pretentious works as “Bird,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and the vastly overrated “Mystic River.” Within the first few seconds of his latest work, the WW II epic “Flags Of Our Fathers,” it quickly becomes evident that he is in Great Film mode and the strain of that effort is so profoundly obvious in every scene that it winds up choking the life and energy out of the proceedings.The inspiration for the film, based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, is the famous photo capturing the raising of the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima in 1945 during the early days of the six-week battle for possession of the Japanese island. At a time when support for the war was beginning to wane on the home front, the photo supplied just the kind of iconic image–simple, direct and to the point–that the military needed to show to the people of the U.S.A. in order to encourage their continued emotional, political and financial support of the armed forces. In a series of scenes interspersed throughout the film, we see the men who would eventually storm that island as they go through training, ship off on a mission that is far more important than first assumed (which they realize when a soldier falls off of one of the battleships as they are shipping off and it soon becomes apparent that the boat is not going to stop to save him) and find themselves in a ferocious and bloody battle for an ugly piece of rock defended by a deeply entrenched enemy who would sooner die than surrender to their opponents.
The other narrative strand of the film takes place a few weeks after the fact–in that time, three of the six soldiers seen raising the flag have been killed in action and the photo has reached iconic status. Realizing a publicity bonanza when they see it, the military plucks the three survivors–John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and American Indian Ira Hayes (Adam Beach)–and sends them off on a nationwide publicity tour to raise money for war bonds. As the tour progresses, an increasingly grotesque spectacle that culminates with the three being obliged to storm a artificial Iwo Jima in a recreation staged for a crowd at Chicago’s Soldier Field, they handle the pressure of trying to reconcile the public perception of the photograph with their intimate knowledge of the truth behind it in different ways. Gagnon embraces the publicity, not to mention all the perks that it entails, and is perfectly willing to give the public what they want to see and hear. Hayes, who is still haunted by both the things he saw during combat as well as the casual racism that he still encounters on a daily basis despite his hero status, becomes increasingly despondent as the tour goes on and begins to drink more and more in a failed attempt to keep his demons at bay. As for Bradley, he doesn’t say much and does everything he can to keep everything together but it is evident that he too is troubled by his experiences as well.
The problem with “Flags Of Our Fathers” lies not in the story that it tells–by illustrating the power of an image to shape and change public opinion towards warfare, the film gives us a history lesson in media manipulation that is still highly potent and relevant today–but in the manner in which Eastwood and screenwriters William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis have chosen to tell it. A master of the clean and straightforward approach that takes the story start to finish with as few diversions as possible, he has chosen here to utilize a more complicated narrative structure in which the grotesqueries of war and the grotesqueries of the bond tour blend together in a less-than-compelling manner. This particular brand of storytelling has become popular in recent years–mostly because it serves as a shorthand method of imparting the material with a sense of importance–and when done properly, it can feel as natural and convincing as a more straightforward approach. When it isn’t used properly, or when it is used by someone who doesn’t really have a feel for such an approach, the results can seem awfully forced and pretentious and “Flags Of Our Fathers” is an unfortunate example of this. The structure of the film never feels natural–it feels less like a story that had to be told in this manner and more like a story told by someone who convinced himself that it had to be filmed this way–and the whole thing suffers as a result because just as things are beginning to hum along nicely, we are suddenly jerked back to the other storyline and the momentum is lost. (To make matters worse, there is a third storyline–a present-day frame showing Bradley’s now-adult son speaking to some of his father’s comrades about what really happened–that really doesn’t work and should have been junked.) While it is nice to see Eastwood trying to stretch his directorial abilities at a time when he could easily just coast on his laurels, it is essentially a formal experiment that doesn’t quite work.
This is a shame because buried within the suffocating style, “Flags Of Our Fathers” does contain more than its fair share of arresting moments. Although plagued by some dodgy CGI effects and a certain similarity to the D-Day sequence that opened “Saving Private Ryan” (mostly due to the documentary-like approach to the scenes taken by Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern), the scenes of the fight for Iwo Jima do a good job of conveying the chaos, confusion and sheer intensity of a battle where the enemy could literally be anywhere and you wouldn’t know it until you felt one of their bullets ripping into your flesh. (Of course, Eastwood isn’t totally immune from the myth-making that he otherwise criticizes–the raising of the flag is accompanied by a swell of music in a moment that might have been more quietly effective with no score at all.) On the home front, Eastwood does an equally good job in showing how astonishingly tone-deaf people can be in their efforts to commemorate wartime actions to the people who were actually there and who would probably prefer not to be reminded of what really happened–in one exceptionally grotesque moment (so off-putting, in fact, that I have no doubt that it really happened), Bradley, Gagnon and Hayes are confronted at a formal dinner with ice-cream replicas of the raising of the flag swimming in strawberry sauce. The performances from virtually the entire cast (which also includes Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Joseph Cross, Barry Pepper and John Benjamin Hickey) are also strong and effective–although Beach has the showiest role as the most emotional of the three soldiers, Ryan Phillippe actually turns in the best performance as the most low-key member of the group.In the end, “Flags Of Our Fathers” is a well-made, well-intentioned and ambitious film that somehow never connects with us on any kind of genuine emotional level because the way in which it has been told. For all I know, maybe it will come together more effectively when seen in the context of “Letters of Iwo Jima,” Eastwood’s upcoming companion film that looks at the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese. I don’t want to say that you shouldn’t see it but those hoping for a film that matches the in-your-face emotionalism of “Saving Private Ryan” or the haunting lyrical beauty of “The Thin Red Line” or even the meat-and-potatoes approach of Sam Fuller’s “The Big Red One” are likely to come away somewhat disappointed by Eastwood’s strained attempts to make a Great Movie instead of a good one. Ironically, at a time when contemporary American filmmaking is getting lazier and lazier with each passing weak, here is a film that probably would have been a lot better if the director hadn’t been trying so hard.
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