Flags of Our Fathers

December, 2006, Drama

Directed by:Clint Eastwood

Starring:Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford, Neal McDonough, Barry Pepper, Robert Patrick, Paul Walker, Jamie Bell, John Benjamin Hickey, and John Slattery

Actor/director/composer Clint Eastwood follows his extraordinary Million Dollar Baby with this interpretation of the battle for Iwo Jima as described in the best-selling book by James Bradley and Ron Powers. (Next spring, Eastwood will release the already completed Letters from Iwo Jima, which will present these events from the Japanese point of view.) Despite its sweeping battle scenes and pointed contemporary relevance, Eastwood has constructed an uneven film which dissipates much of its potential impact by oscillating between demonstrable valor amidst horrible destruction on the battlefield and a subsequent war-bond drive triggered by that now-iconic photograph of six soldiers who planted an American flag atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi in the early days of the fighting on that island. As a result, Flags lags, turning what might have been a monumental movie into an interesting but flawed one which lacks the impact it might otherwise have provided.

The Bradley/Powers book examined not only the battle itself, but the effect it had on those who survived, especially the discomfort many survivors felt at being described as heroes. In doing so, the authors focused extensively on how their wartime experiences marked the combatants for life and how those of us who were the beneficiaries of their sacrifices cannot begin to understand the price they paid nor how we should properly recognize it. But the director adds to the author’s observations an extended examination of the bond drive as metaphor for the disturbing tendency of our politicians to use members of the military in wartime as propaganda vehicles. This point of view allows Eastwood to make that portion of his storyline resonate with today’s audiences, who find those same efforts provided by the Iraqi & Afghan coverage on television and in newspaper headlines.  

Of the half dozen men who raised that now famous flag, (actually the second one raised on the fifth day after the invasion) three were pulled out of combat and sent back to the U.S. Even as their comrades continued to suffer and die on the battlefield, “Doc” Bradley, (Ryan Phillippe), Ira Hayes, (Adam Beach) and Rene Gagnon, (Jesse Bradford) returned to the home front and were told by their military and civilian superiors to harness their involvement in the flag raising to raise badly needed funds for the war effort. Hayes grew increasingly contemptuous of this blatant manipulation, drank heavily and got returned to active duty; the quietly observant Bradley struggled to balance the country’s legitimate financial needs with the publicity circus surrounding their cross-country barnstorming while Gagnon turned his status an his instant celebrity status into a crass attempt at a job search. 

In this, his 30th outing as a director, Eastwood handles the threads of this complex story with crisp efficiency, never allowing the audience to become confused about how the story plays out. Phillippe, Beach & Bradford deliver solid performances that delineate the men’s separate personalities, but the combat sequences are introduced as a series personal flashbacks and the movie then ping-pongs between the battlefield and various bond rallies, truncating the action and robbing the nightmarish conflict which the director provides of much that could have generated substantially greater impact. The alternating sequences do succeed in delivering a vivid demonstration of what we now call “post traumatic stress disorder”, but the repetitive nature of Eastwood’s technique also implicitly vests the exploitation inherent in the bond rallies with a level of importance much to close to that of the carnage on the battlefield.

Shot in a grey, washed out color palate that brings an added visual dimension to the black sand beaches of Iceland where the film was shot, (the Japanese government refused permission to film on Iwo Jima itself) Eastwood presents the invasion as unimaginable chaos. Death and destruction are delivered with such random fury it’s nearly impossible to believe anyone survived the actual battle with their sanity intact. Yet the director balances the massive size and scale of the attack quite effectively by concentrating on the individuals in the squads Bradley, Gagnon and Hayes were attached to, rendering the violence colossal and frighteningly intimate at the same time.  

Cinematographer Tom Stern, (with whom Eastwood has worked on at least 4 previous occasions) presents each scene with unadorned straightforwardness, allowing the action to speak for itself.  Eastwood’s vision of the brutality of combat permits no suggestion that nobility of purpose or desire for glory played any role in the outcome; Flags captures the savagery of modern warfare in scenes that are drenched with the oppressive fear of sudden obliteration in a landscape void of anything other than bleak desolation.

Eastwood contrasts this Armageddon with his state-side scenes that show a civilian population tired of the war’s costs and intent on making these three young soldiers into something they know full well they’re not; symbols of a glorious conflict the public has grown weary of. Unfortunately, by shifting the action back and forth from home front to battle front so often, Eastwood makes it hard to fully appreciate the cumulative effect of the war’s unrelenting stress upon the soldiers fighting it, opting instead to focus on the cavalier manner in which the efforts of those actually doing the fighting were often trivialized by those benefiting from it.  

In Flag’s beautifully paced coda, (accompanied by a hauntingly plaintive score of Eastwood’s composition) a voice-over narrative traces the post-war story of these three men, so randomly thrust into the public eye. Doc walled off his military experiences during his post-war life, suffering flashbacks that continued until he died. After leaving the army, Hayes descended into alcoholism, finally dying as an unattended drifter in a Texas farm field. Gagnon’s ambitious career plans went nowhere; he spent the great bulk of his life working as a janitor. In providing these details, Eastwood suggests that even otherwise physically healthy war veterans are never free of the experiences they endure. 

Flags of our Fathers thus emerges as a thoughtful, if oddly tedious challenge to America’s capacity for glamorizing war, as long as it’s being fought far away. It’s hard not to leave the theater numbed by Eastwood’s devastating depiction of battlefield violence, chastened by his ability to find in this 60 year-old battle a relevance to current events, yet equally hard to be as moved as you might expect. In his ability to present a lucid examination of a deeply troubling but important issue, Eastwood gets an A+ as a thoughtful polemicist; but as a director, this time out his work rates only a B-.        

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