Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, John Benjamin Hickey, Jamie Bell
A classic case of the importance of the subject matter being mistaken for the importance of the film about it, Clint Eastwood's latest Oscar-bait, Flags of Our Fathers, is an uneven collection of mixed messages and the kind of sledgehammer simplifications that are part and parcel of any movie where Paul Haggis (Crash) has touched the screenplay.
The film purports to set out to deconstruct the entire concept of heroes, using as its base the men who raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during World War II. Fair enough. It's a good base from which to work. There've always been rumors that the famous photo was staged, making the whole thing a little suspect. The film doesn't quite go that far. Instead, it focuses on the story that's been given as way of an explanation -- that the photo was of a second flag that was raised on the island, which was raised not as a photo op, but in order to avoid giving the original flag to a war souvenir obsessed politician.
The idea that AP photographer Joe Rosenthal (Ned Eisenberg, World Trade Center) just happened to snap such a dramatic photo is a bit of a credulity-strainer, and exactly the kind of thing that makes the film feel strangely tentative. Since the photo was so dynamic -- looking for all the world like six men struggling to raise the flag under the worst possible circumstances -- the folks back home took it to their war-weary hearts as a mythic symbol of the war, the value of a war they were tired of, and a tantalizing prospect of prevailing in that war. The government -- in dire need of money to continue fighting the war -- grasped the opportunity and brought the three surviving men in the photo back to the States, played up their hero status and sent them on a wildly successful war-bond-selling drive. It didn't matter that they didn't consider themselves heroes, nor that they had been depicted raising a second flag (that part was kept quiet), nor that the flag-raising wasn't a frenzied attempt to erect the flag in the thick of battle (the circumstances are never addressed publicly). What mattered was selling the image.
As a concept worth exploring, Eastwood couldn't have found a much better one. Unfortunately, he doesn't explore it so much as simply present it -- over and over and over for 132 minutes with astonishing ham-handed overkill. (Eastwood can't let go of the absurdity of seeing the image of the flag-raising recreated in ice cream, he has to underline it by having blood-red strawberry sauce drizzled over it, and then has to underline that with a lingering close-up in case we don't get the symbolism.) Thanks to the fragmented approach to the narrative, the film states its case within the first few minutes, leaving little in the way of narrative tension.
Eastwood wants his three main characters -- John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe, Crash), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford, Swimfan), Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, Windtalkers) -- to not be heroes, but also to not not be heroes. As a result, he's made a film that is not a good film, but not not a good film. It's certainly a more ambitious and impressive undertaking than either Mystic River (2003) or the grotesquely overrated Million Dollar Baby (2004), but Flags of Our Fathers has other, possibly greater, problems that it never overcomes.
The greatest of these problems lies in the film's inability to make the three men into three-dimensional characters. Much as with the central premise, the characters are quickly sketched in. After that, they're rarely elaborated on -- and when they are (especially in the ill-advised present-day -- or close to it -- sequences) they aren't very persuasive. There's rarely any sense of getting to know the characters as people, much less any real sense of camaraderie among them. There's simply a feeling of being told about them. The emotional response -- to the degree there is one -- relies entirely on historical impact rather than characterizations within the film.
The film's only real attempt at characterization lies in the Ira Hayes character. That makes some sense in that his character offers the greatest room for development and personal tragedy. A Pima Indian, Hayes was never comfortable with the hero label, nor with the deceptions that went along with it -- things that conspired to help propel him into a descent into alcoholism and an inglorious death. The problem not only lies in how perfunctorily this is sketched in, but (probably thanks to Haggis as a screenwriter) but also in the racism angle -- not a scene goes by that Hayes' race isn't dragged in by someone -- which is piled on to almost self-defeating levels. As with nearly everything about the film, there's less a sense of drama and tragedy than of dutiful reportage, which might have worked in an objective manner if the film didn't veer off into sentimentality long before the end (is this the hand of co-producer Spielberg?), creating a jarring dichotomy.
It's not the only dichotomy. The film's much-praised battle scenes are a weird mixture of gritty realism and moments that look for all the world like bits of soundstage recreations from an old movie. Eastwood's decision to print all this footage with the color drained out of it to a point that it's almost black-and-white heightens the old-movie feel and seems less an artistic choice in itself than a grafted-on style.
There are moments in the film that come close to the epic masterpiece that was intended. There are also intimations of an indictment of the whole business of manufacturing heroes and myths for the sole purpose of swaying the public consciousness -- but I, for one, came away without a clue as to just how Eastwood feels about the practice. And that leaves me feeling that the film isn't totally honest, though I don't for a moment doubt that it's well-intentioned. Unfortunately, those intentions feel like a bid by Eastwood to emulate the later-day John Ford, but with Ford the point of the deconstruction of the myth and the simultaneous celebration of it weren't shrouded in an apparent attempt to please everyone -- or at least to offend no one. You knew where Ford stood. I'm not sure that's true of Eastwood. Rated R for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke