Title: Flags of Our Fathers
Genre: Drama, History, War
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriters:William Broyles Jr., Paul Haggis
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Barry Pepper, Joseph Cross
In Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood comes out strongly for the proposition — last expressed eloquently in Ridley Scott’s staggering Black Hawk Down — that our notions of heroism, at least when it comes to war, are hopelessly deluded. The men (and now women, but not in 1945) who, we insist, are incomparable patriots, sacrificing all for God, freedom and country, are in reality regular guys whose heroism stems not from any sort of superhuman courage, resolve or saintliness, but a survival instinct and an enduring connection with the men who fight alongside them. Not so much a film “about” Iwo Jima, World War II, or even war, Flags of Our Fathers aims above all to be an embodiment of this idea.
There is a problem, and the problem is this: to realize its central conceit, the film needs to firmly establish the aforementioned bond between the soldiers. For us to feel the connection between these men, the deep friendship that runs still deeper because of what they go through, is necessary to the movie’s power. But instead of nurturing that connection, bringing it to life with detail and nuance, Eastwood, his screenwriters (one of whom is Paul “Crash” Haggis), and Flags of Our Fathers treat it as axiomatic. They assume it — and the movie fails.
A number of collateral issues contribute to Flags‘ ultimate downfall, but everything comes back to the collapse of this core. There’s talk, from the several voiceovers extolling their loyalty to the scene of poor, unstable Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) weeping in the arms of a dead compatriot’s bereaved mother, but there’s no depth to it; no there there. Much of the time, the film is preoccupied with the other half of the equation: deriding our shallow, commercialized perceptions of war and its protagonists.
To that end, Eastwood hits the same points, time and again. The story concerns the historic “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” photograph, and the celebrity that follows for three of the men shown sticking the pole in the ground — the other three died shortly thereafter. They are recruited to be professional war heroes, touring the country for publicity stunts meant to spur the purchase of all-important war bonds. We see the battle itself in a series of flashbacks, some of them extended, and some as brutal as anything in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
The battle scenes mostly work, with Eastwood working just enough visual coherence into the expected bloody chaos to make the action meaningful. The post-Iwo Jima scenes, ostensibly representing the main narrative thread, don’t fare as well. Eastwood piles on the irony, putting his characters in front of fawning crowds to raise the American flag in cheap facsimiles of the original event — which was itself, we learn, the nonchalant raising of a replacement flag after the original was commissioned by a politician with a hard-on for war memorabilia. They’re lectured by generals and bureaucrats about their heroism and the importance of their new “mission”; Ira, an American Indian, keeps getting faux-good-natured taunts about taking a tomahawk to the Japs. Eastwood’s coup de grace is the ice cream sundae depiction of “Raising the Flag,” and the camera lingers as the waiter covers it with strawberry sauce.
Thing is, Eastwood didn’t need to dwell on this point. We get the idea very quickly — in fact, the first time we see a shot of the flag going up dissolving to show fireworks and a stadium full of wildly cheering fans. What Flags of Our Fathers is missing is more feeling and emotional context to the battle itself. There’s one character (played, curiously, by Paul Walker) whose death is clearly a big thematic sticking point, and the subject of Ira’s aforementioned weeping, but he has maybe five lines and appears all of three times. The hit-and-miss casting doesn’t help the fundamental lack of depth: Jesse Bradford and Ryan Philippe are adequate but missing something, Adam Beach is just kind of dull, and of the entire ensemble, only Jaime Bell, who hasn’t managed to hit a false note in his entire career, brings the A-game. When we hear talk about the deep-seated connection between the men and to the dead, we don’t believe it.
The film has a bizarrely complicated framing structure, with an unnecessary present-day (or close to it) portion and several layers of voiceover. It is one of several odd complications added to what should have been a simple and powerful story. Much like the teeming masses it depicts, Flags of Our Fathers forgets what’s truly important.