Flags of Our Fathers
Clint Eastwood’s double take on the final stages of the American participation in WW2 in the Pacific is an unprecedented move in the history of cinema: the 76-year old filmmaker directed both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima back to back, supposedly showing two different sides of the same event. Flags is the American side, told from the perspective of three soldiers who helped put up the American flag on top of Mt. Suribachi – and was consequently captured in one iconic photograph, one of the most memorable images of the 20th century.
The movie is based on the memoirs of James Bradley, who, along with Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes, were the only surviving members of the party who were seen putting up the flag in the photograph. It is less interested in the heroics of war and combat as it is with the ideological creation of heroism through the media. It turns out the US government sees the potential of capitalizing on the American public’s reaction to the picture, which somehow gave them hope in a time that it was sorely needed. The government decides to bring the three soldiers back to America and put them on a tour pleading to buy bonds to help the war effort.
This is a concept that feels welcome and relevant, a study on media manipulation and public perception of war, and even war as a media event or phenomenon. Eastwood’s film, however, falls surprisingly flat in its attempt to deal with these issues in a critical manner. Too little is made of it, as the movie quickly shifts from a more cynical beginning to a sentimental story about war heroes. These, played by Ryan Philippe, Jesse Bradford, and Adam Beach, are given too little depth. As characters, they are simply not interesting, with perhaps the exception of Ira Hayes (played by Beach), the native-american who was reluctant of taking part in the whole affair, and whose story was told before in The Outsider, with Tony Curtis.
The script jumps back and forth from these guys’ tour of America and the battle of Iwo Jima. The trope of nonlinearity in war narratives is extremely appropriate and can allow for great emotional depth when expertly done. Here it just seems forced and the transitions a little too heavy-handed and repetitive. The battle itself, however, is technically flawless, rivaling the D-day sequence of Saving Private Ryan as one of the most brutal and lively battle scenes in recent war movie history. Even the color palette is strikingly similar to that employed by Spielberg (who is also producer of Flags).
Spielberg’s film, for all its faults, still manages to be a fine piece of filmmaking. Eastwood’s film does not have the same luck, as it takes a turn midway towards corniness with a jarring twist in perspective (changing to that of Bradley’s son, writing a biography of his father). This move ends up in glorifying the very elements it was putting into question in the first place, and we are back with the banalities of war heroes, and honor. Appropriately, over the closing credits photographs are shown of the real combatants, as a memorial.
Critics all over have been quoting John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in relation to Flags: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” What maybe they’re forgetting is that in Ford’s film the very idea of a hero was being undermined, as it is James Stewart’s coward who is made a legend over John Wayne’s drunkard. Even before, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory did the same, when innocent men are executed for cowardice to cover up a corrupt General’s blunder. There are none of these moral questionings in Eastwood’s film. It feels just like it is trying to tell this piece of American history without a new perspective or critical eye.
It is hard to judge, however, without having seen its counterpart, Letters from Iwo Jima: maybe this is all part of Eastwood’s project, even the sentimentality. Somehow, I doubt it. It is hard not to be making faces at the sight of two particular names in the credits: Steven Spielberg (producer) and Paul Haggis (executive producer and screenwriter), who have been guilty of the mortal sin of goopiness before, unlike Eastwood.