A film review by Craig J. Koban

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS jj
˝ 

2006, R, 132 mins.

John Bradley: Ryan Phillippe / Ira Hayes: Adam Beach / Rene Gagnon: Jesse Bradford / Ralph Ignatowski: Jamie Bell / Harlon Block: Benjamin Walker / Hank Hansen: Paul Walker
Capt. Severance: Neal McDonough /

Directed by Clint Eastwood /  Written by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis /  Based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers

 

Considering the incredible high pedigree of talent behind the scenes of the new World War II drama FLAGS OF OUT FATHERS (director Clint Eastwood; co-writers Paul Haggis and William Broyles Jr.; and producer Steven Spielberg), the film seemed destined to have American Classic written all over it. 

However, perhaps the most memorable and regretful aspect of this revisionist historical film is just how awkwardly assembled and constructed it is. 

Now, there is nothing wrong with the film’s underlining themes and messages (most notably those of undying heroism in the harshest times of battle and of how propaganda can turn ordinary men into heroic icons).  No, my main misgiving with Eastwood’s film is that the sum of a few of its great parts simply do not make for a magnificent whole.  For the most part, the movie kind of does a lot of creaky and redundant pontificating on issues that other better films on the subject have tackled more successfully.  As a director that has demonstrated himself as one of incredible tact and restraint, it seems odd – in hindsight – to see Eastwood overreach a bit too much in FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS.

The 76-year-old filmmaker does not need to apologize.  He has emerged in the last decade to join the status of the directorial elite that has so often – and unfairly – eluded him for much of his career.  His UNFORGIVEN – one of the greatest of all revisionist westerns - was one of the best films of the 90’s.  His latest offerings - like the emotionally powerful MYSTIC RIVER and the riveting and involving MILLION DOLLAR BABY - showcased Eastwood at the top of his form.  Unfortunately, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS is decidedly weak in comparison and – when compared to other films that have tackled the era of the Pacific theatre of WWII - the film is also underwhelming and unsatisfying to a large degree.  FLAG OF OUR FATHERS has a considerable amount to say about the nature of heroism and how powerful myths and icons are created at the expense of those that die during conflict.  Yet, it’s Eastwood’s handling of the material that proves to be too self-conscious and mishandled.

On a decent level, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS covers territory that many other war films – including Spielberg’s own watershed work, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN – have overlooked.  In a way, Eastwood's film is a much-needed examination of how normal men, when thrown into the hell of battle, are often turned into reluctant patriots that maybe – just maybe – do not deserve the accolades that their country (and governments) have gone out of their way to emphasize they deserve.  Curiously enough, the film is on some respectable ground in the way it shows how the American government essentially turned some of the warriors of WWII into glorified public spokesman.  During a time when the US was sinking into social and economic depression and funding for the military was threatening an American departure from the war itself, the country needed icons to help its people reinvest – spiritually and financially – back into the wear effort.  The film is spot on for how it details how somewhat marginalized men are made into heroic deities that eventually become little more than salesmen for politicians.

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS is also noble minded and ambitious for being a WWII film that tries to debunk its own strongly rooted mythology.  The cornerstone of this lies with what is considered by many to be the most famous war photograph ever created – the raising of the US flag at Iwo Jima as taken by Joe Rosenthal.  By early 1945 the US forces were poised for victory in WWII, but were faced with a somewhat insurmountable task of taking the prized and strategically important Pacific island of Iwo Jima.  The Japanese, contrary to popular historical opinion, would not easily surrender at this point.  There were tens of thousands of Japanese troops entrenched at Iwo Jima ready to either die by the hands of the enemy or die at their own hands.  Surrender for them was simply not a viable option. 

Clearly, the US forces knew that they had to strike when the proverbial iron was hot and concocted a daring siege of Iwo Jima.  It is here where the actual history of the battle gets more than just a bit hazy.  Most lay people that are only vaguely knowledgeable about the events that transpired now think that when the forces erected a flag on top of Iwo Jima that is was a moment where the battle looked like it was totally within the hands of the American forces.  In reality, the flag itself was actually planted merely in the early days of the campaign that would subsequently rage on for weeks on end.  In this way, the flag raising can be seen – in pure hindsight – as a way of pumping up the troops for the hellish battles to come and not so much a image of a quick and easy US victory.

In all, five marines and one navy corpsman planted the flag.  James Bradley (who co-wrote the book that the film is based on) had a father, John (played by Ryan Phillippe), who was one of the six men.  Unfortunately, only two of the other men would be given recognition for the flag raising.  The second was Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and a Native American marine named Ira Hayes (Adam Beech).  The film chronicles not only the flag raising, but also the battle that was framed both in front of and after it.  The U.S. military, seizing on a glorious opportunity to use the photograph to help boost American support, decided to launch a propaganda campaign that would use the three men and pin them up as the ultimate poster boys for heroism.  It was odd move, to say the least, seeing as it is next to impossible to make out any of the actual men in the photo.  Even Rosenthal himself, during a sly little scene in the film, criticizes his own photo moments after he takes it.  “I dunno, it would have been a better shot if we could see their faces.”

The three good men are soon sent back to the states where governmental stooges – who seem to have no care for what the men went through or actually did do in the war and flag raising efforts - decides to put them on every magazine and newspaper cover and throw them right into a large scale promotional tour.  Considering the harsh economic downspin the country was facing, not to mention the fact that Americans were growing tired of several thousands of their countrymen coming home in body bags, the Iwo Jima photo could now be construed as motivational medicine.  It stirred a country out of apathy, even if the real story behind the flag raising was more than a little misleading.

The film does a good job of displaying each of the three soldier’s responses to their overnight celebrity status.  Rene Gagnon seemed like the more charismatic (and eager) of the trio to bathe himself in the public’s adoration, perhaps because of his incredibly limited battle experience had not made him too shell shocked.  John “Doc” Bradley is a different character altogether, who had the Herculean job of performing medical feats on soldiers in the line of fire, who often had their guns in one hand and most of their intestines in the other.  Of the three it is Ira Hayes that takes the greatest disliking to carrying the moniker of “hero”.  Firstly, he is loved as a hero by a country that – for the most part – has ignorant, bigoted views about his race.  Native Americans, who wilted away on the reservation systems of the time, were not given much more tolerance in the military than they were on the home front.  On top of that, Ira feels so guilty about being a so-called hero that he begins to drink heavily, which only helps to further accentuate Indian stereotypes to the public and his superiors.

The most interesting aspect about FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS is the way that Eastwood almost treats the trio’s homecoming as a psychological war.  The emotional and physical hardships most of the men endured on the sands of Iwo Jima were obviously barbaric, but coming home to the endless barrage of dinners, champagne–laced meet and greets with powerful politicians, and huge publicity tours have a different mental effects on them.  There’s a droll little scene where the men meet President Truman, who sheepishly tries to make the men out on the famous photo, and yet another moment where the men are worshiped as war messiahs at Yankee stadium before a baseball game.  The most haunting scene occurs where the trio are shamelessly forced to recreate their flag raising on an Iwo Jima mount made of paper mache.  The point here is simple: The government does not want to hear the real story.  They don’t care that there was actually two flag raisings, nor do they care that there were other more important men that died that day who are the real heroes.  They needed tangible, breathable poster boys to sell war bonds. 

On thematic levels, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS is a proud achievement.  It dares to dive into the heart of a famous battle and deconstructs it from the inside out.  Eastwood is no stranger to demystifying genre films, as he masterfully challenged many preconceived archetypes in the western genre in films like THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES and UNFORGIVEN.  Whereas too many war films go out of their way to prop up their warriors as heroes, Eastwood tries to tell us the heroes of WWII were reluctant ones at that, who often were more willing to label their dead comrades as the real, unsung patriots.  FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS is frequently provocative because of this..

Yet, the film really suffers from a lack of character development and from a equal lack of a smooth, cohesive narrative flow.  Eastwood makes a huge misstep by telling too many stories – often from both the past and present – and intercuts them sloppily.  FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS never gels slickly together because it begins at one narrative timeline and then awkwardly jumps out of that tangent and into another one.  The result is largely detrimental to the flow of the film.  Consequently, this also affects character development.  With so many uncomfortable shifts in tone and time, it becomes difficult for us to invest in any one person.  The film begins with an elderly man being awoken by a hellish dream of Iwo Jima combat, then flashes back to the battle itself, which further flashes forward to the propaganda tour, and then back to the future with the old man, and then back to the battle, and then back to the propaganda tour…and so on and so on.  FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS could have greatly benefited from a more linear story structure.

Some of the characters are well drawn, whereas others become as enigmatic as their heroic personas.  Rene Gagnon is underdeveloped, as is a sniper played very unceremoniously by Paul Walker.  Ditto for a superior officer played by Barry Pepper.  There are points in the film where it flashes back to the death scenes of many soldiers where we have a hard time remembering who there are and how they fit into the film.  We are also unnecessarily given a tertiary character in the form of Bradley’s son (in the future) who interviews the aging soldiers in the present, which only bogs down the narrative more.  In essence, Adam Beech’s Ira Hayes emerges as the film only developed character for us to respond to.  The more I watched his hardships the more I realized that there is almost a larger, more interesting story to tell of Native American involvement in the war front and the prejudices they experienced first hand.  Unfortunately, Eastwood only scarcely dives into that material.

The production values for this $90 million film are, as expected, uniformly excellent.  Eastwood, with the help of visual effects company Digital Domain, creates awesome sights, both in terms of recreating the naval invasion of Iwo Jima and the heroes’ big return to rallies Yankee Stadium and Time Square.  No expense was obviously spared and FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS to be a sprawling, epic vision.  The battle scenes are fast, blood soaked, and chaotic, but they owe their resemblance a lot to Spielberg’s masterfully handled opening battle scene in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, one of the cinema's all-time great sustained action set-pieces.  For the most part, the war scenes are raw and brutal in FLAGS, but they kind of lack the urgency and frantic energy of PRIVATE RYAN.

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS is a film of strange contradictions.  It is neither pro-war nor anti-war.  It wisely pays salutations to the brave men that died in 1945 in Iwo Jima.  However, the movie also is critical of the way that governments create false heroes in hopes of stirring the public.  In our modern media frenzied world, the notion of hastily created celebrities that are given their 15 minutes and then easily digested and forgotten is easily prevalent.  This makes FLAGS OF OUR FATHER feel very topical and relevant.  The film is patriotic for challenging the nature of patriotism and heroism.  Yet, the film bogs the overwhelmingly important messages by covering a tremendous amount of material in the most confusing and convoluted manner possible.  The narrative is a jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces that are forced to fit together, often at the expense of plot cadence and flow.  Clint Eastwood is a masterful film conductor and deserves his rightful place with the best of the business, but his FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS tells a great and important story in an uneven and unsatisfying manner.  The film is too random and disjointed to be labeled as anything more than a deeply flawed battlefront masterpiece.  Eastwood’s heart is most assuredly in FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, but his characteristic discipline is not.

 
 

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