Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Clint Eastwood’s WWII epic is all about scaling down legend, deconstructing myths, and illustrating how truth can become hazy in the name of the greater good. It’s very well made, noble, reverent, intelligently written but somewhat empty at its center, feeling far too mechanical to become one of the great war movies of modern times. The structure is needlessly scattered into three interconnected storylines: 1) the ongoing battle of Iwo Jima between Japan and the United States, 2) the stateside bond tour by three of the six men responsible for raising the flag in the iconic photograph, and 3) a son in present day writing a book about his father’s war experiences in the Pacific. I really don’t feel that splintering the narrative added anything to the story; in fact, there’s a late segment that’s a barrage of character deaths that would have been far more powerful had it not been assembled into an afterthought of a montage. The battle moments are tense and bloody, with just a tinge of Saving Private Ryan familiarity (shaky cam POV, washed out colors, chaotic editing, graphic gore). I would have actually preferred more battle action but oh well.
Most of the film focuses on our three soldiers (Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach) dealing with the pressure of a spotlight they feel is undeserved. You see, the raising-the-flag picture, perhaps the most famous war photograph of all time, was a group of men replacing a flag. There were no bullets buzzing over heads, no bombs blasting; it isn’t even the first flag. The men wince at being called heroes. They’re made to become U.S. military shills, encouraging the nation to keep buying those war bonds. This segment provides lots of moments of interest by illuminating a chapter few know — the story behind the story. These moments of insider info have some juice to them, led by a suave SOB performance by John Slattery as the man in charge of drumming up dollar signs.
Phillippe is an actor I’ve been keeping tabs on ever since 2000’s Way of the Gun, and he is the moral center of the movie, showing grit and humility. It’s mostly a performance of stoic silence, but he has a very strong scene when he confronts a war widow wanting the truth and he lies between his teeth to comfort her. Beach (Wind Talkers) gets the best role as a solider of Native American blood that is still seen as a second citizen in his own nation. There are plenty of revealing moments of casual racism (people call him “chief” more than his actual name) that explain why he took to the bottle with such ferocity. Beach is an emotional wreck and deeply haunted by the disturbing memories of war. He has to be practically pried off of a widow he is clinging to and crying uncontrollably. The cast is full of young Hollywood actors and it might due some good to become acquainted with their faces before stepping into a theater. It can get confusing. Yet another reason a disjointed narrative is a bad idea.
Where Flags of our Fathers cannot make the leap from good to great is in the area of character. After two hours, you don’t really feel like you know anyone better. There’s a distance that stops the audience from fully investing. I think Eastwood and the film have such noble aims that the movie becomes more of a statement than entertainment. There isn’t any conclusive climax; the film seems to directly go right into a voice-over heavy resolution. On a technical front, Flags is very impressive and Eastwood has created his most visually lush film to date. From a human standpoint, it falters and flags. It’s admirable and attractive but I doubt come Oscar time that this war-weary ode to heroism will have many followers.
Nate’s Grade: B