Flags of Our Fathers (2006)Rated R for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language.
Starring Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach.
LVJeff's Rating: 7/10
Photo ©DreamWorks Pictures. All rights reserved.
Clint Eastwood once again moves into myth debunking territory by directing Flags of Our Fathers, a World War II film that goes behind the story of the men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima, so famously captured in one iconic photograph. I don't remember the first time I laid eyes on that picture, but I recall what I thought at the time -- it gave me the sense that the raising of the flag was a monumental moment which proved U.S. soldiers were gaining an upper hand in the fight going on all around them. Apparently, government officials thought something quite similar; consequently, the photo was used as a promotional image in an effort to get U.S. citizens to purchase more war bonds.
Eastwood's movie has two goals in mind. First, it wants to show how the image was exploited by the government, which recalled the three survivors of the six men in the photo and trotted them around the country in a tour to help fund the war. Second, it hopes to downplay the notion of these men deserving any special attention at all: they were equals amongst their fellow soldiers in terms of courage and heroism -- and randomness in war was the only deciding factor in who lived to achieve any sort of glory at all. The two points are explored side-by-side as the film intercuts between the men at war in Iwo Jima and the homeland ordeals of the three soldiers: John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach).
Although the intentions of the movie are noble and the tale is worth telling, I'm afraid the reverence with which Eastwood relates his story threatens to choke it, binding the film with a safe, modern conventionalism. Flags of Our Fathers feels a bit like Saving Private Ryan's admiring little brother who wants to be just like him and copies him. Thus, we have the bleached Janusz Kaminski-like cinematograhy and the hard-hitting, extremely graphic realism of the mercilessness of war. Presentation of the U.S. past comes across with warm nostalgia, whereas true patriotism and the idea of heroism seem like burdens to the soldiers, who realize they are only fighting to survive and must therefore feel guilt about surviving and being lauded as heroes. Or, in the specific cases of Private Ryan and the three survivors of Iwo Jima, they are deemed special enough to be taken out of the line of fire, though none of them feel that they've, as Steven Spielberg's movie put it, earned it.
Eastwood conveys a sense of indignation toward the idea of singling out the men in the photo, and in the insincerity of processing the whole thing through the public relations machine that always obscures the truth, but he also doesn't want us to forget the men as the courageous human beings they are, so almost equal time is spent detailing their emotions and personal experiences. We get the ideas that Bradley was upstanding and pragmatic, Gagnon was appreciative of this special opportunity to be famous, and, perhaps in the most detail, Hayes felt tremendous guilt while also having to deal with two opposing forces of special attention -- he was a "hero," but since he was also a Native American, he had to endure a fair share of ethnic prejudice.
However, Eastwood doesn't seem to know where to stop with these stories, and the movie continues beyond the point of communicating its themes, adding unnecessary epilogues to the life stories, as if they were included out of a sense of obligation. The movie moves from redirecting the misplaced respect for the faceless beings in the photograph to demanding respect for those soldiers and their comrades. One could say this film is hellbent on setting the record straight, at one point being as unsubtle as to show each of the photo's non-survivors dying one after the other, explicitly spotlighting each one as if they had lined up to be remembered.
And what of the photo itself? This is where Eastwood misses the duality that made his other myth debunker, Unforgiven, so strong. In the western, Eastwood shows how legends grow from very simple, non-exciting things, but he also conveys how those legends contain at least some bit of truth, and that can be enough to make a legend endure. The movie also addresses the innate human need to create myths. In Flags, the photo's iconicity is barely explored, giving no counterbalance to its deconstruction as a non-event. We understand here that the photo was exploited and hyped up, but isn't there some truth in its serendipitous beauty? Doesn't it mean something that it really can stir up certain emotions? Should it receive some credit, even as the film continues to put a spotlight on the soldiers of Iwo Jima?
The movie's end credits presentation gives it a last chance to shine, whether intentionally or not. It features a montage of the other photographs taken at Iwo Jima, and as these pictures flash by, they form a captivating illustration of the scene there. At the very end comes the famous flag-raising photograph -- just one of the many, or, because it's the last image shown to us, special in some way? Make no mistake, it does stand out, so maybe this photo doesn't need any extra attention from the movie. After all, when you're larger than life, you just are.
©Jeffrey Chen, Oct. 7, 2006