Flags of our Fathers
out of ****
Clint Eastwood has made a disappointing movie with Flags of our Father, but certainly not a bad one. Some scenes, in fact, are so emotionally outstanding that we can barely stand to watch, lest they resonate so powerfully that we feel like we are intruding in confidential moments of men who deserve privacy as they struggle with new identities that have been thrust upon them by their country. But it is a disjointed experience overall; the meandering, directionless film surrounding the periodic bursts of great power mars their impact. Eastwood essentially has only one card to play; certainly it’s a revealing card, but it’s not particularly complex. He plays it early, and the rest of the film tries to linger on it and ring it of all its poignancy. The problem is, it’s such an obvious revelation that without more observations or ideas to flesh it out, it grows repetitive and eventually exasperating.
The card is that the iconic World War II picture taken by Joe Rosenthal at Iwo Jima of six soldiers raising the American flag was not really a spectacular event, and that the surviving three men praised as heroes were no more or less heroic than anyone else that day. But the government needed an image to generate morale for a war with which the public was growing weary, and Rosenthal’s photograph came at the right time in exactly the right place. The truth is, the picture depicted the second flag raised at Iwo Jima, not the first (which was taken down by a visiting senator who wanted it on his wall), and the six soldiers in it, brave as they were, just happened to be the men standing around when the flags were raised. Nevertheless, the photograph was picked as a face for the War Cause, and three of the soldiers were rushed back home to promote war bonds (the others were killed within weeks of the raising). The three men become national celebrities, made hundreds of public appearances as Great Heroes, enjoyed fame and glamour, and all the while knew that they didn’t deserve a lick of it any more or less than any other American soldier who fought at Iwo Jima.
This is, of course, an interesting story, and Eastwood is careful to ground it in reality, adapting it from a praised non-fiction bestseller of the same name and working carefully to make sure the period details are as accurate as possible. He also assembles a remarkable cast, something you can always expect when you watch one of his films. The key players are Ryan Phillipe, Jesse Bradford, and Adam Beach as the three soldiers and John Benjamin Hickey as the commander who leads them passively on through the maze of media and hype. All four men are aware that what they are doing is something just short of a farce, yet they are propelled forward by the massive amount of propaganda that faces them, despite their guilt for their fallen comrades who probably deserve the prestige over them. They were pulled from the battlefield to do this, after all, so their safety is secure. Others die every day while they petition for war bonds; their ghosts stay with the men throughout, echoing from the warzone.
The four leads are terrific actors, and the film follows their journey from soldier to superstar with carefully calculated performances that mark their deeply emotional dilemma. Beach is particularly effective as the Native American soldier who by the end is reduced to keeping a small American flag in his pocket for any photo ops that might come about as a result of his instant celebrity. Truman calls him a “true American,” but we are given a very revealing scene later in which a racist bartender refuses to serve him. Eastwood also provides a late, haunting image of Beach standing in a wheat field with the small flag in his hand, and we know exactly what he is thinking (I’ll leave it to you to find out). His character provides the movie’s soul, and he will probably get an Oscar nomination. I also liked Hickey as their naive commander, who is at all times aware that his men are being used for propaganda but is unable to ever express his feelings for the sake of duty. Watch his face carefully when one of the soldiers asks to be allowed to leave his tour of duty and visit his mother. Here is a man who doesn’t have to speak to make the conflicts within him clear. His face is almost always at a right angle to his words, and it’s a careful, subtle performance.
As expected, Eastwood also directs the action sequences with grace and rhythm, so that they always evoke tragedy and serenity instead of gung-ho fervor. Some reviews have accused Eastwood of sticking too closely to the style and palette of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, but this criticism is absurd. Eastwood has distinguished himself enough as a gifted filmmaker that to suggest he has plagiarized someone else’s work is a low-brow insult to a great American director (though Spielberg is credited as a producer). Private Ryan certainly raised the bar in terms of aggressive realism in World War II films by considering the war as the violent, unromantic battle zone that it was; Eastwood honors Spielberg’s appeal with his own accurate depictions of maddening fights through Japanese terrain, and if the film occasionally channels Private Ryan, it’s only because both films share the urgency to be as authentic as possible. What’s particularly moving about Eastwood’s approach is that he constantly shifts back and forth from the war zone to the four fellow travelers selling war bonds, so that the scenes of horror play like bad memories and, more importantly, awful reminders of the farcical quest that they represent while their friends and comrades are getting killed.
It is in the sequences surrounding this quest that the film loses its power. Literally from the very first scene, we know the paradox that these men face, and it’s frustrating the way that Eastwood holds the same note throughout the whole picture without expanding on any of these ideas. We know that the three returning soldiers feel tremendous guilt for leaving their comrades. We and they know that they are being used for promotional purposes, and that they are going to eventually fade from limelight as the hype dies down. The film begins strongly with these notes front and center, as we watch the three soldiers raising the American flag on a rocky hill as bombs burst overhead. The camera pulls back, as we see that the hill actually sits in a large stadium filled with a cheering crowd, and the bombs are really fireworks. The three soldiers look on at their praise with expressions that range from absurd delight to overwhelming shame.
There is no fault in this great opening scene, except that once you’ve seen it, you’ve basically seen the whole movie, which never deviates or elaborates on the central ideas that it reveals. Scene after scene, Eastwood reinforces these themes—the soldiers’ guilt and the deception of their campaign—without really giving them much contemplation or expansion beyond their initial punch-line. Once we understand what Eastwood is trying to say about the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, it quickly becomes clear that the overlong film has nothing else to reveal; it becomes an exercise in killing time instead of gathering new thoughts or perspectives on its central thesis. The picture therefore meanders into repetitiveness when its tremendous acting and chilling authenticity demand for a more powerful character study.
The film’s multi-layered approach could have worked to flesh out ideas and offer interesting perspectives on its subject matter. Eastwood provides three arcs: 1) flashbacks to the battlefield, 2) the War Bond tour, and 3) a rather pointless investigation into the events by one of the soldier’s children. The narrative basically plays backwards and forwards at the same time, in an effort to work its way to one, clear focal point, with all the various threads providing insight into its key event (see also The Sweet Hereafter and The Prestige for films with similar styles). All three of these threads are linked by the critical scene in the film’s center, which is the painstakingly authentic reenactment of the raising of the flag. This moment should have been moving, revealing, haunting, something. But because the film surrounding this sequence has already meticulously explained its bloated exposure by the media, by the time the time the flag is raised, it fails to resonate at all. It simply plays the exact same note that every other scene sounds. The flashback sequences inexplicably continue after the raising, though they offer nothing to the film except to reveal specifically how some of the other flag bearers were killed. Since we already know they died on the battlefield and how this has affected their surviving friends, these sequences seem like overkill instead of helpful to the narrative. The soldiers’ silent ghosts resonate more powerfully without their death scenes—it is enough to know they didn’t survive.
Ultimately, the true failure of Eastwood’s one-note approach is that none of the characters ever resonate as real people, sans Beach and Hickey who find subtly in their performances that doesn’t seem to be scripted. But even these two great performances play the same scene over and over again, and they just happen to require more emotionality than the others. None of the characters ever grow or progress. They stay trapped in perpetual characterizations that necessitate them to be upset and overwhelmed in equal proportion without ever requiring any real introspection. It’s almost as if there wasn’t enough information about their personal reactions to their celebrity, and instead of filling in the gaps, Eastwood decided he didn’t want to compromise the film’s legitimacy and simply left the details out to avoid speculation on his part.
Eastwood’s ending attempts to tie up the loose ends, revealing how the characters lived after the few years of hype that engulfed them. Had these characters played anything except the same note scene after scene, these final moments could have been quite profound, revealing the struggles these men faced for the rest of their lives. As it stands, they neither resonate nor challenge us—these men died as they lived, under the shadow of their overwhelming guilt, and nothing else is explored about them. Eastwood finally shifts into an ending that is ridiculously pat, as if he knew he needed to leave the picture on a note of obligatory Profundity. The final observation by the film’s narrator, that “these soldiers fought only for each other,” seems like it wandered in from another movie (perhaps Gunner’s Palace?). It does nothing to add to the proceedings, and it even undermines them by trying to insert a moral that comes out of nowhere and has not been set up. It would seem obvious that men fighting at Iwo Jima fought for each other, and certainly scenes of battle reinforced this idea. But why make this the final point that we are intended to take away from the film, if the rest of the picture stresses the guilt and paradoxes of the farcical War Bond campaign? These are altogether two different movies.
The pitfalls Eastwood finds himself in could easily have been avoided if scriptwriter Paul Haggis (of Crash) had put a little more effort into the script. I recently revisited Sam Peckinpah’s great western Pat Garrett & Billy and Kid, which was also about a real, morally muddled event made legendary by the annals of American history. I think about the long, poignant pauses in that film, in which we realize that the closer Garrett comes to tracking down Billy, the more of his own self he betrays. By the end of the film, Garrett has realized that he has probably lost his soul for good, and he wanders away into the voids of tortured privacy. I think what Flags of our Fathers lacks is that quiet sense of poignancy, in which the characters stop and realize that they are losing their souls the farther they drift from the reality of the battlefield. Why didn’t Haggis and Eastwood reflect on these men’s emotional and mental journeys instead of continuously stressing only the irony of their situation? Eastwood has directed some of the greatest character studies to come out in the last fifteen years, among them Unforgiven, Mystic River, and Million Dollar Baby. Haggis’ Crash was also a masterpiece of characters changed by the irony of their daily lives. Here, both filmmakers lose their way with a punch-line that needed more punch.
But I faintly recommend the film as an interesting failure, primarily for Beach’s performance and, yes, the historical accuracy of an era that is easier to consider in legendary terms than in a realistic one. We like our wars glorious, our heroes heroic, and our villains villainous, and we should be grateful that Eastwood challenges these ideas, even as his narrative fumbles. He leaves us with a final image that is undeniably powerful, of the six men in the iconic picture swimming in the ocean of Iwo Jima, laughing and splashing like school children. It’s a startlingly private moment, and it’s quite illuminating: If the raising of the flag is the image that stays with us, we can see that it is not the memory that remained for the men who survived that day and ascended into superstardom. They prefer to remember these simpler moments that don’t make headlines and don’t make heroes. For all his shortcomings, Eastwood gets this final image absolutely right, and he allows it to resonate in a way that forces us to reinterpret the photograph that sparked the need for Flags of our Fathers into motion.
Ryan Phillipe: “Doc” Bradley
Adam Beach: Ira Hayes
Jesse Bradford: Rene Gagnon
John Benjamin Hickey: Keyes Beech
Barry Pepper: Mike Strank
Paul Walker: Hank Hansen
Warner Brothers presents a Dreamworks presentation. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Paul Haggis and William Broyles, Jr. Based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers. Rated R, for extended, graphic sequences of war and language. Running time: 132 minutes. Original United States theatrical release date: October 20, 2006.