Neal McDonoughBarry PepperRobert PatrickDavid Rasche
Flags of our Fathers
Medium: film
Year: 2006
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: William Broyles Jr., Paul Haggis
Keywords: Oscar-nominated, World War II
Country: USA
Actor: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough, Melanie Lynskey, Thomas McCarthy, Chris Bauer, Scott Eastwood, David Rasche
Format: 132 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 11 May 2009
It's the other half of Clint's double-bill with Letters from Iwo Jima. That was a simple story, powerfully told. 22,000 Japanese fight to defend Iwo Jima and almost all die. Can't really go wrong with that, can you?
This is a messier film, in which someone today interviews World War Two veterans about their experiences on Iwo Jima and then back home afterwards in America. I'm sure you can imagine it. Flashbacks within flashbacks. Fortunately this is less confusing than it sounds, because the framing story is so perfunctory as to surprise you when it pops up late on in the movie. Nevertheless it shouldn't be surprising to learn that this isn't a film with a strong narrative drive. The story of this film goes as follows:
1. war is hell.
2. afterwards, the soldiers have to go back to their normal lives and sometimes they're unhappy.
I'm afraid I can't rouse myself to any great state of indignation about this. In fact this film is an adaptation of a non-fiction book by James Bradley with Ron Powers. Bradley discovered late in life that his father had been in one of the most famous photographs of all time, that of U.S. Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi. He'd never even talked about it. Bradley started digging into this and ended up writing a book about the six flag-raisers, from their early lives through to military training, wartime combat and then how they coped with life in peacetime. Some coped with it, some didn't and some didn't get the chance to do either because they were dead. The book went on to be a best-seller and I suspect this film might work better for people who've read it.
Obviously the film trims down all that material. Some stuff, such as their early lives, simply gets thrown out. It ain't there. Other stuff, such as the fact that this is Bradley finding out for the first time about his father's life, isn't communicated at all until you discover it at the end. This might not sound so bad, but in fact what hits the screen is some bloke we hardly know telling a dying war veteran that "you were the greatest dad in the world". Eh. Uh, that's nice. Obviously we've seen so much of the war veteran's life that this can't help but be affecting, but the scene only works from his point of view. James Bradley? I wouldn't even have known his name if I hadn't looked it up. There's power in the idea of a son finding out all this about his father, but to get it you'll have to go read the book.
That's just a side-issue, though. 95% of the film is set in the past, so that's where we should be concentrating. There are two stories here. One is the wartime stuff on Iwo Jima, which is great. Mind you, it's also quite a lot gorier than Letters from Iwo Jima. Since it has less screen time in which to make an impact, it makes up for this by getting nastier and more brutal than its sibling had to. Personally I appreciated that, but the squeamish should be warned.
The other story is of what happened back in the States. Apparently the cost of the war was close to bankrupting the country, so the goverment was singing and dancing to get the public to buy war bonds. When that memorable Iwo Jima photo caught the public's imagination, someone saw an opportunity. Immediately everyone in it who wasn't already dead got flown home to be paraded in front of the people. This is what we see. The subsequent media circus is ugly and uncomfortable. The soldiers don't like it and we don't either. Their PR man doesn't care two hoots about what really happened, but only about putting on a good show for the American people. He doesn't want anyone mentioning the fact that this triumphant-looking photo was taken on the 5th day of a 40-day battle, for instance. However the tragedy is that he's right. This is absolutely what the government needs to be doing, but in doing so it ends up lying to the mothers of dead servicemen and unwittingly breaking one man who can't handle being called a hero.
This is powerful stuff, but it doesn't quite work. It's honest and faithful to the book, so on that level at least it's worth watching. These are the real stories of real people. You even get to see the originals in lots of contemporary photos if you stick around for the closing credits. We're seeing profound emotions and the consequences of terrible events. On a documentary level, it's admirable. Apparently Clint Eastwood became a demon for authenticity, demanding that even the smallest detail in the film be backed up by research. I can understand his respect for the history and I think he's made something important in doing so. The most important character, Ira Hayes, is an American Indian who encounters racism at all levels of society even when he's being paraded as one of America's greatest heroes. What happened to them is a shame and I'm glad I've learned more about it. However I also don't think the film quite manages to weave its stateside story threads into something more than just a bunch of scenes that happened. Arguably it's too respectful.
Fortunately there's usually some violence waiting for us back on Iwo Jima. It's a relief to return there. Life's simple on a battlefield. You know who your friends are, even if sometimes they're killing you with friendly fire. You sense that for these men, at least they felt they knew where they were during wartime, even when their friends were dying. I can only remember two sequences in this movie that are uncomplicatedly happy. The first opens the film, before the boats have landed on Iwo Jima and while the soldiers are simply swapping banter and taking each other's money. Those scenes are even funny. Then the other closes the film, again in an Iwo Jima flashback, this time when the soldiers have been told to go swimming.
That doesn't mean that Iwo Jima isn't also gruesome and ghastly, of course. There's the aftermath of a group suicide shown in full colour, some incredibly sinister shots of Japanese guns aiming and one chap who's been murdered so horribly that even this film doesn't dare show you the body. The Japanese in World War Two did things like that.
The performances are wholehearted and naturalistic, although unfortunately a lot of the cast are interchangeable clean-cut young Americans. Well, that's what you'll get in a movie about the U.S. Marine Corps. Adam Beach takes the weight of playing Ira Hayes and does well, but don't imagine that makes his story fun to watch. Actually the character I remember best is a cameo from David Rasche, which is surprising since as Sledge Hammer he was playing a parody of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry. Looks like Clint's got a sense of humour. Oh, and there's also Robert Patrick, looking old enough to be unrecognisable as the T-1000 from Terminator 2.
This film is more important than it is good. It has a wonderful list of ingredients and I like the almost systematic way in which it goes about showing us all the different ways war can be wrong. If my DVD had died half an hour before the end, I'd have probably given this the benefit of the doubt and assumed it was a masterpiece. I didn't enjoy watching the stateside scenes, but that's because I'm not meant to. However in the end this isn't a film that comes together so much as unravels. It's telling us what happened to the real soldiers from the photo and it has too much respect to impose a satisfying movie ending on something that's inherently a bit random and unsatisfactory (i.e. real life). By the end, it's relying on narration and interviews all the time. In particular the last voiceover is perhaps a bit heavy-handed.
If nothing else, watching this film alongside Letters from Iwo Jima will give you plenty to think about. For example, the PR drive shown in Flags of our Fathers is distasteful and repellent, but it was also a consequence of going to war as a democratic country. Japan didn't have to worry about keeping the people happy. It shouldn't matter which of these films you watch first, but if you do Letters second, you won't end on a anticlimax. These two films are impressive and respectful and I'm glad I saw both of them, but this is the one I have mixed feelings about.