Film: Flags of our Fathers

On February 23, 1945, Joe Rosenthal, an Associated Press photographer, took a picture of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. It was the fifth day of a brutal 30-day cam­paign across the small island that would cost 6,800 American lives and produce 27 Congressional Medals of Honor, the most ever for a single battle. Rosenthal’s photograph, taken in 1/400 of a second, would become one of the most famous images in his­tory (and quite possibly the most re­produced photograph of all time). It appeared everywhere, including 150 million postage stamps, and it stood as an inspiring symbol of American hope, resolve, and sacrifice.

Within days of the flag raising, three of the young men involved had died during the ongoing battle, and the other three soldiers were pulled from the heat of combat and returned to the United States to make public appearances to build morale at home and raise war bonds for the nearly bankrupt U.S. Treasury. Naturally, the men had mixed feelings about serv­ing as public “heroes,” but their tour raised an unprecedented $26.3 million and greatly aided the war effort. Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood’s new film, attempts to tell the story of these three young men, based on the best­selling book of the same name by James Bradley, the son of John “Doc” Bradley, the Navy corpsman who helped raise the flag on Suribachi. Unfortunately, this worthy and inter­esting subject is totally mishandled in Eastwood’s confusing, focusless, and superficial film, which seems more in­tent on deconstructing the concept of heroism than in telling a good story.

Eastwood’s script was written by Paul Haggis, the talented author of Crash (2005), along with first-time writer and former Marine William Broyles Jr. They tell the story in three intertwined parts: a number of con­temporary scenes; the initial battles on the beaches of Iwo Jima, and the war bond tour with the three soldiers. The contemporary sequences, along with a rather dull narration, add very little to the film, and create various confusions as the audience tries to figure out who each speaker is. The battle scenes are shot in exactly the same vein as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg co-produced Flags) with lots of jerky hand-held camerawork, quick and disjunctive editing, and visual chaos. Certainly, the randomness of death in battle comes through, but the audience has little emotional engage­ment with these faceless young men; and the three faces that are clearly recognizable, we’ve already been told, will survive the battle, thus eliminat­ing any suspense. Cinematographer Tom Stern has shot these scenes in a sepia monochrome, and they’re inter-cut with a number of unrealistic and overly symmetrical CGI shots (espe­cially those of the ships in the harbor), but all the film’s endless images of vio­lence seem rather familiar. After one blast, a G.I. looks down and sees the decapitated head of a dead soldier, but it seems fake and oddly unaffecting. In the end, it’s over-the-top filmmaking, and it leaves the viewer uninvolved and unsatisfied.

Finally, there’s the core of the sto­ry: the war bond drive and its effect on the three soldiers. John “Doc” Bradley, a heroic medic, is played by Ryan Phillippe, who looks intriguingly haunted and thoughtful, but who, inexplicably, says almost nothing during the entire film. Rene Gagnon, a “runner” on the battlefield who certainly risked his life but never engaged in hand-to-hand combat, is played routinely by Jesse Bradford. Lastly, Ira Hayes, a Puma Indian who greatly resents serving on the tour and being called a “hero,” is played by Adam Beach. Unfortunate­ly, Beach is excessive in his emoting (lots of crying and drunken vomiting), and Eastwood’s superficial treatment of the tragic and oft-told tale of Hayes quickly degenerates into the old ste­reotype of the drunken Indian who can’t deal with his problems. These three young men are at the very heart of the film, but they’re never devel­oped into anything more than types.

So what are the themes of this 132-minute epic film? Eastwood has called it an “anti-war film,” but it hard­ly seems a good choice since the Unit­ed States had been attacked at Pearl Harbor and the country was fighting against an implacable enemy in the Pacific. The film also wishes to ex­pose government (and media) myth-making. But everyone on the home-front in 1945, from FDR to the man-on-the-street, was greatly moved by the image of the Stars and Stripes flying over Mount Suribachi, and it seems perfectly reasonable that the government would expect the surviv­ing soldiers to help raise money for the war effort. Propaganda is always a sig­nificant aspect of any war, and to point out that it’s not always done in the fair­est or most ethical manner is hardly surprising, and Eastwood’s sprawling, superficial film merely glosses over the complexity of the issue.

The real point of Flags of Our Fa­thers is to undermine the concept of heroism. Eastwood clearly believes what his narrator explains at the end of the film, “Maybe there are no such things as heroes,” concluding that “he­roes are something we create.” But in truth, real heroes, with the grace of God, create themselves. Extraordi­nary courage and the sacrificial laying down of one’s life for God or for one’s brethren are perfectly appropriate definitions of heroism. Christians, of course, revere heroes—we call them “saints”—whether they’re martyrs or those who heroically chose to follow their personal way of the cross. Al­though one could certainly behave he­roically without a specifically religious motive, Flags of Our Fathers never even considers the possibility. There’s not a single moment in the film when any of these young men from the 1940s calls on God, except as an expletive. Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth about the men who island-hopped across the treach­erous Pacific or fought in the danger­ous African and European campaigns.

Eastwood is now 76, and he’s di­rected 27 films, beginning with Play Misty for Me (1971). The common wisdom in Hollywood is that he’s a distinguished director who was once a passable actor, but actually the oppo­site is true. In the early roles that made him famous—”the man with no name” in the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns and “Dirty Harry” Callahan in the five Dirty Harry films—Eastwood embod­ied, as much as anyone in cinema his­tory, the lean, dangerous, taciturn, yet intelligent loner. His “Blondie” in the Leone westerns was violent and un­scrupulous, but there was still a spark of decency within, and he was clearly the best of a very bad lot. As Dirty Harry, Eastwood created and personi­fied the vigilante cop who cares only about justice, not the machinations of either the San Francisco police depart­ment or the California legal system.

In his earlier days, Eastwood was a Republican, even an unabashed sup­porter of Richard Nixon, and he ran as a Republican when he became the mayor of his hometown, Carmel-by-the-Sea, in 1986. But at heart, East­wood was always a libertarian, and he broke with the Republicans in 1992, supporting H. Ross Perot. Since that time his work has become more and more politically correct, and he’s pub­licly supported abortion, homosexual marriage, and euthanasia. All of this has naturally inflated his status in Hol­lywood, and Eastwood is now one of America’s most honored directors. It’s hard to imagine, but only John Ford, Frank Capra, and William Wyler have won more Oscars for best director.

Yet despite his countless acco­lades, Eastwood is a rather pedestrian filmmaker whose reputation rests primarily on three films: Unforgiven (1992), an overrated, extremely vio­lent western that somehow wishes to eschew violence, Mystic River (2003), a hyperventilated crime drama with an unsatisfying and almost ludicrous res­olution, and Million Dollar Baby (2004), a film about euthanasia masquerading as a boxing flick. One hopes that the Academy will not reward Eastwood’s lackluster Flags of Our Fathers simply because it questions heroism at a time when our troops are fighting in a diffi­cult and controversial war. The heroes of Iwo Jima deserve better, and so do the many heroes fighting in Iraq.

By

William Baer is a graduate of U.S.C. Cinema where he received the Jack Nicholson Screening Award and taught in the Filmic Writing department. He currently teaches English and Film at the University of Evansville, Indiana and is a frequent contributor to Creative Screenwriting.

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