The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Flags of Our Fathers

Full review behind the jump

Flags of Our Fathers

: Clint Eastwood
: screenplay by William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis, based on the book by James Bradley & Ron Powers
: Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Steven Spielberg
: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough

Not many filmmakers get
more interesting in their autumn years. Some flame out, others calcify their early brilliance or simply retreat into obtuse preoccupations. Clint Eastwood, by contrast, took until he was 62 with Unforgiven to convince Hollywood he was more than just a movie star with ambitions.

Since then he’s made both accomplished entertainments like
Space Cowboys and critical triumphs like Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. He’s one of the few filmmakers working with an unswaying interest in drama as a vital genre, and grown-up moviegoers around the world should be grateful. Now at 76 he’s not only made Flags of Our Fathers, easily his most technically-sophisticated film to date, his coverage of the World War II battle for Iwo Jima has grown so thorough that it has spawned a second feature, the Japanese-language Letters from Iwo Jima, just released. That ambition leads to trouble here, the movie sometimes seems to be searching for its own subject, bouncing around in time and stopping its own momentum as it hunts for another more resonant layer below.

But that’s just part of the storyteller’s passion so strongly evident on screen in
Flags, because it sees past the battle to the people in it and an idea with more resonance than How the Island was Won. For all the work that goes into capturing the action he sticks to his principles and his classicist instincts. There’s a heartbreaking moment where a soldier walks into a cave, sees something we can’t that will haunt him for the rest of his days, and as he registers it, the light disappears from his face, leaving him in black. It’s the most overtly cinematic gesture I can recall from a movie that is almost journalistic in how it pierces the mythology to find the hard facts. Rather than trying to top a Saving Private Ryan he sidesteps it, crafting a story where the battlefield is just one stop along the journey.

When he re-stages the raising of the flag, the most iconic image of American war in the 20th century, he shows it as what it was, an afterthought. Because it was the second flag put up that day. Because it would take another 35 days to win the island. Because the photographer wasn’t even sure his camera was fully functional. But that photo had a galvanizing effect – changed the course of history in a way. And anything that can have that kind of effect on a country has the potential to have a devastating impact on a few small individuals, and that’s what this movie is eventually interested in.

It charts the men who were in that photograph, and how they found themselves branded as heroes for, in the photographer’s words, “putting up a pole”. America in 1944 was weary of war, loss and despair. Unlike today, when Congress can raise its debt ceiling in perpetuity and just keep printing money, the tanks then couldn’t be built unless Americans, already rationing their goods and sending their children overseas, dug further into their pockets to buy War Bonds.

The three surviving soldiers from the photograph, Naval Corpsman “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and Marine Privates Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Gary Beach), got a free ticket home and starring roles in a cross-country bond drive. They are the keepers of uncomfortable secrets – that not everyone credited with being in the picture was, that the flag had nothing to do with the victory, and that when the actual battle was aflame, not all of them distinguished themselves. Principles about the truth are one thing, but can they stand against a weeping mother who needs to believe her son was a hero, much less an entire nation that needs something to believe in to carry on the fight against such an enemy?

The truth of war is that until the first bullet flies by your head you have no idea who you really are. And that the man who climbs out of the trench next to you might get thrown back a second later without anything left below the neck. And that the best soldier you know might die from the most ghastly and pointless mistake. That’s the Iwo Jima that Eastwood shows.

Francois Truffaut once said that it was impossible to make a truly anti-war film, because war action on-screen, while you watch it safely with your popcorn in hand, is inherently exciting. Flags of our Fathers is a serious attempt to disprove that maxim – showing the battlefield as mayhem between war machines so large the individual life becomes meaningless. As the ships steam towards the island a soldier accidentally falls overboard, and his comrades watch him bob away, knowing that their ships won’t slow or even break formation to rescue him, so important is the mission.

It is an achievement of scope, then, that Flags of Our Fathers can encompass both that and the intimate examination of those three survivors and how they cope with getting credit for practically taking the whole island themselves. Hayes, a Native American who faces prejudice everywhere at home and was violently opposed to leaving his platoon, loses himself in drink. Gagnon, who was made a gear runner because his commanding officer (Barry Pepper) suspected he lacked the stomach for a real fight, soaks up the attention a little too eagerly – casting the handsome, wide-eyed Bradford goes a long way.

And “Doc”, father of the author whose work inspired this movie (and who appearsplayed by Thomas McCarthey as an audience proxy interviewer in present-day segments a la Citizen Kane), is thoughtful and quiet – looking after the soldiers around him just as he was tasked to do in battle. You can see why he might be the type who could produce a writer among his offspring, and you can respect that what he did made it possible for his children to pick that kind of a career. The effort was heroic - the men in it were men, for better and for worse.


Post a Comment

<< Home