Phil on Film Index

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Review - Flags of Our Fathers

Few directors embark on the most ambitious project of their career at the age of 75, fewer still would decide to shoot two epic, complex war movies back-to-back; but that’s exactly what Clint Eastwood has done with Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, two World War II films which will explore the conflict from both an American and Japanese perspective. This isn’t an entirely new idea - 1970’s Pearl Harbour film Tora! Tora! Tora! depicted the attack from both an American and Japanese point of view, even hiring Kinji Fukasaku to act as co-director - but it’s still rare for an American studio to take such an even-handed approach to ‘the enemy’, and Eastwood’s brace of films is a fascinating proposition.

Letters From Iwo Jima will be arriving on these shores in the new year, so for now let’s focus on the American half of Clint’s double-bill. The very idea of Clint Eastwood directing a war movie is an intriguing one; after all, this is the filmmaker who made his name in the western genre and then subverted the genre so brilliantly in his revisionist masterpiece Unforgiven. Too many contemporary war films fall prey to the same old clichés and hackneyed storytelling, and Eastwood’s career as a director has been all about defying audiences’ expectations, so perhaps this melding of filmmaker and subject could offer us something fresh in a tired genre?

Unfortunately, Flags of Our Fathers - while well-made, noble and never less than watchable - is a rather stodgy and uninvolving lump of storytelling which never quite succeeds in its attempt to tear down accepted notions of heroism. In fact, after an opening hour which layers the action with plenty of cynicism and stark unsentimentality, the film loses its sense of focus in the second half, and it ends up settling into a standard-issue war movie groove that’s as disappointing as it is conventional.

They say the camera never lies, but Flags of Our Fathers is all about the truth behind the myths which surround a famous photograph. Joe Rosenthal’s snapshot of six American servicemen raising the flag on Iwo Jima is one of the most iconic pictures ever taken. When it was reproduced on the front page of every newspaper in 1945, this triumphant image had a galvanising effect on a public which was losing its appetite for war, and the picture was immediately seized upon by the government as a perfect symbol with which to raise funds for their final push. Three of the six figures who raised the flag on February 23rd were dead within a month, but the survivors were tracked down and shipped back to the US in the hope of encouraging the American public to buy $14 billion worth of war bonds.

Flags of Our Fathers follows these three figures on their journey from the battlefield of Iwo Jima to the frontline of the publicity drive. Navy corpsman ‘Doc’ Bradley (Ryan Philippe) is haunted by the sights and sounds of the conflict he has left behind; runner Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) revels in the spotlight, aiming to use his new-found fame to set up post-war career opportunities; and Native American soldier Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) continually drowns his own trauma and self-doubt in alcohol, while taking every opportunity to display his contempt for the media circus he has been plunged into. They are the three characters who carry the film - what a shame they barely exist as characters at all.

As Ira Hayes, Adam Beach has the most fully-developed part of the trio. His character seems to come with the most complex emotional makeup, and he also has the added dimension of being labelled a hero by the media but still facing racism when he tries to buy a drink from a bar that “don’t serve Indians”. Beach plays Hayes effectively, exhibiting a sense of righteous anger which is always simmering under the surface, and he’s one of the few actors in the film whom manages to inject a note of unforced emotion into their role. But alongside him, Philippe and Bradford never really come to life, and our lack of engagement with their emotional and psychological turmoil is a damaging blow for the overall picture.

In fact, we never really get to know any of the characters very well at all. Actors like Jamie Bell (an endlessly optimistic young soldier), Barry Pepper (a sergeant loyal to his troops) and Neal McDonough (a tough captain) make an impression when they’re on screen, but the impression is fleeting, and for too much of its 132-minute running time Flags of Our Fathers lacks a central point to hold the sprawling storyline together. The problems caused by the baggy narrative are exacerbated by the occasionally clumsy structure employed by Eastwood as he cuts between the film’s three distinct time periods; there are scenes set on the battlefield of Iwo Jima, scenes set during the three main characters’ fundraising tour, and scenes from the present day, in which Bradley’s son interviews survivors for the book he is writing about his father. Eastwood is often judicious in the way he cuts between the empty razzmatazz of the various press events to the harsh realities of war, but as he continually resorts to this trick it starts to feel increasingly rote, and as the film moves into its second half too many of the flashbacks feel like they’re appearing on cue. The jumbled narrative does gleam some fine touches though; the image of the flag-raising is shown to us in a wild variety of ways - a papier-mâché reconstruction, a painting or, amusingly, an ice-cream mould - before we actually see the incident itself recreated. Flags of Our Fathers also gets plenty of mileage from its deconstruction of that unforgettable photo - the fact that one of the men named in the picture didn't raise the flag at all, the fact that a previous flag was raised at this same position before being removed, and the fact that the battle for Iwo Jima lasted a full 35 days after this ‘victorious’ shot had been captured.

Aside from those few mildly interesting insights, however, Flags of Our Fathers doesn’t really have a great deal to say about war which we haven’t heard before: war is hell, soldiers are exploited by those in power, the real heroes are the unspoken thousands who lie dead on the battlefield. We have seen too many war films for any of this to have any real impact, and Flags of Our Fathers doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from those which have gone before. In particular, the one movie which casts a shadow over this one is Saving Private Ryan (the similarities are emphasised by Steven Spielberg’s role as producer here) and comparisons with that flawed but superior picture don’t do Eastwood’s effort many favours.

Flags of Our Fathers attempts to match the verisimilitude of Saving Private Ryan’s battle sequences, but for all his gifts as a filmmaker Eastwood lacks Spielberg’s technical virtuosity and instinctive style. There are some strong aspects to the film’s depiction of the bloodshed on Iwo Jima, particularly the brooding sense of foreboding as the soldiers first arrive at the seemingly empty beach - and I loved Tom Stern’s cinematography which is surely as close to monochrome as a film can get while still being a colour picture - but when the bullets start to fly Eastwood lets the action lapse into incoherence too easily. The CGI-enhanced shots have a fuzzy, indistinct edge to them, it’s hard to keep track of any of the characters in the thick of the action and, while the frequent deaths are bloody and realistic, the film never quite achieves the “you are there” quality which Saving Private Ryan managed so brilliantly.

Flags of Our Fathers is an ambitious and in many ways admirable picture, but its flaws are too manifold for it to really leave any lasting impact, and it’s a disappointing entry into this fascinating late phase in Eastwood’s career. He is too good a filmmaker for the film to be disregarded completely, and individual moments are superb, but they tend to be the quieter, more introspective moments, and anything outside of that comfort zone seems to find the director reaching beyond his grasp. Ultimately, the film fails to stray from the well-worn path which endless war movies have travelled in the past, but the Japanese portion of Eastwood’s Iwo Jima two-hander may yet prove to be the project’s saving grace. Cinema has given us a western view of World War II over and over and over again; perhaps it’s high time we looked at the conflict through the eyes of another.