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Flags of Our Fathers

I think this is free of any major "spoilers", but I'll include it in this thread just the same...

Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood)

Based on the stories of the soldiers who raised the flag in the most famous photograph of World War II, sadly it misses being the masterpiece it might have been. Adapted from the non-fiction best seller of the same name, a dying man's son researches his father's war experiences he never talked much about including being one of the six men who hoisted Old Glory atop Mount Suribachi during the battle for Iwo Jima. The photograph was so popular and instantly iconic back home that days afterward three of the surviving six men from the snapshot were sent back to the States for a whirlwind publicity tour to raise money for the war effort. And while you'd think those three plot strands of the investigation of the son, the battle itself and the subsequent tour would make for an interesting narrative, astoundingly Flags for Our Fathers can't make a consistently compelling movie from them. Segments of the film work wonderfully, and all the combat footage on the island is remarkable, but the structure is a mess. I'm guessing the idea behind the structure was to make the viewer as disoriented by it all as the men who lived it, to play up the insanity of being surrounded by the horrors of war one minute and parading around for pretend days later, and also to make what really happened with the flag raising a bit of a mystery and to show some of the son's process of discovery. Whatever the intent, the result of the badly paced and disorganized movie is no real emotional attachment to the core characters.

The three young leads are fine. Ryan Phillippe does good, quiet work as "Doc" Bradley, the Navy Corpsman who did his best to tend to the wounded during that horrific battle and Jesse Bradford is well cast as the good-looking Marine Rene Gagnon. But it's Adam Beach as Ira Hayes, the Native American Marine, who gets the most opportunites to stand out, and for the most part he does very well. Bradley and Hayes were both haunted by their experiences on Iwo Jima, though they dealt with it differently. Bradley buried it all inside himself while Hayes tried to dull the pain with alchohol. But as an example of where the film falters, Bradley's pain was centered around the loss of his buddy Ralph "Iggy" Ignatowski (played by Jamie Bell). Iggy was captured one night and found later in one of the island's many tunnels, mutilated in horrible ways. While it's understandable how that would haunt somebody, we really never get to see the bond between Bradley and Iggy, so there's no specific emotional attachment to the loss for the viewer. I mean it's obviously a horrible death among the many horrible deaths in that campaign, but the movie doesn't give any insight or even devote more than a minute or two to the men interacting as friends. Part of this is due to the disjointed structure, but even within the flashbacks the scenes of their friendship simply aren't there. There's also a hollow deathbed moment between Bradley and his son, but because we haven't really seen them interact either it's also one of those things where, yes, we can project a basic amount of empathy for the idea of a son losing his dad, but there's nothing in the body of the film to give any weight to these two specific characters.

And while the structure and the lack of emotional connections are the main problems with Flags of Our Fathers, there are also smaller issues that weaken the movie further. The one that I found most disappointing were a couple of minor roles that were very badly written and acted. Most specifically the General who after a bond drive event at Chicago's Soldier Field makes some racist comments about Hayes and his drunkenness and has him removed from the rest of the publicity tour. This character, though only in two brief scenes, is ridiculously over-the-top and arch, and frankly it isn't necessary for him to be so one-dimensional. This was the problem I had with Eastwood's last film, Million Dollar Baby, that Maggie's family was used as a bunch of White Trash stereotypes and a plot device rather than real characters. At least in that movie the main characters were portrayed with such grace, complexity and subtlety that I could get past the simplistic way her mother was drawn. In Flags the three main soldiers do not get the same level of care as the three main characters in Baby. And though the function of the racist and blustery General is not as key to the goings on, it's definitely a weakness just the same.

OK, enough of the flaws. What the movie does best is the chaos and Hell of battle. It doesn't do it any better than Saving Private Ryan's D-Day opening, but it is definitely on that level. The scale of the invasion and the confusion and blood of combat are all perfectly recreated. The black sand and jagged rocks of Iwo Jima will stay with you. The post-photo bond drive also has many highlights, and the points about the crass necessity of selling War to the public are well made and the deconstruction of the myth of the famous photograph is important. Flags of Our Father's ultimate theme of what makes a hero is earnest and certainly has darker edges than a typical John Wayne flick. The central performances are all good, and another melancholy musical theme by Eastwood is integrated very well. All of that is why is so frustrating that the structure is so unsatisfying and there isn't any emotional wallop brought out of the characters. Perhaps there was just too much story to tell? The movie is only two hours and ten minutes long, and I can't help but wonder if another forty-or-so minutes couldn't have fleshed out the characters more. Though frankly three hours with this flawed narrative structure still would have been disappointing.

You'll definitely want to stay all the way through the end credits. They start with a dedication to Phyllis and Bummy, being two longtime Eastwood collaborators who recently passed away: casting director Phyllis Huffman and legendary production designer Henry Bumstead. Then throughout the credits are photos of the actual men and the action on Iwo Jima, ending with the photo. As flawed as it is, I'm now even more excited about Eastwood's companion film, Letters from Iwo Jima, which will tell the battle from the Japanese perspective. Other than as the enemy seen briefly on the battlefield, Flags offers almost no glimpse of the 23,000 Japanese soldiers, though the discovery of Iggy's body and the noises Ira investigates in the tunnels atop Suribachi make me want to see the other movie even more.

Flags of Our Fathers has plenty to recommend seeing it, but it is flawed and simply isn't one of Eastwood's best works nor does it rank with the greatest War films.