Flags of Our Fathers July 13, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , trackback
Movies that depict the Hollywood version of war rarely interest me. When I learned Clint Eastwood was making a war film called Flags of Our Fathers, I expected the possibility of brutal violence packaged in an updated version of standard Hollywood fare. The trailer looked like more of the same - a rousing spectacle full of patriotism and modesty intended to pull at the explosion-loving male heartstrings . Mixed reviews came in, as several influential critics raved and others called it disappointing. Still nothing to really change my mind. I usually like Eastwood’s directorial efforts, but the much-lauded, Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby sorely disappointed me with its one-dimensional characters and failure to break free from stale convention. I didn’t want to be fooled twice.
As it turns out, I was fooled in a different way. I underestimated Eastwood and his conviction in destroying the mythmaking types of films he had himself popularized in his past life as a movie star. Unforgiven had brilliantly taken apart the western, leaving the genre with little room left to breathe and arguably placing it in creative retirement these last fifteen years. More recently, Mystic River seemed to present the devastating flip side to the vigilante justice made famous by Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry series. Now, it seems, the trilogy of repenting for earlier violence comes to a close with Eastwood’s twin war films focusing on the Battle of Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters to Iwo Jima.
The latter received nearly unanimous critical praise when it was released last year, culminating in Oscar nominations for the film and its director and becoming the first Japanese language Best Picture nominee. All of this did little to make me anxious to see the former film, which still seemed like a misfire and maybe even a more standard war film plagued by Eastwood’s sloppy lack of perfectionism. It had all the makings of yet another tribute to the “Greatest Generation,” this time made by someone who was nearly their age. Then, with lowered expectations, I finally watched Flags of Our Fathers and was angered, moved, and frustrated by both the story and the film.
Eastwood and his screenwriters Paul Haggis and William Broyles, Jr. cobbled together two conflicting threads for their film. Based on the book of the same name by James Bradley, son of the character Doc Bradley and portrayed here by Tom McCarthy (also the director of The Station Agent), Eastwood’s film tries to maintain its appeal to veterans and their families by reminding the audience a little too much of the misguided Saving Private Ryan bookends. Both films begin and end with contemporary scenes presumably intended to allow the viewer to recognize that the events in each film took place a “really long time ago.” Why else include the flashback structure, which of course proves maddeningly false in Spielberg’s film, other than as an attempt to avoid a full, difficult to relate to World War II setting.
In Flags of Our Fathers, the messy idea of James Bradley searching for insight into his father’s war trauma serves little purpose. Anyone paying attention to the remainder of the film will easily realize why and to what extent the older Bradley suffered with gruesome memories he didn’t want. The completely uninspired epilogue should have never made the finished film. If the actual James Bradley was seen talking with the real men instead of the emotion-deflating use of actors then maybe the modern-day scenes would have maintained the tone of the rest of the film. Instead, we’re left with McCarthy trying to look thoughtful while typing on a computer. For a film that works largely as a response to nearly every other portrayal of WWII, these final missteps, all returning to the reverence of war myth the rest of the film had been trying to shatter, are absolutely frustrating and inconsistent.
Thankfully, and somewhat surprisingly, most everything else about Flags of Our Fathers is a refreshingly uncompromising account of how three men used a photograph to escape the battlefield before ultimately having the United States government use them as disposable cheerleaders. In short, my expectations had been almost completely wrong. This is a war film with no blinders, one that is fearless in its total assault on the idea of soldiers as heroes. It disintegrates the World War II myth of simple right and wrong, good and evil, in the process correcting the often held assumption that war can somehow be heroic or justified. Instead of “war is hell,” Eastwood’s film implies that war is a business and as such it must be marketed and sold regardless of the truth.
The film reminds us that wars have always been built on lies, with innocents thrown into the machine and discarded at the government’s discretion. Some, like three of the men in the famous photograph at the center of Flags of Our Fathers, escape through horrific deaths. Then there are the others, the ones who survive as the three main characters of the film do, who end up doomed to recreate what they’ve seen and heard through the dreams of years to come. The surviving men in the photograph, Navy Corpsman John Bradley and Marines Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon, are depicted here as damaged by the celebrity status thrust upon them by a desperate United States government. They struggle with survivor’s guilt, false promises and unwanted fame, respectively, as the din of thanks from a grateful nation falls silent.
Though the stories of all three men are compelling, it’s Hayes, a Pima Indian thrust into the spotlight against his will, who is the film’s tragic figure. An habitual drunk, Ira Hayes was found dead, face down and buried in his own vomit, at the age of 32, less than a decade after the flag raising. While the movie only touches on his experiences, it still manages to paint a complex picture of a man who was cruelly refused service in a restaurant on the same night he was cheered before a football stadium full of people. As Hayes, Adam Beach is perfect, inspiring emotion and compassion for someone who must have been difficult to portray. It’s a heartbreaking performance and the best in the film.
Though Hayes and the other two men are reluctant to accept their status as heroes, Flags of Our Fathers seems to argue, firstly, that they deserve the designation as much as most any other soldier, and, conversely, that war doesn’t make heroes. This second statement is a fascinating proposition, not necessarily new, but mostly unmined by big budget Hollywood war movies. Eastwood and his screenwriters ultimately waver on the idea near the end, returning to the awkward contemporary scenes and using the iconic photograph of the flag raising as the last image after the credits, but the entirety of the main 1945 part of the film argues differently.
Innovative editing caroms between brutal combat scenes full of mistakes and lucky survival and the soldiers’ publicity roles as war bond promoters. This is the reward for “heroes,” misleading the public into thinking the second raising of a flag had any bearing on the outcome of a battle, much less a war, and constant reminders that three of the men in the photograph with them, including one not even receiving any credit, will never see their families again. The horror of war is enough to leave a foul taste in my mouth, but propaganda run amok makes me unsure if I should be sick or in tears. I’ve never been so emotionally invested in a war movie. This must be the least patriotic World War II film Hollywood has ever given us.