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Flags of Our Fathers   C

DreamWorks Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: William Broyles Jr., Paul Haggis (based on the book by James Bradley with Ron Powers)
Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker.

Review by Rob Vaux

I'm sure I'm going to hell for not liking this movie. It violates some sacrosanct biblical commandment: Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of the Greatest Generation or the like. But while director Clint Eastwood's account of the men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima contains a refreshing dose of moral skepticism, it also proves simplistic, repetitive, and depressingly long-winded. One hesitates to compare it to executive producer Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, for the two films differ significantly in tone and intent. But in the shadow of that superior work, Flags of Our Fathers can't help but feel like an also-ran.

The famous photograph -- depicting six men moving as one to elevate Old Glory -- was snapped by photographer Joe Rosenthal during the heated battle for the island in February 1945. Iwo Jima's airstrip carried vital strategic importance, for it allowed bombers to refuel on their way to and from Japan instead of making the arduous journey back to American bases in Guam. The flag itself was raised on the fifth day of battle, after U.S. troops had secured the island's high point on Mount Suribachi. Flags of Our Fathers is clear and concise in presenting these details, using impressive CGI imagery to capture the masses of American battleships steaming across the Pacific and shelling the Japanese fortifications on the island in preparation for invasion. It also conveys the immediacy of the battle exquisitely, shying away from Private Ryan's awe-inspiring horrors in favor of quieter suspense. (The soldiers disembark only to find an eerily quiet beach, and slowly advance past the opening slats of hidden Japanese pillboxes waiting with inhuman patience for the right moment to open fire.)

But such sharp technical chops can only go so far without compelling human figures to inhabit them. Flags of Our Fathers focuses on the men of Easy Company, whose members raised the flag and who spent the battle engaged in the fiercest fighting. Despite the film's fastidious attention to historical circumstance -- portraying the actual men who were there instead of just composite fabrications -- few characters attain any personable depth. They're cardboard cutouts in khaki, differentiated only by the barest character traits and marked by trite dog-soldier dialogue lifted wholesale from a thousand previous WWII epics. Actor Neal McDonough makes a decent impression as a perennially foul-tempered captain, but the remainder of the cast simply has too little to work with.

Eastwood switches back and forth from the battlefield itself to the aftermath of the photo's publication, as the men depicted in the image are sent on a publicity tour to drum up financial support for the war. Only three survived the battle: Navy corpsman John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), a salute-and-follow-orders peacemaker who cheerfully does as he's told; Cpl. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), a charismatic runner with a knack for attracting the spotlight; and Cpl. Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), an American Indian whose experiences on Iwo Jima have left him searching for solace at the bottom of a bottle. From the start, none of the men are comfortable with the hero label. The brutality of warfare has stripped them of any mythology on that front, and the pomp and circumstance surrounding the tour only compounds their cynicism. Their handlers seem unconcerned about key details (such as the true identity of the other three men), and worry more about civilian morale than factual accuracy, suggesting that the photo's iconic status may be little more than a snow job.

Here, Flags of Our Fathers presumably intends to earn its keep, examining the value of propaganda and the cost it demands. The film assures us that the photo helped bolster domestic support for the war at a time when the U.S. populace was growing weary of fighting. I suspect it overstates the case just a bit, but even so, its message is clear. Symbols matter just as much as bullets, and sometimes the truth gets tweaked in the pursuit of a (possibly rationalized) greater good. Credit Eastwood for making the point without ignoring the price it entails, and for allowing us to meditate on whether such actions are justified instead of pounding a single argument down our throats.

Unfortunately, once the point is made, Flags of Our Fathers has very little idea how to proceed. We grasp the particulars of character and philosophy very quickly, but the film never builds on that foundation, instead content to regurgitate its basic themes ad nauseam. Editor Joel Cox performs a cunning bit of trickery by mixing scenes of the battle with the tour at home, the men's postwar fate, and the modern-day efforts of Bradley's son James (Tom McCarthy) to understand his father's legacy. It succeeds in partially masking the threadbare nature of the script, but only for a time. Too often, we're left with the same basic scene couched in slightly different terms, endeavoring to stretch the running time to an appropriately dignified length. The second hour drags interminably and despite the fascinating subject matter, the descent into tedium eventually becomes inevitable.

In the process, the film's better elements are hopelessly watered down, limiting their impact and diminishing the issues with which they presume to grapple. As the drama grows thin, troubling questions rise to the surface, damaging the presumed purpose of the exercise. If iconoclasm is the order of the day, then why does Eastwood approach these men so reverently? If we are supposed to question what we see, then how do we handle the hushed dignity with which their pain and suffering is shown? Awe and respect may be necessary -- it's impossible to overstate the sacrifice these men and their comrades made -- but they clash awkwardly with the film's deconstructionist heart. Despite handsome production values and a worthwhile subject, Flags of Our Fathers ultimately falls victim to the very hero worship it wishes to debunk. Considering the director's increasingly distinguished status (and with its supposed Oscar pedigree anointed site unseen), such disingenuousness is inexcusable.

Review published 10.21.2006.

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