|Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough, Melanie Lynskey, Tom McCarthy, Chris Bauer, Judith Ivey, Joseph Cross, Myra Turley, Beth Grant, Mary Beth Peil, Connie Ray, Ann Dowd, Benjamin Walker, Alessandro Mastrobouono, Scott Reeves, Stark Sands, George Grizzard, Harve Presnell, George Hearn, Len Cariou, Christopher Curry, Bubba Lewis, David Patrick Kelly, Jon Polito, Ned Eisenberg, Gordon Clapp, David Rasche
2006 132 minutes
Rated: (for graphic war violence and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 21, 2006.
"Flags of Our Fathers" is the well-meaning true story of the three surviving soldiers who were falsely touted as the men who raised the American flag during the Battle of Iwo Jima. In actuality, they raised the replacement flaga fact that made no difference to the media and top-ranking politicians who took note of the now-famous photograph taken of the men and saw a chance to exploit them in order to reinvigorate the discouraged American public and inspire them to buy war bonds. In the process, the three WWII vetssoulful medic John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), fame-ready Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and guilt-ridden Native American Ira Hayes (Adam Beach)react in very different ways to their sudden moment in the spotlight. With the newspapers calling them heroes despite their own knowledge that they didn't do anything that the rest of their fallen and forgotten-about comrades did, Ira recoils in disgust at the way they have been turned into living, breathing propaganda. Rene, meanwhile, thrives from the attention, and John grins and bears it while being haunted by the horrific memories of the hell they went through.
As a directorial follow-up to 2004's devastating, meticulously-crafted Best Picture Academy Award winner "Million Dollar Baby
," mark "Flags of Our Fathers" down as a minor miscalculation on Clint Eastwood's part rather than the full-scale failure of 2003's overrated "Mystic River
." The film is technically polished and holds a number of isolated emotionally striking moments, but leaves the viewer feeling oddly cold about the experience as a whole. Where Eastwood and screenwriters William Broyles Jr. (2005's "Jarhead
") and Paul Haggis (2006's "The Last Kiss
") go wrong is in their flawed storytelling devices and nearly nonexistent character development. In essence, they downplay the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II and use it as a jumping-off point for a morality sermon about how the media and political bigwigs in the 1940s had the power to twist and exaggerate information to benefit themselves, just as they still do in the present-day. It's nothing that hasn't been seen beforethe movie plays like a 132-minute version of the trailer without anything new to say on the subjectand consumes too much of the running time that could have been used to humanize the soldiers and portray the scenes at Iwo Jima as more than afterthoughts.
The ways in which the war gets underneath John and Ira's skin and ultimately affects them for the rest of their lives is one of the strong points of "Flags of Our Father." Used as promotional items rather than people, they come to recognize that those controlling them once they return to U.S. soil have little to no regard for the core purposes of the war and the grim realities of what it is like to fight in one. When the three guys attend a benefit dinner in their honor and are presented an ice cream dessert molded into the shape of the flag-raising imageand drenched in blood-red strawberry topping, to bootthe viewer isn't sure whether to laugh or flinch in revulsion along with the characters at the gross commercialism and trivialization during a place and time when thousands of young men were dying for their country. Scenes such as this and others dealing more specifically in John and Ira's shame at going along with the corruption done unto them hit truthful notes. What occurs in between these moments lacks the same level of clarity and depth.
Save for the main trio of survivorsJohn, Ira and Renethe men they fight alongside would be indistinguishable if not for a few familiar faces popping up in extended cameos. This is a fatal error in director Clint Eastwood's design since a lot of names are thrown around that mean nothing to the viewer, and certain soldiers are supposed to have made indelible impacts on the three surviving squad members even though there are no scenes solidifying these claims. Even the leads are mismanaged; little is learned about who they are in the first two hours, rendering them undeserving of the sudden development they receive in the last fifteen minutes as the film explains in egregious detail what their futures held following the war. Ryan Phillippe (2005's "Crash
"), Adam Beach (2002's "Windtalkers
") and Jesse Bradford (2005's "Happy Endings
") are solid as John, Ira and Rene, but they aren't given enough meat to dig into in order for their performances to stand out as anything special.
The sporadic battle sequences, when they come, are a letdown. Aerial establishing shots of the massive lines of ships approaching the shore of Iwo Jima are good for some eye candy, but the combat is an incomprehensible mess of explosions, random gunfire, and severed body parts. At no time can the identities of the soldiers be determined, what with their faces obscured by their helmets and the jittery hand-held camerawork that is less in-the-moment than just confusing, not staying on any one person long enough to know who they are and why we should personally care about them. When the deaths of all the supporting players finally come, it is done in quick montage-like succession that cheapens the lives of these real-life men.
With the war footage vying for time with the U.S. material after John, Ira and Rene return, "Flags of Our Fathers" has already bitten off more than it can chew. Undeterred, Eastwood inserts a third plot thread set in 2006 as John's grown son interviews WWII vets as he prepares to write a book about his father. This wraparound story is pointless and only serves to steal time away from what should have been a more detail-oriented account of the Battle of Iwo Jima, rather than the barely cohesive summarized version seen in the final product. Despite all of its numerous problems, "Flags of Our Fathers" is not a bad motion picture, but it is a missed opportunity that sheds fleeting light on what could have been an important historical epic. Instead, the outcome elicits feelings too aloof for comfort.