Flags of Our Fathers Review
In the first part of Clint Eastwood's double bill we learn that war is hell. Indeed, many other films and numerous other filmmakers, writers and politicians have been spreading that happy sentiment for generations – but at least Eastwood has tried to offer a more layered portrayal of war and its consequences. Flags of Our Fathers, the first part of Eastwood's opus that focuses on the events on the island of Iwo Jima during the Second World War, is filmed with a pro-American standpoint and focuses – briefly – on the enduring hell of the battlefield whilst cutting away, across thousands of miles, to depict the way of life back in the United States.
Propaganda, such a vital tool that Dr Goebbels created a Nazi ministry just for its propagation, is shown to be the foundations of not just the German and Japanese war effort, but also that of the Americans'. We witness young soldiers taken away from the frontlines in order to promote themselves – and the U.S. Army – after a photograph of them raising the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima captures the hearts and minds of the American people. And, as the White House and DoD soon realised, millions of previously-disillusioned American taxpayers were suddenly prepared to invest in the war effort after finding the chance to project their own hopes and fears onto this blank canvas of brave American soldier fodder.
Eastwood, longtime acting legend and a relative newcomer to the world of substantive cinema, comes to this project fresh from critical and commercial success. His last film, Million Dollar Baby was a quiet, introspective picture that had its failings – most of them textual – but he still managed to find the narrative's voice and connect with its meaning. Here, with Flags of Our Fathers, many expected a compelling war film that would sweep the board come Oscar time. Much to my own disappointment, neither of those predictions came true.
You see, the greatest problem with this film is Paul Haggis. Haggis, an Oscar-winning screenwriter and Oscar-nominated director, burst onto the scene with the aforementioned Million Dollar Baby before producing the critically-divisive Crash in 2005. His screenwriting style is one of mawkish emotion and multi-layered plot strands which he desperately tries to tie up in a neat bow, and whilst this reviewer will happily confess to being suckered in by the guilty pleasure that was Crash, Flags of Our Fathers rams an already-obvious message down the viewer's throat whilst juggling so many balls in the air, they all come crashing down. By ducking and weaving across time periods and geographical locations, Eastwood cannot find the focal point of his story. Is it Ryan Phillippe, the Hollywood pretty boy who carries a weight of emotion and conscience on his shoulders? Or is it Adam Beach, the talented character actor who portrays a Native American and thus, according to the filmmakers' handbook, should be thrust centre stage as a chance for some "eye-opening" racial examination?
Indeed, the cast of characters is bulging and the narrative cannot find any common ground. Every element of the film is handled with the professionalism you have come to expect from Eastwood, but the film's heart, and the film's soul, seems to be missing. What makes me wonder is how this was achieved considering the potential of the source material.
Fortunately the film has some strong points. Eastwood's direction during the (limited) battle sequences is stunning, and whilst some might liken it to Spielberg's achievements from 1998's Saving Private Ryan (the comparison is quite valid), Eastwood manages to capture the intensity and barbarity of being fired on by an unknown enemy with skill and conviction. Similarly, the direction for the rest of the film is equally as impressive. In addition, the acting is largely excellent – especially from the relative newcomer Adam Beach – and the production design is gorgeous.
I haven't yet seen Letters from Iwo Jima, this film's Siamese twin. But, as the film's producers were so keen for each film to be viewed individually, I must review Flags of Our Fathers on its own merits. As it stands, I am grateful that a filmmaker has drawn attention to other aspects of the huge American war effort, but I just question whether film was an appropriate medium in which to tackle so many different issues. Television would have been far more suitable. Regardless of this criticism, I applaud the technical achievements of the filmmakers and the film does show moments of excellence; overall, however, Eastwood could have offered a whole lot more.
Released back in February, this single-disc edition precedes the forthcoming two-disc special edition in May. Devoid of any extras, the menus look good and work well. English and Spanish subtitles are provided for the hard of hearing.
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the image looks very good indeed. The mixture of washed-out colours and a deeper, more sumptuous palette for the scenes in America are reproduced without any problems. Clarity is good for the most part and only the odd moment of aliasing is present. Similarly, the 5.1 surround mix is excellent and it springs to life during the bombastic scenes on the beaches. There is also a 5.1 soundtrack in French.
None – but a two-disc edition is also available.
A significant misfire on the part of Clint Eastwood, Flags of Our Fathers is still worth a viewing. At times it is gripping, at others flaccid. Nevertheless, it's a different slice of war documentation and for that, I suppose, the filmmakers are to be credited. This disc, meanwhile, is very good technically but non-existent in the extra material stakes.