Flags Of Our Fathers 2-Disc Special Edition Review
”I finally came to the conclusion that maybe he was right maybe there are no such things as heroes maybe there are just people like my dad, I finally came to understand why they were so uncomfortable being called heroes. Heroes are something we create, something we need. It's a way for us to understand what is almost incomprehensible, how people could sacrifice so much for us, but for my dad and these men the risks they took, the wounds they suffered, they did that for their buddies, they may have fought for their country but they died for their friends. For the man in front for the man beside him, and if we wish to truly honour these men we should remember them the way they really were the way my dad remembered them.”
Clint Eastwood has always had a penchant for defying expectations. As an actor, he has mixed his customary stone-faced law-enforcer Harry Callahan with light comic characters such as Bronco Billy McCoy and full-blown romantic heroes like Robert Kincaid. He has taken his “Man With No Name” persona and deliberately complicated it in a series of films running from High Plains Drifter through The Outlaw Josey Wales to Unforgiven. The process is even more apparent when you consider his work as a director. Refusing to be pigeonholed, he has managed to steer a course which has taken in a vast range of genres – from psycho-thriller to romantic melodrama, from SF-comedy to revenge tragedy – and demonstrated the kind of quiet professionalism which marks him out as one of the last great Hollywood reliables. His films are rarely original in theme but they are always stylish and often manage to transcend their subject matter through an astute observation of human nature – particularly male behaviour - and a taste for quirky characterisation and unexpected twists of narrative. His main flaw – a tendency towards over-length and a sometimes deliberate pace – seems less problematic at a time when hell-for-leather pacing is becoming so wearisome. In fact, Eastwood’s willingness to take his time is starting to look like a positive virtue and it’s clear from recent films like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Proposition that other directors are following suit.
Upon winning his second directorial Oscar for Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood might have been forgiven for resting on his considerable laurels. But instead he mustered his troops for one of the most ambitious projects of his career; a two-part study of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the points of view of both Americans and Japanese. Iwo Jima is a hunk of volcanic rock, situated south of Tokyo, which was the site of a battle between the two armies which lasted between February 19th and March 16th 1945. Its historical and psycholgical importance to both sides is considerable; firstly, it was the first fighting of the war which took place on Japanese soil; secondly, the generally agreed “uncommon valour” shown by the soldiers; thirdly, the vast number of casualties – over 48,000 men in total were killed or wounded; and finally, the hotly debated issue of how necessary the battle was in the first place. Ever since 1945, military historians have questioned the various justifications issued by the department of Defense. But what has never been questioned is the extraordinary emotional impact on the American public of one picture – the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi on February 23rd 1945, photographed by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal.
It is this picture upon which the first film, Flags Of Our Fathers is centred. James Bradley (McCarthy) is haunted by his father’s wartime past and, in particular, by the famous photo of six men raising the flag on Mount Suribachi. One of the men was his dad; Bradley sets out to discover the fates of the other men in the photograph and to find out exactly what led up to the image being captured on film. His quest leads him in two directions; firstly to the ash-ridden inferno of Iwo Jima during two months towards the end of the war; and secondly, to America where the three men in the photo who survived the battle – his father John (Phillippe), Ira Hayes (Beach), and Rene Gagnon (Bradford) – were taken on a propaganda tour to publicise war bonds.
What he discovers is that the photo is based on a deception and Eastwood, along with screenwriters Paul Haggis and William Broyles, uses this deception to question the nature of truth as handed down to us by governments, especially during an emotive time of war. This is a surprisingly radical film in many ways, especially considering the war in Iraq, because it suggests that, fundamentally, the soldiers on the ground are less important for what they do than for whatever propaganda values the men in charge can wring out of them. It also goes beyond the familiar statement that war is hell to state something much more heartbreaking – peace can be hell too.
The soldiers come home to a land which wants to take a complicated military situation and turn it into a matter of simple heroism. The flag raising is recreated in a ghastly vaudeville spectacle. The men are haunted by terrible memories of things they have seen and done; some are obsessed by the guilt of surviving when so many comrades have died. We recognise that others arrive back to a country which no longer much cares about them and can’t rebuild a life on the outside. There’s a sharp observation of prejudice here too, in the form of Ira Hayes who, it is made clear from the start, is far from the army’s ideal poster boy. A Native American, he’s the wrong race, the wrong class and he has the wrong attitude. Unable to cope with life outside the army, he ends up mouthing platitudes at a Congress for American Indians before going to jail and, subsequently, becoming dying as an alcohol soaked wreck on a reservation. The film demonstrates a fierce sympathy and compassion for the fighting men and a cold cynicism about the society which sends them out there to die. It’s about as anti-war as you can get and it never makes the mistake of becoming melodramatic or indulging in comfortable platitudes about heroism. For this to come from Eastwood would, twenty years ago, have been astonishing. Now, in the wake of his increasing discomfort with reactionary values, it’s more confirmation that he has become more thoughtful with age. He is greatly helped by superlative performances throughout, particularly from Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, Barry Pepper, John Slattery (as the loquacious head of the war bonds drive) and veterans George Grizzard and the great Harve Presnell.
This is a dazzlingly accomplished piece of filmmaking, the work of professionals who are comfortable with each other and have a total command of the medium. Tom Stern’s colour cinematography – desaturated in post-production - is stunning with a fantastic mixture of crane shots, tracking and hand-held footage during the fighting sequences. Joel Cox’s editing is spectacular throughout and it’s good to see the late, great Henry Bumstead go out on such a painstaking work of production design. But I think the triumph is Eastwood’s. Ever since Bird, Eastwood has demonstrated an interest in different narrative forms and Flags Of Our Fathers, from a fine screenplay with some marvellously pithy dialogue, is his most advanced study in broken chronology. The battle sequences come in short, sharp bursts as they are remembered by the characters, inspired by a picture or a name. This is devastatingly effective, with the central flag raising sequence arriving about halfway through the film, when its emotional and thematic power is most potent. These scenes of carnage are brief and often unwatchable in their brutality but never gratuitous or unduly extended. Death comes at random, as it does in most modern war films, But unusually, one character dies at the hands of his own side in an early example of what was, some twenty years later, christened “friendly fire”. This death haunts the characters, not least because he is part of the truth which the famous picture turns out to distort.
Flags Of Our Fathers is very clearly an anti-war movie and, as such, it’s to be welcomed at a time when war seems more horrifying than ever. But I think it’s more than that. It’s a mature movie, a reflective examination of war and heroism which ends up saying something refreshingly complex. Even if the feted men aren’t the heroes we thought them to be, they are still heroes because each and every one of them went into hell showing immense courage. The ones who died did so with bravery and honour. The ones who survived are the everyday heroes whose biggest triumph is facing life with their memories of horror. This passionate reminder that every single soldier who fights is a human being with something to live for and something to lose rings particularly clearly now. In the final sequence, the humanity of the grunts is allowed to come through as they play in the waters like innocent children. It’s a heartbreaking image and it’s the perfect summation for a very thoughtful, tremendously humane film.
The release under review is the Warner Region 3 two-disc set, part of a big-value double pack which also contains Letters From Iwo Jima.
The 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer is excellent and sometimes absolutely gorgeous. The visuals of the film are often extraordinary with a particularly notable use of desaturated colour and the disc replicates this perfectly. Colours are visible but never overstated. There is sometimes deliberately excessive grain during the combat scenes but the American sequences are crystal clear and eminently sharp. The level of detail throughout is exemplary. All in all, this looks lovely.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is even better. This is what I believe is sometimes referred to by the young people as a “kick-ass” track with tremendously involving surround effects which draw you right into the middle of the battle sequences. There’s plenty of sub-woofer action here of course. Meanwhile, dialogue is very clear and the sparing music score comes across well too, blending into the background to combine with the effects to create a memorable sound texture.
The extras are all contained on the second disc and they are pleasing without being remarkable. They begin with a five minute introduction from Clint Eastwood in which he talks about how and why he got involved with the project and continue with “Words On The Page”, a study of the original book by James Bradley and how Haggis and Broyles went about adapting it for the screen. Bradley comes across particularly well here, talking at length about his father and making me wish he’d been able to provide a commentary track. “Six Brave Men” concentrates on the men in the picture and the actors portraying them. This is a bit brief but of some interest, as is “The Making of an Epic” which looks at the filmmaking process. This latter feature contains some excellent behind-the-scenes footage of Eastwood on the set, often with Spielberg – the two men make a rather odd pairing, though they have worked together before on Bridges of Madison County. I suspect that working with another movie-making legend has had a very positive effect of Eastwood and Spielberg’s liberalism has no doubt had an impact on Eastwood’s conservatism. Very touching to see Henry Bumstead here – another real legend who worked with Hitchcock for many years along with many other great directors. There’s more of him in “Raising The Flag” which looks at the recreation of the famous photograph. A section on visual effects contains comments about both the physical effects and the CGI created by Digital Domain. Finally there is some wonderful newsreel footage and the original theatrical trailer.
English and Chinese subtitles are supplied for the main feature but no English subtitles are available for the extra features – these are, however, supplied in Chinese, Thai, Portuguese, Spanish and Korean.
I think Flags Of Our Fathers is one of the unsung near-masterpieces of the past three or four years of filmmaking – a major work from a major filmmaker. Anyone interested in cinema should see it. This DVD is a very good way of doing so.