Flags Of Our Fathers Review

Lord spare us from the overbearing piety and deep seriousness of the films of Clint Eastwood and Paul Haggis. Their stagy theatricality and solemn self-importance is scarcely bearable on a relatively small-scale human level in films like Million Dollar Baby and Crash, but when applied to larger scale subjects such as War, Patriotism, Racism and Heroism, any kind of sensitivity, subtlety or restraint - to say nothing of a sense of realism - goes completely out the window.

Flags Of Our Fathers takes on a major subject, one that lies at the heart of American patriotism and perhaps any wartime situation – the nature of war heroism, and how a few well-meaning lies on its behalf may (or may not) be sometimes necessary for the greater good. Based on a true story (a phrase that normally hides a multitude of sins, no more so than here), Eastwood and Haggis, adapting an original script by William Broyles Jr., tell the “true” story of the six American soldiers behind the famous photo of the raising the flag on Iwo Jima, getting behind the image and showing that the reality is much different from how it was portrayed to the public by the media and the government. Latching onto the inspiring image of the brave troops who took the strategically important island of Iwo Jima from the Japanese after a bloody battle, the government realise that there is an opportunity to sway a post-Depression public demoralised by the war in the Pacific, a symbol of victory that can be used to get the public back behind the war effort. On an all-out propaganda offensive, they bring the troops in the photo back home, sending them on a publicity tour to spur the patriotic feelings of the nation into putting their money over War Bonds to continue the progress of the US Marines into Tokyo.

The reality however is much different – 70,000 American soldiers were sent out to take that barren piece of rock, the name Iwo Jima meaning “sulphur island”, over 6,000 of them dying horrible deaths on a remorseless landscape that more resembled hell on earth. (The Japanese casualties were even more appalling, their troops choosing to fight to the death – but that is the subject for Eastwood’s follow-up Letters From Iwo Jima). The truth is also that the photograph of the raising of the flag only represented a re-staging of the actual event, one moreover that only commemorated the taking the high point of the island, Mount Suribachi. The actual battle, expected to last only 4 days actually took 34 days, by which time, three of the six soldiers captured in the photograph symbolising American victory were already dead in the bitter struggle that continued.

Based on a book by James Bradley, the son of one of the men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima, there’s no doubt there is an interesting story in here on the nature of the war machine, the lies it promulgates, the illusion of heroism it manufactures, and its impact on the ordinary people caught up in it. As a book its human story of the real people involved is doubtlessly touching and it would certainly have made a fascinating documentary and raised some interesting issues. In the hands of Clint Eastwood and Paul Haggis however, it just becomes another big glossy Hollywood epic. The screenplay throws up all the standard war-movie clichés, platitudes and tiresome machismo - “no man left behind”, “I told them I’d bring them all back to their mothers”, those mothers then elevated to sainthood by the heroic/ignominious deaths of their sons. The filmmakers attempt to lace these pronouncements with a certain sardonic tone of bitter irony and in doing so try to have it both ways – paying tribute to the brave men who lost their lives believing such platitudes as well as deriding those who perpetuate them, purporting to be anti-war while a the same time glorifying those who take part in it.

Subtlety evidently isn’t a strength of either Harris or Eastwood, but like the photograph that the film is centred on, they certainly have an eye for the power of an iconic image and a larger-than-life statement. Every scene is meticulously put together for calculated impact and effect, the colours toned-down and desaturated to lend the film an even grander sense of earnest gravity. Ironically, with all its idealised period artificiality and glossy, CGI-airbrushed sterility, it feels as completely artificial and removed from the reality of the situation as the famous Iwo Jima photograph. The effect of all this overbearing solemnity and sentimentality is to repeatedly hammer home its point, just in case you aren’t bright enough to get it the first ten times. As the “heroes” are welcomed home, taken to public reconstructions of the event, attending fundraising events where they endlessly meet and greet businessmen, government officials and the public who need to be reassured of the need to keep contributing to the war effort – their thoughts are with the real heroes, those back fighting the war. Predictably, this takes the form of clumsy flashbacks to the reality of the hell of Iwo Jima induced by their surroundings. On one occasion a flashback to the bloody horror of the struggle on Iwo Jima is even spurred by as trite and tasteless a link as a dessert covered in strawberry sauce.

Such stagy theatricality and glossy Hollywood reworking of events is however fundamentally and ideologically flawed. By idealising and sentimentalising the six people who raised the flag, it perpetuates the same misplaced heroism of the photograph, spinning their lives into a Hollywood fictionalisation that immortalises their story in place of the “true heroes”. Like War, Hollywood lives by the same fostering of lies and illusions, creating its own mythology. Depending on your perspective, Flags Of Our Fathers’ representation of those values is either Hollywood moviemaking at its best or Hollywood mythologizing at its worst.

Flags of our Fathers is released in the UK by Warner Home Video as a 2-disc set. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, the extra features on a single-layer disc. The set is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.

As you would expect for a major epic, Flags Of Our Fathers is impressive to look at on DVD, but is inevitably going to lose quite an amount of its impact away from the big screen. Although the film looks extremely ugly indeed with its over-rendered, obvious CGI effects and creatively unimaginative deathly dull colour scheme, technically it’s handled very well on DVD. Closer examination may reveal a slight softness and some dot crawl artefacts, but in normal playback it will look as it should and isn’t going to disappoint anyone.

The only audio option is the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and it’s functional, but not impressive. Heck, yes, you’ll get plenty of boom from your subwoofer and endless activity of bullets pinging in you surrounds, but without the DTS option to give it full body, it does sound like nothing more than special effects. Overactive, it all becomes very wearing on the nerves, and does occasionally overwhelm the centre channel dialogue. A Dolby Digital 2.0 Audio Description option is also included.

English and English for Hearing Impaired subtitles are included for both film and all extra features. Arabic, Greek, Hebrew and Icelandic secondary options are also available.

An Introduction by Clint Eastwood (5:06)
Predictably full of macho rhetoric, Eastwood describes Flags Of Our Fathers as “ a patriotic story” about “the ultimate sacrifice” and Iwo Jima as “not a place for cissies”.

Words On The Page (17:02)
Author of the original book and son of one of the flag bearers, James Bradley talks about what compelled him to tell their story. William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis describe how the script was developed.

Six Brave Men (19:52)
The actors in the principal roles analyse their characters, their backgrounds and their relationship with each other, as well as talking about their experience of making the film.

The Making Of An Epic (30:13)
The producer, the director and all the key film crew contribute to this feature, talking about wanting to get it the personal details, the period and the war elements right, and how they set about turning it into an epic film.

Raising The Flag (3:26)
Obviously, one of the most important things to get right is the raising of the flag. The director and actors describe how they went about re-creating that iconic image.

Visual effects (14:55)
The special effects crew show in rather tedious detail just how they achieved “photo realism” in their use of layered composites.

Looking Into The Past (9:26)
Archive footage tells the story of Iwo Jima and the fate of the six soldiers with the flag much more concisely, suggesting that a documentary route would have served the story much better than the bombast of Eastwood’s epic.

Theatrical Trailer (2:15)
A typically Hollywood film gets a typically Hollywood trailer.

There are certainly some interesting issues raised in Flags Of Our Fathers but they are buried deep underneath the layers of epic Hollywood CGI special-effects, patriotism and nauseating sentiment that seems characteristic of Clint Eastwood and Paul Haggis. This is grim, turgid, reactionary filmmaking with nothing new to say and no new way of saying it. War is hell. War creates heroes. The heroes are the ones who died. The heroes are the ones who refuse to believe they are heroes. The heroes are the ones who live with the war for the rest of their lives without saying a word. Heroes are those who manage to uncomplainingly sit through the excruciating four and a half hours of Flags Of Our Fathers and its sequel Letters From Iwo Jima. If this is a film for real men then count me in among the “cissies”.

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