Flags Of Our Fathers Review
"Every jackass thinks he knows what war is", muses an old soldier in Clint Eastwood's Flags Of Our Fathers, "especially the ones who have never been to war". Eastwood's film about the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima means to give us some idea of what war is, from the perspective of the men on the front lines.
This isn't the first film to attempt that. Most recently, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan tried to capture a soldier's view of the invasion of Normandy and it succeeded to a degree. It's an incredibly visceral movie and it broke ground in its horrifying portrayal of combat. The battle scenes of all war films that have followed, including Flags Of Our Fathers owe a debt to that gut-wrenching first half hour.
For all its many virtues however (and I rate it one of Spielberg's best films), Saving Private Ryan is still a war film in the traditional sense. It's essentially an action movie. Its protagonists are Hollywood action heroes whose deeds are larger than life, whose deaths are dramatic and whose stories follow a formula. By the conclusion, Tom Hanks' men are defending a town against impossible odds just like John Wayne's troops might have done.
Like most war films before and since, Spielberg's film depicts war as it ought to be, something with heroes and villains and meaning. Flags Of Our Fathers depicts war as it probably is - I admit I'm just another jackass who's never been to war - and that's as a vast, impersonal machine in which each soldier, each platoon is just a tiny cog. Those CGI shots of massed battleships anchored off the coast aren't there to impress, they're there to remind you that the Battle of Iwo Jima was won by the efforts of 100,000 American troops, not a few movie stars.
Death in Flags Of Our Fathers is arbitrary and meaningless. In an early scene, a soldier waving over-enthusiastically at the fighter planes flying past his troopship stumbles and falls overboard. His comrades laugh, try to throw him a lifebelt and wonder how he'll be rescued. Then one of them breaks it to the others: he's not going to be rescued. The ships can't slow down or stop. The man is going to be left behind to die.
And so it is on Iwo Jima. Soldiers die suddenly and often stupidly, because their comrades leave them alone to try and rescue others who are beyond help; because their own artillery mistakes them for the enemy; because they happen to get in the way of a stray bullet.
The screenplay, by William Broyles Jr and Paul Haggis, avoids putting the men's experiences into the context of the struggle for victory on Iwo Jima, of giving meaning to their ordeal. The scenes on Iwo Jima are shown as flashbacks, dotted throughout the movie, often disconnected from each other and out of chronological order. We see the chaos, not the big picture.
Eastwood isn't trying to put a negative slant on the battle for the island, which was a crucial stepping stone in the War in the Pacific. Nor does he want to belittle the soldiers' heroism. We see bravery - men risking their lives to attack machine gun nests and pull fallen comrades to safety - but it's the bravery of desperate men fighting for their lives and the lives of their friends in the moment, the same bravery we saw in the passengers on United 93. We don't see the big picture because the soldiers didn't see it. They were just trying to dash from this black, volcanic rock to that bomb crater without getting their heads blown off.
This, the film says, is what war is to the men fighting it. And that contrasts starkly with the official line according to the US government and the top brass. War, they say, is brave American boys fighting and laying down their lives for flag and country. This is the line which three of the soldiers who fought on Iwo Jima are hand-picked to come home and sell to the nation.
Those three soldiers are Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) the only survivors of a platoon which was among the first to land on the island. They've been chosen because they were photographed raising the Stars and Stripes on the island's small mountain, apparently to declare victory. In fact this isn't what they were doing (the true details are mind-boggling) but no one cares - that photo has become the most persuasive piece of propaganda in the war effort.
Back in America, Bradley, Gagnon and Hayes are forced to attend rallies, fundraisers and ballgames, put on their dress uniforms and wave to the crowds like trained seals, all the time asking their fellow Americans to buy war bonds. The war, you see, has all but bankrupted the government and if billions aren't raised, America will have to throw in the towel within sight of the Japanese shore.
Being presented as Hollywood-style war heroes affects the soldiers in different ways. Gagnon enjoys the adulation, thinking (foolishly) that he's set up for life. Bradley tries half-heartedly to set the record straight. Hayes, who's having the most trouble dealing with what happened on Iwo Jima (and, as an American Indian, is subject to much casual bigotry), is driven to drink. None of them can recognise themselves as national heroes. As one puts it, "All we did was try not to get shot".
These are good roles and the three stars are all excellent, Adam Beach being the most memorable. There's also a very solid supporting cast, including Robert Patrick, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell and a certain Paul Walker, who's thoroughly redeemed himself this year.
Flags Of Our Fathers is another masterpiece from director Clint Eastwood, his third in a row - and judging by the reviews, Letters From Iwo Jima, a companion piece to this film told from a Japanese point of view, is at least as good. Few directors have had a run like Eastwood is currently having. Long may it continue.
Flags is as good as any film he's made in his 35 year directing career. It's not only a technically brilliant war film, with a stunning, washed-out look, but a profound meditation on warfare and its effect on the men who fight. It's to the war genre what Unforgiven is to the western. Like that film, and like Mystic River, it steps back, shows us violence as it really is and asks us to contemplate what it does to the people who live by it. It puts the battles soldiers fight into context all right, but it's not the context of the war, it's the context of their lives.
This movie may not have the immediate impact of Saving Private Ryan, which is perhaps why it's not been a box office hit, but Eastwood's film is just as powerful in its own, quieter way and it lingers in the mind. There's no conventional ending. The present day scenes that bookend the story don't offer closure or easy tears, they add depth and further sadness.