Flags of Our Fathers

December 19th, 2006 Film, Film Features, Xpress

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Starring Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, Barry Pepper, Paul Walker, Jamie Bell, Neal McDonough, Robert Patrick

Wherever the US military goes in the world, one of their most important assets on the front line isn’t weapons or soldiers. It’s the spin doctors and image makers that package and sell the war to the folks at home no differently than brand managers who sell Big Macs or Coke. In fact, they increasingly borrow the methods used to sell drinks and cars in a world where we speak the language of brands and sound bites.

Media scholars believe America learned its lesson in Vietnam, giving a newly technological and burgeoning media unfettered access to the horrors behind the lines and unwittingly revealing the truth about war, one that was different the glories of WWII newsreels. It’s often said the Vietnam War was lost in the family rooms of the Midwest.

Although it looks like a war story, Flags of Our Fathers is more about the chasm between the reality of the battlefield and the newsreel stories back home. It’s summed up by the lynchpin of the movie — the flag-raising by American soldiers over Iwo Jima’s Mount Surabachi during the island’s capture.

In the film, it’s actually the second flag raising that was captured in the immortal photo, but even then, someone realised it was a detail that mattered little to The Story.

Three of the men there, Rene(Jesse Bradford), John (Ryan Phillipe) and Ira (Adam Beach), are flown home as heroes and shunted all over the country as the public face of a PR campaign to restock America’s desperately low war chest.

Parading them in increasingly tasteless events is a man ahead of his time, the media-savvy and cynical handler (Slattery. Native American army grunt Hayes (Beach) wants none of it, sickened at the sideshow his life has become when his friends lay dead across Iwo Jima. Marine doctor John (Phillipe) is quietly haunted by the man he lost in battle who met a horrible fate, but infantryman Rene (Bradford) enjoys the attention, happy to play the hero to hit the American public up for cash.

Thematically and structurally, Flags of Our Fathers is an enigma. It has the usual aspects of any modern war movie — the War is Hell and They Did it For Their Buddies mantras are never far away. But it also talks about the fickleness and hollowness of fame, the duty of a soldier and the ties that bind, particularly in an overstretched and increasingly irrelevant final 20 minutes.

We begin simply enough, watching the awesome American military arsenal waging war on an island already so badly bombed there’s barely a blade of grass left standing. But the narrative jumps forward for longer and more frequent stretches to tell the story Eastwood is apparently more interested in — one without nearly as much power as the early parts of the film.

And what power it is. The sequences of the island landing and battle — heavily aided by CGI — are the most incredible cinematic war images since Saving Private Ryan, in many ways outstripping even Spielberg’s D Day magnum opus. The tension and violence are breakneck, horrifying, bloodthirsty and stunningly real.

Both the confusion of battle and timeline of the narrative make it very hard to keep up with who’s who for most of the film, the three subsequent show ponies emerging as the main characters only partway into the movie. The performances of some recognisable names are stoic and natural, but Beach chews over some heavy scenes that are clearly above his talent, flailing in the process.

It’s fitting that Eastwood produced the film with Steven Spielberg. As well the opportunity to get some tips from one of the credible authorities of World War II in the movies, the former Man With No Name has crafted a piece of cinema to stand up there with Spielberg’s most powerful efforts. Once a deadpan action hero who did little but scowl for the camera of Sergio Leonie, he’s walked off with more Oscars the older he’s got and has become one of the great American filmmakers of his generation.


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