Review: Flags of Our Fathers

Clint Eastwood could have been resting on his laurels for fifteen years now, ever since Unforgiven won both Best Picture and Best Directing Oscars. But in a career that continues to defy expectations, he has completed his largest production, Flags of Our Fathers, at the age of seventy-six, and is currently finishing its companion piece, the Japanese-language Letters from Iwo Jima, to be released early next year. Based on a memoir by James Bradley with Ron Powers, Flags of Our Fathers is easily the most accomplished and sobering film of the year.

The film centers around the iconic photograph of soldiers raising an American flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima, a photograph that many attribute with helping turn the tide of public opinion during a period when the outcome of the war was not at all certain. Eastwood first shows the immediate impact of the photo, then eases viewers into the period by introducing the key figures who will become associated with the incident. “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) became a medical corpsman in the Navy because of his training as a mortician. Because the other soldiers doubt his courage, Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) gets an even more dangerous job as runner. A Pima Indian, Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) has to shrug off casual, everyday racism.

The invasion of Iwo Jima is shown in a bone-jarring sequence that ranks with the best battle scenes ever filmed. The relentless din, surrealistic violence, sweat, fear, and death in its many forms are captured effortlessly. This is the first time Eastwood has relied so extensively on digital effects, and at times he uses them to show the stark beauty of battle. But unlike films like Saving Private Ryan, Flags of Our Fathers never tries to pretend that fighting is exciting. Instead, it is something that infects the soldiers, its nightmarish images staying with them forever.

Of the six soldiers who were identified raising the flag, only Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes are summoned back to the United States to participate in a fund-raising drive. Eastwood’s depiction of their experiences stateside places him with cinema’s most morally exacting and understanding filmmakers. One of the most impressive aspects of Flags of Our Fathers, one of the primary reasons why it is so compelling and so valuable, is Eastwood’s grasp of the moral complexities of the period. The direction almost never blames anyone in the film for what happens. Yes, a bigoted bartender, a loudmouthed war profiteer, a clownish tourist appear and leave, but Eastwood is merely marking their presence, not condemning them. The soldiers–brave or cowardly, frightened or foolhardy–aren’t evil or “wrong,” just as the officers, politicians, and families who fill the film are trying to do what they think is right. That their efforts are so often misguided is what gives Flags of Our Fathers a tragic dimension that has largely been lacking from recent Hollywood films.

Eastwood has always been a spare, even austere, filmmaker, and Flags… is no exception. Just about any scene in the movie could be used in film school as a textbook example of camera placement, editing, and production design. The cast is uniformly excellent; Phillippe and Beach especially reveal depths and abilities previously missing in their careers. Which is not to say that the film will be a massive hit. Unlike Spielberg, who ultimately gave up trying to make the film himself, Eastwood isn’t so quick to offer a happy ending, a tidy moral, an easy out. The director doesn’t even bother to resolve the battle, instead shifting in and out of the past and the future, the war and the home front. The conclusions to be drawn are bleak ones. At its most basic, Flags of Our Fathers is about our need for symbols and images, our reach for unattainable ideals, our insistence on twisting reality to suit our purposes, and ultimately our inability to communicate, either with our loved ones, our colleagues, our leaders, or our enemies. In the midst of the largest and most divisive war since Vietnam, Eastwood has made a film that is unambiguously anti-war and anti-politics, an act of bravery that further distinguishes him from almost any other director working today.

Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough, Melanie Lynskey, Tom McCarthy, Chris Bauer, Judith Ivey, Joseph Cross, Benjamin Walker, Alessandro Mastrobuono, Scott Reeves, Stark Sands, George Grizzard, Harve Presnell, George Hearn, Len Cariou.

Credits: Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by William Broyles, Jr., and Paul Haggis. Based on the book by James Bradley with Ron Powers. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg. Producer: Robert Lorenz. Director of photography: Tom Stern. Production design: Henry Bumstead. Edited by Joel Cox. Co-producer: Tim Moore. Visual effects supervisor: Michael Owens. Second unit director: Michael Owens. Costumes designed by Deborah Hopper. Music by Clint Eastwood. A DreamWorks Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures presentation of a Malpaso/Amblin Entertainment production.

DreamWorks/Color/2.35/Dolby Digital, DTS & SDDS/Rated R

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