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Flags of Our Fathers

dir: Clint Eastwood

The curious thing about Flags of our Fathers is that it isn't really a war film. I think a lot of people were expecting Clint Eastwood to give us his version of (at least) the first forty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, only this time at Iwo Jima against the Japanese in World War II. Instead, Eastwood focuses the flick on three men who played a part in the raising of a flag on Mt Suribachi, which has become one of the defining images of the war.

These three men are brought back from the Pacific theatre and sent around the United States to raise money for the war effort. The government is nearly bankrupt and needs to get money from the public in the form of war bonds to keep war production going. They don't know, like we do, that the war will end soon. So, to the men there is the real fear that not playing their part will lead to the US losing the war.

The part they are expected to play is that of war heroes in the public limelight, but, as they keep pointing out, all they did was raise a flag. Each of the men thinks long and hard about some other guy who was with them on the island more deserving of the title 'hero', who is now dead.

In different ways and to different degrees, the men exhibit what we would call today 'survivor guilt'. It's an interesting idea, but the flick keeps repeating its message again and again until you start to wonder if the projector is stuck in a loop.

The film intercuts three storylines, in some ways detracting from each other even as it endeavors to explain elements from earlier in the story. The first follows one of the men, we don't yet know which one, suffering a heart attack and asking 'Where is he, where is he?"

His son then tries to piece together his father's experiences during the war, since the father has never spoken of them to his children. The second follows the men in the lead up to the attack on Iwo Jima, a sulfurous wasteland with strategic importance, and the third follows the men as they tour America with their message to "Buy Bonds!" The storylines interweave in a decent enough way, but they disrupt the momentum, especially of the scenes dealing with the Battle for Iwo Jima.

Perhaps it was Eastwood's specific intent, but the battle is, apart from its start, not really explored in terms of representing what happened on the island. As said before, the emphasis is on the story of the photograph, so it's a little frustrating to watch increasingly haphazard war scenes thrown in as filler, especially when you thought they were going to be the main course. Still, those remain the most compelling and interesting scenes in the film.

The almost alien landscape of Iwo Jima is recreated by using the beaches of Iceland, which share a similar volcanic geology. It really does look like the armies are fighting on another planet. Explosions rip through the landscape, and the bodies of soldiers, showering everything with black sand and bits of CGI flesh. Many of the images, including the suicides of some soldiers by grenade, are quite horrifying, as you would expect from any decent war film worth its admission price.

As far as the acting goes, Ryan Phillipe as Doc, Jesse Bradford as Rene Gagnon and Adam Beach as Ira Hayes do reasonable work with fairly bland characters. Beach especially has the more difficult role as the one who resents the fact that he survived and who hates doing these public appearances. He is progressively more alcoholic as the film goes on, and gets the big speeches about how he's not a hero and wishes he was dead. It's not exactly the rousing war propaganda some critics feared.

Though the Hayes role is more showy, Ryan Phillipe gives the more solid performance as a man who isn't particularly ecstatic about going on the flag tour, but he knows it's important, and wants to do his duty. He, too, is haunted by the death of a fellow Marine who he feels he let down on the island. They all flashback to moments on the island, increasingly horrific ones, as the film goes on.

It is competently directed and crafted, but that doesn't stop the film from seeming, overall, somewhat disappointing. Once it says what it wants to say, in several different ways, it sticks around repeating the same punchline with even more flashbacks. So many flashbacks.

Let’s put this into perspective: during this battle, of the 20,000 Japanese troops who were on the island, 18,000 died. The US suffered 26,000 casualties, with nearly 7,000 dead. The majority of the worst fighting happened after the flags were raised. And yet following these bland characters around as they whimper over the loss of their buddies is chosen to be the more important area for the film to focus on?

At the very least we can be grateful that Eastwood brought the sensitivity evident in his later films to this here story, where he goes out of his way to humanise the men behind the mythology. Heroism or patriotism is not what this film celebrates. Instead it celebrates the frailty of men sent thousands of miles away from their homes to die, quite often, trying to save the guy next to them. The survivors are sometimes worse off than the dead, and they spend the rest of their lives trying to pick up the pieces.

It hardly makes you want to run out, join up and kill, kill, kill for your country, which is probably a good thing.

6 out of 10

“They may have fought for their country, but they died for their friends.” – Flags of Our Fathers.