Clint Eastwoodâ€™s been on a roll. His last two films, “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby” were justifiably feted by many critics as the best of their respective years. They were character pieces that earned their kudos the hard way, through touching, authentic performances and gripping stories that Eastwood allowed to take root in their own time. As an actor, he may have made his name with flashy gunfights and tough guy talk, but as a director, heâ€™s always been at his best delivering intimate moments in which real people strain under the weight of real problems.
In his latest film, “Flags of Our Fathers,” Eastwood shifts his attention from the intimate to the epic, and, unfortunately, his work suffers for it.
“Flags” is the story of the three soldiers who raised the flag at Iwo Jima and the ensuing publicity tour arranged by the U.S. government in which they were carted around America to drum up support for the war. As they become national celebrities, each of the three men, played by Adam Beach, Ryan Phillipe and Jesse Bradford, question whether they are worthy of the adulation they receive, given that many of their heroic comrades died horrible, unheralded deaths back in Iwo Jimaâ€™s black volcanic sand. (While what I am about to say has long been a matter of public record, I suppose I should give a Spoiler Alert here…) Their anguish is further compounded by the fact that the famously photographed flag raising was actually staged, after the photo of the original flag raising did not come out. The original flag raising involved different soldiers than those who later became famous in the staged version, and Eastwood shows that none of these men ever survived to receive the recognition that their bravery should have entitled them to.
The battle scenes are first rate, as are the performances. Phillipe imbues John â€˜Docâ€™ Bradley with a haunted gravity. He takes no joy from his role as a poster boy; each huzzah from the crowd is something that must be endured for the war effort, rather than enjoyed. Beach is also excellent as Ira Hayes, an alcoholic who longs for nothing more than to ditch the parades and return to the fight.
So why does this film seem so much less powerful than his last few? Why does a grizzled fight doctor kneeling in a darkened hospital room as he puts a disabled boxer out of her misery move me so much more than the countless deaths of heroic soldiers in service to our country?
Part of the problem is the repetitive flashback structure that the filmâ€™s writers employed to exhibit the soldiersâ€™ growing guilt. The film takes on a numbing rhythm in which three things occur over and over and over again. (1) Weâ€™re shown one of the three main characters on tour in the U.S. speaking to a cheering crowd or being chatted up by a beautiful, starry-eyed young woman, then (2) one of the three men gets a sad, far away look in his eyes, as we flashback to (3) the death of yet another one of his brave compatriots back in Iwo Jima. We never get to know any of the dying soldiers, and we never find out at what point during the thirty five day battle they died, so their deaths start to meld together. As each flashback begins, I tried to guess who was going to get shot down or blown up this time.
And with each new flashback, the stories of the three men who did survive seems to be driven further into the background. Eastwood cuts away from the tour and back to the battlefield so frequently that the stateside stories of the three main characters fail to get any real momentum.
Perhaps the filmâ€™s impact is blunted by the fact that, when Eastwood sends his soldiers into battle, they are marching over very familiar territory. From films and mini-series like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Wind Talkers,” and “Band of Brothers” to the countless documentaries and recreations of “The History Channel” and “The Military Channel,” we, as a nation, have spent the last decade examining, reexamining and fetishizing the battles of World War II. As well executed as the fight scenes are, I found that I was continuously thinking of other WWII films as I watched “Flags.” It is very difficult to portray a beach landing without calling to mind the opening battle from “Saving Private Ryan.” Or “The Big Red One.” Or “The Longest Day.” It may be time for todayâ€™s filmmakers to let this hallowed ground lie fallow for a while until the next generation can approach the material with a new eye.
Clint Eastwoodâ€™s underlying political message also seems somewhat dulled by time. It would not seem to be particularly shocking to a post-Watergate audience inured to war without end in the Middle East that the military could exploit the heroism of our servicemen for political gain. The writers seem to think this bombshell will elicit outrage, but I suspect todayâ€™s cynical audience will do little more than shrug.
The film is at its most effective after the war, when Eastwoodâ€™s focus returns from Iwo Jima to the homefront. The post-war difficulties that the three main characters endure after the public has cast them aside are quite moving. After falling into poverty, Hayes still seeks to honor the memory of his fallen brethren by hitchhiking across the country to tell their families the truth behind the symbolism of that famous photograph. One wonders what the film would have been like if Eastwood had focused on the lives of just these three men, rather than forcing them to share the screen with an entire war.