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Monday, November 20, 2006

Clint Eastwood's Flag of Our Fathers

Poster of Flags of Our Fathers

Prior to watching a film based on historical events, I would actually read up about the event, not because I'm the type who desperately seeks factual accuracies in such films, just that making comparisons between facts and fiction can be kind of fun. In the case of Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, I went to read about the raising of the flag in Iwo Jima (and the personal history of the six flag-raisers, especially the surviving three) on Wikipedia, which is what this film mainly revolves about. You know, that iconic photo taken by Joe Rosenthal prior to the battle at Iwo Jima.

the flag raising in Iwo Jima

The six men depicted in the picture were Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block, Michael Strank, John Bradley, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes. (played in this film, respectively, by Joseph Cross, Benjamin Walker, Barry Pepper, Ryan Phillipe, Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach) Only the latter three survived the battle, and were hailed as heroes when they returned to US for a tour to raise war bonds.

The film is not in chronological order, Clint Eastwood decided to pull an Innaritu (or Nolan?) by having numerous different plot strands from different timelines going on at once, there's one about author James Bradley, son of John Bradley, interviewing war veterans as he writes the book 'Flags of Our Fathers' (which this film is based on), then there's the bond tour where the three, John Bradley, Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes, gradually felt manipulated and exploited in their attempts to raise war bonds, and then, there's the battle of Iwo Jima itself, oh, and there are some flashbacks within flashbacks where John Bradley faced the traumatic episode of witnessing the death of his best friend, Ralph 'Iggy' Ignatowski, who was kidnapped by Japanese soldiers during the battle, and was later found with his eyes, ears, and fingernails removed, his teeth smashed, the back of his head caved in, multiple bayonet wounds to the abdomen, and his severed genitalia stuffed into his mouth.

Even an attentive viewer like me started getting a little confused within the first fifteen minutes of the film, quietly wondering whether one particular scene had happened before another, and ultimately feeling somewhat annoyed. My attention wavered, my initially confusion prevented me from being drawn into the film until I was in the middle part of it, where Clint Eastwood stopped focusing more in Innaritu-ing and did his usual quietly intense Eastwood drama with manly men weeping (the war bond tour where poor Ira Hayes became a victim of racism and got more into his alcoholic problems).

Ryan Philippe as James Bradley in Flag of our FathersThe problem I have with this film is the fact that Flags of Our Fathers tried too hard to be too many things at once. A war film? An anti-war film? A film where heroes were demythologized to reveal the ugliness within? The true machinations involved behind the bond tour where much manipulation, exploitation were involved? Focusing in one would've made this a more effective film, trying to be so many at once made this film highly unbalanced, compromising the characterization in favour of impressive battle setpieces made the bond tour less emotionally dramatic than it had been, having the (admittedly nicely filmed) battle scenes as nothing more than ornaments placed between the touring sequences made them feel merely like filler and nothing more. This film could have either been about the Battle at Iwo Jima (something like Saving Private Ryan, unless Clint Eastwood wants to be more poetic, then it can go for The Thin Red Line as a model) or the aftermath, solely the bond tour where it can be a thought-provoking character drama where emphasis is placed upon the pain of the characters who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, survivors' guilt etc. Both can be equally compelling individually, but cramming everything into one film weakens it.

Looking at Clint Eastwood's previous two fares, 2004's Million Dollar Baby, as good as it was (and tragically angsty), was overrated, and was undeserving of its Oscar (but then, I was rooting for Sideways that year), and 2003's Mystic River (which may be a superior film, to me), was a small film that worked well because of its characters. Clint Eastwood likes making angsty films, but these angsty films can only work well if we get to know the characters enough, the three main characters of Flags of Our Fathers felt too enigmatic, too much like cyphers, for me to really care for them. (although I will not criticize the acting, since I don't see how much the actors can do in a film as uneven as this)

The characters were just too two-dimensional. Jesse Bradford's Rene Gagnon was like an opportunistic asshole who enjoyed his sudden fame, there was nothing symphathetic about him, and I have a feeling Gagnon's real family and friends may not like his portrayal here. Adam Beach's Ira Hayes was already a temperamental fellow who drew his knife at anyone from the beginning, so his slow descent to alcoholism and becoming a victim of racism didn't feel as poignant as it could've been. Phillipe's John Bradley was the most even-headed and calmest of them all, the character audiences might most easily identify with, but he spent the majority of the film looking angsty and then flashbacking to his angsty past too much that he became just a mystery too. These were all real-life figures, I would've expected them to be more complex than what I saw onscreen.

And so yeah, this film has its moments, but because of its many flaws, I don't really think I can recommend it to many.

On the other hand, I think I may have been the youngest in the cinema when I was watching the film. The film didn't make me feel depressed, but losing my wallet after seeing it did.

Flags of Our Fathers trailer

Clint Eastwood interview on Flags of Our Fathers

Other Reviews:

Blogcritics.org: Flags of Our Fathers
Janet Planet likes it, though she feels that Ryan Phillipe's miscast, and the film can still work with 25 mins trimmed off.

Blogcritics.org: Flags of Our Fathers
Neil Miller also thinks that the film's downfall is its muddled storytelling.

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