Another minimalist masterpiece from Clint Eastwood.
Watching Flags of Our Fathers, I was continually reminded my favorite line from one of Clint Eastwood’s many Oscar-winning efforts, Unforgiven. Near the end of the film, Gene Hackman’s character, Little Bill, lies dying with Eastwood’s character, William Munny, above him holding a shotgun to his face. Right before Munny pulls the trigger, Little Bill utters, “I don’t deserve this,” to which Munny replies: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
Warfare is so frustratingly random. No amount of training or preparation can save a soldier from a stray bullet or piece of shrapnel. On the battlefield, the difference between who lives and who dies so often seems to be purely a matter of chance. Those who survive feel an inexorable pain for comrades left behind and spend much of their civilian lives wondering why they were spared and others were not.
Eastwood explores this and other, similar themes in his tremendous new film. Flags of Our Fathers tells the story behind Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph from the Battle of Iwo Jima, which depicts six soldiers hoisting the American flag above Mount Suribachi. The picture was plastered on the cover of every newspaper and magazine in the country and inspired the American people at a time during the war when costs were mounting and resolve was waning.
The plot centers on the three soldiers from the picture who survive the battle: Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) and John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe). When Rosenthal’s picture becomes a sensation, they are plucked from the battlefield by the U.S. government and sent back to the States, where they are hailed as heroes. In a somewhat cynical move, the Treasury Department opportunistically sends them out on a PR tour of sorts to raise money for war bonds. Gagnon, Hayes and Bradley all have misgivings about the tour, but they reluctantly embrace their newfound celebrity in order to aid the fundraising effort. It’s particularly agonizing for Hayes, who, consumed by guilt over the friends he left on the island, descends into alcoholism.
It’s a delicate task for Eastwood, who must walk a fine line between taking an honest look at the exploitation and politicization of the battle while still honoring those who served both abroad and at home. He walks that line brilliantly.
The story is largely a meditation on the question: “What is a hero?” The men who returned from Iwo Jima certainly didn’t feel like heroes. They were uncomfortable with the adulation they received and preferred not to discuss the subject at all. When they became involved with the fundraising effort, they found that the action behind the scenes almost as ugly as the action on the battlefield.
It’s a familiar theme for the 76-year-old director. Eastwood, who earlier in his career so often portrayed larger-than-life characters like “Dirty Harry” Callahan, has spent much of the last two decades making films that deconstruct the myths behind such cinematic heroes.
I had my doubts as to whether Eastwood, who is known for small, intimate films like Million Dollar Baby, could competently manage the big mechanics of staging a massive battle sequence. It seemed like a job much more suited to a director like Steven Spielberg, whose famous D-Day sequence from Saving Private Ryan is still the standard by which all other battle scenes are judged.
My doubts proved incorrect, however, as Eastwood handled the task amazingly well. While the assault on Normandy portrayed in Ryan was essentially a full-frontal ground attack, Eastwood’s Battle of Iwo Jima is much more complex and multi-faceted. The American soldiers faced an enemy largely hidden from view, buried deep underground and inside the mountain. He really succeeds in capturing the often terrifying process of facing a ruthless enemy that can emerge from nowhere.
Unfortunately, the tasks of integrating extensive battle scenes and working with an ensemble cast don’t afford Eastwood the opportunity to add any real depth to the main characters. I admire him for attempting to give life to all of the men profiled in the book, but there’s simply too much ground to cover.
Eastwood’s minimalist score rightly avoids bombast, instead opting for a few precisely placed notes from an acoustic guitar here and there. The acting performances are solid, if at times one-dimensional.
The only thing that truly bothered me about the film is that there are several recognizable faces from other notable World War II projects like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. It just smacks of casting laziness. Is there a shortage of young men with buzzcuts in Hollywood? It’s a small distraction, to be sure, but a distraction nonetheless.
The film’s closing credit sequence includes a montage of pictures from Iwo Jima. It’s a fitting tribute to those who fought the desperate battle and a great way to end the film.
Count this one as another masterpiece for Eastwood.
What's on the disc:
Nothing. No special features whatsoever. "Play" and "Set up" are the only two choices on the menu. There isn't even a scene selection option.