Flags of our Fathers is one of two World War II movies by Clint Eastwood hitting theaters this year. Fathers takes a look at the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Americans, whereas his companion piece, Letters From Iwo Jima, will examine the same battle only through the eyes of the Japanese. It is an ambitious endeavor to do such a thing, and unfortunately, from the way Flags of our Fathers turned out, Eastwood will need to do a bit of editing on Letters From Iwo Jima to make a dent come the Oscars.
Flags of our Fathers is a well-done movie, as one would expect from Eastwood. Eastwood, who was only a few years ago seen primarily as an action and western hero, has done amazing things behind the camera. After a few good but not necessarily memorable films in the late 90's, he has taken things to the next level to the point where an Oscar nomination is all but expected. And needless to say, with Eastwood delivering two WWII films in a matter of months, my expectations were through the roof.
The movie succeeds in that it is beautifully-shot and well-acted. The lead characters are interesting, and the set design revolving around the island of Iwo Jima is incredible. I had no clue that the island was such a Hell hole of a place, but Eastwood gives it such beautiful detail. The actors give it their all, especially Adam Beach (the native American guy). Beach, whose character not only has to put up with racism but who also struggles the most with the fact that he is being glorified on false pretenses, gives an Oscar-worthy performance.
Unfortunately, despite all that, I have to go into more negatives in positives. While I respect the movie for what it is, it is definitely a film not without its issues, and those issues will keep it from Oscar glory as well as audience approval. Eastwood's unconventional approach to war was risky, and it really doesn't pay off in the way he wanted it to.
The movie is less about the Battle of Iwo Jima and more about three of the soldiers who were responsible for raising the flag at the top of the island's mountain. You've all seen the photograph before, that of a group of soldiers struggling to push the American flag upright into a grouping of rocks. Everything in this movie revolves around that one moment in time, and is essentially about how the government used that photograph to motivate a nation. The film is at times critical and at other times complimentary about such methods, as on the one hand the photograph made heroes out of soldiers who were no more heroic than anyone else on the island, and yet also was perhaps a needed boost to finance the war. Eastwood leaves the opinion-making up to you, but that is not the problem with this movie.
The problem with Flags of our Fathers is that its presentation is so scattered that the film is just plain boring. You can see where Eastwood was trying to go when he decided to take things out of chronological order and mix the battle with the aftermath, but the result just doesn't work. While the battle sequences might have been effective had they all been shown in sequence, they never get the chance to draw the audience in and fully engage you. They are so cut up that any feeling of dread or isolation is lost. At the same time, the aftermath sequences where the lead characters have to deal with the fact that they are being used by their government for no good reason really aren't all that memorable, despite good performances all around.
The biggest issue I had was a lack of character development. While the film properly focuses on its three leads (Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach), it fails to develop any of the other soldiers who die. There seems to be a real lack of emotion, and, more frustrating is the fact that, thanks to the weird editing, the characters often refer to characters who have died before they are even shown in the film. In fact, Eastwood clumps all of the characters' deaths into a single sequence, where he essentially shows one getting killed after the other. How are we supposed to feel for these fallen soldiers if they are only given a minute of screen time?
Despite its flaws, the movie still stands tall against most. Unfortunately, Eastwood's attempt to do something new with the war genre fails miserably, and the result feels like a mix between Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line that didn't quite turn out. Is this representative of what Letters From Iwo Jima will be? Quite possibly, but hopefully Eastwood listened to his critics and took what I'm sure is excellent footage and made a better picture than what Flags of our Fathers is.
Review #2 (A-)
Review by Nathan Vass
Given the plethora of war films flooding the market today, one could be forgiven for assuming that there is nothing left to say about war in movies, particularly World War II. Clint Eastwood’s new film, the first part of an ambitious two-film project on Iwo Jima, proves this is not the case. Flags Of Our Fathers might be the first film, except perhaps Wyler’s Best Years of Our Lives, to truly communicate what it’s like to be a victim of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Everyone knows war itself is a hellish experience, but this is a rare instance where the primary topic is not the combat itself, but the mental aftereffects of being a soldier.
The film charts the course of the bond tour instigated by the famous photo, “Flag Raising On Iwo Jima.” Three of the seven men in the photo survived the battle, and the bulk of the film follows them as they struggle to find a place in the world. The bond tour, a government project to raise money to win the war, is something the three companions are dragged into, more or less against their will. They immediately feel uncomfortable with their sudden fame and being labeled “heroes,” a term they feel is undeserved. One of them, an Indian named Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), is particularly disgusted with the shallowness of his circumstances and the trivialization of his war experience. He and Ryan Philippe, playing one of the other surviving flag-raisers, are the two central characters in the film. Philippe’s reaction to the proceedings is similar to Beach’s, but more muted. Both are haunted with horrifying memories of combat that pop into their minds and flash before us at inappropriate times- just as real memories do.
It is well known that Eastwood loves jazz, and that fact is highly apparent in the structure of the film. Abandoning traditional three-act structure, he flits around themes, suggesting them more often than simply stating them, and jumps back and forth in time at the drop of a hat. Storylines come to the foreground and recede for a time, coming back later; sometimes narration is used, and sometimes it isn’t. Various characters drift in an out of focus. Some scenes are shown more than once. The film has the fluent, liquid immediacy of one of Charlie Parker’s sax solos (indeed, the structure of Eastwood’s Bird is quite similar to that of Flags). This loose approach may take some getting used to for viewers expecting another Saving Private Ryan; expect something more along the lines of Bird or The Thin Red Line.
The jazz influences also manifest themselves in the film’s style. An estimated 80 percent of the takes are first takes, a staggering feat for any film, but especially this one, considering the high level of acting on display. Almost none of the shots are not planned or storyboarded. Rather than plan out shots (“Storyboards and shot lists are for sissies,” DP Tom Stern told Entertainment Weekly), Eastwood and Stern tore around the Iwo Jima set in a dune buggy, improvising angles and covering whatever they felt was interesting. Eastwood, who made Million Dollar Baby in 37 days, makes his films as only he can. Flags only cost $55 million to make, and although he was given a 100-day shooting schedule, Eastwood slapped the entire thing together in only 61.
Incredibly, none of this translates into sloppy filmmaking. In fact, the seemingly effortless nature of the film’s creation works in its favor; the loose nature of the film adds a freshness that helps separate it from other war films. The film’s visual approach is also unique; Flags is shot in the “new Eastwood style” of his recent works- improvised but classical compositions in scope widescreen, with high contrast and inky black levels. Eastwood bleaches out the colors even more than Spielberg did in Ryan- Flags barely qualifies as a color movie, and is as monochrome as a color film can possibly get.
Although the film focuses on the soldiers’ lives post-Iwo Jima, the battle sequences are throbblingly immediate. Eastwood floods the cast with recognizable names (Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Barry Pepper), so we have no idea who’ll be picked off. This isn’t one of those films where only the extras get shot. Most of Clint’s films posit violence as a condition, not an aberration, of humanity, and Flags is no different. The suffering visited upon the soldiers is unflinching. The battle sequences are appropriately chaotic, and particularly brilliant in the way they intrude upon the character’s postwar lives. Even the smallest distraction can trigger a flashback; we get a horrifying sense of how impossible it is for these veterans to function anywhere other than the battlefield. Indeed, the veterans are more akin to an alien species; the shared events they have experienced separating them from society in a way that they will never be able to express. Eastwood characteristically avoids sentimentality whenever possible; the moment when the actual flag is raised is a brief, low-key moment among comrades. Worth noting is the unpretentious dialogue and moments of small humor throughout. Clint is 76; he knew the world of 1940s America, a world utterly different in its attitudes and views than our world today.
Like almost all Clint Eastwood pictures, this film doesn’t conclude itself; the movie ends, but the characters go on living their lives. There is no “climax;” the film ends instead with a quiet, sobering understanding of the horrible mental condition the characters are stuck with. That is the dramatic arc of this film; it ends as soon we understand the full scope of their plight. There are small flaws here and there, but they are irrelevant; by and large, Eastwood has created yet another important American film, a free-flowing picture that examines a universal problem in an era that no longer exists. If Letters From Iwo Jima (due out in February) is anywhere near the quality of Flags, Eastwood’s two-film meditation deserves to be regarded as one of the great cinematic statements on war.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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