Warner Bros. // 2006 // 132 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // February 12th, 2007
A single shot can end the war.
The latter day works of director Clint Eastwood (Mystic River) are unified by a strong sense of irony and a cynical streak. His films tend to use established genre tropes and put them under the microscope, examining the dark details not immediately recognized. With Flags Of Our Fathers, Eastwood takes the war film in a unique direction, asking some difficult questions without providing all the answers.
The movie follows a core group of three soldiers: John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe, Crash), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford, Bring It On), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, Windtalkers). This trio happened to be among a group of soldiers raising a flag on Iwo Jima, early in the conflict that took place there in February of 1945. This flag raising -- or more specifically, the one that took place a few minutes before -- was a morale booster for the ground troops, but was otherwise not of any considerable importance at the time given how much of the battle lay ahead. But these troops raising this flag were immortalized in one of the most famous and evocative wartime photographs ever taken.
Their superiors immediately recognize the impact of the photo, and the three men (the only survivors from the picture by this time) are sent back to the United States to tour in an attempt to sell war bonds. The word "hero" will hereafter be attached to their names.
Each reacts differently to his newfound attention. Rene takes to it the easiest, seeing the networking opportunities that might help after the war is concluded, and enthusiastically participates in the series of public relations events. Doc quietly goes along, struggling internally to reconcile a choice made and a life lost. Ira, though, never wanted to be sent home, and begins looking for peace at the bottom of a bottle while refusing to calmly acquiesce to pretty much anything.
The sometimes-ugly inner workings of the military's PR machine are on display as the men recall the traumatic and painful memories of events they witnessed and participated in on that island, making it unclear if they are being exploited or are merely doing what they can to help in the war effort
Despite the grim tone of the above description, Flags Of Our Fathers is about heroes and paying tribute to their sacrifices during what was perhaps the most morally unambiguous war; there's no doubt how the filmmakers feel about those who fought on Iwo Jima. What faces the most criticism in Eastwood's simply filmed and complexly structured work is the political machinations surrounding the soldiers on the ground. The men were willing to sacrifice their lives during battle, and are then asked to sacrifice their dignity at home. The point is driven home again and again, perhaps most effectively at a gala event when the trio are served a dessert in the shape of the immortalized flag raising, strawberry syrup poured on top evoking the blood that spilled from the majority of the pictured soldiers. It's a short moment, not overstated and perfectly played on Phillippe's face, but it effectively sums up the entire picture.
Symbols and their importance are a major theme throughout, with early voiceover work by Harve Presnell (Fargo) stating, "One picture can win or lose a war." And, as is common in Eastwood's films, it's difficult to know what we as an audience are supposed to think about what's being presented: on the one hand, having the three climb a fake hill and plant a flag before a football game seems an obscene mockery of the war these soldiers' lives; on the other, the money being raised, in part by efforts such as this, was crucial to allow the military to continue fighting, as the coffers were extremely low and public interest was waning. So, was what Rene, Doc, and Ira were put through ultimately for the greater good, or a misguided and exploitive exercise? That's left up to the audience to decide.
In contrast to some recent war pictures, Flags Of Our Fathers does not seem to be going for a purely realistic depiction of the WWII experience. Instead of a documentary-style of filming, the majority of the movie is made up of well-composed shots and simple camera moves; while some of the battle footage is rough and shaky, it's a far cry from trying to copy the aesthetic of Saving Private Ryan. Rather than shouted dialogue being unintelligible over gunfire and bomb blasts, characters' words are clear and aim to move the story forward. Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby) and William Broyles Jr. (Cast Away) have crafted a thoughtful, unusually-structured script meant to raise questions about the story told rather than leave us shell shocked and overwhelmed. The movie frequently jumps between the battlefield (usually showing an act of heroism, a character's death, or both), the men on tour, and a third element, involving interviews, that becomes clear in the latter part of the picture. This is a masterful way to tell the story, as by juxtaposing Iwo Jima with events back home, we get a stronger sense of what the characters are feeling and why. Credit goes to editor and longtime Eastwood collaborator Joel Cox (Unforgiven) for maintaining a steady pace and preventing the parallel storylines from getting muddled.
It's almost a necessity to populate a war movie with recognizable faces to ensure an audience knows who's who when everyone's in camouflage and helmets, and Eastwood has done well to choose a cast of strong, reasonably well known actors, none of whom is so famous as to jump out as a "star." Ryan Phillippe has been quietly building up his resume with well-chosen roles since first garnering attention in I Know What You Did Last Summer, and his performance here anchors the trio of reluctant heroes. While Bradford and Beach get the flashiest scenes, pouring on the charm and the tears respectively, it's Phillippe who is most memorable once the credits roll. When, late in the film, it's said that Doc never spoke about the war, it seems completely in line with the character Phillippe has created. Adam Beach gives the picture's most emotional performance, fighting racism as a Native American, and a making a quick descent into alcoholism stemming from guilt and a sense of unworthiness at being labeled a hero. A scene where he meets the mother of a fallen friend and immediately holds her in a teary embrace is another image you won't soon forget. The rest of the cast each has their moments but is mostly kept in the background, with Neal McDonough (Minority Report), Barry Pepper (The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada), Robert Patrick (Cop Land), and Paul Walker (Running Scared) all showing up in small roles.
While the horrors of war are never shied away from, I was surprised at the relative lack of gore in the battle scenes. Yes, when we see it, it's gruesome and affecting, but Eastwood tastefully assumes we know bad things happen on the battlefield and we don't need to see people carrying around their severed arms to drive it home. The restraint actually makes what we do see more shocking, as we're not desensitized by an onslaught of bloody violence.
The movie is beautifully shot by minimalist cinematographer Tom Stern (The Last Kiss), with a desaturated look save for certain colors, such as orange muzzle flashes and red and blue back home. While draining the color from the image has become fairly standard in recent war movies, Stern has created a unique visual landscape full of shadows and darkness. Occasionally things get a bit unrealistically dark, especially in the interview scenes, but it works dramatically even if it's impractical. Sound design is outstanding, fully immersing the viewer in whatever is taking place on screen; there's a reason that the two Oscars for which it is nominated are for sound editing and sound mixing. The stark, unobtrusive score, composed by Eastwood, is beautifully rendered, and incorporated into the overall soundscape so as to never telegraph what we are to feel. Both picture and sound are predictably top-notch on this DVD, with colors well rendered, few instances of haloing, and an aggressive Dolby Digital 5.1 mix.
Because of the focus on moving the story forward, some of the dialogue comes across as a bit "written," providing needed exposition but not always seeming like something the character would actually say. This is especially noticeable early in the film, as people and situations are being introduced and set up for later events. It's a minor quibble, though, especially compared to dialogue in many other war movies.
The biggest disappointment is with the DVD itself, and its complete lack of special features. It would seem Warner Bros. rushed this out in time for the Oscars, perhaps to encourage people to see its companion piece Letters From Iwo Jima, a Best Picture nominee, but it would be great to know about how this movie came about, how the visual effects were done, etc. While Eastwood's films have not traditionally been stacked with behind-the-scenes materials, the bare-bones offering here screams, "Wait for the box set," to collectors.
With its compelling, non-linear story, understated acting, stark cinematography and knock-your-socks-off sound, Flags Of Our Fathers is an easy recommendation, and further proof that Clint Eastwood is one of the most confidently assured directors working today.
Review content copyright © 2007 Daniel MacDonald; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R