Judge Neal Masri examines this expanded edition of Clint Eastwood's epic of World War II.
Our reviews of Flags Of Our Fathers (published February 12th, 2007), Flags Of Our Fathers: Two-Disc Special Edition (HD DVD) (published May 16th, 2007), and Letters From Iwo Jima / Flags Of Our Fathers (Five-Disc Commemorative Edition) (published June 11th, 2007) are also available.
"What we see and do in war, the cruelty is unbelievable. But somehow we've gotta make some sense of it. To do that we need an easy to understand truth, and damn few words. And if you can get a picture…now the right picture can win or lose a war."
70,000 Marines fought on Iwo Jima. 6,821 died. 25,851 were wounded. 27 Medals of Honor were awarded. 22,000 Japanese fought. 1,083 survived.
Facts of the Case
This is the story behind what is arguably the most famous photograph of the twentieth century. Three national heroes emerged from the incredibly brutal battle of Iwo Jima. They were the only of the six men in the famous flag-raising photograph who survived the battle. John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe, Crash), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford, Happy Endings), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, Windtalkers) are the sort of unassuming, modest kids that emerged as heroes during World War II.
Their participation in the flag raising at Iwo Jima changed their lives forever and made them quite famous for a time. The horror and brutality of war is very much a part of Flags of Our Fathers. But the story of these men after the battle is also a significant part of the story. This post-Iwo Jima account is just as fascinating as the battlefield heroics.
The majority of war movies released in the thirty-year span between Patton and Saving Private Ryan either dealt directly with or were an allegory for the Vietnam War. The one-two punch of Private Ryan and Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation seemed to initiate a new wave of war movies. Suddenly, The Last Good War is being re-examined. World War II films now come complete with the gore and horror that most previous WWII movies sanitized or omitted entirely. This new generation of WWII movies also introduced a layer of complexity and depth largely missing from WWII movies until recently.
Clint Eastwood's (Million Dollar Baby) entry into this recent cinematic re-examination of World War II is a subtle and nuanced take on this epic material. Eastwood's understated style fits a war epic nicely and keeps it from veering into the overwrought and melodramatic territory in which many war films land. He also managed to make an epic film while keeping the running time well under three hours. His restraint and economy of storytelling is admirable. It's quite an achievement when you look at the bloated running times of many contemporary epic films.
Every time I see a realistic portrayal of a beach landing and invasion from World War II, I think to myself, there must have been a better way to do this. The loss of life here in one battle dwarfs the number of American dead we have had in four years of war in Iraq. This is to say that the battle scenes here are harrowing. Just like Saving Private Ryan, extensive use is made of shaky, handheld cameras. This technique, while not new, does a good job of getting across what I imagine is the massive confusion and chaos of battle. There are also some impressive CG shots of aerial bombing runs and massive flotillas of warships bearing down on the island. These effects, thankfully not overused, serve to show what a massive undertaking this battle was. There are some unavoidable similarities to Saving Private Ryan in the battle scenes. However, I had a much better sense of where and how things were happening in this film than I did while watching Spielberg's movie.
The key scene of the film takes place far away from the bloody battlefields of the Pacific. It occurs in a luxury hotel suite in Manhattan. The three living heroes of Iwo Jima meet with a fast talking representative from the treasury department. They are given briefing sheets (what we would today call talking points) imploring them to stay on message and to constantly ask the public to buy war bonds. It's at this point that our three protagonists make the decision that drives the rest of the film. It raises an interesting question. Was that decision a heroic act on behalf of a county that desperately needed them, or was it a self-serving cop out? It's a question that make this more than just a well-staged battlefield movie.
The washed out image that has become the standard visual presentation of WWII since Saving Private Ryan is wonderfully presented here. Black levels are beautifully deep in the many dark and shadowy scenes of the film. As one would expect for a recent release, the sound and fury of battle comes through fabulously with great use of surrounds and low-end effects. All in all, this is a standout technical presentation.
The only other thing besides the film on Disc One is a preview for Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood's Japanese-perspective companion-piece to Flags. It's an interesting experience to see a preview for a film's companion-piece just prior to screening the film itself. One of the highest compliments I can pay Flags of our Fathers is that Letters from Iwo Jima is the very next movie I plan to see.
Disc Two contains all of the supplements that separate this special edition from the bare bones single-disc edition released a few months back. First up is an introduction from Clint Eastwood. It's a five-minute piece with Eastwood talking a bit about the genesis of the project, the battle itself, and heaping praise upon the Greatest Generation. Eastwood continues to shun commentaries, so I suppose this is the most we're going to get from him. Words on the Page is a featurette consisting of interviews with Flags of Our Fathers author James Bradley. Come to find out he is the son of one of the flag raisers. That certainly added an unexpected level of emotion to the piece.
Three making-of featurettes are also included. The meatiest of the three is a 30-minute feature titled Making an Epic. It's your typical cast and crew interview piece spliced with behind-the-scenes footage. I would have liked to see a bit more participation from Eastwood, but it's a reasonably good look at the making of the film. Visual Effects is, just as you would expect, a look at some of the extremely well integrated effects and how they were created. Lastly we have Raising the Flag, a look at how the sequence featuring the iconic flag raising was shot.
Two historical pieces round out the set. Six Brave Men profiles the real flag raisers. There's some interesting biographical information here that we didn't get from Eastwood's lean story. Lastly we have Looking into the Past, a historical piece featuring newsreel footage and still photos from the actual battle.
I've docked the special features rating a few points due to the absence of a director commentary and no deleted scenes (which are always the first extras I look at). Other than that, pretty much every aspect of the film's creation is well documented here as well as some interesting historical information. Coupled with an excellent audio and video presentation, you have a pretty solid Special Edition here.
The very first thing heard in the movie, before even the first shot, is a ghostly voice singing "I'll walk alone." This movie drives home the fact that these men weren't alone. They fought and died for each other as much as they did for their country. The touching final shots of the film show us some of the heroes of Iwo Jima in one of the few light moments they had. As they frolic in the surf of a far off land, we see them playing and having fun like the kids they were. Certainly, no one who fought on Iwo Jima could ever be a kid again.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is a great deal of cross cutting between four different time periods in the movie. I didn't find it confusing, but I did find it distracting at times. There is a measure of dramatic impact in slowly revealing the travails of the characters over the course of the film. However, I think a slightly more linear narrative might have better served the film.
Flags of our Fathers is a top-notch war movie. It's also a cynical look at the fleeting, random nature of celebrity and the pitfalls of wartime jingoism. One could almost imagine a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" being hoisted above these soldiers had there been a Kinkos on Iwo Jima. But I don't think Eastwood is specifically commenting on the war in which we currently find ourselves. He is showing us universal truths about all wars. That's what makes Flags of Our Fathers a timeless movie.
Not guilty. Clint Eastwood's late-career surge continues to be a pleasure to behold. We should all be lucky enough to do the best work of our lives in our seventies.
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Scales of Justice
• An Introduction by Clint Eastwood
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