Judge Ryan Keefer knows that it isn't called "The Greatest Generation" for nothing.
Our reviews of Flags Of Our Fathers (published February 12th, 2007), Flags Of Our Fathers: Two-Disc Special Edition (published May 30th, 2007), and Letters From Iwo Jima / Flags Of Our Fathers (Five-Disc Commemorative Edition) (published June 11th, 2007) are also available.
A single shot can end the war.
Clint Eastwood has been on a creative hot streak over the last several years, and to see him leverage that success to return to some of his roots was encouraging to say the least. A former soldier who also appeared in several war films of his own, Eastwood directed Flags of Our Fathers, which focused on World War II in the Pacific and one of the defining moments of American history. He also directed the equally acclaimed Letters From Iwo Jima, a film that focused on the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese point of view. When Flags came out three months ago, it was released shortly before the Academy Awards on a strictly barebones offering. Is it worth double-dipping?
Facts of the Case
During the battle of World War II, fighting moved to the Pacific theater, where some of the bloodiest battles occurred in close quarters combat. Flags of Our Fathers is based on a book by James Bradley, whose father John was the oldest living survivor of the Battle of Iwo Jima, one that included possibly the most well known photograph taken in American history, where over 22,000 men lost their lives. Quoting Bradley's book:
"But perhaps the most interesting part of the story is what happened after the victory. The men in the photo—three were killed during the battle—were proclaimed heroes and flown home, to become reluctant symbols. For two of them, the adulation was shattering. Only James Bradley's father truly survived, displaying no copy of the famous photograph in his home, telling his son only: 'The real heroes of Iwo Jima were the guys who didn't come back.'"
I've said it elsewhere and I still believe it, Eastwood knows that doing things completely handheld a la Saving Private Ryan is just copying, so he decides to take things in another direction. By letting the folks at Digital Domain show off more bombing runs by planes and artillery by ships, Eastwood helps to show us the effort that American forces employed to take the island over. At first I was thinking that Eastwood got carte blanche from the Defense Department to use anything at his means, but I think he didn't use nearly as much as he could have, but you can never tell the difference.
As far as hitting the right emotional tones go, Eastwood's previous knowledge of the service provides him with ample opportunities to do this while staying true to the story. I was pleased to see him include two very touching moments which happened in real life, and both centered on the Native American Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, Windtalkers). The first was when Ira hugs the mother of one of the dead soldiers. Other directors would have probably done a more obvious job of manipulating the viewer, but imagine that a director just lets the gesture speak for itself, who would have thought? The other was when Ira went to Texas to provide the parents of another dead soldier some closure. It was simple, honest, and most of all, accurate. What's truly amazing is that with Eastwood's brevity in shooting a scene (often not exceeding four or five takes), he rarely, if ever, watches footage from the previous day's shoot. If he captured the moment, he captured it, hence no reason to go back and second guess himself.
The casting of the film must have been an easy one ("Hey, Clint Eastwood is directing a war movie, want to be in it?"), and a lot of recognizable younger names appear throughout the film, many of whom you'd have to do a double take on to spot. Ryan Philippe (Cruel Intentions) plays the role of Bradley's father in the film, while Beach and Jesse Bradford (Bring It On) play the survivors. Among those others you might see are Paul Walker (Eight Below), Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) who plays Bradley's "battle buddy" Ignatowski, and Barry Pepper, who plays Strank and by my informal count is in his sixth movie where he's in a war or playing a sports legend. All of the performances are good, but Beach's remains the heart of the film. Ira was a good man, a quiet man, who was transformed by the war experience before he left the island as part of the "hero" tour.
Technically, the standard definition version of the film wasn't too shabby, so now it gets the high definition treatment. It's disappointing to see the lack of a TrueHD or lossless audio option (something that Letters From Iwo Jima reportedly has as of this writing), but the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack didn't wow me like I thought it would. The battle scenes don't provide as enveloping an experience like I was anticipating, and the artillery guns seemed to fire a little bit too hollow for me. Maybe I was expecting an innards-shaking soundtrack, but this one doesn't do it. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is encoded via VC-1 and doesn't shed a lot of new detail or depth into the overall image. Along with creating the ships, planes and various bullet hits, Digital Domain also did a lot of altering to the backgrounds of a lot of scenes, and it looks like they even did some color adjusting, which provides a somewhat rustic image, but one that's not consistently sharper over the standard definition disc (which I didn't have to compare).
After the first release, there's a new two-disc edition now, with the extras all on disc two (and in high definition to boot). Starting off, there's an introduction by Eastwood that is more accurately a five-minute interview with him where he discusses the story, the book and production. What follows are six featurettes that focus on the film, all of which are in high definition. "Words on the Page" discusses the book in great detail, along with Bradley's recollections about his dad and the book. If you don't get a chance to read the book, Bradley's stories about how he kept his experiences to himself should shake you from it. William Broyles Jr. (Jarhead) and Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby) talk about the challenge to adapt the book. "Six Brave Men" shares the actors' thoughts on the people they portrayed, and a lot of pictures and newsreel footage of the men and the battle accompany the non-production related pieces. "The Making of an Epic" is just that, with a lot of footage of Eastwood on set, and Eastwood crew members like editor Joel Cox and cinematographer Tom Stern (among others) share their thoughts on what they wanted to accomplish. It was nice to see the piece conclude with an interview and thoughts from production designer Henry Bumstead (Vertigo), in what was presumably the last interview before his death in May 2006. "Raising the Flag" focuses on the recreation of the act and how it paralleled to the real thing, while a 10-minute look at the film's visual effects follows, illustrating the painstaking process to make Iceland look like Mount Surabachi. Admittedly, the work that they did looks excellent and probably should have been recognized for an award. "Looking into the Past" is an era-filmed newsreel, along with some stills that document the flag raising, the overall battle and the bond campaign that followed. The trailer rounds out the set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Understanding that there are always going to be things from the book that don't make it to the film interpretation, it would have been nice to see a little more exposition on those who didn't make it off the island. Bradley's book does an excellent job of this, whereas in the film, more focus was placed on the sometimes distasteful public relations blitz that the survivors endured. Although to be fair, the "Words on the Page" and "Six Brave Men" pieces cover the ground that I thought the film didn't.
When asked about their service, meritorious or otherwise, most veterans of that era always say "it's OK, if I didn't do it, somebody else would have." I think that Flags of our Fathers helps illustrate that better than most films of the genre. It serves as an excellent companion to Letters From Iwo Jima and together makes for the most memorable and moving war epic in decades. The previous version of this disc was only available in standard definition and had no extras, so this is worth the upgrade based on that judgment. See both, rent both, buy both.
DreamWorks and Paramount are sentenced to 45 days extra duty and a reduction in pay (and grade) for double-dipping, but the cast and crew are acquitted and released with the thanks of the court.
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• Introduction by Clint Eastwood
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