Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, 2006)
Joe Rosenthal's photograph of six soldiers struggling to raise an American flag atop the highest peak of Iwo Jima has become an indelible image of American heroism. The photograph has adorned stamps, paintings, sculptures, and has become the point of exploration for Clint Eastwood in his latest feature Flags of Our Fathers. Adapted from the non-fiction book written by James Bradley (son of one of the trio heroes of Iwo Jima), Flags of Our Fathers is an engaging examination of heroism within and without the battlefields of the Pacific War. As with almost all Eastwood films, the treatment feels heavy-handed and the result, somewhat depressing. Yet, the magnitude of Eastwood's vision, his astounding tinkering with 21st century war filmmaking (complete with CGI vistas of oceans populated with ships and tanks) keeps the pic from drowning in its unsavory sentimentalism.
Eastwood's film is boggled by a non-straightforward narrative. He juggles a narrative that opens with a present-day interview handled by James Bradley (played by Tom McCarthy), which gives way to the happenings during the Iwo Jima heroes' campaigning for war bonds. Flashbacks of the actual battles intersect sequences. The result is somewhat confusing, especially during the opening sequences wherein Eastwood barrages his audience's senses with a number of characters typical to the war genre. It picks up midway when Eastwood has started to drape the pic with his typical melodrama and histrionics; somewhat washed tastefully by a healthy dose of Saving Private Ryan-type of war pic realism.
Flags of Our Fathers is probably Eastwood's visually richest film. Tom Stern, who was also director of photography of Eastwood's last two films, washes out the color from Eastwood's canvas. At times, the film looks black and white --- which is helpful since it mutes the violent moments of the film; giving a richness or depth to the warfare rather than a mere romp at excessive morbidity. The desaturated photography also aids Eastwood's period scenes.
I do have problems with the film, some very serious ones. The pic is grounded on Doc Bradley (Ryan Philippe), who when compared to his companions, is a bit of a downer. Philippe doesn't help much; his baby-face features do not add interest on the character whose temperate and goody-goody nature blurs Eastwood's discussions on heroism and adds questionability to the plausibility of the feature. More interesting are Bradley's companions. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) is the lime-light hogging pretender; his exact opposite is Native American Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) who rejects the call of sensationalism as he sees himself unfit for heroic status. Eastwood overhandles Hayes' histrionics, and turns Gagnon and his girlfriend propaganda caricatures; Bradley remains to be the uninteresting middle ground who, when not fighting it out or rescuing injured soldiers, is quite a bore.
The film becomes preachy as it reaches its finale. Screenwriters Paul Haggis and William Broyles, Jr. take center stage with a wordy and rather unflattering conclusion to Eastwood's effort (especially the brilliantly staged warfare scenes). The ending basically encapsulates the entire Iwo Jima experience, the rabid propaganda-gathering, Hayes' subsequent downfall with alcoholism, Gagnon's fading away to obscurity, into a Hallmark card-type sugary concoction. Eastwood further adds schmaltz with his minimalist musical score.