ACTING: “Flyboys” stars James Franco as rancher turned pilot Blaine Richards. It was his first action star turn. His performance is capable, but certainly not noteworthy. The other leads are Martin Henderson as the veteran ace Reed Cassidy and Jean Reno as French Capt. Thenault. No one stands out in this movie. There is a little chemistry between Franco and Jennifer Decker as Lucienne. “Letters” is anchored by Ken Watanabe as Gen. Kuribayashi. He was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. Kazunari Ninomiya gives a touching performance as the sad sack Private Saigo. The rest of the cast is good.
Score at the end of the first period: Letters – 8 Flyboys – 6
REALISM: “Flyboys” is often ridiculous in its depiction of WWI air combat. It is the U-571 of air combat movies in that it piles every air combat cliché into one movie. The CGI effects are poor. It seems as though every German fighter plane is a red Fokker tri-plane. The squadron is impossibly heterogeneous and the deaths are predictable and foreshadowed clumsily. The scene where Richards lands in no man’s land to rescue a downed comrade is one of the most unrealistic scenes in war movie history. “Letters” is much more realistic, but does have its flaws. It admirably depicts the human frailties and fears of the Japanese soldiers, but probably downplays their fanaticism. The truth is somewhere between the movie and wartime propaganda. The conditions in the tunnels are much too spacious and not nearly appalling enough. The combat is okay, but not intense or brutal enough.
Half-time: Letters – 16 Flyboys – 11
ACCURACY: “Flyboys” purports to be the story of the Lafayette Escadrille which was a squadron of American volunteers who flew for the French air force before U.S. entry into WWI. Some of the characters are based on actual pilots. They are very loosely based on those individuals. For instance, Richards is supposed to be Frank Luke (who was not a member of the Lafayette Escadrille), but other than a western drawl there is little resemblance. Franco does not play him as the lone jerk that Luke was. Cassidy as Raoul Lufbery is closer, but his death is way off. The producers insisted on a black pilot so they jammed Eugene Bullard in as Eugene Skinner, a boxer who retires to be a pilot. The real Bullard was a boxer, but he served in the Lafayette Flying Corps, not the Escadrille. None of the events depicted appear to have happened. “Letters” features two historical figures – Gen. Kuribayashi and Col. Nishi. Their back-stories are accurate. Nishi was an Olympian and both had spent time in the U.S. However, unlike the movie, they were not friends on Iwo and actually were antagonists. Watanabe does a good job portraying the leadership and strategy of Kuribayashi. A key scene where Nishi gives the last of his unit’s morphine to a Marine prisoner surely is not accurate. The movie does not do a good job giving a sense of what is happening in the battle. The plight of the soldiers is accurate, but underplayed.
Score after three periods: Letters – 24 Flyboys – 17
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: “Flyboys” is definitely aimed at the youth demographic. This explains James Franco as the lead. Since young people have not been exposed to all the clichés, maybe it seems fresh to them. The dialogue is poor. Much of it is ridiculous and some of it is laughable which does make it entertaining in a perverse way. “Letters” is aimed at the exact opposite audience. It attempts admirably to depict the Battle of Iwo Jima in a way sympathetic to the Japanese. The main characters are attractive and you care what happens to them. The combat is above average, but sparse. It does a better job on soldier life.
FINAL SCORE: Letters – 32 Flyboys - 23