Saturday, August 11, 2012

#30 - FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS


BACK-STORY:  “Flags of Our Fathers” is a war movie directed by Clint Eastwood.  It was released in 2006.  It is based on the bestseller by James Bradley and Ron Powers.  The film tells the story of the famous flag-raising on Iwo Jima and the individual stories of the flag-raisers.  It is the rare Hollywood production that not only came in under cost ($55 million compared to a budget of $80 million), but was filmed in almost half the time scheduled.  Seventy six year old directors apparently don’t like to waste time or money.  (This is movie making by your grumpy old grandpa.)  The Iwo Jima beach scenes were filmed in Iceland.  The film did well with critics, but performed weakly at the box office.  It is a companion piece with “Letters from Iwo Jima” which Eastwood filmed the same year.  “Flags” was nominated for Academy Awards for  Sound and Sound Editing.

the Japanese POV
OPENING:  James Bradley, Jr. (Tom McCarthy) is interviewing veterans to learn more about the story of his father who he found out was one of the Iwo Jima flag-raisers only after his death.  A voiceover from a veteran opines that “every jackass thinks he knows what war is like”.  This movie will apparently try to give us jackasses a cinematic approximation of the real thing.  Our first clue as to the nonlinear nature of the film comes with the development of the famous picture and its dispersal to hometown newspapers throughout the land.  One of those newspapers finds the doorstep of Harlon Black’s home where his mom insists that the caption is wrong and her son is in the picture.
SUMMARY:  Iwo Jima looks like a fireworks show.  Wait, it’s not Iwo – it’s Soldier’s Field in Chicago and three of the flag-raisers are reenacting the raising.  Flashbacks show us how they got there.  The rest of this summary will convert the screenplay into a linear structure.  In reality, the movie jumps around a lot.




Hayes (Beach) intervenes in a bayonetting of buddies
                
           The unit trained at Camp Tarawa in Hawaii in October, 1944.  A few months later they are on a transport off the small volcanic island of Iwo Jima.  The soldier talk is authentic.  The movie nails the ribbing type of humor associated with the American military.  This will be the first piece of pre-war Japanese soil for Americans to target.  They are briefed on how difficult the task will be, but the impressive bombardment lulls many of the Marines into thinking (hoping?) it will be a cake walk.  The easy landing seems to confirm the optimism.  This is no “Saving Private Ryan”, but wait…  Those crafty Nips are hiding in bunkers, pill boxes, and spider holes and open fire when the Marines begin to advance inland.  Here we go.  Few war movies have done a better job showing how peer pressure and the desire to “get it done” motivated American soldiers to walk into the maws of death.   We follow a squad of riflemen as they navigate through the hellish landscape.  “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), a Navy corpsman, rescues several wounded soldiers (and is later awarded the Navy Cross).  Their platoon is later ordered to advance up Mount Suribachi to plant a flag.   Six members of the squad put up the second flag and Joe Rosenthal snaps a picture that will resonate across America and make the six men famous and three of them celebrities.  The three non-celebrities are killed on the island, along with other members of the squad.    Especially noteworthy is the death of Bradley’s best buddie Iggy (Jamie Bell) who was sharing a fox hole with Doc when he disappears.  Doc’s subsequent discovery of the body leaves it to our imagination what the Japanese did to him. 

that ought to do it, battle over


                The surviving three are whisked off to the States to participate in a war bonds drive.  They meet Pres. Truman who tells them they “fought for a mountain in the Pacific, now let’s fight for a mountain of cash”.   Bradley is unenthusiastic, but dutiful.  Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) is excited about his celebrity status and hopes to profit from it.  Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) is already suffering from combat fatigue (as PTSD was called back then) and is very uncomfortable with his new role.  Through flashbacks, the film shows incidents that justify Hayes’ mental state.  He starts drinking heavily and becomes a liability and embarrassment to the drive.  The three “heroes” are being handled by an unctuous government flack who is using them to raise money and morale.  The contrast between the hellish war front and the garish home front is jarring.  Hayes, in particular, prefers the dangers of combat to the racism he encounters in America.  He is suffering from a classic case of survivor’s guilt. 
all's fair ...
                In the aftermath of the war, the three men’s paths diverge.  Bradley has a normal life as a funeral director, but refuses to talk about the war and agonizes over Iggy’s death.  Gagnon becomes a has-been school janitor.  Hayes continues his downward trajectory and dies of alcoholism.
CLOSING:  In one last flashback, the remainder of the unit that raised the flag get some down time and are allowed to go swimming at a beach far from the fighting.  They shed their clothes symbolic of shedding the war.
RATINGS:
Acting -  B
Action -  7/10
Accuracy – A
Realism -  A
Plot -  A

Overall -  A-

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Yes.  The movie is balanced between graphic war violence and home front scenes.  It is certainly more balanced than “Saving Private Ryan”, for instance.  Females are underplayed.  You have Gagnon’s gold-digging girlfriend and Black’s grieving mother.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  “Flags of Our Fathers” is based on a non-fiction book by one of the flag-raisers.  We can assume Bradley and Powers did their research and since the movie takes few liberties with the book, the film is one of the most accurate war movies ever made.

                The Iwo landing by the Marines is close to the real thing.  Eastwood wisely decided not to outdo the opening assault of “Saving Private Ryan”, hopefully because he knew the Iwo landing was unopposed.  The movie accurately depicts how the enemy waited for the Marines to move off the beaches before opening fire.  The POV shots from the pill boxes and from the frowning heights of Mount Suribachi clearly show the lack of cover the Marines faced.  Iceland fills in well for the bleak landscape of Iwo.  The military hardware is authentic.  Even the Japanese weapons are appropriate.  The CGI renditions of the fleet and the Corsairs are satisfactory.

the slope of Suribachi
                The combat is realistic with the night actions standing out.  The randomness of death is apparent.  The film accurately depicts each of the deaths of the main characters.  Eastwood does not give the actors stirring last words.  If the death was instant, it is shown that way in the movie.  None dies heroically.   You have to credit the screenwriters for sticking to the book when it comes to the deaths.

                The flag-raising incident could not have been better.  Even to the extent that the guy who plays Joe Rosenthal is a dead-ringer for the photographer.  This segment of the film could be shown in American History classrooms with no caveats.  The movie includes the subplot of the Harlon Black / Hank Hansen confusion to good effect.  A little surprisingly, only fleeting mention is made to the myth that Rosenthal staged the photo.

                The home front bond tour is well done.  One possible flaw is the movie has the bond director Gerber (John Slattery) giving an impassioned plea that if the trio does not give their all the government will go bankrupt and the war will be lost.  He throws in the claim that the public is tiring of the war and badly needs a morale boost.  It is hard to tell if the writers believed this nonsense or whether Gerber is supposed to be spouting bull shit.  Regardless, it could fool a modern audience.  In fact, the bond drive was important financially, but hardly a tipping point.  As far as civilian morale, the public was definitely tired, but certainly not contemplating giving up when the light at the end of the tunnel was clear.

                The attitudes and personalities of the trio are true to life.  They seem to be stereotypes, but they reflect their portrayals in the book.  Gagnon does come off as a bit slimy, but it is not surprising that one of the three would be selfish and blinded by celebrity.  Bradley is a little saintly, but that sounds like many medics.  Hayes is the most famous of the three so there was less chance to tamper with his life.  He even had his own movie called “The Outsider”.  The movie has him turning to alcohol because of the bond tour when in reality he was already a heavy drinker.  I also found evidence that he did not mind participating in the drive, but did not like the speeches and press.  His mistreatment as a Native American reflects the prejudice of the times.   The seemingly unbelievable 1,300 mile trek to inform the Blacks of their son’s role is based on fact.  Sadly, his death is the way it happened.


wow, the military loaned a lot of landing craft
                There are a few incidents that I can comment on.  There really was a man overboard incident where the fleet could not stop to pick him up.  Iggy’s death (which had such a long-term impact on Bradley) follows the book, but leaves out the torture aspect (only hinting at it).  The movie uses CGI to hit one of the battleships supporting the landing.  No battleship was actually hit.  Here’s another inaccuracy – noone lights up a cigarette until the 1:17 mark!  War movies have come a long way.

                Now let me address the Spike Lee controversy.  Lee criticized the movie for ignoring the participation of African-American Marines in the Battle of Iwo Jima.  This may have been a publicity stunt to create buzz for his upcoming "Miracle at St. Anna" ( a vastly inferior war film, by the way).  Eastwood took umbrage and there was a rather silly snit.  Lee pointed out that no blacks appear in the movie and this denigrates their role in the battle.  Eastwood countered with the argument that his film was about the flag-raising and there were no blacks involved in that.  I come down on Eastwood’s side on this.  Lee is correct that there were African-Americans on Iwo, but unfortunately they were relegated to supply roles.  Had Eastwood thrown in a shot of blacks unloading ammunition, that would have been condescending and too obviously an example of political correctness.  Having blacks in the thick of the fighting and/or involved in the flag-raising would have been a feel good mockery of history.  Of course, it doesn’t help Eastwood’s case when he showcases some war dogs.
 


CRITIQUE:  The structure of the film is interesting.  It is a good example of the method of "in media res".  This is when a director starts the movie in the middle or end and then uses flashbacks and flashforwards.  “Flags” is very non-linear and actually follows three threads – the battle, the bond drive, and Bradley’s quest to research the book.  This concept works well and is not confusing.  The Bradley interviewing veterans scenes are the weakest, but necessary.  One questionable decision was to reveal the three survivors early on.  From that point on the suspense was not who would survive but how the other members of the squad would die.

                There are several themes that pop up.  One is the use of patriotism to manipulate individuals and the public as a whole.  In this case the media is a willing partner of the government.  We see the power of these two to create heroes.  If you think things have changed, remember Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman?  A second is the gap between the war front and the home front.  What the soldiers face and what the home front is going through and what the home front imagines the soldiers are going through is a wide gap.  I might add that although I doubt it was a conscious decision by the makers, the movie clearly contrasts the WWII home front involvement in the war with the lack of involvement of the home front during the Iraq War.  Necessity versus ignorance.  By far the biggest theme is “what is heroism?”   The film strongly suggests that the three flag-raisers who died were heroes and the three survivors were not (which all three would have agreed with).  This “only the dead were heroes” approach is standard, but belies reality.  Bradley, for example, won the Navy Cross for his bravery in saving wounded.  He was definitely a hero!

                The movie is very technically sound.  Eastwood is a great director and it shows in this movie.  The cinematography is great.  He uses a variety of shots.  There is some off-center, hand-helds, and POVs.  The scenes on the island are muted in color and this contrasts with the colorful home front scenes.  The sound effects are amazing.  This must have been close to the way the battle actually sounded.  Eastwood’s soundtrack is sparse, but effective (like the man himself).  Some good period songs (ex. “Any Bonds Today”) are included.

                The acting is top notch.  Adam Beach deserved an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Hayes.  Bradford is also strong as the star-struck Gagnon.  This “hero” takes a beating in the screenplay and I felt sorry for him.  He is used to hammer home the theme that just raising a flag does not make you a hero.  One good thing – Gagnon gets to make the strongest “we’re not the real heroes” comment in the film.   The rest of the cast is solid.

                The action is excellent.  Once the bullets start flying, it’s very reminiscent of the “Saving Private Ryan” style and foreshadows combat in the miniseries “The Pacific”.  The violence is graphic, but not outlandish.  A flamethrower takes out a pill box.  A severed head lands on Hayes.  Horrific sights abound.

CONCLUSION:  “Flags of Our Fathers” seems to be nestled in an appropriate position at #30.  It is a very good, but not great war film.  Eastwood took a bestselling nonfiction book about the most famous photo of WWII and did it justice.  The movie did not get a lot of love from critics, but it is hard to imagine how the movie could have been better in interpreting the book.  In fact, the movie is better than the book.  I liked the nonlinear structure.  It added some pizzazz.  The book was boring after they left the island.


                The greatest strength of the movie and its main claim to a potentially high spot on my eventual 100 Best War Movies list is it accurately brings to the screen an important military event that the public should know about.  The movie may be criticizing hero worship, but several of the protagonists were legitimate heroes and deserve to be known.  More than sixty years after Iwo Jima, it is doubtful many Americans have heard of Ira Hayes much less the other five men.  Hell, many are probably not that familiar with the flag raising itself.
POSTER:  Excellent!  Could not be better.  How can you go wrong using that photo?  A+

TRAILER:   Well balanced.  Hits the themes effectively.  Only hints at the combat so it's not your typical adrenalin-fueled trailer.  That's a good thing.  A+ 



8 comments:

  1. You know what i think of this movie, and not because of the Spike Lee controversy. I thought it was corny and I found it a bit like Flyboys, watchable but forgotten the moment you turned the TV off or walked out of the cinema.

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  2. I sort of agree except that it is much superior to Flyboys and should not be mentioned in the same sentence. Flyboys has many ridiculous moments, this movie does not because it is factually accurate. I would not use the word corny, perhaps sincere is a better description.

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  3. Eastwood has always been proud of his reputation for finishing projects on time and within budget. Maybe he should have directed Apocalypse Now and Major Dundee.

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  4. I think many critics would say that Apocalypse Now was the masterpiece it is partly because of the storied production problems. I'm not sure if I'd say the same about Major Dundee. I watched but haven't reviewed it yet and now I'm looking forward to finding out more about what you are implying. Thanks!

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    1. Both of those movies went over budget and past schedule, and might have benefited from a director who did not like to waste time or money. Columbia threatened to fire Sam Peckinpah from "Major Dundee." Charlton Heston offered to defer his own salary in exchange for them allowing Peckinpah to finish the movie. He did not expect them to take him up on it, but they called his bluff. When asked if he expected his gesture to set a precedent with other stars, he grumbled, "Hell, it won't even set a precedent with me."

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  5. Can you name another world war two film that deals so frankly with the subject of war debt?

    I was fascinated. Being Canadian I live in a country that did not incur a debt following the second world war. I had heard of Lend-Lease, of course, in a general way, but only found out recently that the UK only aquitted its debts in 2006!

    Of course it makes sense that someone has to pay for the bullets and K-rations, but it honestly had not crossed my mind that some grubby polititian has to come up with schemes to pay for those things. War bonds. How much value accrued over time for Americans who bought bonds? What was the interest rate? Do some older people still have some in safety deposit boxes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars today due to compound interest?

    What I wouldn't give to be Steve Rodgers' lawyer, suing the American government for back wages over the 20 years he was on ice, plus a few hundred dollars worth of war bonds and an unclaimed life inssurance policy (remember he was an orphan) ...

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  6. War bonds were not noted for their high rate of return. People bought them out of patriotism and of course, the salesmanship evidenced in the movie. I believe they had a set term so finding some in the attic would not mean you were a millionaire. I think you would get the same amount as if you had cashed them in when they came due.

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Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.