Retro Review: Flags of Our Fathers

Legendary director Clint Eastwood unveils his latest epic. Dedicated to the men who shed blood on the tiny and mythical island of Iwo Jima, “Flags of Our Fathers” showcases the journey of six men who fought on Iwo Jima and were forever enshrined in a photograph as the flag raisers of Iwo Jima.

After the battle was complete, only three of the six men were left standing and they were whisked off stateside to help generate excitement in the fading war effort. Their photograph helped generate more purchasing of war bonds and thus continue the war in the Pacific. The thing was that these men didn’t want to be heroes.

John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) was a medic during the battle and he did everything he could to care for the men in his company but he couldn’t save them. The horrors and cries for help haunted Bradley for all the days of his life.

Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) embellished the role as war effort salesman and spokesman as long as no one was shooting at him.

Probably the most tortured of the flag raiser survivors was Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) who didn’t want to be pushed into the spotlight, was petrified with guilt and also haunted by the memories of the friends who were lost on Iwo Jima.

War is hell.

“Flags of Our Fathers” had a lot of problems for me. Eastwood and screenwriters William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis tried to cover so much ground when telling this story that it seems at one point they lost the impact they were trying to convey. The film itself constantly flips back and forth between three different situations. One you have the actual battle, second you have the “war bond” tour and thirdly you have the men as old guys telling the story. Because the film flips around to all these stories its often hard to follow each man’s story. The emotional impact and horror is gone every time we jump to a different segment.

By about half way through the film, I felt lost, bewildered and frustrated. The film lacked specific clarity and should have dropped one of the three segments to present a more emotional story. The film’s last 30 minutes really bugged me as it seemed to end at least a half dozen times and I wished that they just had those emotional paragraphs to what happened then actually showing it. Sometimes less is more.

I can’t really say I was enthralled by any of the performances. Phillippe and Beach both have their moments to arise to greatness and they do a respectable jobs but nothing was jaw-dropping or powerful. I really liked the supporting performance from Barry Pepper, whose character was the most honored among the men.

The scope of Eastwood’s war scenes was amazing but since we have seen these epic war scenes so much in recent memory I felt that some of them felt like they were ripped right out of the videogame, “Call of Duty”. Like take the shots that were a “first-person” perspective from a pilot flying over the battle and taking shots at the island’s mythical mountain. That whole angle was such a videogame sequence that it took away from the scope that was the claustrophobia and intensity of what was happening on the ground.

I also think that the “war bonds” tour running time should have been sliced in half because it didn’t take long to realize how these men felt about being there and how ridiculous it all was.

A lot of the problems with the script’s focus in this film did remind me of some of the same problems I saw in the Sam Mendes directed film “Jarhead”. And low and behold, this film was co-written by the same screenwriter who wrote “Jarhead”, William Broyles Jr. Broyles seems to know where to find great war stories to tell and shape into a script but when transferring a book to film its often better to narrow the focus unless you plan on an HBO mini-series.

This is the first of two films that Eastwood has made on the subject of Iwo Jima. This is obviously the American side of the story. The second film called “Letters from Iwo Jima” will focus on the Japanese soldiers who populated the island during the battle. The film will be all in Japanese and Ken Watanabe, who starred in “The Last Samurai” and “Batman Begins”.

I am really excited about this film because I don’t think there has been a film made with an American director about the Japanese during World War 2. The only film I can think of was 1968’s “Hell in the Pacific” with Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. That film was directed by John Boorman and focused showed both the Japanese and American side of the War in the Pacific.

“Flags of Our Fathers” is an epic that needed to be more personable and told with more restraint and focus. One of Eastwood’s greatest achievements as a filmmaker has always been his restraint and how to get to the core of the story. Perfect examples of that are films like “Million Dollar Baby”, “Bridges of Madison County” and the immortal “Outlaw Josey Wales”.

Here there are blemishes of that power but it is almost like there were to many chefs in the kitchen when it came to finally finishing the film.

(3 out of 5)

So Says the Soothsayer.

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