Monday, January 12, 2009

A Losing Win: Flags Of Our Fathers

[In light of the still-unfolding discussion of Gran Torino, The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

History is written by the victors, they say, but that isn’t keeping Clint Eastwood from directing two movies about the Battle of Iwo Jima. Flags Of Our Fathers, based on a book by James Bradley, recounts the battle best known for a misleadingly triumphant flag-raising from the American perspective. Letters From Iwo Jima, due in theaters in February 2007, will adopt the viewpoint of the Japanese. The exercise itself, making two films from opposing angles, hints at Eastwood’s message that heroism is subjective. But in case we might miss it, the painfully redundant Flags pounds the point home with a sledgehammer.

Working off one of the year’s most atrocious screenplays, a muddled and mindless mess by Oscar-winning scribe Paul Haggis, Flags follows three characters: Ryan Phillippe’s “Doc” Bradley, Jesse Bradford’s Rene Gagnon and Adam Beach’s Drunken Injun. Actually, the man Beach portrays is Ira Hayes, a Native American soldier who never got comfortable with the American Hero label thrust upon him after his return to the States. But in the entire film I counted only two scenes featuring Beach in which Hayes isn’t drinking, drunk or having his American Indian heritage referenced, usually with some sort of colorful slur. So I’m just going to call things as they are.

Of course, one could fairly argue that Haggis has the same aim, and that his multiple “chief” and “red” references are an effort to keep it real. Flags takes place in the less-enlightened mid-1940s, after all, with Brown v Board of Education a decade away. Still, it’s one thing to illustrate how someone like Hayes was marginalized by his minority status, and it’s something else entirely to actually reduce a man to that marginalized identity in the process. And that’s what happens here, over and over again. The film’s obsession with Hayes’ heritage is so unrelenting that as the movie rolled past the two-hour mark I felt certain we’d get a shot of Hayes selling fireworks or opening a casino. But those scenes must have been left on the cutting room floor.

Thank goodness something was. With a running time of 132 minutes, Flags takes forever to get almost nowhere. Haggis’ screenplay jumps back and forth from the events of Iwo Jima to its immediate aftermath and to the present day, as Doc’s son interviews veterans to get their memories of battle. In the meantime the screenplay also swaps points of view. And yet instead of detail and depth, all this method provides is more and more of the same. By the halfway point, we’ve been everywhere Flags is going to take us. And in most cases we’ve been there twice.

In fairness, some of Flags’ leftover flavor stems from its unfortunate position in the cinematic assembly line. Just like John Ford’s The Searchers made it impossible for a director to ever again frame someone in a doorway without seeming derivative, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan ruined the World War II-era beach-storming. While in SPR it was the coast of Normandy, and here it’s Iwo Jima, with Mount Suribachi looming in the background, the sequences feel so familiar that you could mix shots from the two films without detecting a difference.

That’s a compliment in some respects, but Eastwood could have done us all a favor by not shooting in the unsaturated greens and grays that are starting to feel like standard issue – the WWII Collection by Dutch Boy. In black and white, Flags might have possessed a whiff of novelty – and it’s surprising that Eastwood didn’t leap at the chance to go colorless, because his favored scene composition is to have his actors huddled in the one available corner of light in otherwise shadow-filled rooms.

Flags doesn’t bend to every war movie cliché – for example, I don’t think there’s a single case of a soldier being catapulted into the air by an explosion – but too much feels too familiar. And too something else as well: small. In depicting portions of a 40-day engagement that claimed nearly 26,000 lives on an island about a third the size of Manhattan, Eastwood’s Iwo Jima often comes off like a mild skirmish fought out between 50 per side.

There’s something kind of fitting about that, however, because Flags is all about the deceptiveness of historical snapshots, or in this case one historic snapshot. If the most iconic image of American warfare isn’t George Washington crossing the Delaware, memorialized with great inaccuracy by painter Emanuel Leutze, then it’s got to be Joe Rosenthal’s equally deceptive photograph of six troops struggling to raise the Stars and Stripes on Mount Suribachi. The flag in the photo was actually the second to be raised that day, on what was just the fifth day of fighting, with conquest far from assured. Nevertheless, the image instantly became a symbol of victory at a time when the nation desperately needed good news and, not coincidentally, the military desperately needed cash.

Feeding on the public’s love of the photo, the U.S. government asked the surviving participants of the flag-raising (three of the men died soon after) to return to the States to have their heroism celebrated in an effort to sell war bonds. Flags suggests that Gagnon enjoyed the spotlight, that Hayes was repulsed by it and that Doc Bradley had almost no emotion whatsoever (Phillippe’s performance is as pasty and lifeless as wallpaper). But here’s what’s strange: By foisting villainy on the government for its exploitation, Flags doesn’t demystify the contributions of the Greatest Generation, it sweetens the romance.

These days, in the aftermath of both the “Mission Accomplished” photo-op and the Abu Ghraib snapshots, two memorable but contradictory visual messages about the so-called War on Terror, one wonders how we might remember WWII today if our soldiers had hit the beaches with digital cameras in their pockets. A character in Flags says that one photo can win or lose a war. And that’s probably true. But one photo cannot capture a war, and maybe not even a battle. In Flags, Eastwood has a number of opportunities to define the heroes of Iwo Jima, but his characters leave the film as faceless and obscure as they are in Rosenthal’s photo. Letters will give Eastwood a second chance. And he needs it.

[Tomorrow: Letters From Iwo Jima]


Matt Zoller Seitz said...

"The WWII Collection by Dutch Boy."

Much as I love Spielberg, man, how I wish I'd written that.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks much, Matt. I think that makes the score: Jason 1, Matt 117.

Daniel said...

I can see why you re-posted this, Jason. It's the best review of FooF that I've read, and I'm someone who actually preferred the movie to Letters (mostly because I found FooF a more interesting story, even if a less illustrative one).

Now that you mention it, I wonder if I misunderstood your points in Gran Torino, but I don't think you rehashed your theory about the minority in question being reduced to the identity in question. I agree with that and can see how it would be true of both films.

But I guess I see it as an excusable weakness - most people aren't that perceptive, so for them to be shocked or provoked into any kind of thought about these cultural stereotypes is, well, a good thing as far as I'm concerned. Of course, the risk is that they will simply look over the marginalizing as they do in real life and take nothing from it anyway.

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel: Well, yes, I think the reduction issue is part of it. One of the things that's making the "Gran Torino" slur/race debate difficult is that there are a lot of different components to consider. And, of course, my argument is that the film contradicts itself. And that means that folks on each side of the fence can spend a lot of time canceling each other out with evidence for their cases before they get to the heart of it.

That said, I would like to point out, for what it's worth, that I didn't think of "Flags" while writing my "Gran Torino" review. Initially, I thought to post the "Flags" and "Letters" reviews with the latter in mind, as a sort of nod to a film that is consistently respectful in its view of The Other. It was along the way to doing that when I remembered the "Drunken Injun" and remembered the similarities.

James Yates said...

Excellent essay...for some reason, I'm reminded of this "Onion" headline: "Djimon Hounsou To Play Every African In the World." I think the same thing when it comes to Adam Beach and portrayals of Indians.

This also reminds me of "Windtalkers," another WWII film that had massive potential, but was killed by a horrible script. And the shell of what used to be Nicholas Cage.

Danish said...

Big applause to Clint Eastwood for making Flags of Our Fathers great film showing war as it was, and is: ugly, frantic, corporate, confusing, frustrating and very sad. Soldiers accompany their friends into horrific situations with terrible consequences. Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach & Jesse Bradford are WONDERFUL.