Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, Barry Pepper, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Paul Walker, Jamie Bell
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
When I first heard that Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg were collaborating to make a World War II movie set in the Pacific theatre, I was pretty excited (in a respectful way, of course). Then the previews came out, and I couldn’t help thinking that it didn’t look all that great. Too simplistic, too much propaganda, too jingoistic. So I let it pass me by in the theatre (which, due to its low box office, was not that difficult to do), but still wanted to see it, hoping that it was just poorly advertised.
Strangely, Flags of Our Fathers managed to both be an empty exercise in hero worship and a meditative condemnation of the empty exercise in hero worship. I wouldn’t have thought that possible, but Eastwood and screenwriters Paul Haggis and William Broyles Jr. pulled it off, although I can’t imagine that was what they were attempting to do.
Flags of our Fathers tells the story of three American soldiers who were in Joe Rosenthal‘s famed picture of the U.S. Army mounting the flag on the island of Iwo Jima. The three surviving soldiers from the photo, John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), are then shipped home to appear in war bonds drives that use the photo as a fundraising tool for the war. In doing so, the three young men are confronted by the moral ambiguities involved in promoting the war, the tenuous relationship propaganda has with the truth, and the uneasiness of being lauded as heroes simply for appearing in a picture.
It’s clear that the goal of the movie is to re-think the true nature of heroism and how iconography can manipulate the truth. It’s an interesting idea for a war movie, and an interesting way to tackle the oft-ignored Pacific theatre. Sadly, it’s not that interesting a movie. I understand why Eastwood chose lesser-known actors, as they keep the budget down and keep the movie focused on the ideas and cast as a whole instead of the star power of a few, but did he have to choose these particular lesser-known actors? Ryan Phillippe? Jesse Bradford? Paul Walker? Did the script call for wooden actors? I wonder if Brandon Routh hadn’t booked Superman Returns, he would’ve been cast in Barry Pepper‘s role.
To be fair, the material these master thespians have to work with isn’t that strong to begin with, but they certainly aren’t up to the task to make it any better. Walker is Walker (but thankfully in a smaller role), Bradford brings his usual smirking smugness to an annoying character, and Phillippe hilariously exhibits some “smell the fart” acting in key moments when leading into flashbacks. Adam Beach gives the best performance of the cast, but isn’t able to give enough nuance to the film’s most interesting character when the movie backs away from the difficult themes it introduces.
Other than it being a little dull and full of wooden acting, the movie is fairly decent for its first two-thirds. Eastwood proves himself a solid technician again, delivering some intense battle scenes interspersed between the main narrative of the three soldiers touring the country. Unfortunately, while intense and impressive, the battle scenes aren’t much that you haven’t seen before. Saving Private Ryan set the standard for invasion scenes seven years ago, and every movie on war since then has to live in its shadow. Eastwood added the new perspective of being inside the cockpit of an attacking plane, but other than that, it all felt familiar.
When the movie hits the final third, everything falls apart. A decent movie becomes overly maudlin, dripping with sentimentality, weighed down by its framing device of having the story of the soldiers told to one of their adult sons. It’s eye-rollingly mawkish, replete with manipulative scores and tricks designed to make you weep for these heroes of the greatest generation, and washing away any difficult questions the earlier portions of the movie may have posed.