Clint Eastwood’s filmography is a mile long and filled with acting, directing and musical credits, which distinguish him as one of Hollywood’s biggest names. Eastwood’s last directorial outing was the highly overrated “Million Dollar Baby,” a heavy-handed, clunky mess of a movie that put a mysterious hex on audiences which carried it all the way through awards season. Eastwood’s latest effort, “Flags of Our Fathers,” revolves around three of the men famously photographed raising the American flag at Iwo Jima during World War II. With outstanding acting and a sentimental, but balanced story, “Flags of Our Fathers” is the triumph of a film that “Baby” most certainly was not.
“Flags of Our Fathers” is as gritty and realistic as executive producer Steven Spielberg’s WWII epic “Saving Private Ryan.” The obscurity and futility of beach offensives of the period are as gruesome and unforgiving here as they were in the brutal opening sequence from Spielberg’s definitive war classic. While “Flags” would have benefitted from Spielberg’s economy and low-fat stylings, it is a comparable example of the well-made war films– movies that are full of the indignity of needless death, the honor and integrity of servicemen, and the lasting and defining effects of war on those who witness it first hand.
The film touches effectively on other significant themes like the American mistreatment of its Indigenous peoples and the blatant use of propaganda in the U.S. war effort. Using the iconic image captured in the Pulitzer prize winning photograph to frame the film and its major characters works wonderfully. Eastwood slowly reveals the dubious impetus and the vast differences in the points of view of the three men tapped to embody and promote the war effort plucked fresh from the front line.
“Flags” has a well-crafted narrative, steeped in sentimentality not unlike the Rob Reiner coming-of-age masterwork “Stand By Me.” The narrator actually changes hands several times throughout the film, which contributes to the film’s slightly jumpy structure. Similarly to “Ryan,” the plot has contemporary significance without the deliberate distraction of allegory. As there become fewer and fewer men of that generation alive to tell us the stories of the previous century’s American soldiers, the need for (and weight of) their accounts grows in importance. “Flags” reverently captures the epic clash of honor and innocence and the criminal indecency of war.
“Flags” has some of the more impressive CGI to date. One series of shots in particular shows a massive naval armada in formation storming toward the beaches at Iwo Jima that is startling in its enormity. Incredible sound design in the battle sequences rocks the theater with explosions, plane fly-overs and a cacophony of gunfire.
The outstanding young cast anchors the film and gives it the depth of character and substance to rise above being just another war movie. Ryan Phillippe (“Crash”), Jesse Bradford (“West Wing”) and Barry Pepper (“61”) all give nuanced and moving performances. Bradford had a brief, but memorable role on“The West Wing” as a smarmy White House intern. Here he plays Marine Rene Gagnon, a soldier who straddles the line between opportunity and duty.
The real standout of the picture is Adam Beach (“Windtalkers”) who portrays Ira Hayes. Beach gives a riveting performance as an American Indian struggling with both racial discrimination and the traumatic loss of comrades and his own “self.” He deserves to be considered an early contender for best supporting actor nominations come spring.
Eastwood did a really nice job with this one. In a stroke of genius and show of tremendous clout, the director managed to simultaneously direct a companion feature– a Japanese perspective of the same time called “Letters From Iwo Jima” starring Ken Watanabe. This other film has the potential to make “Flags of Our Fathers” even more interesting, especially if the two films work in concert to reveal a grander vision of these events in modern history in a way never before seen in cinema.