They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of Joe Rosenthal's iconic WWII photograph of six soldiers raising a flag, it was worth fourteen billion dollars in bond money, a book, and a Clint Eastwood epic. Flags of our Fathers tells the stories of the men depicted in the famous photo, and how they unwittingly became national heroes simply by raising a flag.
The film begins just as Rosenthal’s photo is breathing hope into disheartened Americans everywhere, save at Iwa Jima, where the six men portrayed find little comfort only five days into battle. Within a month of the photo being taken, only three soldiers remain: Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), who are brought back to the U.S. hailed as the heroes of Iwa Jima. As Doc and Hayes struggle with their newfound fame, Gagnon milks the publicity for all it’s worth, hoping for a future after his military career. But when the men are asked to help garner bonds to fund the war effort, the three quickly learn the true value of a hero to the US Government.
Flags of our Fathers is a powerful exploration of the creation of heroes and the way the media can manipulate a historical fact to serve a larger purpose. The problem is that Eastwood doesn’t trust his audience to decipher these themes alone, and so includes corny voiceover to tell us exactly what to think. The movie becomes as obvious as screenwriter Paul Haggis’ last film Crash (really, it was about racism?) and begins to drag as we see Hayes struggle with being called a hero for the fifteenth time.
While the flashes between the unforgiving war sequences and the propaganda at home make for a powerful juxtaposition, ultimately the compound structure makes character development nearly impossible. Anytime Doc or Hayes mourned one of their fallen comrades, I had to flash back several chapters just to figure out who they were talking about, which wasn’t an easy task considering every single actor looks alike in uniform and the characters are only distinguished by one measly trait (Franklin is naïve, Mike is reliable etc.). The film is further broken up by vague interviews in the present between nondescript old men with Doc’s son, whose identity is withheld until the third act of the film as if that’s a shocker akin to the ending of The Sixth Sense. Being someone who has cried in every Disney movie, I expected an emotional hurricane in Flags, but I wound up spending more time trying to figure out who was who, rather than caring about what was happening.
Despite its flaws, the film is still very powerful thanks to an incredibly complex performance by Beach, and some especially interesting cinematography. For the battle sequences, Eastwood chose a gritty color palate that really emphasizes the stark feel of Iwa Jima, and contrasts well with the bright patriotic colors at the bond rallies. While the film could use a few more battle sequences, those present are extremely well done, rivaling scenes from Saving Private Ryan.
If nothing else, Flags of our Fathers is certainly worth seeing in order to compare it to its significantly better companion piece, Letters from Iwa Jima. Perhaps Eastwood was more successful with the Japanese perspective because he worried less about hammering a resonant political message and more about the art of filmmaking. But considering Eastwood is about two hundred years old, making a good film and then a great film back to back is still pretty impressive.
I was shocked to discover that this widescreen DVD doesn’t even pretend to have special features. Instead, there are two previews before you can even get to the root menu (one for Letters from Iwa Jima, which just made me wish I had rented that instead, and one for Babel) and then... nothing!
No director’s commentary to ignore, not even a chapter selection option, making flipping back to an earlier sequence to figure out someone’s name extremely annoying. While the DVD does allow you the option of selecting Dolby 5.1 or 2.0 surround sound to hear the Oscar-nominated sound editing, it’s only offered with English and French tracks (Spanish speakers need to use the subtitles). Overall, while the film looks great on the small screen, the disc itself is less than impressive.