There’s a brilliant moment at the beginning Clint Eastwood’s conflicted and sometimes masterful Flags of Our Fathers when three soldiers move swiftly up a mountain side, the darkness illuminated only by tracer flares shooting high into the sky. Instead of a war zone, Eastwood pans up to reveal a large stadium of cheering fans, the three soldiers, John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), plant a small flag atop a fake Mt. Suribachi, reenacting the famous photographed moment on Iwo Jima for countless American’s. Simulated heroism at it’s scariest. These soldiers are the surviving members of the original six who lifted the flag (the second one it turns out) five days into the forty day battle which turned out to be the bloodiest of the Pacific campaign. They are on a bond tour and we later find out how conflcited they feel about leaving their buddies, both dead and alive, behind while they travel around the U.S. raising money.
This inherant conflict makes Flags of Our Fathers a must see, simply because it complicates history by revealing the fissues in a familiar narrative timeline. Told in two parallel structures, the landing of American Marines on Iwo Jima in early 1945 and the Bond tour after the battle, Eastwood seemlessly cuts back and forth in time, creating a vista of high intensity battle sequences equally matched with scenes of heartache back home, the protagonists whithered by the media attention and change in duty pressed upon them by their superiors. Gagnon, a runner for higher military brass during the conflict, takes to this change, a slick, attractive man better suited as a politician than a soldier. Bradley and Hayes, infantrymen, lived the carnage, saw the consequences of a brutal conflict, and are understandably binded together through experience, maybe unfairly to Gagnon. Eastwood sees Hayes, the Pima Indian who turns to booze to ease his pain, as the devastating core of a media machine bent on creating larger than life heroes for a specific purpose, then disposing such images as fast as they were created. All three performances are good, Beach and Phillippe with obviously more to work with, excel in their scenes together.
Clint Eastwood has been on quite a roll lately with Mystic River (which I think is the heir to Unforgiven, not Flags as many critics have noted) and Million Dollar Baby. However, Flags of Our Fathers offers a surprising and worrisome shift in Eastwood’s approach to story. The first hour and half of Flags of Our Fathers is some of the best work he’s ever done; crisp, brutal, immersed in deconstructing history and coming out the other side with a better understanding of who these men were. But there’s a moment when the film morphs in tone, bent on revelling in fluffy and redundant scenes (an overuse of voiceover narration kills these final moments), amplifying obvious thematics and frustrating character exposes.
Eastwood seems to suffer from what many people who dislike Steven Spielberg call the tacked on melodramatic ending. I personally love Speilberg, but the ending for Flags did remind me of his s tendency to clean everything up for the audience. The gripping and heartfelt moments of conflict gradually vanish into the background, replaced with a lead hammer of unneeded sentimental exposition pandering to the the doorsteps of Academy voters. Clint’s better than that and I hope he realizes his audience wants a challenging film, not a puff piece. Lean, thought-provoking situations are what make The Outlaw Josey Whales, White Hunter, Black Heart, and Unforgiven true American masterpieces. Flags comes close, but opts for simplicity when it should be rallying around the complex story of heroism it starts to tell, but ultimately doesn’t have the guts to see through.