Flags of our Fathers

Buy war bonds.

I am now ashamed of not having seen this at the cinema. It just goes to show, though, that a bad trailer can break a good movie. Flags of Our Fathers had a trailer aimed at the Ur-American who wanted to celebrate the glories of war. The film itself is actually an examination of the necessities and cruelties of war, and of the war machine itself.
It fails to pass judgement for the most part (with the exception of a brief reference to Vietnam), and to that end is a good movie. However – and I personally don’t see this – Paul Haggis’ script may be too leftist for some. Why, if he had run World War II, we’d all be communists by now!

One of the iconic images of World War II was the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. Those in the photograph who survived were shipped back to the US to encourage the purchase of war bonds: John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Philippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) take to the propaganda road with mixed feelings.
The film follows their promotional tour, their actual tour of duty, and Doc’s son’s efforts to research his book about the Flags of Our Fathers.

Obviously the flags are not of my father; the title is remarkably insular. This is, after all, an American story. Americans in and of themselves are not bad people, and this is not a story that can appeal only to them. The vibe inside the movie is not that of the glory hogs of war, and I have to wonder how many people saw it and felt that they had fallen for a bait and switch.
It seems free of an agenda (although some will say that its agenda is to detract from the greatness of American history). Each of the three survivors has his own take on their treatment, with the most moderate character of them all – Doc – ironically seeming to receive the least character of the three.
It’s a chance for glory and a greater future for Rene; for Doc, it’s just something to do. When it comes to Ira, well, he doesn’t want to hear any of it. A good part of the film is dedicated to the condescension that American Indians, as they were known at the time, were treated with. The system seems like one that was legitimately needed to support the war effort (and I’m not going to debate the necessity of fighting this particular war), but the people involved in it were largely insensitive to anything but the bottom line. In such a large scale war – and you do indeed get the sense of scale in the force that surrounds the relatively tiny island of Iwo Jima – the loss of one life is as nothing. You get the impression that to be in a high-ranking position in wartime you must not care too much.

Still, the juxtaposition of the home rallying efforts to the actual warfare makes the treatment – including a recreation of the flag-raising incident – seem practically tacky. You realise that the problem with war, beyond the obvious loss of human life and humanity in general, is its aesthetic. I was almost convinced, watching this movie, that we had wars back in the day because they were simply awesome to behold. Modern wars, with their brown, orange and yellow colour schemes and impersonal technology, are nowhere near as good as these olden days. It’s why we get all of the Call of Duty games, and it’s part of the compelling nature of this movie. If we could go back in time and make military uniforms somewhat more ugly, and make guns and artillery somewhat less cool … I think that we could save the world in retrospect. The pay off for having such horrible wars is that we get such good looking movies, but I’m not quite sure that the price was worth it.

Flags of Our Fathers isn’t perfect; I personally have never thought that Philippe or Bradford have ever had much credibility as actors. Philippe can get around, certainly; Bradford, on the other hand, appears to act with his half smile.
Several times the film succumbs to “movie magic”, with Rene’s girlfriend saying “We get to have dinner with the governor! Isn’t that exciting?” followed immediately by Rene’s mother turning on the radio and hearing that Roosevelt has died, which is then followed immediately by a call from the governor saying that, due to the death of the president, dinner is off.
It’s easy to understand that movies don’t follow exact timeframes simply through the necessity of easy editing and pacing, but this scene seemed ridiculous in a movie that otherwise prides itself on accuracy. You can’t have an avalanche of bad news, each piece of badness directly related to the last.

The epilogue runs perhaps a little too long, in this world where narration is a strange beast indeed, and we’ve got exactly that sort of “I’ve realised something …” speech that I have previously criticised in my hypothetical “Children of Venus” film. Here, at least, it makes sense, but it doesn’t exactly seem natural. A non-fiction book and a movie based on a true story are not exactly the same thing, and when the author inveigles himself into the text it all gets a little bit trickier. Because hearing old men talk about the war isn’t quite as effective as seeing them in their youth running about and killing things and being killed, we’re never really introduced to the various narrators. It gets somewhat confusing in the rare instances that it happens, but it’s not enough to put you off.

Flags of Our Fathers is epic, personal and sometimes strangely detached. It’s a good war movie that never tries to suggest that everything about the way the war was run was absolutely perfect. Amazingly, it doesn’t even demonise the Japanese – they’re simply an enemy in a kill or be killed situation. Flags of Our Fathers doesn’t sanitise itself for a delicate audience, but it never gives its core audience precisely what they want. This is cause for applause, and if Letters from Iwo Jima is as good as it is said to be, then Clint Eastwood has delivered a one-two punch of quality cinema upon an all too unsuspecting public.

One Response

  1. Curtis February 27, 2007

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