by Erin Salvi
WHITMAN COLLEGE PIONEER
Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers” cannot be considered much more than a very mediocre war movie. Sure, it has all the makings of a typical war film. There are the harrowing battle scenes, the all-too-eager soldiers who don’t know what they’re getting themselves into, the graphic violence, the haunting flashbacks, the sobbing mothers and sweethearts back home, and even the ambiguous heroes. Yet, somehow, the film doesn’t take these ingredients and mix them up into something greater. Eastwood fails to discover the larger meaning of war and heroism that the film seems to promise in the beginning.
The premise for the film has a lot of potential. In 1945, the U.S. fought a gruesome battle against Japan on the island of Iwo Jima. After many long days of fighting, six men climb to the top of a hill and raise a flag, not so much as a sign of victory but as a sign of hope. However, someone takes a picture as they do this, and when it is sent back to the states and printed on the front page of the “New York Times,” the nation sees it as a sign of certain victory. The soldiers in the picture are immediately credited as heroes, and the three who are still alive are sent home. The nation becomes obsessed with the picture, so the government asks them to go on a tour in order to raise some much-needed money for the war. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) is more than willing to go on tour and increase his already extensive fame, but John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillipe) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) are hesitant about claiming hero status simply for putting up a flag, when so many of their friends died while performing real acts of heroism at Iwo Jima.
Eastwood has proved himself as an excellent director in the past, so he, of course, does not make the film a disaster. The battle scenes are absolutely fantastic. Eastwood builds tension perfectly as the U.S. soldiers approach the seemingly empty island, and expertly displays the dizzying confusion of combat. The technical elements of the movie are polished, and Eastwood draws moving performances out of many of the actors, especially Beach.
The movie is, nevertheless, flawed. This may be due in part to co-screenwriter Paul Haggis’s penchant for melodrama. Remember “Crash?” That film was much more stable than “Flags of Our Fathers,” but the melodrama throughout the film was almost too much to bear at times, as it is in this story. The film can’t decide whether it wants to look at the wider group of soldiers who fought at Iwo Jima, or if it wants to focus in on the three living “heroes,” and how the photograph affects their lives. As a result, you never quite feel as if you get to know the characters as well as you want to, and, in the end, their stories simply do not have the powerful effect that Eastwood is apparently trying to create.
I wish that Eastwood and Haggis had delved further into the problematic ways by which heroism is constructed, and avoided a corny ending that essentially tells the audience that “we are all heroes.” Great war movies avoid such melodrama, and are able to capture the great futility that comes with war as well as the perseverance of hope in spite of seeming futility.