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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Flags of our Fathers

When I first saw the trailer for Flags of our Fathers, now playing at the Essex Cinemas, I was convinced I was destined to see a pacifist’s worst nightmare ~ a “Bill O’Reilly version” of World War II, featuring heavy-handed doses of flag-waving patriotism mingled exclusively with off-the-charts glorified incidents of heroism to inspire everyone who sees the movie to instantly become God-fearing, red-blooded-all-American, red-state-supporting, Christian Conservative Republicans. After all, this film was directed by Dirty Harry himself, Clint Eastwood, the man who became famous as the face behind a Magnum 44, and he has not built a career known for his gentleness in approaching a subject, so the idea that he would take on something as extreme as war, and during a time our country is actually at war, raised my suspicions.

Now I certainly would never doubt Eastwood’s credibility as a director. His repertoire includes Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, and The Unforgiven, so if anyone could handle the task of something as large in scale as recreating the Battle of Iwo Jima it would naturally fall to a director of his caliber. His acting background, too, which many would say has left him
the sole heir to John Wayne’s legacy, clearly makes him the natural choice for Flags of our Fathers. There is just one small glitch, and it is this quirk, if you will, that saves the film from being “just another war movie” and truly sets it in a class of its’ own. Eastwood doesn’t follow the rules. He doesn’t follow the O’Reilly agenda, though to be sure, the invasion on the beach at Iwo Jima is graphically portrayed, and the gore is enough to make those with the strongest of fortitude stop eating their popcorn, but the movie is so much more than about the taking of the island itself.

One interesting thing about the staging of the fight that differs from any ground and air war movie I’ve seen previously is that the enemy is rarely glimpsed, and when he is, it is only singularly, in hand-to-hand combat as he
is about to be or has just been slain. Perhaps Eastwood was taking a page from Das Boot or U-571, submarine films where the war plays out underwater with the anonymity of an unseen adversary, or it could be as a convenient bow to the political correctness of our present day that he prefers not to present Asians in a stereotypical bloodthirsty, power-mad light. Either way, the use of the camera as the “eyes” of the Japanese stalking the on-coming American troops is both effective and downright creepy. It is also to his credit that the film is not littered with a slew of racial or ethnic epithets even though my gut tells me they were no doubt prevalent on board just about every ship in the fleet with emotions riding high during wartime.

Flags of our Fathers is first and foremost about the lives of six young men, boys really, who are swept up in the Marines and sent with their unit to Iwo Jima with no previous combat experience. Much of the time before the battle is spent getting to know these fellows as we observe their interactions with one another. There is John ''Doc'' Bradley (Ryan Phillippe; Chaos), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford; Happy Endings), Ira Hayes (Adam Beach; Bottom’s Up), Michael Strank (Barry Pepper; Ripley Under Ground), Franklin Sousley (Joseph Cross; Running With Scissors) and Ralph "Iggy" Ignatowski (Jamie Bell; King Kong). Each one is as different from the others as he could be, yet together they bond and make a courageous and strong team. It also helps that Eastwood gives the audience this seeming lag time in the story before the actual battle so that we can come to identify better with the boys, making each life more than just a superficial “cardboard” figure or statistic because by the time the bloodshed is done only three of the six will still be alive, and we are meant to feel the hurt of these losses along with the surviving characters.

There are, of course, a great deal more than the six named here that
comprise the unit shown in the film, but these six are uniquely special because they hold a place in history when they are photographed hoisting the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima once the island has been taken. This single photo brought world attention on the US war efforts in the Pacific and re-energized floundering public support back home. While we learn here that the authenticity of the event is questionable, or at least shown to be less that what it was promoted to represent, it launched a movement that is to this day given credence for changing the public’s opinion as to whether America could even win against Japan and opened the pockets necessary to keep the military funded for the duration.

Here is where Eastwood’s film takes a dramatic turn away from the war and becomes something quite different, yet as equally relevant to today’s culture. He suddenly focuses on the packaging and marketing of celebrity culture.

The flag-raising survivors from Iwo Jima are whisked away from the action
at the front and find themselves unexpectedly living in high style hotels, drinking champagne and sleeping on silk sheets. The trio, Doc, Ira, and Rene, are wined and dined by military brass and even invited to meet President Truman himself before being coerced into participating in a hundred city tour on behalf of the War Bond effort. Soon the glamour and lure of celebrity affects each in his own way, and the psychological damage becomes evident as their previous exploits become more and more corrupted and bastardized by the press and the promoters of the various publicity events.

In 1945 nobody had ever heard of post traumatic stress disorder, but that didn’t mean it didn’t exist. For these men (and make no mistake, they may have left as boys but they came home as men) each experience difficulties adjusting to life on the road and dealing with civilians. For Ira, especially, as a Native American, there is the added pressure of racism which he finds at every turn despite his status as an “American hero”, a label he and Doc find hard to shoulder since they know that they did nothing to deserve that title but stay alive. Rene, on the other hand, embraces this fallacy and soon begins believing his own press, which proves just as dangerous as if he rejected the hooey in the first place.

Eastwood gives each of his lead actors their opportunity to shine in individual moments but this film clearly belongs to Adam Beach. His heart wrenching turn as Ira will have you wishing you could reach out and help comfort him yourself his grief is so pungent and painful to see. Come awards season expect to see Beach collecting nominations right and left, and deservedly so. While Phillippe and Bradford are quite good in their roles, Beach is a stand-out and he pushes the other two to supporting status whenever he is on-screen. Sorry guys, but it’s just the way it is.

The movie bookends its’ saga with a present-day look at a shadowy interviewer as he hears first-hand accounts from the now elderly survivors of Iwo Jima while they recall the men memorialized in the famous photograph which later inspired The United States Marine Corps War Memorial. It is not absolutely clear until the end of the movie exactly who the would-be author is, but it is definitely clear that for all those who were present at that fateful encounter it has remained as much a part of their lives as if it happened yesterday. An experience this intense does not fade. It only sleeps.

Flags of our Fathers is a beautifully filmed, complex adult tale for people who want more than just mindless entertainment. If you think movies are
meant for more than Jessica Simpson’s jiggles and dwarves getting shot out of cannons, then you finally have a treat to look forward to, waiting for you now at the Essex Cinemas.

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