Eastwood and Spielberg team up for a well-intentioned Flag that is hard to fully salute

Flags Of Our Fathers

on October 20, 2006 by Ray Greene
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There's a war at the heart of Clint Eastwood's curdled new battleground epic Flags of Our Fathers, and it isn't WWII. The deepest conflict on display in this intermittently fascinating but ultimately disappointing effort is between contending sensibilities: the kinetic and emotion-driven legacy of producer Steven Spielberg (who would appear from the available evidence to have been a true and mentoring collaborator in some critical areas) and the more visually economical and unsentimental vision of Eastwood, perhaps the most grimly visionary mainstream American director since pre- Barrie Lyndon Stanley Kubrick.

Flags of Our Fathers would seem to be an ideal project for Eastwood and Spielberg to team on, encapsulating both Spielberg's fascination with WWII and Eastwood's ongoing preoccupations with genre and the nature of American heroism. Based on the bestselling book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, the film tells the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima as seen through the eyes of John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) -- the three (out of six) soldiers appearing in Joe Rosenthal's iconic AP photo “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” who managed to survive the horrific battle. Plagued by varying degrees of what would today be called “survivor guilt” and “post-traumatic stress disorder,” Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon are ordered to participate in a home-front War Bond sales drive, despite their belief that there's nothing heroic about getting a picture taken and their knowledge that the photograph itself is a kind of collectively agreed upon hallucination, perpetrated on a war-weary public hungry for heroes and hope.

Given the decision to photograph Iwo Jima in Saving Private Ryan 's limited palette of bleached blues and greens and the prominence of Ryan actors like Barry Pepper and Harve Presnell in Eastwood's supporting cast, it's tempting to see Flags as a Ryan redux -- a companion film of the Pacific theater to reflect back on Ryan 's vision of the European one. But Eastwood's vision of war is actually a lot closer to the series of ghastly improvisations depicted in Sam Fuller's The Big Red One than it is to Spielberg's Ryan, a film that made dynamic cinema even from scenes ostensibly about confusion and chaos.

There's nothing in Flag to rival the visual brio of the stunning opening sequence of Ryan, not because Eastwood is an indifferent action filmmaker but because he's overtly wary of the intoxicating visual possibilities of combat and the ways they can be turned into blood poetry at the expense of a horrific underlying reality. Eastwood's Iwo Jima is a maze without a center, but it's also a maze constructed in magpie fashion from cinematic leavings based in Spielberg's earlier work. The result, while intriguing as a collage of inflections from two master stylists, is unsatisfactory, as Eastwood or as Spielberg.

Flags is at its best in the home-front scenes, where Eastwood's established skepticism toward hero-worship (see Unforgiven, White Hunter Black Heart and Bronco Billy to name but three) can flourish. The Native American soldier Ira Hayes is one of history's truly tragic figures, so much so that his story alone would have made for a more devastating and focused film. Still, the bond Eastwood establishes between Hayes and Bradley, thanks to unerring performances from Beach and Phillippe, becomes the film's emotional center. Flags glistens with delicate emotionalism and muted sorrow whenever these two scarred but inarticulate men are together onscreen.

War being hell and all, some of the “big statements” Flags reaches for seem a bit shopworn, but its central thesis is a sound one. “The right picture,” says Presnell in an opening voiceover, “can win or lose a war.” That's a truism validated as recently as the image of three firemen raising a flag at Ground Zero, or conversely by the subsequent picture of a hooded Iraqi man standing Christ-like in Abu Ghraib prison with wires in his hands. Flags of Our Fathers examines the compelling visual power that can crystallize inside images like that but partakes of that energy only fleetingly, when its closing credits play against scores of additional historical photos from the Iwo Jima campaign. For all its blood and thunder, nothing in Eastwood's sincere film approaches the immediacy of this simple photo montage of helmeted ghosts -- but then again, in this uneven if heartfelt examination of something ultimately unquantifiable, maybe that's just the point.

Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, Barry Pepper, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Paul Walker and Jamie Bell
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriters: William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz
Genre: War drama
Rating: R for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage and for language
Running time: 132 min.
Release date: October 20

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