October 23, 2006

Flags of Our Fathers

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Clint Eastwood, you crafty old son-of-a-bitch, you’ve done it again. You reached into your bag of tricks and pulled out a picture of Iwo Jima and said to yourself, “I’m a-gonna make me a movie about this here picture.” Well, sir, you’ve done just that, and I’ll be goddamned if you haven’t etched your name into the 2007 Academy Awards best director and best picture nominations for that movie, Flags of Our Fathers.

This film, unlike most, doesn’t follow a person as its principal character; the protagonist is a photograph. The story of the movie is the story of this photograph, told through an overarching flashback by those remembering Doc (Ryan Phillippe) as a young man. Doc, Rene (Jesse Bradford) and Ira (Adam Beach) are the surviving three soldiers of the six in the picture, so they are plucked (some more willingly than others) to go on a tour of the country selling war bonds.

They are celebrated as heroes, but this designation pleases neither Doc nor Ira, and soon Rene becomes just as jaded as his cohorts. For the boys to be touted as heroes is painful enough when their friends lay dead on the island, but they can’t even be counted heroes for saving lives or defeating the Japanese. We find out that there were two flag raisings that day, that the act itself was insignificant enough and that it was hard to remember who raised either of the flags.

This movie is a visual spectacle in every sense. It’s horrifyingly realistic, and the carnage is a-plenty. Brace yourself for more guts than would be seen on the goriest episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. But at the same time, none of it is over-the-top. Even when Phillippe steps over the severed head of a character we’ve come to know and love, it isn’t excessive. This is war. Eastwood wants us to know the horrors so that when it all gets sugarcoated and schmaltzed up on the bonds tour, the audience is even more appalled by the showbiz than the bloodbath.

The most striking thing about this movie is the use of light. The storied photograph itself is black and white, which is used as a metaphor throughout the film as whether or not things are as straightforward as they appear. The returning soldiers understand that the war is not good versus evil, but they still have to convince their countrymen that it is. The color scheme of the entire film, especially the battle scenes themselves, are all gray or at least noticeably washed out.

Eastwood used an almost entirely unknown cast. The legendary picture itself has the faces obscured, and today the “heroes of Iwo Jima” remain anonymous figures, so the conspicuous lack of celebrities in this film is fitting. The actors each actually have had some exposure before, but only in standard Hollywood bunk. In any event, Eastwood gave them a chance to take on serious acting, and they all came up with some chops for him to then blow up with grenades. Still, good acting all around.

I guess I should give screenwriter extraordinaire Paul Haggis some credit, too. Unlike when watching an actual film circa 1945, we don’t get completely removed from the characters because of their almost-foreign manner of speaking.

However, the one hitch with this film is that as a war movie in the year 2006, Flags of Our Fathers should actually have something to say about war, and it doesn’t really. Instead, it chooses to be an examination of hero worship, which doesn’t completely resonate with today’s audience.

Flags of Our Fathers is the type of movie that takes you over. You glance down and notice your hand has had your mouth clasped in a death grip for the last ten minutes, and you had absolutely no idea. How could you? Mud-covered Ryan Phillippe has been dodging bullets and bombs and severed body parts! There was also that one time I had to remind myself to breathe…thanks Clint. Thanks for interrupting my body’s oxygen flow. Dirty Harry can still pummel us at 76, and he doesn’t even have to appear onscreen.