Dir: Clint Eastwood. US.2006. 131mins.
Rarely do words as stark as "heroism" get parsed infilm-making - but that's just what Clint Eastwood's World War II feature Flags Of OurFathers does. A diffuse and demanding picture that, as with most Eastwoodfilms, takes a while to find its stride, it should nevertheless see good upscalemarket business, as well as make a deep critical footprint that will ensureawards consideration.
But mainstream domesticbox-office appeal (it opens at home from Oct 20) on a par with Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood's last two directorial films, whicheach rang up $90-$100m domestically and took several Oscars apiece, is notnecessarily a given.
Nominally thefilm tells of the bloody fight between the US and Japanese forces for thePacific island of Iwo Jimain 1945, and the events surrounding the iconic image of six soldiers hoistingan American flag. But in many ways Flags Of Our Fathers is also a de facto examination ofbattle-bred guilt and state-sanctioned manipulation and exploitation of image.Jumping indistinctly to and fro in time, it commingles bloody action and moreconjectural passages in a manner that might induce fatigue in more restless multiplexcrowds.
Despite theEastwood name, prospects overseas are additionally hard to fix (it rolls outthrough October, November and December after opening the Tokyo InternationalFilm Festival on Oct 21), given that such a uniquely American image - theinspiration for the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia - is atthe core of the film's inquiry into the machinations and complicity of media inwar.
It's also ofsignificant note that Flags Of OurFathers has a companion piece in the form of the concurrently shot Letters From Iwo Jima ' which tells the events of the same siege fromthe Japanese perspective, and will see domestic release early next year 2007' furthersuggesting that this is a particularly canted narrative that will see its bestreturns Stateside.
Regardless,catalogue and ancillary value will be high, as the film continues Eastwood'smeasured, thoughtful twilight renaissance.
On the awardsfront, Eastwood is a beloved figure especially among AMPAS voters and couldgarner support for another Oscar nod, possibly pitting him again against MartinScorsese (The Departed), who he beatout two seasons ago for best director.
CinematographerTom Stern's work behind the camera, meanwhile, similarly seems a shoe-in forAcademy recognition. Of the cast, Adam Beach is a legitimate runner: othernominations could follow if the film enjoys (likely) early critical supportthroughout the autumn, smoothing a path for commercial success.
Flags Of Our Fathers opens with what could be construed as apointed indictment of America's current geopolitical morass and those that ledits charge, as a gruff line of narration explains that "Every jackass thinks heknows what war is - especially those who've never been in one."
It soon becomesclear, though, that Eastwood's movie is a combat film by only half, and the old"war is hell" drumbeat isn't necessarily part of the main narrative agendahere.
A mockflag-planting in the middle of a crowded stadium introduces three soldiersbefore the narrative then flashes back to just before the battle of Iwo Jima. Under the leadership ofSergeant Mike Strank (Pepper), we meet John "Doc"Bradley (Phillippe), a respected Navy corpsman medic;message runner Rene Gagnon (Bradford); and infantryman Ira Hayes (Beach), astoic Native American with a propensity for freezing up in battle.
The bloodybeachhead siege ensues, along with more Statesidescenes of what happens several weeks and months later. With governmental financialstrictures much worse than most of the public knows, Doc, Rene and Ira - theonly survivors from the six flag raisers - are called upon to take part in awar bond fundraising tour across the US. With Keyes Beech (John BenjaminHickey) as their handler, they take to the streets, ballparks, ballrooms andtown halls of America, even as they resist being labeled heroes.
Their reticenceis well founded, it turns out. Though visually ennobling, the famed image isactually a snapshot taken on the fifth day of what would eventually be a 40-daybattle; it's also the second flag to be raised, after the first was taken downat the behest of a general.
Of course, noneof that matters to the hard-charging Bud Gerber (Slattery), who presses Doc,Rene and Ira to do their civic duty. It's weathered, incidental mundanity repackaged as valour,even if the young men are all steadfastly honorable about citing their peers,fallen and still fighting, as the real heroes.
Though not aprima donna, Gagnon embraces these newfound conditionsstatus most readily, while Doc for the most part keeps quiet. Ira, though,regards the proceedings as a farce, and quickly and increasingly uses alcoholas a crutch to get him through events ' fundraising dinners where strawberrysauce is dribbled on molded white chocolate delicacies of the flag-raising 'and the indignity of the casual racism to which he is nearly constantlysubjected.
Eastwood's characteristicdirection ' with its unembellished style and perfunctory set-ups ' drainsaffect or overt emotionalism from most of the performances. But Adam Beachmanages to really make an impression as Ira, as he convincingly conveys theswallowed weight of the torturous conflict he feels. He's done and seen thingsin war of which he's not proud, but, like Rene and Doc, is told to put on apublic face, if only to honor them. Ira's the least suited to do this, and hisself-destructiveness ' both in the broader context of his increasingdrunkenness and writ more subtly across his pained face ' is compellinglyrendered.
Eschewing a morestraightforward and seductive dramatic arc, co-screenwriters William Broyles Jr and Paul Haggis use author James Bradley's source bookas a wraparound device for the movie, inserting scenes of him (played by TomMcCarthy) interviewing several of his father Doc's fellow servicemen to learnmore about his exploits and the events surrounding the flag raising. But thesepassages are backloaded and suffused with a timidity at odds with much of the rest of the feature, andthey give the audience three discrete time periods with which to deal, whichcan be a problem for the movie.
Additionally, someof the editing and many of its points of intercuttingfeel somewhat arbitrary and disrupt its flow. Eastwood and editorJoel Cox seem caught midway between a more traditionally bifurcated tale withflashback elements and a more mosaic, impressionistic style, flush withvignettes of indeterminate time or location.
But technically, Flags Of OurFathers scores high. The easiest point of comparison for the carnage of thebattle sequences is co-producer Steven Spielberg's storming of the beaches of Normandyin Saving Private Ryan, which hadboth a more natural order and emotional component to its jumbledness.With these scenes shot on Iceland, cinematographer Tom Stern captures blacksand kicking in every direction, and delivers a monochromatic look in whichonly the occasional punch of blood is allowed to puncture washed-out hues ofbrown, grey, black and olive.
As a composer,Eastwood's simple, spare score is not overly plaintive per se, but neverthelessquite evocative.
Warner Bros Pictures
William Broyles, Jr and Paul Haggis, based on thebook by James Bradley with Ron Powers
John Benjamin Hickey