Produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, Flags of Our Fathers was one half of the two companion films made by him based on the iconic battle of Iwo Jima between American and Japanese troops during the heart of World War II. I may sound like being on a rant, but this film was released around this time in 2006, and came to India early this year as a run-up to the Oscars. I myself have already seen this film in a film festival in New Delhi, and the other companion piece, Letters From Iwo Jima, on the inevitable DVD release.
Which means once again Hyderabad gets shortchanged on the release front and gets a film when half the world has seen the film. Deplorable, really. Even more so because we don't get both the films to watch, but just one side of the event, which happens to be the weaker of the two films. While the Japanese film is poetic in its study of war, with Flags you can't help but notice that there is something missing here.
Presented in a confused chronology, between the modern day, the actual battle and a war-bond tour, the narrative slackens because the modern day segments seem empty and devoid of meaning. The problem with the battle for Iwo Jima segments is that it is sandwiched between two uninteresting points of view. While this is not a standard war film - when has Clint Eastwood directed a standard anything film, really? - the most impactful part of the story of the iconic photograph is the battle, and it gets disservice by his treatment.
Three men from that photograph survived the final battle. As the war heated up, the US government was facing an apathetic public for whom the war had gone on long enough, especially as the Europe sector was simmering down. Money was running out, and they needed something to make a success of the botched bond drives. So when that photo of five Marines and one Navyman raising the American flag was made public, it stirred the America common man's heart. The three survivors were John Bradley, Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon, immediately becoming heroes, and pushed at the forefront of helming the bond drive.
But there was something wrong. The photo was taken on the 5th day of fighting, while the battle went on for 40 days. The picture looked heroic, but the men were just replacing a flag recently taken down by the army earlier. This took a toll on the men, as Ira Hayes couldn't deal with being called a hero for something he did not consider worthy, and became an alcoholic, and Gagnon took to the publicity too much for his own good. The film just draws a blank on Bradley as just an onlooker, though.
Paul Haggis is the criminal once again for a heavy-handed script, and the nuances and almost extravagant time spent on Hayes throws in sharp contrast the blank characters that the other two are. This is not a celebration of the photograph as much as it is a deconstruction of it, and an epic one at that. As far as Eastwood is trying to fulfill that goal, the film is a fabulous success, and it shows more grit than any other mainstream war film in recent times.
The film is overtly emphatic about every emotional trope in the script, and it spends way too much time on what are the least interesting parts. Sure, Hayes is now a drunk, we get it. How many times do we need to see him in a stupor before you think we get the point? Or about Gagnon's brush with celebrity. How many times do the characters have to literally talk us through what is happening when we can see it on screen?
The build-up to the photograph in Iwo Jima is one of the best war sequences you will see on a big screen. The staging is even more fierce and epic than the Omaha beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan. The end of the film has real pictures of Iwo Jima, and you are stunned seeing the degree to which Eastwood has pushed his cinematic vision, delivering a photographic replica of those times. The recreation of the island is uncanny in its realism, and Eastwood's most sure-footed piece of direction.
But it is this style of expansive, sweeping filmmaking that betrays his propensity to overstate the obvious in the modern day sequences, and especially the family reconciliation bits that seem tacked on for maximum crowd pleasing value. The fact of the matter is that both the films are a meditated study on the nature of heroes, and together, they work as a thing of beauty, an intelligent movie that rebukes and feeds our needs for idolatry at the same time.
But the deconstructivist nature of the film is covered in this shell that tells us again and again what we ought to be feeling, mostly in a long speech. As a standalone film, I cannot recommend Flags as the best there is, but it still has high marks as a movie made with heart, sometimes too much of it. It ends on a beautiful montage of the real pictures of the battle, and like I said, they are eerily similar to the locations in the film, and it throws in sharp contrast the uninteresting parts of the film.
Without doubt, this is a big screen film, a movie that pushes cinematic boundaries when it is serving the story straight up. But there are enough good parts to the film that make the bad bits more obvious. The odd decision to make this film less about the battle and more about the bond tour jars, but it shouldn't make you shy away from watching both movies back to back. If they decide to release the second in Hyderabad in another year.