Sunday, May 3, 2009

Flags of Our Fathers

We've been knowing since the maturation of the medium of cinema that war is not always as glorious as it looks. It appears plainly and simply through the humanity of the characters. While director Clint Eastwood adds his voice to the list of directors who dramatize war, he also delivers to us one of his greatest directorial achievements. Does the film come with its flaws? Yes. However, if we forget the weird structure of the script, Flags Of Our Fathers has what it takes to be one of most people's favourite war films.

This is the first of two films in Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima saga. In 1945, near the end of World War II, American troops invade Japan by attempting to take the island of Iwo Jima (located at less than 700 miles of the Japanese mainland) first in a fight that will last 35 days. As the beachheads are secured, the U.S. Marines attack Mount Suribachi. On February 23, a patrol led by Sgt. Hank Hansen (Paul Walker) climb Mount Suribachi and hoist the American flag on the top of the mountain. When Secretary of Navy James Forrestal arrives at Iwo Jima, he wants to have the very flag on the mountain. Despite the anger of some soldiers, the flag is brought down by the second platoon led by Sgt. Mike Strank (Barry Pepper).

Therefore, Strank, Pfc. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), Cpl. Harlon Block (Benjamin Walker), Pfc. Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), Navy Corpsman John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Philippe) and Pfc. Franklin Sousley (Joseph Cross) hoist the "replacement flag". Hence, the picture taken by war photograph Joe Rosenthal or should we say "the shot" that boost the public opinion's morale. After the battle, many soldiers are dead and the story focuses on how Rene, Ira and John (who were brought back to the USA as "heroes" who can incite people to buy war bonds on the behalf of the American government) cope with being seen as heroes in the society.

Although the film, in the end, is great, the current structure of the storyline hardly seems suitable given the film's objective: asking questions about the real nature of heroism per se and showing us public misinformation. In fact, the film cuts back in forth from the battle scenes to the moments in which the boys are in the USA to promote the support for the troops. Therefore, why did scriptwriters Paul Haggis (Casino Royale) and William Broyles Jr. adopted such a structure à la 21 Grams when no surprises are expected in this film? In my opinion, a linear structure is more appropriate because the cast's performance suffice to tell us what's going on in the three leading characters' mind.

Despite that, if Eastwood wanted to improvise himself like a historian, he can say: "Mission accomplished". In fact, his film is patriotic in two ways. First of all, by addressing the knotty question of what heroism is (as defined by our psyche), Flags of Our Fathers can be seen (through the behaviour of each of the leading character) as a tribute to all the soldiers who gave their life at Iwo Jima. In fact, while Rene embraces fame, John stoically deals with it and Ira doesn't feel at ease with being called a hero (this is why he's not really enthusiast in contributing to the propaganda at home).

Obviously, as the film brilliantly points it out, in war, there's no such thing as individual heroism, but rather collective heroism. Thus, the film tackles the issue of public misinformation by condemning the fact that while the American public opinion has always cared about the soldiers who raised the "replacement flag", it has never given much thought to those who raised the first flag on Mount Suribachi. After all, shouldn't soldiers from both groups of flag raisers be equally called heroes? Asking the question is like answering to it.

Finally, while the film doesn't show the outcome of the Battle of Iwo Jima, it's a proof that mainstream entertainment and Art (with a capital "A") can form a nice couple. Of course, some people may not find Flags of Our Fathers as entertaining as Saving Private Ryan or Full Metal Jacket. Nonetheless, in all its magnificence, Flags of Our Fathers is a smart and genuine tale about heroism and also something that we tend to forget: bravery is something that is collectively shared no matter what.

Rating: 4/5

Origin:USA (2006)
Length:132 minutes
Genre:War drama
Screenplay:Paul Haggis and William Broyles Jr.
Director:Clint Eastwood
Starring:Ryan Philippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, Barry Pepper and Jamie Bell

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