Flags of Our Fathers, the newest film from Clint Eastwood, is a great demonstration of the fact that good intentions don't necessarily mean good moviemaking. James Bradley and Ron Powers' book told the story of the six men who made for one the most memorable human images of World War II -- the famous photo of the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima -- and contrasted the battle for Mt. Suribachi with the hero-making that came after, as the three surviving soldiers were sent on a colossal bond drive to help finance the war effort. As John Slattery's natty, chatty Treasury man puts it to the servicemen, Marines Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) and Navy Corpsman John 'Doc' Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), "You fought for a mountain in the Pacific; now you'll fight for a mountain of cash." War is hell, and so is selling it.
I'm as tired of "The Greatest Generation" hero worship as the next person who isn't Tom Brokaw, but that's not at the heart of why I was so unmoved by Flags of Our Fathers. The problem with this film is not the story of Iwo Jima; Bradley and Powers' book is fascinating and rich. It's not Eastwood's direction, which is as artistically stately and technically accomplished as you might hope. The problem with Flags of Our Fathers -- driven through every moment in the film as decisively and fatally as a stake through the heart -- is the scripting of Paul Haggis. Haggis adapted Million Dollar Baby for Eastwood and then went on to co-write and direct Crash. Haggis has never met a familiar cliché or a rousing 'big moment' he didn't like, and Flags of Our Fathers is dripping with them. As the three men appear at a bond rally in Chicago, flashbulbs lead to flashbacks; as the photo hits the press, newsboys sell papers that come hurled off the back of trucks in bundles; a mother, convinced that her son appears uncredited in the Iwo Jima photo, swats away the suggestion she's mistaken: "Oh, that's Harlon ... I changed his diapers. ..." And considering that Million Dollar Baby was hamstrung by a similar obviousness, it's easy to lay blame at Haggis' feet. Eastwood isn't blameless in this -- just as in Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers has an Eastwood-composed score that moans with sad saxophones and sweeps with strings. It's the kind of film where, if the audience were to be unsure of how they might be feeling at any point during the film, the music rolls off the screen to take you by the hand and tell you precisely the emotional state you should be in -- if the two separate narrators haven't already.
But while Eastwood takes the blame for not rejecting Haggis' script -- or, more accurately, for hiring Haggis to re-write the draft Steven Spielberg commissioned from William Broyles, Jr. -- there are moments in Flags that are so overdone they make the average high school play look like a model of tasteful minimalism. During the bond drive, the surviving soldiers are honored at dinner after dinner; at one, the dessert course is a vanilla ice-cream replica of the flag-raising. As the server approaches with the sauce options --- strawberry or chocolate -- and Ryan Phillipe selects the first, the dripping, flowing red sauce brings back memories of the blood of battle. ...
And that's a shame, because there are fascinating little moments scattered all through Flags of Our Fathers -- from Jon Polito's brief, pop-eyed turn as New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to the startling and old-fashioned suggestion that, maybe, fighting a war should involve commitment and sacrifice from the broadest possible swath of society and be paid for while it's happening, not buried on page A24 in the daily news and financed from the national debt. And -- to be frank -- watching any war movie while we are, in fact, at war is a bit uneasy. Do the scenes of the beach landings at Iwo Jima feel unsatisfying because they recreate executive producer Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan so closely, or do they feel unsatisfying because they're expensive and phony in an era when the reality of war is as close (and yet as curiously far away) as any newspaper or cable channel?
In the age of effects, you can make any war story by just throwing money at it; the machinery of war is as easy to fake (and as fake) as King Kong or imperial Rome. And as a human story, Flags of Our Fathers is a bust -- undermined at every turn by taking the easy way out. Adam Beach's Ira Hayes is given nothing to do but drink, cry and rage against war; Jesse Bradford's Rene Gagnon easy slump into hero status isn't explored, and Phillipe, as Corpsman Bradley, is reduced to looking serious under furrowed brows as a substitute for character.
Flags of Our Fathers slavishly emulates Saving Private Ryan, and is being positioned for the same kind of Oscar glory; that alone, to my mind, is not enough to suggest the film deserves it. A significant part of Flags of Our Fathers focuses on the question of if the photo was, in fact, staged; it wasn't, and the circumstances of the two separate flag-raisings (the second of which was captured by Joe Rosenthal for the now-famous photo) are explained in minute detail. The better question raised by Flags of Our Fathers is this: How can you take such a real and compelling story and turn it into such a fake and tired movie? Eastwood has finished a second film telling the Iwo Jima story from side of the Japanese troops, Letters from Iwo Jima. I find myself looking forward to that film not because it suggests an ambition and curiosity so much big studio moviemaking lacks (although that's a factor, certainly). After Flags of Our Fathers -- with its gingham-clad moms, plucky paperboys, tough-talking dogfaces and flashbacks served for dessert -- I find myself looking forward to Letters From Iwo Jima primarily because it's not written by Paul Haggis.