Clint Eastwood's new film begins with a sly homage to Saving Private Ryan. You'll remember that in Ryan, the soldiers approaching the beaches of Normandy had to dump themselves over the side of their landing craft before it beached, to escape a preemptive barrage of machine gun fire. Flags of our Fathers begins with the storming of Iwo Jima, but this one goes as smoothly as ice cream, with no resistance whatsoever. After a couple of minutes you begin to wonder if our boys have stormed the wrong beach. Then, in some kind of abstract rendering of the director's famous squint, we begin to see through tiny horizontal slits of daylight that appear at ankle-level. It's the Japanese, waiting in dugouts for the Americans to finish coming ashore. The storytelling in these opening sequences is gripping -- the audience is in a virtual choke hold. Unfortunately, the squinty-eyed realism of the early scenes eventually gives way to the same kind of teary-eyed chest-beating and speechafyin' that screenwriter Paul Haggis has become infamous for.
The story revolves around the grunts who hoisted the flag in that famous photo and then got pulled back to the States to go on a war bond tour. On the tour, firecrackers and other shocks jolt their memories of the fighting. This sounds like good movie fodder, but monkeywrench, thy name is Haggis. The 'collective crisis of conscience' motif that Haggis invented in Crash, where everyone stands around feeling sorry for themselves and talking in circles, has now been shoehorned into a period story. For example, there's a teacup tempest over whether or not the soldiers in question actually lifted the famous flag, or another that was lifted afterwards. If they aren't the original lifters, does that affect their status as "heroes?" If someone lifted the real flag halfway up, is he half a hero? What's the lifting-to-hero ratio? To the real stormers of Iwo Jima, talk like this would probably have sounded as creepy as the honey-voiced Tokyo Rose on the radio, urging all G.I.s to "think of your girls back home."