Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers dips below the 400-screen mark this week (362 to be precise). It seems to me that the response to this film has been polite, but not particularly enthusiastic, and so it should be interesting to ponder it a bit further.
When I reviewed this film over a month ago, I found it useful to consider the last time Eastwood directed a war film, which was exactly 20 years ago: Heartbreak Ridge. The two films couldn't be more different. Heartbreak Ridge is a gung-ho tale about a tough-as-nails soldier (Eastwood) who drinks and smokes and disobeys orders, snarling at those wimps that want to do everything by the book. Flags of Our Fathers also questions the official, by-the-book record of things, but does it in a more thoughtful, more mature manner. It's clear that Eastwood has grown up.
But at the same time, I find that the two films are very much products of their times. Heartbreak Ridge appeared right in the thick of the Rambo/Reagan years -- a simple time, when it felt good to kick some butt and raise a cheer. Flags of Our Fathers appears in a rather more complex time. On the one hand, it wants to criticize the fruitless, stupid nature of war, but on the other hand it doesn't want to appear unpatriotic or to criticize those who have nobly given of themselves to defend our country. This attempting to bridge the gap by pleasing both sides has frankly crippled most war films from the past ten years. Now a war film comes tightly wound, terrified and exceedingly serious. Even a silly action movie like The Guardian (332 screens), based on the Coast Guard, has strangled itself before it has a chance to breathe.