As much as the flag raising atop Mount Suribachi was a triumph of symbol over substance, Flags of Our Fathers is a far better concept than a completed work. To tackle the sacred generation of World War II with a movie less than celebratory would be damn near treasonous, and surely would call into question the patriotism of its director, were he not an untouchable†giant like Clint Eastwood. Thematically, this was daring indeed: rather than lionize the men who appeared in that iconic photograph, their lives as manipulated heroes (mere product, rather than flesh) would be studied, thereby indicting the home front in a phony campaign of uplift. Because so many believe that the 1940s were harmonious, united, noble, and clean, few want to hear about the self-deception that passed for patriotism, both at the individual and governmental level. As a result, I was up for Eastwoodís take, even if Iím about ready to declare my own war on monotonous battle sequences that are so rote at this late date that Iím more inclined to treat them as opportunities for cat-naps than moments of vicarious thrill. A meditation on the very meaning of heroism, then, was exactly what this genre needed.
Much to my disappointment, Eastwood painted around the edges of his idea; peppering his canvas with a pointed turn here, and a dash of biting commentary there, but failing to follow through until the very end. It became quite clear as the film progressed that it would have worked as an exclusive conversation about post-war propaganda, but the gunfire and muted tones of Iwo Jima kept getting in the way. It seems odd to blast such raw, visceral imagery, but each moment the men were on that blood-soaked island, my mind wandered and my eyes felt the weight of fatigue. Itís not that Iím numb to the horror, or so disinclined to care about these military men because of contemporary folly that they become mere clay pigeons for sport. Instead, I never fully understood how seeing so much of the battle, seemingly in its entirety, enhanced the much sharper tale to be told back at home. Sure, many films had asked tough questions about the enlisted man and his journey back to a semi-normal life (The Best Years of Our Lives being the best of the lot), but none had so openly declared its cynicism; how soldiers become pawns in a larger game to make money, hold onto power, and inspire a nation to unthinkingly endorse continued slaughter. We know war is hell, for fuckís sake; pressing on is either a counter-cynical move to force a shedding of tears for their sacrifice, or a nod to creative bankruptcy and the sense that in any movie dealing with war, not showing the battlefield flirts with heresy.
The three primary characters — ďDocĒ Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) — are the surviving members of that classic image, though questions remain about who posed where, and who might have been in the first picture, or even not present at all. Officials in Washington donít much care, as there are war bonds to be sold, and eager crowds waiting to be charmed. A particularly nasty member of the Treasury Department knows the score: the United States government, even in the last days, is running out of money, the dollar is worthless due to excessive borrowing, and unless more people kick in to foot the bill, we might be forced to the bargaining table with an enemy that refuses to quit. How much of that is true is beside the point; the war machine must continue to churn, and these boys must do their duty and drum up support. Americans love a hero, the details be damned, and we can worry about the facts once this Jap menace has been cleared from the Pacific. Again, thatís a wonderful premise for a movie, and whenever it hit these notes, I woke up and paid attention. Unfortunately, they were mere moments, and before long, we were back in the trenches on an island that looked suspiciously like either a Hollywood set or CGI paradise, depending on whether it was day or night. Here come the waves of soldiers, hear them groan, watch limbs tear from bodies, and wrap it up with a call for a medic. Catch me in a month, or perhaps next year, and maybe Iíll be in a different mood. On this day, at this hour, I was bored shitless.
Again, as the men made their way to gatherings, parades, baseball games, and Iwo Jima mock-ups, I was primed for a devastating look at the manner in which war is transformed into a marketing device for the ready consumption of clueless civilians. And yet, even these brief flashes of power were undermined by tired flashbacks that are no doubt of consequence to those who experience them, but cinematic poison for the viewer when pounded repeatedly into our brains. Moreover, much of the interaction between the soldiers and the bureaucrats escorting them to and fro seemed forced and inauthentic, as if no one actually believed in the script. This might have something to do with the altogether listless performances by much of the cast, but in this case, Iím not so sure Eastwood has a feel for the period. I never believed for a second that I was inhabiting 1940s America, and instead felt a jarring lapse whenever I was asked to believe otherwise. And while the contemporary scenes literally brought us forward (Docís son is narrating off and on, while conducting interviews for the book that inspired this movie), they too didnít ring as true as they should have. At bottom, though, I hated the very idea that the film would be framed by the author himself, and that it wasnít enough to move to the past and stay there.
Ah, but had the film not taken this perspective, how else would we have gotten the point — that it is we who need to see those who fought in World War II not as supermen, but mere mortals doing a duty for their brethren. Itís not about king, country, glory, and riches; simply the man to your left or the man to your right. Apparently, it is imperative that we experience, along with the narrator/son, the truth that ordinary folks went to war for each other most of all. Simple, clean, masculine. So masculine, in fact, that most never uttered another word about those terrible days, forcing nostalgic children to dig through old boxes and musty attics to discover faded photos, tear-stained letters, and dusty medals that would inspire mid-life reassessments and endless shelves of memoirs. So despite filling us in about the fates of the other soldiers (Ira, for example, drinks himself silly, wanders off, and is found frozen to death in a bale of hay), the focus narrows and dwells solely on Doc. He eschews the spotlight (every Memorial Day, he has his kids lie for him and say he canít make a reunion), becomes unremarkably suburban, and then, as a yammering geezer — donít do it Clint, not here, not now — collapses on the stairs screaming for his lost Iggy (Jamie Bell), only to end up in a hospital bed on the brink of death. His son is there to witness the final breath, but not before dear old dad apologizes for ďnot talking moreĒ and being a better father. The son wells up and says that he was the best father anyone could ask for. Itís schmaltzy, phony, unnecessary, and above all, destroys in one fell swoop any and all meaning built up by the movie. And hell, I accept that the guy kicked ass on that island so many years ago, but must he be Superdad as well? When a son does nothing to contradict expressions of guilt and regret by a dying father, Iíll cheer in the fucking aisles.
Needless to say, Steven Spielberg produced Flags of Our Fathers, and the final scenes could easily be attributed to him, as maybe Clint was out of the country or perhaps unconscious. Spielberg is literally consumed by his need to explore the father/son dynamic, and the crushing emotionalism in this film seemed too unlike the usually measured Eastwood to have any other explanation. Sure, Clintís an old salt and sometimes a cranky conservative, but he also helped demystify the Western, most assuredly the historic refuge of old fashioned Americanism, so heís not above punching a few sacred cows. But when Docís family embraced in the hospital hall, and the music swelled, I had to choke something back, though that something was far more acidic than tears. And a final image of soldiers at play — swimming after the battle of Iwo Jima had finally come to an end — felt more sledgehammer than soothing embrace, and I wondered yet again why Americans, who usually recoil at the slightest hint of homoeroticism, are bathed in the glow of their own righteousness when men with guns tumble and turn and tickle in the surf. And why is it acceptable to kill and die for a bunk mate? A picture of a hot dame back home, or even the deluded notion that the country was on a noble crusade, fine, but a fellow private? I may loathe war and find its practitioners at all levels to be robotic and terrifying, but philosophically, if it must be waged, Iíd sure as shit rather have that army risking all for an idea than some dude who looks good with his shirt off.
Still, in its own way, the film does make clear that these three soldiers were used, exploited, and then quietly forgotten by a public just happy to be able to buy nylons again. Even an event as all-consuming and epic as World War II can fade from memory, despite the Herculean efforts of countless journalists and baby boomers to keep it on the front burner. That war is now safely tucked away as the ďgood warĒ and one devoid of any real controversy. Of course, stopping Nazi Germany and imperial Japan was essential if the continued health of democracy meant anything at all, but the war has been so stripped of complexity that rational conversations about some of its less than savory details have become nearly impossible. Whether it was the segregated military, or the racist home front being defended†in the name of†freedom, or even the Hobsonís choice between Hitler and Stalin, those times were far from unambiguous. There were enough atrocities to go around. Flags of Our Fathers could also have been a way to shed light on our own unhealthy preoccupations and distortions, from Jessica Lynch to Pat Tillman. Or how the very people who speak so highly of the fighting man while heís ďin harmís wayĒ are the least likely to give a shit once he returns home. All hoped for; all lost to confusion. It could have been a strike right at the heart of the bullshit we so readily use as our collective blanket, but instead poked around, meandered for a time, and retreated to the safety of sentiment.