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Flags of our Fathers Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

War movies today tend to lose their edge realistically, especially due to their lack of individual conflict and visceral images from the battlefields. Many today are broad depictions of attacks, mostly to strike a patriotic (or non-patriotic) nerve for its intended audience. It's a different case with Clint Eastwood's Flags of our Fathers, the first part of his Iwo Jima retrospective. Joe Rosenthal's famous photo of the siege's flag-raising has had mental images burned into the minds of Americans since its first release, but little has been known about the true stories. Based on the factual novel by James Bradley (the son of the film's narrative), Flags unleashes a vivid story onto the viewer, but only dives halfway into its potential. Some weak acting and messy editing alters the film, leaving many - including myself - confused on its central message. The concept of heroes is purely personal, but it feels at time that Eastwood is trying to strain a neutral stance out of his viewers. Still, Clint's keen eye for cinematography and the brash, dark visuals lend a hand to what could have been a very dangerous project - yet it still shoots some blanks.

Despite its implied connection with victory over Iwo Jima, the flag raising was done after a mere five days of battle. The film follows a brigade of soldiers who destroy as much opposition as possible located on or around Mount Suribachi, a volcanic feature on the island of Iwo Jima. After believing they've killed all enemies in their section, the soldiers - compiled of Navy corpsman John Bradley (Phillippe), runner Rene Gagnon (Bradford), Native American soldier Ira Hayes (Beach), sergeant Michael Strank (Pepper), Franklin Sousley (Joseph Cross), and Harlon Block (Benjamin Walker) - raise the replacement flag after a commanding general asked to keep the first flag for himself. Rosenthal (Ned Eisenberg) then takes the photo, which is plastered across newspapers worldwide. A sensation rages across the land, and the three surviving soldiers - Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes - are shipped back to the States to start a heavy PR tour urging citizens to buy bonds immediately. Still living with the loss of their dead friends and feeling pressured by the government to use their fame for a marketing ploy, Flags unfolds the events of the three soldiers.

Ryan Phillippe gives an unusually subtle performance as John Bradley, who tends to be the most reserved of the three soldiers. He's your average Joe in the war, fighting for his country and doing his best to preserve freedom. Bradley is no furious patriot nor is he forced into the war, but he's merely looking out for the future of the USA. Phillippe is strictly plain vanilla, and in this case, it works. [PAGEBREAK] Jesse Bradford plays Rene Gagnon, the over-enthusiastic runner (non-battling) soldier whose moment of fame came with raising one flag. Bradford jumps onto the screen in flying colors, but even his own guilt for not doing more begins to effect his character. Gagnon is not really the most sympathetic of the three, and finds himself lost after his fame wears away. Somehow, the character - along with its respective acting job - feels unimportant and never factors in thematically. Adam Beach, who plays Native American Ira Hayes, feels misplaced. Despite having the "look" of the character, his emotional facets never feel in touch with the real Hayes. Rather, Beach is the "lost" soldier, but the character never strikes a nerve with the audience. Barry Pepper's performance as sergeant Mike Strank is the more affecting supporting characters, uniting the group together for the flag raising.

Visually, Flags looks fantastic. The battle scenes are almost entirely saturated, to stir emotion into the island of Iwo Jima, and effectively separating the soldier's war memories with their trips across the US. Colors of dark grey and blue fill the landscape, with only fire and gunplay to strike contrast on the battlefields. But as for the story itself, Eastwood becomes so caught up in explaining the veterans' stories fact-by-fact, that it loses its dramatic human touch. Once the first title card passes, an aged John Bradley (played by actor George Grizzard) quotes, "Every jackass thinks they know about war." I was waiting for a wise response to this, and I waited. And waited. And before I knew it, two hours had flown past me, and I was none the wiser. I feel Eastwood's intentions for Flags of our Fathers were faithful to those who died in the battle, but sadly, the upcoming viscera and death toll shadows the audience from a broad perspective of war. True, the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima became a press opportunity that blocks three good soldiers from doing more from their country, but their willingness to take on their fame made them heroic in another fashion. But beyond all the confusing flashbacks and the concentration of Ira's personal struggle with alcohol, there was a great movie.

Flags of our Fathers hits the heartstrings here and there, but it failed to thoroughly provoke me. It will be different for every audience member, perhaps depending on a political stance you take, or considering our involvement with the Iraqi war. But Eastwood's attempt at the vulnerable war epic barely passes safe territory.

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