Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers Is Powerful, But Lacks Connection Amongst Stories
by Alex Billington
October 16, 2006
Flags of Our Fathers is the first of two movies from director Clint Eastwood that tell the stories of soldiers in the Battle of Iwo Jima on both sides: the Japanese and the Americans. Flags of Our Fathers profiles the three Americans who raised the flag that became an iconic photo and statue. Flags of Our Fathers strives to be something epic and prolific through the emotions it provokes, but ends up leaving its comprehensive and vivid stories unconnected. Eastwood does a fantastic job of recreating the battles on Iwo Jima and telling the story of the three men being paraded around the nation to encourage people to buy war bonds. However there is such a substantial disconnection between theme and idea in Eastwood's stories that in the end the intended message is lost.
Flags of Our Fathers moves back and forth between a few stories. The first, and more enjoyable, is that of the actual battles on Iwo Jima purely from the viewpoint of the American soldiers (the Japanese side will be told in the upcoming film Letters from Iwo Jima). The three surviving soldiers who are later sent home and become the "heroes of Iwo Jima" are Marines Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Navy Corpsman John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe). In addition we are introduced to friends and fellow soldiers Sergeant Mike Strank (Barry Pepper), Hank Hansen (Paul Walker), and Ralph "Iggy" Ignatowski (Jamie Bell), among many others. After raising a replacement flag atop the mountain and having their photo taken, Hayes, Gagnon, and Bradley are sent back home to tour the country as the "heroes of Iwo Jima" and sell war bonds. What seems to be a story of hope for the American people at the time is really a story of tragedy for the three heroes and all of the soldiers at Iwo Jima. It's there as they tour the country that their lives begin to unravel.
Every single room they go into, including a kitchen, the three "heroes" are greeted with applause. It's truly tragic to see these men go from that incredible level of exhilaration into nearly nothing, unable to get jobs, and become entirely forgotten. Flags of Our Fathers is really a story of friendship. As stated by the narrator, "heroes are something we create, something we need." This message, this theme, draws out some powerful emotions and memories, and this is what Eastwood is looking to achieve. His mix of stories, including a current-day following of John "Doc" Bradley's son, is not edited well and does not come together as cleanly as it should have. Whereas all of the stories should have tied together at the end, they're left as loose pieces.
The portrayed experience on Iwo Jima was incredible. The initial fight scene was comparable in its brutality and shock-factor to that of the D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan. Eastwood can match Spielberg, who helped produce Flags of Our Fathers, in battlefield manipulation, but not in storytelling. Whereas the story on Iwo Jima showed the very vicious side and and deadly side of war, the story of the three soldiers on tour was meant to show the emotions and unforgettable memories that were created on Iwo Jima. As remarkable of a story as it was, both in its visual style and the characters, there was the connection to the central theme that was continually missing.
I have a certain affinity for Barry Pepper in war movies, and his performance in Flags of Our Fathers is no doubt one worthy of commendation. Pepper as Sergeant Mike Strank is a natural at acting in war roles and leads the group, along with Neal McDonough as Captain Severance. These two, with assistance from the young Jamie Bell as Ralph "Iggy" Ignatowski and Adam Beach as Ira Hayes, are what help turn the story of The Battle of Iwo Jima into the entertaining and astounding portion of Flags of Our Fathers. For those that aren't fond of watching endless war scenes, there are also plenty of great performances from Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, and Ira Hayes in their story as they become national heroes.
I saw the Flags of Our Fathers screening in a completely full 500-seat auditorium, where the mood entering was pure excitement, and where the mood leaving was rather somber - it truly had a powerful impact upon the audience. Flags is a significant achievement for Clint Eastwood and I am looking forward to seeing Letters from Iwo Jima to complete this pair of movies. What Eastwood has portrayed is amazing to see, but he can't seem to pull all of the material into a film that delivers the message exactly as he was looking to do.
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