Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 10, 2006 4:15 am 
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Not a conventional war movie--but will people see that?

William Boyles Jr. and Paul Haggis' screenplay for Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers is a complex retelling of the Iwa Jima photo story, a contrast of the actual and the promotional, the pain and irony of real war vs. public images of heroism. Ultimately, the film tells us, there may be no heroes. At least those so identified can't see themselves as such: in wartime, the exaltation to hero status is something done, we're told, to please another audience -- those who weren't there when it all happened. What did happen? Eastwood is at work on a sequel about Iwa Jima as it appeared to the other side -- the Japanese -- so he evidently plans a contrasting, relativistic picture of things that will undercut old fashioned war propaganda. Eastwood and his team strip away war movie cliché as the director's Unforgiven denuded the western of its usual assumptions. And yet Flags isn't a revolutionary looking film; in many ways it feels old fashioned and conventional, as we'd probably expect from the staunchly conservative actor-filmmaker. This is a world far from the simple polarities of the "Dirty Harry" series, but the viewpoint and structure are almost more interesting than the final film.

The boys we've seen emerging from their basic training and being sent off to the operation suffer heavy losses the minute they hit the beach and then struggle to gain a few hundred feet. They knock out hidden Japanese emplacements on the mountain that seem inexhaustible. Whatever the larger aims of the generals, these guys fight to protect their comrades.

They see and do horrible things, and then once the photo of planting the flag (which was a gesture early in the battle and not by any means a sign of victory) appears in the newspapers, the actual roles in the operation of the boys in the picture (the ones found still alive) are distorted or overlooked when they're brought back stateside to help sell US War Bonds to rebuild the diminished US war chest and simultaneously to drum up support for the Pacific campaign. The facts behind the photo are many and complex.

The Iwa Jima flag-raising photo becomes a symbol. But the three men chosen, survivors from that photo, feel no sense of heroism and ultimately go unrewarded.

The film skillfully moves back and forth between the battle; the present when the son of one of the men is researching the events and writing about them; and the time when the three were toured around the country to raise money for the war effort. As they feel exploited during the tour, in an almost Rashomon-like process, they have flashbacks to their real experiences of Iwa Jima. Even the flag-raising moment is drenched in irony. One of the three, Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), a Marine, is an Indian who was involved in heavy combat. He did not want to come on this tour: he pleaded to be allowed to stay with his unit and fight. The pressures and perceived distortions of the publicity tour magnify his inner conflicts and he begins to drink heavily. Another of the three, Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), who was "just a messenger," has good looks and a positive manner that earn him many offers in real estate or with companies. All of these are forgotten when the tour is over and he winds up in a menial job for the rest of his life after an initial stint in a factory with his new wife. "Doc" Bradley, a Navy medic (Ryan Philippe), who was in the thick of the battle action, has particularly painful memories of the comrades he couldn't save, especially his buddy "Iggy" (Jamie Bell, touching and plangent as a representative of the idealistic and innocent American element of the war effort). The film is primarily based on the bestselling review of these events by "Doc's" son James Bradley. The sad story of Pima Indian Ira Hayes is well known from other sources.

Flags of Our Fathers may fall into convention with its voiceovers and Saving Private Ryan intro and framing device (not for nothing is Spielberg a producer). It's good at capturing the look and mood of young WWII soldiers, though, and its penetration behind the slogans and myths to the ironies is telling. This isn't as great an actor's vehicle as Million Dollar Baby was, but its complex editing and brilliantly orchestrated battle sequences are an amazing accomplishment for the now 76-year-old icon. I dare you to watch it and not have a lot of your buttons pushed -- and the old triggers come in fresh and thought-provoking contexts. The danger is that many may not perceive that, and just react to the battle sequences in the traditional ways. People may see the traditional war movie the trailors led them to expect.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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