Sunday, October 22, 2006
War is hell. Calling a man a “hero” does not make him one. True heroes do not think of themselves as such. And, in the case of the WWII Marines in the world famous flag-raising photo of Iwo Jima, heroes are marketed, not made.
All of these ideas are established by William Broyles, Jr.’s and Paul Haggis’s screenplay for Flags of Our Fathers, and then revisited…and revisited…and revisited. From a storytelling standpoint, the film leaves much to be desired; it awkwardly threads together three separate timeframes, one of which is barely filled out at all, and makes its themes evident from the beginning. The strongest complaints against Haggis’s previous screenplays for Million Dollar Baby and Crash concerned their thematic exposition and lack of subtlety, especially in terms of such wrenchingly complex issues as euthanasia and racism. Flags continues this trend, putting into the mouths of characters such explicit statements of thesis and moral that one whole plotline (a post-photograph publicity tour for war bonds) amounts to a hokey, protracted lecture on all three of these topics: war, ethics, and racism.
Again and again the soldiers deflect admiration from themselves to their dead comrades; the military and governmental leaders look corrupt and bloodthirsty for financing their own little war; and Native American Marine Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) is the butt of bigoted epithets, jokes, and cruelty, while actually exhibiting several of the traits for which he is stereotyped. Kudos for at least attempting to paint the leadership of the Pacific theater campaign as less than rosy, but it doesn’t help that those men are just as caricatured as the main figures. This is not even to mention the dessert-shaped-like-the-flag-raising scene, perhaps the most painfully obvious explanatory symbol in recent cinematic memory, only furthering the film as historical lecture rather than a living, breathing narrative. Not to mention that one of the Marines explicates the truth about the flag-raising photograph minutes before the scene itself unfolds more or less as described. Repetition and heavy-handedness dull the impact of what halfway interesting things Flags of Our Fathers actually does have to say regarding the establishment of heroic figures for national pride, at any cost.
Modern audiences may in fact recognize this sentiment more than a period audience would have. Instant celebrities (just add drama!) are a dime-a-dozen, especially ones who happened to be at the right place at the right time. The screenplay hammers this point home with the soldiers’ protestations, the most limelight-hungry Marine even conveniently deflecting praise at a crucial public gathering. The only difference between manmade celebrities then and now seems to be an acute psychological collision of national duty and physical horror that plays directly into the military’s hands. Despite learning to loathe the spotlight, the soldiers are still pressed forward both from within, by an understandable sense of honor mingled with regret for their comrades’ fates, and from without, despite (or because of?) the exaggerated money-hungry eyes of the military and political leaders. This interesting dichotomy is facilely presented but hardly investigated, elbowed out of the way by repeated motifs of the photograph in various forms and Ira Hayes getting drunk and sobbing. Basically, subtlety is not Flags of Our Fathers’ strong suit.
Intercut with these trite and prolonged events is the actual invasion of Iwo Jima, which, at times, almost makes one forget the rest of the film. Director Clint Eastwood, a modern yet classical workman like no other, stages the battle with violent immediacy that clearly recalls Saving Private Ryan, directed by Flags’ co-producer Steven Spielberg. Looking even further into the past, Eastwood hearkens back to black-and-white newsreel footage with washed-out colors and desaturation, lending the film an authenticity if not a realistic look. It gels with what World War II has been shown to look like in previous films and on television. No matter how many battle scenes are staged, however, there is still a visceral gut-punch that accompanies the slaughter of GIs on a beach, whether you know that the entrails and severed limbs are artificial or not. The film works well here, where “war is hell” can be seen and heard, not merely said. It permeates the machine gun sounds, the frenzied cries of servicemen charging and retreating. Even from this point, Flags is hardly groundbreaking stuff, but Eastwood the stylist produces a nonetheless compelling portrait of men dwarfed by combat on a world scale, where facelessness is the nature of the beast. That’s why the best moment in the film, the probable mutilation and murder of a young Marine discovered by a friend, is silent and not shown, even when the aftermaths of grenades and bullet wounds are on display. It is a testament to the unspeakable character of warfare, even in as seemingly justified a context as World War II. It touches a deeper nerve than Haggis’s and Broyles’s telegraphed speeches about “dying for my country” and “we weren’t the real heroes.”
Eastwood puts little political commentary into these battles, save some unsettling shots from the points of view of the Japanese pillboxes, perhaps anticipating his companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima. Here’s hoping that that film can create interesting characters and investigate its subject, rather than belabor its ideas with hackneyed exposition and rudimentary symbol.