John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira “Chief” Hayes (Adam Beach) are three of the many Marines involved with the World War II battle for the Japanese stronghold, Iwo Jima. Initially, they arrive on the island and meet little resistance, and then the Japanese open their bunkers and start firing on the unsuspecting U.S. Marines. The targets are the big guns the Japanese have built into the rock of the island, protecting the path to Japan. The battle is hard, and they witness many bad things, but the Marines eventually win the battle. Early in the battle, Doc, Chief and Gagnon are among the soldiers who raise the flag on the island, providing the iconic image of the battle and the war. A photographer snaps their picture and the image appears in newspapers and magazines across the country, giving the public hope. The government, in a financial crisis, realizes this photo could help sell war bonds, save the government from bankruptcy and help win the war. They decide to bring the surviving soldiers back to America, to speak and make public appearances. Gagnon is only too happy to oblige, and get out of the line of fire. He provides the names of Doc and Chief and the three begin a cross country tour. Along the way, Chief turns to drink to help drown the memories of his fallen comrades.
Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis (“Crash”, “Million Dollar Baby”), “Flags of our Fathers” is the first of two films depicting the same event from different viewpoints. Next year, we will see a film telling the Japanese viewpoint of this same battle hits the multiplexes. This is an interesting idea. But it doesn’t help make “Flags of our Fathers” better than it is. “Flags” is an okay film, a competent film, but not a great film.
I have mentioned it before, but when a filmmaker makes a series of great or outstanding films, they raise the bar for themselves along with everyone else. After “Unforgiven”, “Million Dollar Baby” and “Mystic River “ from director Clint Eastwood and “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash” from screenwriter Haggis, you would expect “Flags” to be a great film. Because it isn’t, it seems like even more of a let down.
There are two key problems with the film. The first is the method of telling the story.
The film begins in the present, with the elderly Doc, who now owns a funeral home. He wakes up at night, next to his wife, frightened by nightmares of Iwo Jima. Then, as the film progresses, we go back to just before the Marines leave for the battle and meet the three men and some of their buddies. Then, we flash forward a couple of months to the three men on tour promoting war bonds, dealing with the memories of the people left behind. These memories cause a flash back to another key moment in the battle. Flash forward to present day and Doc’s son talking to various survivors of Iwo Jima about the event, which leads to more flash backs. I don’t mind a story that jumps around a bit; in fact I prefer it, because it makes us an active participant in the story, allowing us to figure things out. But to make this a success, the characters have to be fleshed out and memorable. That isn’t the case in “Flags”. During the present day scenes, we never get a sense of who Doc’s son is. He meets with various survivors, interviewing them, and we also see him writing a book about his father’s experiences. Who is this guy? Is he a writer? Why is he just now writing this book? At one point, Doc tells his son “I wish I had been a better father.” Huh? This is the first moment we have ever seen of discord in their relationship. In fact, it is one of the few moments we have even seen them together.
Eastwood used a similar technique in "The Bridges of Madison County". Two adult siblings learn about an affair their mother had in the 60s with a National Geographic photographer, after she dies. They read a letter from her, talking about the affair and what it meant to her, prompting a flash back and the main story. But in "Bridges" we actually learn about these characters.
In "Flags", this character is largely unknown to us, giving us no involvement in his story or his life.
A couple of the people the son interviews are unknown until we realize, through the flash back, who they are. I was unable to place one of the subjects, even while watching the flashbacks. How does this help us become emotionally invested in the story? It doesn’t. We have to know who the characters are, to become interested in them, to become invested in their actions, the horrors they witness and their lives.
All of this would be forgiven if the three main characters, or their colleagues, had a discernible character during their appearances. Ryan Phillippe plays Doc, a Navy Corpsman who accompanies the Marines, providing medical assistance as they are wounded. Despite one scene in which he searches for a lost patient, he merely stands around as an observer, helping people, but he seems little affected by the events during the war. During their tour of the States, his sole purpose seems to be to provide a shoulder for "Chief" to lean against when he is drunk.
Jesse Bradford’s Rene Gagnon comes into his own when he arranges for certain people to return to the States, to escape the horrors of war. He reveals his personality, trying to work the angles to get a couple of his friends a ticket back home. As they tour, he meets with various businessmen who offer him a job when the war is over. In other words, Gagnon is looking out for himself. During the tour, he relishes the spotlight and the attention.
The real emotional center of the film is Adam Beach’s Ira Hayes. During the battle, he is most affected by the horrors of the war and when he returns home, he is plagued by nightmares. He turns to drink and becomes a sloppy drunk, not exactly what the government was hoping for, and to help promote the war bonds it so desperately needs to sell.
In almost every scene, Hayes is fighting with someone, trying to maintain the integrity of the battle they fought for Iwo Jima, or drowning himself in drink, because of all of the friends he lost. At one point, when the three are first staring the tour, the Treasury official who has arranged the tour, invites the mothers of the less fortunate Marines at Iwo Jima to attend a party. When Hayes meets the mother of his close friend, he breaks down and sobs onto her shoulder, holding onto her.
Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell and others pop up as other members of the Marine Corps, serving with the three survivors. Unfortunately, they make little impact and as the other three men mourn their lost comrades and I fought hard to remember their names every time Phillippe, Bradford or Beach mentioned them.
Perhaps the best part of the film is the depiction of the story behind the image. As the film progresses and we work our way through the various elements, we learn more and more about the iconic image. For instance, the flag was originally raised by another group of Marines. A photographer takes a picture of that as well, but the film is ruined. Then, because of other factors, the flag is raised again by Doc, Ira and Rene, among others. This photo survives. In the States, they tell the Treasury official of the first flag, who responds "Is anyone else getting a headache?" He wants to avoid this public relations nightmare.
And this photo strikes a chord with the public, giving them hope during an increasingly difficult war. Naturally, the government seeks to capitalize on this, immortalizing the moment in a dramatic painting, ice cream sculptures and reenactments. This powerful act, this image, became a public relations tool, an icon to get the message across. The government began to sell an image of this war the three men know isn’t true, but they go along with it, to help the war effort.
Technically, “Flags” is a well-done film. You would expect nothing less from Clint Eastwood and producer Steven Spielberg. They bring an eye to detail for every scene, recreating the States during the mid 40s, recreating the battle, searing these images into our brains. But they seem to have spent most of their effort on this, forsaking some of the character development. All the set dressing in the world can’t help make Doc or Gagnon into three dimensional characters. Then, when the story starts to visit these people in the present, we lose any emotional connection to them.
Why is Doc’s son writing the book? Why is Doc apologizing for how he raised his son? Because these questions are never answered, they will be the images and ideas from “Flags of our Fathers” that will live with me.
Next up, the Japanese point of view of the same story.