Ah, we meet again, Eastwood.
In reviews past, I’ve discussed how Clint Eastwood has a palatable versatility on the tonal scale. I’ve personally appreciated how humble he can be in honing his craft while still making visual sonnets. He doesn’t have to include any special effects. Everything’s raw, genuine, and unabridged. His films from the 2000s I’ve seen from him juxtapose masterful cinematography with cold, savvy storytelling. From the naturalistic character study of Gran Torino to the lyricism of Invictus, modesty seems to be an undercurrent in his narratives, lately. His films are the equivalent of that pretty girl who doesn’t shove her beauty in your face.
However, whatever happened to Clint Eastwood films where the narratives are as overblown as the visuals? Whatever happened to Clint Eastwood films where the motives were lofty and the pretensions are sky high? Whatever happened to Clint Eastwood films that left one quoting it three years after the film was out? Well, I haven’t seen his films from the 2010s, but until then, I dunno. You’re not really gonna find the affirmative answers in Flags of Our Fathers.
Now, I’m sure you’re wondering how I cannot call the film “lofty” and “pretentious” when it’s not merely a Clint Eastwood film, but a Clint Eastwood war film, a genre that provides most of the heavier, direct, and extreme films, moreso than horror. However, there’s a little more going on in this film. The film does have hefty ambitions, though. It’s the first of a two-part saga, centering on the Iwo Jima era in World War II. Surprisingly, the film, told via flashbacks, doesn’t focus primarily on the battle, but more on the photograph that sprung from it: the picture of the soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima.
You see, there is apparently more history behind the photo than one might think. Apparently, there was an implanting of the flag before the photo was taken. It was a glorious and proud moment. However, the Secretary of the Navy demanded the flag, which really pissed off the colonel of the Marines. His solution to the problem was to secretly take down that flag, put up a replacement flag, make the Secretary of the Navy think it’s the original flag, and the Marines keep the original flag. Six other Marines do this and a photo is captured of this merely petty event. However, this is the image that becomes implanted into the minds of U.S. citizens, who see it as a symbol of hope and courage. The Marines from this photo are brought home from war to be the heroes.
Back to the original burning question: How is this subtle? On the surface, I would ask myself the same thing. Eastwood’s knack for displaying an unmistakable visual prowess is here. The cinematography is astounding. In the daytime, it is translucent. In the nighttime, it is solemn, bathing itself in an austere, hazy color palette. All the time, it is poetic and whopping, even including a haunting and frightening POV shot.
The music is used poignantly and minimally. Its motive is not to evoke emotion. Its motive is to portray emotion and let you, the audience, do the rest. I also appreciated the brooding, grandfather-like narration. I also appreciate Eastwood’s brazen structure of the film. The film, as previously mentioned, is told via flashbacks. Sometimes, there are flashbacks within a flashback, proceeding afterwards to flash forward in a flashback. There may’ve even been flash forwards to the present and then, flashing back to a flashback within a flashback.
Confused? I’m not. I made it through Inception.
I think that it is absolutely ingenious. While I kinda wished that instead of flashing back in flashbacks, the film just simultaneously showed the idealistic glamour and importance of heroism with the macabre, lurid reality still occurring, the flashbacks can reveal a somber, aching, melancholic truth. The film is crafted in an audacious, unbridled fashion with, assuredly, sweeping battle scenes.
While watching the film, I found myself comparing it to Saving Private Ryan. The battle scenes in that film were gritty and visceral. This film’s battles are a little more artistic, sophisticated, and thematic, not quite going for the severe gore, with the exception of an extremely graphic image in a non-battle scene, and not going overboard with the shaky cam. Additionally, whilst the battles in both films denote the intensity of war, Private Ryan captures more of the danger, whereas Flags of Our Fathers captures more of the fear. During the former, I felt tense. During the latter, I felt sympathetic.
I described the film’s battles as thematic. The thematic area is where the modesty of the film can be found. The film impressively portrays themes of commitment and friendship, but the thematic highlight of the film involves the unobtrusive yet provocative theme on what a hero is. The philosophy of Saving Private Ryan was manifest, expected, and passé. Here, it’s taut, restrained, and thought provoking. A whole slew of questions entered my brain: What classifies as a hero? Do heroes actually exist? Is it the actions one does or is it doing something at the right place at the right time? Is it right to act like a hero to offer optimism in times of distress or does that make you a phony attention whore? Should people feel an obligation to be treated like heroes after they accomplish “heroic” acts?
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film where so many questions have appeared in my brain in such a sudden yet sneaky manner. The film also provides some wry commentary on the excessive, occasionally ridiculous, nature of WWII propaganda. When the film shows scenes of women singing corny WWII songs, you can feel the film incredulously chuckling to itself.
Even some of the imagery is controlled. When the surviving “heroes” go to a banquet and the film shifts to a shot with ice cream in the shape of the photo, which has fudge with a somewhat red shade poured on it, it’s one of the most cleverly acerbic and fiendishly poignant scenes I’ve seen on film. Also, it’s a miracle that, given Clint Eastwood’s Republican background (which I don’t see how that can be, seeing how he supports gay marriage), he doesn’t emanate a right wing, overblown, “USA” attitude.
Another facet of the film that blew me away was the character development. You know that in some war films, I find the development of the characters recycled, sparse, and banal. This pet peeve was mine was present in scenes before the Iwo Jima battle where the characters are depicted as the same old testosterone-encompassing punks who say quasi-funny dialogue and have thin personalities, which was one of my main issues with Saving Private Ryan. However, once the hero aspect of the film came into play and even during the battle scenes, the characters began to obtain depth, weight, and texture.
Even some of the other characters, outside of the Marines, are meaty. For example, there’s this one man who discovers the fact that the widely beloved photo wasn’t the real, essential photo. This angers him and pretty much tells the present “heroes” to act as the concrete heroes. He brings us financial reasons, but he isn’t some superficial, sneering, money grabber. He actually backs up his outrage with legit historical context. His perspective makes sense.
Even though I couldn’t name a single familiar actor from the film until I looked it up on Wikipedia (some of them include Ryan Phillippe, Paul Walker, and Barry Pepper), the Marines are far superior actors in this film than in Saving Private Ryan. I even remembered the names of some of them. My favorite was Ira Hayes, portrayed by Adam Beach, because I felt that his characterization was the most complex, impressive, and sober. He hates the idea of leaving his unit to go be a “hero” and his post WWII life is unfortunate and sad. His outcome is portrayed with spare composition, beautiful landscapes, and a gentle acoustic score. This solidifies that heroism isn’t synonymous with simplistic glamour, whether it’s before, during, or after it. The film gets a little schmaltzy and maudlin towards the end, but instead of groaning, I found myself buying it hook, line, and sinker. It worked because we are given adequate development for all the characters.
Partial credit for the brilliance of the screenplay goes to one of the two writers Paul Haggis, director, producer, and screenwriter of Crash, one of my favorite films. The other screenwriter is William Broyles, Jr., who penned Cast Away, Jarhead, The Polar Express, and a bunch of other films. Credit for the brilliance of the film, as a whole, goes to everyone. Spielberg assembled a well-oiled machine that got up and over the hill, but not without a few spurts of failure. Eastwood assembled a well-oiled machine that goes up and over the hill at 140. Eastwood, you’ve made my day!