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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Film: Flags Of Our Fathers Fails to Reach The Summit

Adam Beach salutes the train station...

Clint Eastwood has had a remarkable career as a director. His most recent set of films is far and away his best set of work and has erased the collective critical memory of clunkers like Absolute Power or The Rookie. He has built up enough clout as an auteur to get Warner Bros. to pony up for two World War II films on the Battle of Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers which explores the American experience and Letters from Iwo Jima which takes the Japanese perspectives. I have yet to see the more praised Japanese version but Flags of Our Fathers comes across as a very skilled and interesting film that is fatally hobbled by an ill-advised framing device.

In essence, the film is told as a flashback Citizen Kane -style, though it takes some time to reveal that the reporter doing the digging is the son of one of our protags. The film starts with his father suffering what looks to be a heart attack before we are flashed back into the action but every once in a while we are bought back forward again as a transition before finally wrapping the film up in the present.

All of this time spent on a poorly-deployed storytelling device would have been better used by adding some depth and dimension to our lead and secondary characters. The actors are game, Ryan Phillipe is the noble doctor, Jesse Bradford is a charming ne'er do well and Adam Beach is a Native American overachiever. What unites them all is their participation in the famous flag raising at Iwo Jima which resulted in what was the most indelible image of the war for most Americans.

Ostensibly this is Phillipe's character's story -- it's his son who does the digging in the wraparound -- but Beach has the more interesting story and the performance he gives steals the film from his co-stars. Centering on Beach's tortured soul would also have helped frame the most interesting aspect to this true story -- the use of the famous photo as a fund-raising and morale tool and the many questions surrounding the "reality" of the photo itself.

This is the real meat of the film. The impressively filmed battle sequences are all meant to contrast the glad-handing and banqueteering the three men were meant to engage in while the rest of their units were still out fighting in the field. Beach -- who never wanted to be pulled away from the fighting -- drinks to escape from the synthetic heroism that's been thrust upon him. He also bears the cross of his Native American heritage in the face of ignorant comments and nicknames (practically everyone calls him "Chief") and continued prejudice in civilian life.

There is a great movie in here trying to get out, but ultimately too much time is spent by Director Eastwood and talented screenwriters Paul Haggis and William Broyles Jr. on things that take us away from the story. The icing on the cake is the cloying sentimentality of the ending sequence which wraps up the framing device but negates the hard-nosed questioning of the meaning of heroism, war and the power of images that should be at the center of the film.

Flags gets 3 out of 5 flags:

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