Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers is largely noteworthy in terms of the project it ultimately became a part of: Eastwood’s Iwo Jima duology, also comprising Letters from Iwo Jima, a separate film telling the same events from the Japanese perspective. I have yet to see the companion film, but hopefully it is more satisfying and purposeful than Flags, which in its own right struggles to justify its existence.
It’s a shame to imply that an entire subgenre has to be shut down for a while, especially given how vitally important it is for us to continue to remember and consider the events depicted, but World War II cinema is in danger of repeating itself to the point of numbness. After the 1998 defining one-two punch of Saving Private Ryan, with its visceral immersion, and the existential contemplation of war’s nature in The Thin Red Line, new approaches must be found to honouring the fallen on film, as collectively Spielberg and Malick’s pictures form a definitive exploration of the topic for our generation. Flags of our Fathers’s sensibility stands somewhere between the two, although its battle scenes are sadly cut from the same cloth as Private Ryan. Partly due to the precedent that Spielberg set, they cannot compare in intensity and are redundant due to the similarities. Conversely, Eastwood quietly examines the toll of war, but unlike Malick, keeps his analysis more grounded and resists the big questions.
This is where he could have found a purpose for Flags, but we are kept at arm’s length. The narrative alternates between the battle for Iwo Jima and three of its soldiers enlisted to campaign for financial support for the war back home. They were among those in the iconic flag-raising photo that inspired the book by James Bradley and this adaptation, which reveal the shameless commercialisation of the war and its soldiers for the sake of perpetuating it. We follow John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) through one publicity stunt after another, and each have varying degrees of resistance to the process. Sadly, Beach’s amounts to a lot of unearned crying, Phillippe is too stoic and betrays insufficient feeling to evoke our sympathy, and Bradford, the most interesting of the three, does well with a different performance pitch for a war film, but he isn’t enough to save the story.
Flags is tragically restrained, almost stately, and while it is essential that we keep our soldiers and their stories in the public memory, I hope that we can do better than this. Innovation is not just in the interest of the viewers, because by forming new approaches and perspectives on this material, we do further justice to the immense psychological and ideological complexity of war and the struggles of its fighters, or at least the most of the little we ever can. Quentin Tarantino may eventually film his World War II project Inglorious Bastards, and while his cool, pop sensibilities run the risk of making war more shamefully entertaining than the movie biz has already made it, his idiosyncrasies may be wedded to a sophistication and respect, which together will hopefully illuminate a new facet of the miasma of conflict. This should be the goal of any war film after so much has been achieved in the genre, and not just for we film buffs.