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Flags of Our Fathers

Flawed, But (Almost) Worthwhile

With Steven Spielberg stepping in as executive producer and co-screenwriters Paul Haggis (The Last Kiss, Crash, Million Dollar Baby) and William Broyles Jr. (Jarhead, Unfaithful), Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River) takes a step back in time as a follow-up to his last film, the Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby, to adapt the non-fiction book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, Flags of Our Fathers, about Bradley’s father and the men who fought and died (aka the Greatest Generation) in the battle for Iwo Jima during World War II.

In the spring of 1945, the war in Europe was almost at an end. The war against Japan, however, would last through August. Forcing Japan to surrender would come at a high price, as the American military was forced to “island hop”, each time facing a determined enemy. Iwo Jima, an eight-square mile Japanese island, held strategic importance to both the Japanese and the United States. Japan heavily fortified Iwo Jima and awaited the inevitable invasion by the United States. The battle lasted 40 days, with 70,000 American soldiers up against more than 20,000 Japanese troops, most of them hiding in a vast network of caves and man-made tunnels. Almost 7,000 U.S. servicemen died in the battle for Iwo Jima while the Japanese lost all but 1,000 men.

Flags of Our Fathers is structured across three different, interlocking times, starting in the (near) present, as an elderly man awakes in a cold sweat, reliving memories from his combat experience in World War II, then segueing to the opening moments of the chaotic battle for Iwo Jima. Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) are introduced while training for the upcoming invasion of Iwo Jima, the movie then follows them through the first days of the battle. On the fifth day of the battle, the United States flag is raised on Mt. Suribachi. An Associated Press photographer, Joe Rosenthal, arrives just in time to snap a photo of the flag raising. The photo becomes the iconic representation of American will power and military might. As the only flag raising survivors, Hayes, Bradley, and Gagnon are temporarily reassigned stateside to participate in a war bonds tour. They are treated as heroes and celebrities.

Unfortunately, Flags of Our Fathers doesn’t overcome the similarities with Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. The opening battle scenes, complete with a desaturated color palette, realistic, explicit violence and handheld camerawork, can be traced directly to Saving Private Ryan. That means, of course, that the present-day scenes are heavily sentimentalized, heavy-handed, and ultimately unnecessary. Here, Eastwood and Haggis draw voiceover narration from the book, but the voiceover adds nothing we haven’t already experienced directly through images and sound.

That aside, Flags of Our Fathers has more to say about the conflicts and contradictions that divided American society and culture during the 40s, even as Americans found themselves united by the war and common enemies -- the Germans in the European theater and the Japanese in the Pacific theater. Visually, though, Eastwood and his production staff have crafted a series of arresting images almost as iconic as the flag-raising scene at the core of the film.

For attention to detail, Eastwood deserves credit, but whatever praise Flags of Our Fathers gets should be heavily qualified. A little more trust (of their audience) and a little less sermonizing about the meaning of heroism would have been welcome. It also would have made Flags of Our Fathers a more watchable film.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars