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Friday, Oct. 27, 2006
BATTLE OF IWO JIMA
From knights to pawns
Ever since the Vietnam War shook America's beliefs -- both in its military superiority and in the justness of its wars -- nostalgia for World War II has become more marked. American Cinema constantly returns to the struggle against fascism as a kind of moral comfort zone, where the purpose is clear and the nation unified. Even Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," which presented the terror and chaos of combat in an unprecedented way, never lost its moral clarity in depicting this sacrifice as necessary and valorous.
Much has changed in the world since that film came out in 1998, and even Spielberg himself has gone on to question the idea of "just war" in his most recent film, "Munich." Now along comes Clint Eastwood with a film on the savage 1945 battle of Iwo Jima, "Flags Of Our Fathers." While I wouldn't call this a revisionist WWII movie, it certainly reflects America's current bout of national angst regarding war and the sacrifices involved, of both lives and truth.
Much of Eastwood's film is similar to other WWII movies, like the ethnically diverse squad who forge under the duress of combat, but "Flags Of Our Fathers" also allows itself a certain cynicism that's rare in the genre. (WWII combat vet Sam Fuller's "The Big Red One" being a notable exception.)
Eastwood's film, scripted by his collaborator Paul Haggis ("Million Dollar Baby") from the book by James Bradley (whose father fought at Iwo Jima), takes a look at the story behind that famous Associated Press photo of six U.S. Marines raising Stars and Stripes atop Mount Suribachi. What the film shows is that in war nothing is as simple as it seems.
Like "Private Ryan," "Flags" opens in the present, with old men reflecting back on their combat experiences. As one vet says, in a line that won't be popular at White House screenings, "Every jackass thinks he knows what war is. Especially those who've never been in one." This line sets the tone for much of "Flags," which focuses on the disconnect between the attitudes of soldiers fighting the war and those on the home front.
This also becomes a weak point for "Flags"; it's needlessly complex in its structure, cutting between the present -- where the son of one of the flag-raisers tries to learn more about what happened on Iwo Jima -- to several points in the past, before and during the fighting on the island, and back on the home front in the States, where three marines are built up as "heroes."
I put that word in quotes because "Flags" is very much concerned with what it means to be a hero. The film focuses mostly on three men: John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, from that other Pacific War movie, "Windtalkers.") All three were involved in the initial landings on Iwo Jima, a barren island defended by 12,000 soldiers of Japan's Imperial Army in underground caves and bunkers. Bradley, a medical corpsman, was undoubtedly heroic in the risks he took, but he would remain haunted by the fact a close friend was killed while he was away helping another soldier. Hayes performed like any soldier would, but he found himself broken by the brutality of combat and turned to drink. Gagnon was mostly behind the lines, serving as a runner, yet he too would become a "hero" when he happened to be with the patrol that raised the flag on Suribachi during a lull in the battle.
The film shows how there were actually two flag-raisings, which caused some to speculate -- mainly in the press -- that the photo was staged. Nevertheless, the photo took off with the public, and the federal government sought to use the picture and its heroes to boost its war-bonds campaign. Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon would be whisked around the country to shore up the country's morale and help raise money, whether they liked it or not. Gagnon, a savvy opportunist, jumped at the chance, but the other two men were more reluctant to play hero while so many other, more valiant men -- like their sergeant, Mike Strank (Barry Bepper) -- lay dead in the volcanic ash of Iwo Jima. Do they speak the truth, or live the lie? It's a moral choice as grueling as those in Eastwood's last two films, "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby."
"Flags" makes clear, however, that the needs of the individual are trampled by the needs of the state, and the reality of an event is secondary to its propaganda value. The events depicted in the film seem quite modern, in much the same way that the myths of Private Jessica Lynch ("rescued" from a hospital in Iraq where she was being treated) or NFL star-turned-ranger Pat Tillman were manufactured. Tillman's father, enraged to learn that the government had covered up the fact that his son had been killed by friendly fire, summed it up angrily: "They blew up their poster boy." And yet the Pentagon would no doubt say they were trying to keep the country's morale high.
The Good War, we learn, was no different. This is emphasized in a scene where the heroes have to go and glad-hand a room full of well-heeled Washington politicos. One senator shakes Hayes' hand and says, tactlessly, "I heard you used your tomahawk on those Japs, chief." When Hayes tersely informs him that's not true, the senator advises, "Well, you should tell them it is. It makes a better story." And yet, the truth has its own value, and that's the issue Eastwood's film wrestles with.
On the one hand, "Flags" shows us the politics of the image, the myth-making and spin that occlude history. On the other, it tries to rectify this, by focusing as realistically as possible on the experiences of the men in this battle. Shot in a faded, grayish tint (on locations in Iceland) the landscape of Iwo Jima, shelled into oblivion, looks like the surface of the moon. The soldiers die suddenly, blasted by artillery bursts or cut down by machineguns, while somehow charging onward. The gore is extreme, and after a while a cognitive dissonance sets in; when away from the island, the film lags at times, and the viewer will crave the excitement of battle. But the combat here is so frighteningly random and brutal, once back in it, you can't wait for the film to move on.
"Flags" is not without its flaws: Beach's performance is a bit too weepy and emotional -- too modern -- to convince an audience that he is a more stoic 1940s male. The island battle is broken up by so many flashbacks its hard to tell what's going on, and the fractured editing style often makes it hard to tell which character is doing what. "Flags' " epilogue, however, which shows what happened to the three heroes once the war was over, speaks volumes about the fleeting nature of celebrity in the United States, and -- more importantly -- how often soldiers are forgotten once the fighting stops.
Eastwood's second film on the battle, "Letters From Iwo Jima," will show the Japanese perspective on the battle, and opens in December. In "Flags," though, the Japanese either appear as bayonet-wielding banzai-screaming fanatics or they're invisible, represented by a machinegun mowing down ranks of American soldiers. So it's safe to say Eastwood is separating his markets.
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