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Movie Review - Flags of Our Fathers

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Heroism Under Fire

The term “hero”, slathered upon the public by the media for decades, plagued John “Doc” Bradley, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes. The three were the sole survivors from the famous picture depicting soldiers raising Old Glory on top of Iwo Jima. That picture of the flag raisers meant the war was soon ending. That picture meant victory. At least it did to the public, who devoured the story with lust. Instantaneously the flag raisers became celebrities. The flag raising meant nothing to them; it was simply a replacement flag for an original. Added on to the fact that the flag was raised on the 5th day of a battle that would last for 35 more, and that three of the six soldiers would die before its conclusion, it is easy to understand why the survivors felt nothing like heroes. Flags of Our Fathers, a masterpiece directed by Clint Eastwood, forays into uncharted territory for war movies. Its sophisticated and sentimental subject engrosses and tantalizes, although the plot eventually bogs down. Despite this, the heartfelt and solemn scenes coupled with epic action create an impressive contrast. Ultimately, Flags strongly affects the viewers’ emotions and works effectively in its war drama genre, thanks to top-notch acting, striking war scenes, mature script, and unique subject matter.

The strong performances from the cast enhance the believability of the movie and support the often gloomy and forlorn mood that accommodates the flag raisers as they make their attempt to sell bonds. Adam Beach, portraying Ira Hayes, delivers a special performance. His character shines through in every scene, and his distress at being called a hero is easily understood and comprehended. Ryan Phillippe, playing the part of John “Doc” Bradley, feels sorrow for his friends, but at the same time realizes the importance of participating in the bond drive. Rene Gagnon, played by Jesse Bradford, feels that he needs to take advantage of his fifteen minutes of fame despite the circumstances. Bud Gerber (John Slattery) faces the challenging task of forcing the flag raisers to conform and perform their promotions. Keyes Beech (John Benjamin Hickey) must look after the flag raisers and console their troubled minds. In a dinner celebration scene, Ira, John, and Rene meet the mothers of their deceased companions. Ira immediately hugs the mother of his friend Mike Strank, and John converses respectfully with the mother of Hank Hansen, who incidentally wasn’t even in the picture due to an identification mix-up. She entreats John to confirm which soldier was her son in the picture, but John knows that Hank was never in it. Flustered, he meekly agrees, “Yeah, I think…I think that’s where he was.” At the same time Ira is beginning to sob and squeezing Mike’s mother. He whimpers, “He was the best Marine I ever knew.” She begins to tear up and quietly responds, “Thank you.” That scene demonstrates one of the stronger portions of the movie and exhibits terrific acting quality. The entire cast contributes a job well done throughout the movie.

The script for Flags fits the acting nicely. At parts, the script even includes some comedic lines into the mix, and although they are hardly hilarious lines, it does contribute to the character depth and believability of the characters. When the flag raisers are first briefed on their bond drive, Ira informs Bud that Hank Hansen was mistakenly identified in the picture. Upon hearing this Bud breaks down, shouting, “Who is in the goddamn picture? Are any of you guys in the goddamn picture?” Ira, annoyed, responds, “Yeah, we’re in the goddamn picture.” Bud exclaims, “Six guys raising a flag over Iwo Jima. Victory is ours. You’re three of them, right?” John reminds Bud, “This was the 5th day, sir. The battle went on for 35 more.” Bud retorts, “Well, what’d you do, raise a goddamn flag every time you stopped for lunch?” Ira then whispers to John, “Can I hit this guy?” Another scene displays Ira’s ability to commentate behind others’ backs. During a speech in front of hundreds, Rene declares, “As far as us being the Heroes of Iwo Jima, well that’s just not the case. We didn’t do much at all.” Ira whispers silently to John, “Especially him.” Then Rene continues, “Especially me. I was just a runner. That’s it.” The script also includes some effective foreshadowing. When Rene takes the place of a wounded officer in a transport plane, the officer grumbles and declares that the public would forget all about Rene by Christmas, which would soon be true. This unique set of humorous dialogue, along with heart-wrenching comments, is what makes Flags succeed emotionally and symbolically.

Like the acting and script, the war scenes are handled tastefully and with purpose. With the grandiose camera angles and frenetic pace of action, Flags captures the chaos and intensity of war that has never before been handled on such a scale. The movie doesn’t shy away from exposing the more gruesome parts of combat, although it does draw a line in a scene where John discovers the body of his poor comrade. All of the action scenes feature a washed out tone; a hybrid between black & white and color. This technique proves particularly effective because it gives the setting an almost surreal aura. What is interesting is that the camera angles never show the faces of the Japanese soldiers up close; the scenes are shot through the eyes of the Marines. The exception to this is when the camera gives the angle of the Japanese defenders waiting for the proper time to strike, reading their weapons and sticking them through embedded holes. The views looking out show the Marines in precariously vulnerable positions, which is unnerving. However, the Japanese soldiers’ faces still aren’t seen. Another angle which is very unique follows the pilots in the fighters. The camera moves in exactly the manner that a pilot’s head would move, focusing on events of interest. This insightful and ingenious move supplements the action scenes with a refreshing look on the same action the audience had just seen on the ground. Then there are the ships. Something that always reappears in nearly every scene on Iwo Jima is the ships. The transport and supply ships, along with the warships, float closely by the island. Almost every shot facing the sea contains at least a passing glimpse of the ships, some even shooting out rocket salvos. This, along with the scenes of the fighter pilots helping out with close air support, create the feeling that the invasion was carried out by many parties on a massive scale.

Although many aspects of Flags were positive, there were some pitfalls such as the overuse of flashbacks and the sometimes hard-to-understand plot. The movie actually is set during the present, with James Bradley, the son of John Bradley, working on a memoir of his father. He interviews other Iwo Jima veterans, who provide narration of their experiences with his father. This narration provides a few flashbacks back to Iwo Jima. However, the film is also set during that period in 1945 and follows the surviving flag raisers, who have numerous flashbacks of their own. In the scene where Ira, John, and Rene reenact their flag raising in front of a roaring crowd in Soldier Field, multiple flashbacks occur. John turns his head back, and this sets off a flashback where he turns his head back and sees Hank get shot and die. Then right after that John has another flashback where another one of his friends, Harlon, dies. Following that scene Rene reaches his hand out toward Ira to lift him up to the top, and Ira has a flashback where Franklin gets hit and stretches his hand out toward Ira in a similar way before passing away. This sequence is moving, as it comes at the latter end of the movie and shows the difficulty Ira and John have by waving their hands at an ecstatic crowd when they feel it is all undeserved. While the flashbacks are emotionally impacting, it also dents the plot progression with its constant interruptions. This makes the overall plot much more convoluted and confusing to follow, which is a questionable tradeoff with emotional impact.

The Chicago Sun-Times concludes that Flags of Our Fathers “is a searing and powerful work” that “honors those who fought in the Pacific.” (Roeper) The Dallas Morning News mentions, “For a movie about the perils of ‘truthiness,’ Flags indulges in a little too much forced sentiment.” (Vognar) Flags does seem to be grabbing for more sentimentality in its latter stages, but nevertheless it is a worthy tribute to those that fought on Iwo Jima. Flags, when compared to other war films, shines in a different and unique way; it delves more deeply into the feelings and thoughts of those proclaimed as “heroes” and the public. The difference of what actually occurs on the battlefield and what the public assumes is the impetus for conflict, not the Japanese. This unconventional approach to a war movie propels Flags beyond the expectations of its genre. This aspect of the movie, along with all of its other qualities, mesh to become Eastwood’s crowning achievement.
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