"Heavy Handed Melodrama Replaced Three Dimensional Quality"
The best moments of “Flags of Our Fathers,” Clint Eastwood’s latest entry in the World War II genre, come when we see the island of Iwo Jima at night. Flares light up the barren, bombed landscape. The pops of gunfire and cries of soldiers create a disturbing rhythm. Japanese soldiers materialize out of the dark like specters and attack. In these scenes American soldiers are alone, separated from their friends by the darkness and the foreign landscape. These scenes are grim and frightening. They’re also somewhat unreal. These moments remind us of Eastwood’s power to create mythic ambiance. There is no better director when it comes to subtle atmospheric films, so why Eastwood chose to direct this obvious and simple retelling of James Bradley’s book is beyond me. His talents quickly become buried under the heavy-handed pathos of the story.The film achronologically tells the true story of three of the soldiers who were photographed raising the US flag on Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima. The famous picture gave people back home hope and pride in the American spirit and became a driving image that helped sell war bonds.
According to the film, the three men had very little in common apart from the war. Actor Ryan Phillippe plays Doc Bradley, a dedicated and noble navy corpsman. Jesse Bradford is Rene Gagnon, a simple and somewhat incompetent soldier who was assigned as runner during the battle. Gagnon attempts to capitalize on his celebrity status. Adam Beach plays Ira Hayes, a Native American marine whose war experiences have left him devastated and resistant to being portrayed as a hero.
After these men took part in one of the most violent and gruesome battles against the Japanese, they were shipped back to the United States as heroes. We watch as they struggle to reconcile the horrors of war with their newfound celebrity status and the adoration of the American people.
The film’s biggest problem is that the lead characters are fairly two-dimensional. The actors try like crazy to flesh out these characters, but the screenplay will have none of it. All of the “back home” scenes play with a false sense of importance. The music swells, crowds surge, politicians bark insincere rhetoric. The three men gaze at inanimate objects with longing and sadness before the film plunges us back into war scenes.
We patiently wait for these sentimental moments to end so we can return to the stunning battle sequences. It’s particularly impressive to witness the recreation of the war machine. Rows of battleship race toward the island. Hellcats blaze through the air. It’s ironic that, in this day and age, filmmakers can be so technically accurate when it comes to recreating the past yet so poor at creating multifaceted characters.“Flags of Our Fathers” pretends to tell us who these soldiers really were. Writers William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis believe that they are contrasting the men’s lives with their heroic image. Sadly, what they present to the viewer is yet another fabricated image, and one that is equally false.