Flags of Our Fathers is a good movie that wants to be a great one, and that, perhaps, is where it fails: Director Clint Eastwood tries to put too much into this one, the story of three of the six men in the iconic photograph of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. Exploring themes of memory, exploitation, war, and heroism, Paul Haggis’s script tries to be more than either a drama or a war film. This rarely works, and it doesn’t here.
The story alternates between the Battle of Iwo Jima itself and the experiences of three soldiers in the battle, John ‘Doc’ Bradley (Ryan Phillippe, in a role that is a far cry from his work in, say, Cruel Intentions), Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), after they are shipped back to the United States as part of a massive fundraising campaign focused around ‘the photograph.’ The war effort, in dire straits because of lack of funds, needs something to induce people to buy war bonds, and the Treasury Department, led by Bud Gerber (John Slattery), seizes on the opportunity presented by the photograph’s appeal to turn the flag-raisers into the heroes who will, in turn, raise money as well.
The acting is almost universally excellent, despite Phillippe’s occasional lapses into the pretty-boy persona that has been so successful for him in other films, and despite having to watch Beach emote and chew on scenery for two-plus hours (Beach, it seems, is frequently mentioned for Oscar consideration, but he overacts this one, I felt). Jesse Bradford is excellent as the slightly awkward Rene Gagnon, bringing just the right level of emotion to the role. Barry Pepper, playing the sergeant in charge of the company the Marines are in (he’s been promoted since Saving Private Ryan, apparently), brings a stable, even-keeled presence to a role that could have been easy to overact, and John Slattery’s cigar-chewing Treasury Department representative is appropriately scummy.
I feel terrible saying this, because Clint Eastwood has generally proven to be a masterful director, but where the film falls down is how he chose to tell the story. The story of the battle is told in flashback, as the three officers remembers bits of it over the course of their fundraising campaign; at the same time, the story is being narrated to us by James Bradley (Thomas McCarthy), the son of Ryan Phillippe’s character, as he interviews the older versions of the Marines as he seeks to write his book. This unnecessarily convoluted method of storytelling has two negative effects: first, it makes it difficult to get into the movie, because the story flits back and forth in time so quickly that a person never has time to get into the flow of the narrative; and, second, because of this, it makes it very difficult to care very much about the characters. Not until after both the fundraising campaign and the battle, when Eastwood tells of the later lives of Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes, does the film settle down into a poignant and moving – but short – third act.
Some of the transitions between time periods are incredibly well done, and a few sequences are devastating; but these are not enough to rescue Flags of Our Fathers from itself. It is an ambitious movie, and one that has much to say, but it is far from Eastwood’s best work.
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