Thursday, 30 November 2006

Flags of our fathers (2006)

Mission accomplished?

Every great civilisation has grown up with its own body of mythology. In history books and epic tales, heroes make speeches they never actually gave in real life, have other less legendary people’s great deeds attributed to them, and shouted eloquent warcries that were actually penned by historians. It takes a few convenient half‑truths to create legends and heroes out of untidy battles and ordinary men, and such is the stuff that Flags of Our Fathers examines. We are fortunate that being the youngest great power, American history and its iconic images are subject to scrutiny: every invented tradition, every mundane occurrence dressed up into a legend occurs before the eyes of historians who not only can debunk them, but also show how the legend was created, and why.

One such instance is the Battle of Iwo Jima, its American victory memorialised in a photograph of 6 faceless soldiers planting a flag on the peak of Mount Suribachi. Titled Rasing the Flag on Iwo Jima, it’s a powerful photograph that signals VICTORY! in capital, neon, blinking letters, bringing an immediate salve to a war-weary American public and near bankrupt war machine on the verge of quitting the war with the Japanese. Yet the truths that were wilfully hidden from millions of jubilant Americans looking for their heroes and icons is troubling: this wasn’t the real flag that was planted on the peak of Mount Suribachi (an arrogant senior officer wanted to keep the first flag as a personal souvenir); both flags were planted an entire month before the island was secured from the Japanese defenders (shades of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner?); the US Marine Corps, President Roosevelt, and key industrialists financing the war needed to create heroes out of the men in that photograph – even to the point of exploiting the 3 survivors by staging demanding they hold a cross-country victory parade to persuade American citizens to buy more war bonds. Even if the photograph wasn’t an intentional photo-ops, it plays out like one anyway.

The levels of injustice don’t stop there, but continue piling up: knowing full well that this is the second flag, the military‑government‑industrialist propaganda complex order the survivors to suppress the truth; discovering that they misidentified one of the deceased participants in the photograph, the cabal order the survivors to again keep mum; and in the worst sort of bad taste, suggest the 3 re‑enact their mountain climb and flag raising in every victory parade event on the cross-country tour. Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon, and John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) must have felt like hell – they saw the least action in the battle, were shipped back to America while the battle continued and their compatriots died, and had to put on the same show, night after night for the crowds. No wonder the trio react with depression, cynicism, and resignation to their conscription into the war effort that would make them heroes but ultimately destroy them.

Clint Eastwood captures the making of a legend by the media machine very well, very subtly showing on screen the conflicted souls of the 3 survivors through devices like the ubiquitous posters and reproductions of the original photograph. The 3 leading actors carry their roles well, injecting very human emotions into a script that doesn’t have much lines for them in the first place. In fact, the victory tour in America is the true heart and core of Flags of Our Fathers, which would have made an excellent movie if it had just concentrated on this section of the non-fiction book by James Bradley (son of John Bradley) and Ron Powers.

Ever the ambitious director, Eastwood also wants to make a film about the actual Battle of Iwo Jima, as well as James Bradley’s own piecing of the truth, almost 50 years after the battle. It’s all well and good, but the director is unfortunately let down by the screenplay from Paul Haggis and William Broyd Jr. The duo have chosen to tell all 3 stories at once, intercutting freely between Iwo Jima, the victory tour, and modern-day America. Such an approach isn’t flawed, and could make for great storytelling, but somehow it just doesn’t end up like that.

Flags of Our Fathers begins with half an hour’s worth of false starts before the writers decide that actually the Iwo Jima sequences should exist as guilt-ridden flashbacks or traumatic hallucinations instead of being told as a straightforward (and overlong) Saving Private Ryan sequence. Even then, the flashbacks to Iwo Jima show more than is necessary, tell more than what the survivors can remember, and linger on longer than what we normally would allow for flashbacks. Scenes from the present-day consist of a middle-aged man interviewing several old journalists and veterans about the battle. Their voices sometimes break into the Iwo Jima and victory tour segments as needless voiceover narrations – surely the horrors of war and the cynical agitation of its war machine are self-explanatory? That’s not all, for the present-day scenes tell an altogether disconnected story from the rest of the movie. Combined with clumsy intercutting and poor linking between the 3 stories, it is difficult to sympathise for the private tragedies of any of the soldiers.

This movie would be fine if all 3 stories had revolved around an opaque, unreachable core, the missing memory of what really happened in the first flag raising. Once Eastwood and his collaborators decide to show that on screen, all the drama and pathos that had been building up despite their problematic temporal encircling of that event dissipates, leaving behind a weaker product. In the end, Eastwood makes the mistake of re-mythologising the soldiers, gesturing towards an unironic and sentimental tribute to the heroes - and in doing so, unmakes the fine point about the dangers of hero-making. The movie does make an excellent (the deconstruction of war propaganda), if slightly unoriginal anti-war movie (in the wake of Saving Private Ryan), and my only other complaint is it completely washes over the fact that Iwo Jima served no tactical or strategic value to the American Pacific operations thereafter, and that the heroic and costly assault of its marines was a waste of life – the Japanese forces on the island were severely blockaded and would’ve surrendered in a few more months.

First published at incinemas on 30 November 2006

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