October 25, 2006

Movie Review: Flags of Our Fathers

Clint Eastwood's latest project is a film of epic scope and personal implications. It is one thast is sure to stir memories in many people. It is a story that is too big for one movie. The movie that is now gracing the big screen tells one side of the story, but there is another side to be told, and it will be told in another film.

Flags of Our Fathers, a touching film that pulls no punches. It uses the famous photograph of the soldiers raising the flag as the lynchpin of the film, to amazing emotional strength. This will be followed by Letters from Iwo Jima, slated for release February 7, 2007. That film will look at the battle from the Japanese perspective and stars Ken Watanabe (Batman Begins, The Last Samurai, Tampopo).

As interested as I was in the project, I did enter with a little reluctance. Somehow, I got the crazy idea that this would end up being an oversentimentalized examination of the battle. Honestly, I do not know where that thought came from, or how it became so ingrained shortly before I bought my ticket. I went in thinking that I was going to be let down, and the opening of the film seemed to confirm those suspicions. Fortunately, I needn't have worried as the film became a powerful look into the tragic and lasting affects that war have. Eastwood and screenwriters William Broyles Jr. and Paul Hagis (based on the book by Ron Powers and James Bradley) walk the fine line between the emotion of looking back and the true horrors of being there.

Flags of Our Fathers is framed with the son of one of the men in the photograph speaking with those men who served with his father. He is writing the story of their experiences, and the film is the flashbacks to that time. We are told of the siginficance that that photograph of six US soldiers lifting that flag, and how each of those people back home would put their own story to it.
We follow a group of soldiers into the battle, landing on the beach following the salvo of shells fired from the ships onto the island in hopes of taking out the big guns. Those excruciating moments of the soldiers moving inland just before the battle begins on land. We get a long battle sequence, I believe it runs for about a half hour but I hadn't checked the time. The battle is brutal, bloody, and very emotional.

Following the battle, we settle into a story that focuses on John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillipe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), the three surviving of the six that held the flag. The three of them are flown home to be used in a PR campaign to get people to purchase war bonds to support the ongoing war effort.

The rest of the film follows these three and their varying reactions to what is going on while doing the tour and reconciling that with what happened on the island. It takes a toll on them, and they all deal, or not deal, with it in their own ways. Watching them as they go through it all is very powerful. I cannot even begin to imagine what it was like to actually experience anything like this, and, God willing, I hope to never be in the position. Seeing something like this helps to give me the vaguest idea of what it was like.

The story is very interesting in how the three deal with everything that is going on. In particular, Ira's inability to reconcile leaving his unit with being used as a means to raise money. Watching him disintegrate, drinking himself away is something that really struck home. Someone who has seen the horrors and has a strong sense of loyalty. That is contrasted with Rene, who seems more than happy to take in all of the hero worship and the attention heaped on him. Meanwhile, Doc seems to be taking it all in stride. None of them is right or wrong, but they all have very different takes on that difficult reconciliation that they are forced to deal with.

Clint Eastwood has crafted an amazing film that pays tribute to all of those who served in the Pacific campaign. It is filled with fine ensemble acting from many recognizable faces. The scripting feels genuine, capturing the way people spoke, of course, I really don't know, but it feels right. No punches are pulled, there is some sentimentality here, but it works well in concert with the the situation as told.

Bottomline. This is a movie that makes an impact on the big screen. It is a big epic film that has strong enough focus to have an impact on a much more personal level. Adam Beach gives a standout performance. One of the year's finest films and another winner from Clint Eastwood.

Highly recommended.
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