Friday, November 03, 2006

Flags of Our Fathers

by jaydro

Flags of Our Fathers is a great film. I saw it last night, and it still has me thinking about what happened, what it means, and reading wikipedia entries on the real people. I'll probably end up reading the book, too.

Unforgiven marked Clint Eastwood's move into a new phase of his career, one in which he seems to be reassessing both his own films, what we've come to accept in all films, and what we think we know about our culture and the world we live in. Just as Unforgiven could be seen as examining the consequences of the violence in Eastwood's earlier spaghetti westerns and the Dirty Harry films, as well as questioning our need to create myths that leave unexamined the dark side of reality, so does Flags of Our Fathers make one give pause when thinking about Heartbreak Ridge and numerous other war movies.

Like pretty much everyone, I'm familiar with the famous photo of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. I've seen the bigger-than-life statue in Arlington Cemetery. My father, a World War II veteran, had told me the story of the flag, how it was actually the second one raised, but he didn't think that took anything away from it. He knew someone who had been on Iwo Jima, someone who never talked about it.

I've probably seen at least one documentary about the battle for Iwo Jima, and I don't think the story told in Eastwood's film could have been better told in a documentary. I can see that some people may have expected a more straighforward retelling of the events of the battle, perhaps followed by the post-battle tour of the flag-raisers, and those people may be disappointed.

When Brian wrote in his releases rundown that he didn't know what this film was supposed to be about, I was tempted to post then, but I decided to wait until I had seen the film. I had seen the EPK making-of film that aired on HBO, and in it Eastwood hinted at the film examining the corrupting power of celebrity, both on the celebrity and those who make the celebrity, but the film is more complex than that, and I think it clearly states in its finale what it is about: there are no heroes; there are those who do heroic deeds, but heroes are something we create to serve our own purposes, often to the detriment of those we make heroes.

Ira Hayes's story even reminded me of another famous photograph, that of Buzz Aldrin on the moon during Apollo 11, and how he descended into self-destructive alcoholism while the astronauts did a very lengthy worldwide publicity tour in which he was constantly reminded that he wasn't the first man on the moon and most people misidentified the photograph of him as being of Neil Armstrong (there actually isn't a good still photograph of Neil Armstrong on the moon).

The structure of the film didn't bother me at all, except that the whatever-happened-to-them segment seemed a bit awkward, though necessary, and it was rescued by a good finale. The non-linearity in the flashbacks I thought made the film more compelling. If the month-long grind of Iwo Jima was told more linearly, then we'd probably have something that ends up like Hamburger Hill, and that can exhaust a viewer rather than keeping us on our toes. In PR material the actors mention that Eastwood didn't exactly rehearse with them what was going to happen in the battle scenes and that he emphasized first takes to get their honest surprised reactions to explosions and mayhem--perhaps the structure of the film was a way of doing the same thing to viewers. But I didn't have any problem following what was going on.

Jackrabbit Slim wrote: "There are some of the guys who were in the flag picture who aren't really identified until we see them getting killed." I'm not sure I understand this as a criticism. There are three guys in the photo who were killed; that they were in the photo and then died on Iwo Jima is pretty much it. Would you have liked to see their deaths depicted before we see the bond tour, or before others mention their names repeatedly? I'm not sure how that is more satisfying, and I think that by doing it the way it is in the film further highlights the continued misidentification of one of the dead flag-raisers. Everyone keeps saying that the real heroes are those who died, but then they're too afraid to admit to a mistake in the IDs on the photo because then the mistake will become the story rather than the heroes.

And I don't agree with Brian's comments about Severance and "bad storytelling." I understand what Brian is saying, but to me it was pretty much a non-issue. Having some minor character provide narration over someone else's flashback is something I've seen done in at least a few fiction films--when is that something to complain about, especially if they may have been quoting a real person who actually said it as depicted in the film? I had a problem with the much more cynically manipulative flashback cheat in the intro to Saving Private Ryan, and I got over that the second time I saw it.

Speaking of Saving Private Ryan, I'm so glad that this film didn't use the high shutter speed cameras for its combat scenes, which have been over-compared to those in Ryan due to Spielberg's producer credit and his presumed involvement (but I think he's named only because he abandoned the project to Eastwood). Ryan used the effect to mimic some documentary footage, but it has become so cliched now as a way to artificially intensify action scenes (even Feast did it!).

I enjoyed the reference to The Searchers when the corpsman stands in the open doorway of the bunker and is warned of the gruesomeness of the scene inside, which we don't see.

I'm looking forward to Letters from Iwo Jima, and I also think I will like Flags of Our Fathers even more the second time I see it.


Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

The criticism of mine that you site perhaps can be said better this way: except for the three soldiers who live (Bradley, Hayes, and Gagnon) and Mike (mainly because he was played by Barry Pepper, a recognizable actor to me) I really couldn't tell who the hell was who. Which one was Block or Hansen? I still don't know. I think if you are watching a film and you struggle to differentiate which character is which you've got a problem.

Glad you liked it, but I thought this film was pretty dreadful.

11/03/2006 11:46:00 AM  
Blogger jaydro said...

Which one was Block or Hansen?

Did it really matter? If that was a crucial point to you, then I think we must have been watching two different movies.

11/03/2006 12:12:00 PM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

Yes, it does matter. I like to know who the characters are when I'm watching a movie.

11/03/2006 12:25:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

Even characters who are rendered minor by design? I don't get it, Jackrabbit. Each of those guys had, what, maybe five lines or less, and it's a plot point in the film that they get misidentified in the photograph. You're telling me that if you could have clearly seen that Hansen was the blond surfer dude and Block was the Jewish guy (to use stock characters that films often are criticized for but also helps audiences ID them), then you would have been happy? What possible difference could that have made to you in enjoying this film?

11/03/2006 01:01:00 PM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

A. They're not minor--they are one of the six men who are in the picture. Are they negligible because they die early?

B. An attempt was made to distinguish them, but it was a bad attempt. (For example, early in the film one character is established as being gullible--the masturbation papers gag. Which one was he? Was he one of the guys in the picture? I don't know).

C. When I'm spending half my time wondering who the hell is who (such as who is Harve Presnell, who is never identified), it detracts from my enjoyment of the film. I'm funny that way.

D. This is only one of the problems of this film.

E. I don't get why I'm supposed to give this film a pass on these kinds of problems--because I'm too busy being filled with patriotic pride? Aside from Adam Beach's performance, I found nothing in this film to admire.

11/03/2006 01:23:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

Okay, we did see a different film. The film didn't tell the story you wanted to be told (maybe you wanted "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" instead of "Hamlet"), and you thought it was trying to fill you with patriotic pride. Thanks for explaining what it was that you really didn't like--I think I get it now. Wow. *shakes head in disbelief*

11/03/2006 01:35:00 PM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

What I wanted was a coherent film, and I didn't get one. To conclude my portion of this debate, which I doubt will change the minds of either one, I should point that I'm not alone. What I wanted was a coherent story, and I didn't see one. To conclude this debate, which I doubt will succeed in persuading either one of us to change, I should point out that I'm not alone. I agree with this review from Michael Sragow(who I met once when I was in college. I took his coat at a drama conference).

11/03/2006 02:17:00 PM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

Sorry for the doubled sentences above, I was tinkering with the HTML tags.

11/03/2006 02:18:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I'm glad you posted this. Good to see an opposing viewpoint so well explained.

Having some minor character provide narration over someone else's flashback is something I've seen done in at least a few fiction films

Is that really what was done? I remember the narration coming after the flashback. It seemed to me like the clear implication was that the person providing the narration was the person in the flashback.

Were we supposed to know that it wasn't? Is so, I don't see how we could know that. And I assume that we were supposed to have some basic understanding of who was who, since their identities weren't a plot point.

non-linearity in the flashbacks I thought made the film more compelling. If the month-long grind of Iwo Jima was told more linearly, then we'd probably have something that ends up like Hamburger Hill, and that can exhaust a viewer rather than keeping us on our toes

I don't have a problem with it being out-of-sequence, it's just that the whole thing seemed arbitrary. I didn't really see any kind of narrative or thematic cohesion in the way it switched between the battle scenes and the bond tour scenes. It felt like the filmmakers never really asked, "Why does this scene come next?"

I agree that a conventional structure may have been dull (war, bond tour, wrap-up), but I didn't think cutting it up helped. It felt like a device to dress-up what was otherwise a very long, very conventional film.

I think it clearly states in its finale what it is about: there are no heroes; there are those who do heroic deeds, but heroes are something we create to serve our own purposes, often to the detriment of those we make heroes.

Maybe so, but I'm not sure the movie really supports such a theme. "The real heroes did on the beach," we hear over and over, not "the otherwise regular guys who did some heroic things died on that beach." I think the movie's attitude was closer to the first statement than the second. Maybe that was just Spielberg residue.

The closest I can get would be to say, "People in war do terrible things, things that even though they are done in the service of one's country aren't things to be proud of." Ira says something almost just like this, and things like it are said from time to time, but again, I wouldn't say that there was any particular focus on this idea in the film as a whole.

11/03/2006 02:51:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

What I wanted was a coherent film, and I didn't get one.
That to me is completely acceptable, even if I don't agree with it. What I couldn't take was being confused about who was who when one of the main characters (and others) are confused. And I was really thrown by your mention of patriotic pride, since I thought the film to be a cruel indictment of several things: that we are all too willing to send young men off to kill people and then abandon them when they come home, the tendency of our (or capitalist or even all?) society to chew people up and spit them out without regard, and the whole cynical celebrity/hero/PR thing. I thought the film was really trying to burst the bubble of patriotism, and by doing so with the Iwo Jima photo it was hauntingly effective. But there is also the side that it was showing how people tell lies and distort events for propaganda when it truly does seem to be necessary rather than misguided, so maybe we shouldn't be so quick to condemn the whole Jessica Lynch thing etc. But that's what I liked about it.

11/03/2006 03:07:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

It seemed to me like the clear implication was that the person providing the narration was the person in the flashback.
I don't recall exactly if the narration started during the flashback or while the guy was falling on the stairs, and, yeah, at first I thought it was the old guy who fell, but then when they went to the guy being interviewed, I recognized that actor as being different. Any confusion was momentary, and I thought they did connect Presnell to his earlier incarnation at some point, and it didn't bother me anyway.

I mentioned Saving Private Ryan earlier, and I'm remembering in that one how I was really confused as to the distinction between the Steamboat Willie German POW character and the SS officer who kills Mellish (Adam Goldberg). That was pretty important, and I wasn't the only one confused, and I thought that was bad casting. But after I figured it out, I got over it when I saw it again.

I thought the mantra of "the real heroes died on that island" was ringing hollow for the survivors who said it (and wasn't at all the message of the film)--because they knew they were declared the heroes by others despite everything they say to deny it. I see what you're saying, though, and in a way the film was saying "the real heroes died on that island" but it's also saying that we only pay lip service to that, we anoint other heroes and then abandon them when we don't need them anymore, so what does it matter? It sucks to be a hero, doesn't it?

11/03/2006 03:29:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

Just a few more things:

I can understand not liking the style of the flashback cuts, that they didn't make sense where they came, that they didn't seem to follow any order or anything. It didn't bother me. I think I actually liked it because it surprised me.

I was also thinking of another film about heroes, The Right Stuff. Some people didn't like it, but I loved it, though I could see the criticism that it also lacked focus--shouldn't it have been about one person instead of being about so many people, and it only barely managed to tie Chuck Yeager into it. That sort of thing comes from adapting a book like that, I think, and it's worth noting that an early version of the Stuff script by William Goldman eliminated Chuck Yeager entirely, and many people think his part is what made the movie.

The Ira Hayes story really captivates me. One of the guys who saw the movie with me actually remembers seeing the Lee Marvin TV-movie about Hayes, The American (actually listed as an episode of the specials anthology Sunday Showcase) and then there's a Tony Curtis film about Hayes, too, The Outsider. Neither is available on home video.

But John Wayne's Sands of Iwo Jima is, and it's startling to see that the three surviving flag-raisers played themselves in this film. Wonder if that bit was filmed for Flags and left out. Sands is conveniently being shown this Monday afternoon at 2 pm EST on Turner Classic Movies--I've already set my TiVo. Now that's a gung-ho film.

11/03/2006 04:42:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

Not to beat a dead horse too much, but I thought that Sragow review read like the guy must have seen the Mad magazine parody of the film rather than what I saw. I wasn't going to say anything, but after passing it along to others I knew who saw the film, I got these two unsolicited reactions:

"That review seems like the bizarro-world version of what I
would expect a review of that movie to be."

"That review was pompous and nasty. “I’m so much smarter than stupid old Clint Eastwood.”"

11/05/2006 01:00:00 PM  

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