Flags of Our Fathers (DreamWorks SKG, R)

The battle scenes are gritty and brutal. Just when you think things couldn't get any more gruesome, they do—something like the way a real battle would be, I imagine.

 

film_flagsEveryone needs a hero. A person they can look up to, or whose legacy inspires them. And late in WWII, America really needed heroes.

By 1945, the nation was feeling the strain financially, and also having lost so many troops to the fight. People were becoming disillusioned and frustrated. Flags of Our Fathers is the story of how one photograph helped renew the nation's optimism by showing America the heroes we needed.

A crucial step in winning the war was taking the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. After five days of ground fighting, our troops seized the highest point on the island and planted the American flag. A photograph of this moment quickly became a source of hope for the American public. But of the six men who took part in that immortalized event, only three survived the battle (which raged on for another month): John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach).

That photo made them national heroes.

The film follows the three men through their time on Iwo Jima, and afterward, as the government sends them on a tour of the United States to help raise money for the war. Their experiences are interspersed with portrayals of their comrades being interviewed in the present day.

Flags of Our Fathers is at its best when bombs are dropping and bullets are flying. There are many scenes of amazing scope during the fight for Iwo Jima: a massive fleet of warships and squadrons of fighter planes spreading out across the Pacific and heading toward the island, the Japanese point of view as they watch (from their hidden caves on Iwo) American troops landing, and Bradley running across the black sand battlefield to rescue wounded Marines.

The battle scenes are gritty and brutal. Just when you think things couldn't get any more gruesome, they do—something like the way a real battle would be, I imagine. The look of those scenes is more impressive than anything else in the film. While the story does justice to the real men whose lives it's based on, frankly, there isn't much heft to things away from the battlefield.

I appreciate that after killing, almost being killed, and watching your friends die (horribly) right in front of you, that normal life would probably seem uneventful. As Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes try to encourage the folks back home to buy war bonds, though, the audience feels how undesirably run-of-the-mill life is for the men. Basically, that equals boredom for us. The characters can be bored, but never boring.

Director Clint Eastwood uses a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards in the film to tell the full story. The true sequence of events is easy enough to keep straight, but this technique may have been more effective without the momentum-slowing interviews. Another sticking point with this is that we don't find out who that interviewer is until the movie is nearly over. By that time, we fail to care who he is or why he's talking to the vets.

I wish I could securely say that the acting by the leads was good or bad, but I can't. Phillippe and Beach have the most emotional work, but even that seems oddly muted. For truly striking performances you'll need to look for supporting players Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan), John Slattery (Traffic), Robert Patrick (Walk the Line), and Neal McDonough (Band of Brothers). For some reason they're given the best lines, and even with shorter amounts of screen time, they make you feel the conflict better than the men we're supposed to see as heroes.

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