Sunday, October 15, 2006

MovieWatch: "Flags of Our Fathers"

"Flags of our Fathers"
Director: Clint Eastwood
Fien Print Rating (out of 100): 70
In a Nutshell: I saw "Flags of our Fathers" immediately after seeing "Running with Scissors" and in the aftermath of having plodded through Ryan Murphy's directorial clumsiness, Clint Eastwood's utter professionalism was a welcome relief. I've also spent the past week scratching my head and wondering if that juxtaposition caused me to mentally over-rate "Flags," which is a good movie, but by no means a great one. The problems begin and probably focus on screenwriters William Boyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, who had high aspirations for the movie, but never cracked the narrative puzzle of James Bradley and Ron Powers' book. The problem is that the movie is being promoted as a "Saving Private Ryan"-style "war is hell" depiction of one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific Front. Many of the people who criticize the movie will like denounce it in exactly those terms: It isn't as viscerally thrilling as "Saving Private Ryan," nor do the scenes of conflict get much deeper than exploring what happens to innocent young men when they're thrust into horrifying battle. That's a short-sighted view of the movie, though. The movie Eastwood wanted to make isn't about boys at war, but about three men -- Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach -- who are brought back home to be representative heroes in order to help sell bonds. The movie is a semiotic puzzle about the value of imagery -- in this case, the famous photo of the soldiers raising the flag -- and whether a reproduced image can have historic merit beyond the men or events it depicts. This is a natural topic for Eastwood, who has been mechanically reproduced in faux-heroic contexts as often as any man alive. And I applaud his desire to make his own "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (nobody says "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," but you know they're thinking it). But Eastwood and his writers know that viewers expect an extended centerpiece fight scene and even though the director doesn't sleepwalk through the battle scenes -- they're full of limbs, CGI planes and explosions and heart-breaking deaths -- you can tell that that's not the movie he wants to make and yet it has to be there anyway. So Eastwood and the writers fragment the story so that it jumps around from the present -- with an underused Thomas McCarthy as James Bradley trying to learn about his father -- to the battle, to the bond-tour afterwards, occasionally integrating flashbacks-within-flashbacks even if that strategy proves more confusing than illuminating. I think I liked the individual pieces of the movie, but as it neared its end, I began to wonder if it had made the unified argument about what "printing the legend" does to the facts.

On a technical note, the movie is marvelous and as evocative as anything Eastwood has ever shot, particularly the dark, over-saturated look of Iwo Jima contrasted with the more basic colors of life back home. The cast is deep, but beyond the three leads -- Beach has the showy part and can expect an Oscar nomination if the movie plays well, though there's much to be said for Phillippe's restraint, which makes this his most adult performance -- nobody gets much of a character. As a result, you never much figure out who the soldiers are by name, but you find yourself looking for Barry Pepper or Jamie Bell or Paul Walker just to find people to identify with.

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