Having over two dozen films under his belt, Clint Eastwood’s resume as a director is one of the strongest out there whether it be award-winning dramas or simple action packed entertainment vehicles. More than most filmmakers these days, the man has always seemed to have a keen understanding of story dynamics, character construction and general filmmaking techniques which means that even when only some of the films achieved real greatness, almost all of them have always had a richness and texture about them.
Whilst “Flags” continues that tradition, sadly it doesn’t reach those levels of greatness. There is no singled out problem here, rather a series of fundamental flaws that end up collapsing the film under its own weight. It’s a shame really as there’s something to admire here, a refreshingly cynical deconstruction of the heroism myth. Brutal, biting and ultimately tragic – there is a story to be told about the events of Iwo Jima and the survivors who came back from it.
‘Flags’ sadly fails to tell that story effectively or even creatively. A lot has to do with the core structure of the film which splits events up into two parts – the actual battle at Iwo Jima, and the lives of three soldiers from that front line who’re exploited by the US Government to fund their war effort. There’s a framing device involving one of the veteran’s sons interviewing the other survivors, but its purely for manipulative reasons to appeal to an audience’s sentimentality.
The majority of the film though keeps cutting back and forth between the two big subplots, a problem in that the non-war scenes are just not interesting and feel more like a drawn-out coda than an actual subplot. Even the war scenes themselves, whilst both brutal and powerful, have all been done before and progressively lose their impact as we keep moving back and forth from them. Worse still the jumps aren’t always linear and will often repeat previously seen material from different perspectives without justifying the need to have that second look back.
This could be overcome if delivered from a strong perspective but none of the characters are developed enough for that purpose. Good actors like Joseph Cross, Jamie Bell, Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough, etc. are stuck with such interchangeable parts that you spend most of your time trying to figure out which one it is on screen at the moment that’s dying or shooting. There’s hints of a strong character here or there, but it’s all kept toned down in order to give the three leads their share of time.
Considering the three leads though one wonders why. Phillippe is the bland noble hero, Bradford the slick opportunist, and Beach the haunted, belligerent and often blubbering drunk – that pretty much sums up all the three leads character development over the two-plus hour runtime. All three actors have displayed abilities far more capable than this, but each is stuck with flat parts that barely have any meat – short of Beach’s tired and over cooked racism subplot.
There’s a real lack of focus overall to what the film’s trying to say as the narrative often switches between moments of harsh reality, glib sentimentality and biting commentary. The war scenes are like every other movie of that type – war is hell, eager innocence gets lost, ultimately the sacrifice is worth it, and so on. The film does most of the fighting upfront and covers everything up until the flag raising pretty effectively, however the following month-long battle is rendered in quick and somewhat confusing segments strewn throughout the second half. Still, for the most part it remains pretty consistent in its intention and impressive in its execution.
The non-war scenes though are much more muddled and generic. Most of these scenes deal with the blatant manipulation of image and fame to sell the war to a country tired of fighting it, an interesting idea which yields the film’s most memorable image (a ‘bad taste’ dessert). Yet it’s a theme that’s drawn out far too long and repeatedly bludgeoned into the audience without any finesse or real serious exploration. Hell part of the image’s mystique is that we didn’t see the solider’s faces, a though never mentioned in the film though one scene does at least acknowledge the power of imagery in war (citing a famous Vietnam war photo, though not THE famous one of the young nude running girl covered in napalm burns).
Worse still, when these scenes turn into blind patriotic ra-ra sentimentality, one wonders if Eastwood is about the only one who could have the balls to pull off such a blatantly manipulative switch. Then again with “Crash” writer Paul Haggis co-writing the script, it should come as little surprise – especially considering the first two acts are filled with monologues which hit home repeatedly points we already know. By the time the “what happened after the war” montage kicks into gear, the movie has long checked out of any credibility let alone emotional connection (even “Crash” had pace and style).
Most of the production departments can’t be faulted for their work. Whilst the camera is often so all over the place it’s hard to get any bearings let alone figure out who we’re watching, the sets and recreations of both America in the 40’s and the barren gray lands of the Japanese island war zone are excellent and visually splashy. Effects are top notch and convincingly portray real battle planes, vehicles and locations. The most notable exception to all the kudos is the music which plays the same simple piano chords repeatedly, long past the point of annoyance.
“Flags” has its moments. Clint’s war scenes are still brutal and affecting to an audience jaded by similar scenes in countless other movies. There’s some powerful take no prisoner moments examining the way Governments have no problems killing and exploiting its citizens for their own gain.
The ending montage is a welcome and honorable look at the real life Iwo Jima battle (and go to display how convincingly Eastwood’s crew recreated the era). Yet it’s often lost amidst a sense of no direction or central focus, whilst paradoxically the film remains far too simplistic, sentimental and almost retarded in its consistent beating to death of the image people have of what it takes to be a hero. Here’s hoping the more interesting sounding Japanese companion piece fares better.