This might not seem like great praise, but I do mean it that way, Clint Eastwood makes efficient movies. I’m not even close to having seen everything he’s directed, but of the movies I have seen, I’m always impressed with how quickly and simply he can tell a story (J Edgar being the glaring exception). The running times are always lean, the bells and whistles are kept to a minimum, and he always gets to the point. Just the fact that a bloke in his 80s can churn them out as regularly as Eastwood is a testament to his non-messing around. So it’s great to see him go a little bigger, even approaching epic, with Flags of Our Fathers.
When the famous photos of six marines raising the American flag on a hill in the Pacific becomes the inspiration that will hopefully begin the final push in the Second World War battle against the Japanese, those soldiers become the heroes their country needs. Cutting back and forth between their poster boy, fund raising tour in America, and the battle in Iwo Jima that made them poster boys, Flags of Our Fathers is all about perceptions, and that reality can sometimes be what we want it to be, regardless of what it actually is.
As far as clichéd young soldier characters go, Eastwood makes sure we get the full set. There’s the quiet, smart, thoughtful one (Ryan Phillippe as “Doc” Bradley), the cocky, vain one (Jesse Bradford as Rene Gagnon), the dedicated senior officer who cares about each and every one of his men (Barry Pepper as Mike Strank), the naive, innocent one (Jamie Bell as “Iggy” Ignatowski), the racial minority (Adam Beach as Ira Hayes), and more anonymously vanilla cyphers not worth mentioning.
The beginning of the invasion, as the masses of ships approach the “burnt pork chop” island of Iwo Jima, is pretty amazing. It’s epic, it’s intricate, it’s intimidating and it’s a grand kind of pomp I don’t remember ever seeing in the work of Clint Eastwood before this. These days, every WWII invasion scene in a movie is going to be compared to, and have to attempt to live up to, Spielberg’s opening horror show in Saving Private Ryan.
That movie is almost 20 years old now, and still the high watermark for this kind of thing. But Eastwood does manage to give it a run for its money. There might be a little more CGI in Flags of Our Fathers and less practical devastation, but it’s intense none the less.
In my memory, Flags of Our Fathers was pretty universally panned when it came out. All the praise was saved for Eastwood’s follow up, the same story told from the Japanese perspective, Letters From Iwo Jima. But watching it now, years after that negative reaction, I don’t get it. Flags of Our Fathers is a better than average war picture, telling a really interesting story. Maybe it’ll be overshadowed when I get around to watching Letters From Iwo Jima, but right now, it seems unfairly overlooked.