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Flags of Our Fathers – resonant as a brick

seeing is believing

seeing is believing

The Flags of Our Fathers – Clint Eastwood

(BBC Prize Review)

This film has the resonance of a brick. There is more evocative imagery of the pathos and tragedy of war in the stills shown over the final credits than in the whole 132 minutes of film that precedes them. It is hard to believe that Eastwood could make such a bad film, especially as one can imagine he sincerely identifies with the issues he tries to portray.

There perhaps is the clue: he never seems to make up his mind what is important about the true life story he is trying to tell. The brutality and pointlessness of war? Asking what is a hero? The exploitation of serving men by a cynical high command? Distorting the truth of their experience to raise money for the war effort? The personal tragedy of Native American Ira Hayes who enlisted to escape government induced poverty, served bravely but could not deal with the guilt of survival exacerbated by being lionised and lauded as a hero he did not feel himself to be? A simple flawed man who sensed, rightly, that the excess attention he received was not because of his bravery but because of the novelty news value of his being an Indian. The profound and tragic irony of this simply passes over Eastwood’s head. He is content to give Hayes a few sarcastic ripostes and a token incident of racial discrimination in a bar. Otherwise he is the clichéd Indian with a drink problem who can’t cope. Hollywood’s empathy for Native Americans carries a high price: they must be victims so they can be patronisingly sentimentalised. Ignore the injustices. Forget the politics. One of 8 children of poor Pima Indian farmers, Hayes left a once successful farming community rendered unviable by the government re-directing their essential water supply outside the reservation to irrigate white farmers’ land. Now that would have been a story worth telling. Eastwood’s Hayes is a bit player in the film as in his own life (Hayes even appeared as himself with John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima 1949). Native Americans don’t need sentimental sympathy for their plight, they need anger, outrage and action in recognition of the continuing and unresolved injustice of their history with the white man.

Thanks to a cliché-ridden script, seriously underwhelming acting and ponderous direction and editing, Eastwood flounders about between these story-lines, never developing any sense of connection between characters and audience. The film is shot like a bad episode of Lost, disconnected little scenes that hint at some underlying narrative, but never delivering. We neither know nor care very much about these men. They are to us just as one dimensional and detached as the real men must have seemed to the thousands who turned up simply to watch them re-enact a photograph on a papier-mâché mountain. In desperation this most visual of filmmakers finally resorts to a corny narrator to fill in the bits he has failed to show us successfully throughout.

The reality of Jo Rosenthal’s photograph is simply too banal to carry a movie. There were 2 flags raised, Rosenthal’s shot is of the raising of the second, replacement flag. No – it wasn’t staged, but nor was the reality it depicted, true to the myth it generated. Far from reflecting final victory on Iwo Jima, it was raised as a moral booster after early skirmishes on Mount Suribachi. The battle and appalling loss of life it exacted had another 32 days to rage after this iconic ‘victory’ photograph was taken. And one of the ‘raisers’ was misidentified.

The combat scenes are so misconceived, it is hard to know where to begin. Technically, one is frequently unable to tell Japanese and Americans apart. So at times we wonder if and why the Americans appear to be killing one another. I am no soldier or apologist for war, but there is something deeply objectionable about the way these scenes are shot. First, this major battle appears to be totally disorganised, no sense of anyone pursuing any kind of battle plan or strategy. There appear to be half the warships on earth moored off Iwo Jima but no unremitting 24 hours a day bombardment before the Marines are landed to be decimated by large artillery and unscathed machine-gun nests. As filmed, these are just hundreds of men dropped randomly on the beach so they can be wiped out. Conveying a sense of the brutality and physical horror of war is an aesthetically qualitative challenge. Yet like Mel Gibson on speed, Eastwood just kicks us in the teeth again and again with gross, entrail-smothered images that merely raise the gorge not one’s indignation. Our humanity is drowned in ever-more repulsive images. Of course war is ugly and horrific but the artist must convey a sense of men, human beings, suffering, not slabs of meat being smashed and slashed to pieces. In a film which above all should be questioning what it is for an image to be real, to be true, Eastwood’s treatment of these scenes is a grotesque misjudgement between a false sense of literal realism and artistic truth. The Gibson gaffe. An abattoir may turn our stomach yet lack a shred of dramatic power.

Put these disconnected, combat scenes together with the sense of total chaos and lack of co-ordinated intent and we have a portrayal that betrays the very men it seeks to honour. We need more than disgust at carnage to attack the deepest roots of man’s instinct for war and violence. That the 5 men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima were not heroes with respect to that act, yet part of an indelible image that resonated with an illusory sense of heroism, does not mean that there were not real heroes in that battle. Terrified, even reluctant men, who contributed with extraordinary courage and fortitude to a massive, concerted, planned, directed effort.

The traditional war film may be dead. And good riddance. The moral epicentre of our attitude to soldiering has shifted. Perhaps only the unspeakable George W Bush still believes the more we kill of the enemy the better it gets. Now we judge the courage of soldiers not by how many people they kill: rather it is their courage in facing death and injury, without retaliating disproportionately that we admire. Peace-keepers, accepting rules of engagement that limit their freedom to kill in order to try to protect men, women and children from abuse and death. This, when done well, is the kind of courage even the pacifist can admire. And of an entirely different order from Bush’s gung-ho jingoism.

Clint Eastwood has made some fine films, as actor and Director. This is not one of them. The scenes away from the battlefield clunk and those within it simply repulse and confuse. For a film whose central motif is the relationship between an image, our response to it and the truth, it is wilfully and disturbingly blind to its own aesthetic purpose. One can only regard the upcoming companion piece ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ with trepidation.

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