The stink of Crash hovers over Flags of Our Fathers. A dramatization of James Bradley and Ron Powers’s bestseller about the truth behind the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, the film is confirmation of Paul Haggis’s predilection for exploitation and easy sentimentality. Million Dollar Baby, a good film, suffered from Haggis’s unmistakable lower-class condescension (fans of the film stumble when trying to rationalize the Fitzgerald Family Traveling Circus), and Flags of Our Fathers, adapted for the screen by Haggis and William Broyles Jr., uses a very real, largely unknown controversy as a jumping off point for a trite homily on how wars are sold to the American public. (Some will look for parallels to current events, except that would be giving the film the benefit of the doubt.) If Clint Eastwood’s personality barely shines through it’s because Haggis’s cartoon politics strongarm the director’s vision.
Flags of Our Fathers scans like a book report, but its actual shape derives from television vernacular. Haggis, whose roots are in the small screen (his résumé includes The Love Boat, The Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes), writes character for short-attention spans, and the film’s editing and sound design suggest an episode of ABC’s gripping but borderline-witless cock-teaser Lost. The film shuffles—or, rather, whooshes—back and forth in time like a bad flashback. This might seem appropriate given that the elder John “Doc” Bradley suffers from them, except there’s no elegance to the way the story backs itself into an overwrought corner of literalism. It is typical of the film that a car might blow its engine before we’re suddenly transported to bullet-sprayed Iwo Jima. These neat changeovers, like the film’s concluding sermon, seem to have been concocted for the approval of an English teacher who prides tidiness above poetry, exuding none of the disorienting frenzy of The Aviator’s red-carpet freak-out or Born on the Fourth of July’s welcome-home parade.
After “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” grips the people of the United States, the surviving soldiers from the photograph are flown back home for a publicity blitzkrieg during which they shill themselves for war bonds. Photographers follow them and so do horny, personality-free women, whose only ambition is to marry war heroes. Two of the men, young John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and Rene Gagnon (Swimfan’s Jesse Bradford), embrace the soul-crushing spectacle, which includes mounting an American flag on a papier-mâché Mount Suribachi and being served white dessert in the shape of their famous tableau, ladled with a huge serving of blood-red strawberry sauce. (Talk about laying it on thick!) The film’s focus on the fabrication of heroes and the selling of a war would be welcome if it didn’t sacrifice character nuance by striking the same note over and over again. The film is such that we understand the redundancy of the war-bond campaign, but it never makes credible why the death of Iggy (Jamie Bell), an overzealous man-boy who polishes everyone’s knives before battle, would haunt John’s dreams for years to come.
Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), the only minority in the group, resists this crock even before he knows there’s going to be shit to step in. When word comes in that he and his buddies are going to be shipped back to the States, he chooses to stay at war. Rene, though, reels him in by revealing to his superiors that Ira was one of the men in the picture. It would appear that Ira, the most interesting character in the film, stays at Iwo Jima, where all men are equal on the field of battle, because his Native American status precludes him from the American Dream (which, here, means drinking in bars where he’s not welcomed), but the man’s disconnect is never richly elaborated, only cheaply sentimentalized. If the filmmakers really cared to understand his crisis (that Iwo Jima might be the Paradiso that is everyone else’s Inferno), then equanimity would have guided him up Iwo Jima’s dreary shores. What registers, though, is something dopier: this idea (probably Haggis’s) of minorities not just having built-in bullshit detectors, but crystal balls as well.
The difference between Flags of Our Fathers and Million Dollar Baby could be the difference between creamed corn and a jigger of scotch, and how Ira’s crisis is taken at face value—which is to say flubbed—by Eastwood and his screenwriters is the best way to assess the film’s failure. There is heart to the way Ira clings for dear life to the mother of one of his dead comrades, and there’s great depth to the way John lies to another mother, telling her that it was her son in the picture that roused the nation’s hope (lies, after all, can be reassuring), but there is only flipness in the way Ira, years after his return to America, is condescended to by a family of autograph hounds. Possibly members of the Fitzgerald clan, these ghouls jump out of their car, run up to the man as he toils away in a field, and take a picture with him before dropping change in his hand and scurrying away like rats. The film is not a standup routine, but if it were this would be the best place for a rimshot.
The film’s present-day scenes exhibit Eastwood’s customary grace, but are corny and insuf- ficiently dramatized, stirring bad memories of The Bridges of Madison County. Steven Spielberg, a producer on this film, ostensibly brings cred to the project; instead, he facilitates comparisons between Flags of Our Fathers and his own Saving Private Ryan, another dubious WWII film that found critical approval because of its historical subject matter. At least Saving Private Ryan’s masochistic vision was consistent. The visually parched Iwo Jima scenes from Flags of Our Fathers, uneven and littered with sketchy CGI, offer only insult in the way they pathologically disguise the Japanese enemy from the camera. Eastwood is keeping The Others underground until Letters from Iwo Jima reaches screens a few short months from now, but the suspense he garners from cannons rising out of mountaintops and firing of their own accord is best described as evasive, which accurately describes the lazy philosophizing of this patchy war film.
Ed Gonzalez is co-founder of Slant Magazine and contributing film editor for PLANETº Magazine. His work has also appeared in City Pages, The Village Voice, and Gay City News. This is his first article for The House Next Door.