Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Flags of Our Fathers

Well, it's finally happened. I've gone on record saying that Eastwood's films this decade (with the exception of Letters from Iwo Jima) have not drawn me in, really wowed me. However, I did always enjoy what I watched. Until now. The companion piece to Letters, Flags of Our Fathers takes Eastwood so far out of his comfort zone that it was probably doomed to fail, but its obviousness and its pathetic attempt to link the story to the current war in Iraq seals the deal.

Flags tells the story of three survivors of the Battle of Iwo Jima, men who happened to raise the famous flag. Eastwood plays around with the timeline, and actually much of the film takes place off the battlefield. Instead, he and writer Paul Haggis focus on the boys' return and how the army used them as recruitment and fundraising tools for the war effort.

This could have made for an interesting story, but just about everything goes wrong. First off, the acting is uniformly ridiculous. In an attempt to portray--I guess--the wartime American "ideal," Eastwood cast the dregs of pretty-boy actors: Ryan Philippe, Paul Walker, Jesse Bradford (if you just said "Who?" well done), it's terrible. They sort of throw out their lines so they free up time for looking sad and occasionally crying. None of them can handle the emotional weight of the story, not even when they combine their efforts.

The second misstep is the direction. Eastwood realized he couldn't make his minimalist style work on the scale of such a big battle, but the solution he came up with took me a bit off guard. Apparently, when confronted with problem, Eastwood thought long and hard and triumphantly proclaimed "Let's do it like Spielberg!" And do it like Spielberg he did. Apart from the Saving Private Ryan-decolorization (which I'm actually a fan of and I think it totally fits the barren rock that is Iwo Jima), he shoots the battles scenes as variations of the Omaha Beach sequence, only not as well as Spielberg. Oh, he follows the action around on quick dolly shots and handheld action, all right, but just never as...good. It's pretty damn good for a man who's never done anything like this before, but the scope just gets too ridiculous; the endless stream of battleships was, I'm sure, historically accurate, but it comes off as silly when you see all of these boat circling the island and only a few are doing anything. Then he moves into the present and tries to slam his usual directing style back in and it just doesn't mesh.

But nothing derails this movie like--and I know it's getting redundant at this point--the script. Paul Haggis handles the delicate situation of men proud to serve their country but embarrassed to be exploited by it with all the subtlety of a bull on meth in a shop that sells red-painted china. The men want their fallen brethren to be recognized, but that's too depressing to drum up support, so they can only briefly mention the fallen heroes as a whole. We move into the present to see the soldiers as old men and we learn that they're still haunted by what they've seen, which anyone with half a brain could have told you without having to watch Haggis pathetically try to put himself in the shoes of people he could never identify with. Wouldn't be the first time wouldn't it? Oh, that reminds me, there's also a subplot on racism as people view one of the three survivors, Ira Hayes, a Native American, as nothing more than a savage.

Here's the fundamental problem I've noticed with Haggis' writing: he always seeks to break characters out of archetypes and stereotypes but succeeds only in slightly shifting them over to some new area of offensiveness. Therefore, a black man in Crash can speak of society's racism and profiling before he robs someone, or a female boxer can try to escape her white trash roots by viciously beating people. Here, he wants to point out the military's exploitation of these men as archetypes of Americanism, but he exploits them by basically sticking to the same archetypes while criticizing it. Paul Haggis is the ultimate condescending liberal, the one who tells his friends how they've been oppressed/been oppressors while taking it upon himself to take care of minorities and those the Man put down. His mission with this film is to critique the Iraq War, and he fails as usual; his comparisons are obvious and they either don't describe WWII or Iraq, allusions without the alluding.

All of this conspires to rob Flags of Our Fathers of any heart, which isn't a good thing since the battle isn't really the focus of the film. I will say that, flawed though they are, the battle sequences are very well done, and Eastwood keeps it from being outright awful, but I cannot believe Letters from Iwo Jima resulted from the same brainstorm that gave us this tripe. Really, the only thing I liked were the links to Letters; it's been a while since I last watched that film, but I can draw some parallels between scenes and that excited me so much I didn't just pop the DVD and send it back to Netflix unfinished.

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