Friday, November 03, 2006

Signs of Flagging

I commented a couple of weeks back on the controversy engendered by the omission of black soldiers from the Battle for Iwo-Jima in Clint Eastwood's Flags of our Fathers. Now I have seen the film and, while it is admirable in a number of ways, it is a disappointment, being far too scrupulously fair and tasteful to muster much interest either as a study of conflict or of its purported theme of misplaced heroism.

Taking its cue from the celebrated photograph by Joe Rosenthal, who died in August, entitled 'Raising the Flag on Iwo-Jima' the film follows the fortunes of the marines supposedly captured in the photograph, and who were subsequently coralled into a war-bonds fund-raising campaign by a nation desperate to scrape funds together to finish the war off. The fact that the Rosenthal photograph was purely fortuitous and followed by only a few minutes a previous 'genuine' raising of the flag meant that a number of the personnel involved in both were conflated, and one, Private René Gagnon, played by Jesse Bradford, was included erroneously. It was also unclear to the general public that the photograph was taken only five days into a forty-day battle for the island and that a number of the men in the both photographs were dead by the time it had become embedded in the popular consciousness as a talismanic icon.

The surviving soldiers are a medic, played by Ryan Phillippe; Private Gagnon; an NCO played by TV stalwart John Benjamin Hickey; and Pima Indian Ira Hayes, who suffered the most and who was immortalised in the ballad by Peter La Farge, which was later covered by both Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. Hayes is most disgusted by the blasé attitude that people on the home front have to the supposed heroism of the marines in the field, and he struggles, as do all the others, with survival guilt, a point that is laboured throughout by Eastwood and his screenwriters Paul Haggis and William Broyles Jr. The soldiers, in their various PR appearances try to emphasise that the real heroes are those that are lying in their graves on the 'island of sulphur' in the Pacific, but the US public are having none of it, their absorption of the military victory being voracious enough to dispense with the knowledge of the horrors face by the servicemen themselves.

And so Flags of our Fathers might be seen as an attempt to redress this injustice, and it does operate in a similarly solemn and reverential way to producer Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, though to be fair it is less keen than that film on producing a Boy's Own tale of simple heroism. The film is honest enough and admirable in its portrayal of the travails and fears of the soldiers and also in the poignant sketch it gives of Hayes, a tragic figure destroyed by his own inarticulacy, trauma, alcohol and the racism of society back home. The problem though lies in both Eastwood's direction and the script with which he works.

Eastwood has never been a flashy director and even his worst films, such as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the absurdly overrated Oscar-winner Million-Dollar Baby have the virtue at least of being free of pretentiousness and an absurd sense of purpose. His is a light touch, honed over long years on the more practical, hands-on end of the movie business working with the likes of Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. Here however he struggles with a multiple narrative and what is, in whatever minor a way, an ensemble cast. None of the strands, other than Hayes', are interesting stories, and while it may be said that the point is that the protagonists were very ordinary people, a smidgin of the mystical needs to be added to sustain dramatic interest in anything. Similarly the non-linear narrative, which probably looks dazzling to anyone who has never read a modern novel, is more a distraction than an aid. Allied to the fact that few of the actors are what might be called recognisable names or faces, the dramatic effect of the battle scenes is lost in confusion - confusion as to who everybody is. Every time the narrative switches back from the home front to the battle, the effect is one of disorientation rather than illumination.

The script by Broyles and Haggis - who was responsible for the cliché-ridden scenario for Million-Dollar Baby and who directed the unremittingly vulgar and self-important Oscar-winner Crash - tackles the subject of the misperception of heroism with all the aplomb of Mike Tyson attempting Swan Lake. No opportunity is spurned to tell the viewer how the wrong people are being honoured and a leaden voiceover in the final scene sermonises about how 'our' idea of heroism is merely a construct and often a soothing one. A fair enough point but one made with far greater elegance, without such explicit narrative sign-posting by Preston Sturges' Hail the Conquering Hero, Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron, and even the demise of Robert Vaughan's cowardly character in The Magnificent Seven. And the early efforts to theorise about the power of an icon sound like a freshman class paper in History of Photography 101.

There is much that is likeable in Flags of our Fathers but as well as the faults delineated above the film is fatally sluggish. It chases its tail forever coming to few dramatic conclusions and when the final credits roll after more than two hours, it feels like the film has barely begun. The lasting impression of one of solemn devotion, a worthy one but also a predictable one. Clint is planning another film to counterpoint this one, Letters from Iwo-Jima, which will tell the story from the Japanese perspective, again, a laudable ambition but one which I think he will be ill-equipped to realise. The one surprise of this film was the presence of Kiwi actress Melanie Lynskey as Gagnon's annoying fiancée. Lynskey had disappeared from sight since first coming to attention as a seventeen-year-old murderer in Peter Jackson's superlative Heavenly Creatures, opposite another young actress by the name of Kate Winslet.