Nov 1, 2006

Movie review 

To say that the battle on Iwo Jima was bloody would be an understatement. To say that it was totally necessary to the island hopping campaign is a matter that can even be put up for debate. But what can never be disparaged or denied is the courage and fortitude of the men who landed on that island in February of 1945.

In Flags of Our Fathers, director Clint Eastwood depicts the courage and selflessness of the men who died, and the nightmares and heartaches of the ones who lived. Based on James Bradley’s book, this film is an excellent brief history lesson for those unfamiliar with the story and adds some personality to people who are often reduced only to names in history texts.

This is the tale of the men who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi and became icons – the living, walking, talking embodiments of the most celebrated image of it’s day and the most reproduced photograph in history. It’s the most famous story to come out of the battle. And at the time it was pretty much the ONLY story come out of the battle. Marines were dieing on Iwo Jima in the thousands. The battle raged on for weeks after the flag raising. The flag raising that the world saw - recorded in a random 1/400th of a second - wasn’t even the one that meant anything to the Marines who were there. No one on the island cared when that flag, the second flag of the day, was put up… least of all, the men who raised it.

As a matter of fact, it was probably a pain in their ass. It was redundant and entirely unnecessary in any military sense. The first flag got the reaction from the troops and provided the morale boost. The first flag raising was the one that was supposed to be the memorable event. Officially, the second flag went up because it was larger and easier to see across the miles of island and ocean that the Americans were now fighting to occupy. The reason it went up at all was more likely because Colonel Chandler Johnson, the commanding officer of the unit that raised the first flag, was gonna be damned if he’d let some son-of-a-bitch politician (read: James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy) keep that first flag as a souvenir. There had to be a flag up there, but it damn sure didn’t have to be THAT flag. THAT flag belonged to the men of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, and by extension the whole 5th Marine Division… not some D.C. puke. And so, up went flag number two, thereby directly changing the path of quite a few men’s lives, and supplying the American war effort a needed boost.

I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of the battle here. I’ll address those in another post. If you don’t know the story and haven’t read the book, there are plenty of sources of info out there. What I will address is what the film covers.

As to the tale of the men who put up the flag in Joe Rosenthal’s legendary picture, it’s an excellent examination of accidental heroes. Men that would have been comfortable being hailed for saving their buddies, instead are made insufferably uncomfortable for what they view as doing nothing: putting up a pole with a piece of cloth tied to it. For them, it had no meaning. It wasn’t even the “real” flag.

And because this is the film’s focus, and I knew that going in, it tempered my disappointment that that was all I got to see. This is very “narrow-field-of-view” history. There is no discussion whatsoever of the incredible fighting that occurred as the Marines moved north to take the rest of the island. In fact, there is only one prominent mention of the fact that the battle continued on for another month. But the film’s greatest weakness is also it’s greatest strength. That ‘prominent mention’ of the battle’s duration is made by “Doc”Bradley (played by Mr. Reese Witherspoon, Ryan Phillipe, who I typically have little use for but did great here). His character makes a point that I was thinking all along: it would be nice if those other guys got some recognition too. But the movie doesn’t really allow them any.

Sure, it goes through the motions. It shows how a good portion of the Marines that raised both flags were killed during the battle. But it’s almost like a checklist. In short bursts, we see each one die. A whole group gets ticked off, one after the other, in no more than a minute. The movie jumps around so much, you almost walk out with low-grade PTSD. And then we’re thrust right back into the lives of the three men who struggle with anyone calling them heroes. In it’s own way, the film itself both perpetuates the legend AND combats the myth that these were the true “heroes of Iwo Jima.” Yes, they were heroic, but the point comes through that putting up that flag had little to do with it.

The film also only presents you with what was known to the men at the time for the most part. When they’re briefed, they’re told 12,000 Japanese hold the island. It was more like twice that. The estimates of enemy strength were off by orders of magnitude in some cases (a month before the battle, intel estimates had the number of enemy artillery pieces set at around 40… there were actually more than 360). The fight that occurred there was hellacious in every sense of the word, and was only won because it was being fought by some of the most experienced and battle tested Marines of the whole war. Again, because of the focus on the flag-raising, this is largely lost and left unaddressed. Hopefully, Eastwood’s companion film will address the entire battle more thoroughly. But that’s a dicey proposition - the more I hear about that film, it sounds like it was cranked out as somewhat of an afterthought, and my confidence in a more full historical examination is somewhat dim.

Regardless of what the future film may hold, this film is very good, bordering on excellent. The current gold standard for reality in battle scenes is still “Saving Private Ryan,” and it’s equal for historical accuracy is “Band of Brothers.” The effects here are quite good, but lacking something that “Private Ryan” had, something I just can’t put my finger on. As with most films these days, it probably had to do with too much CGI for my taste, but in this case that can’t really be helped. When you can’t actually film giant battle scenes on Iwo Jima, you have to build Suribachi somehow, and unless you’ve got an 800 ship, WWII era, American naval armada available… well… you see what I’m getting at. As for historical points, I’m a bit of a history wonk and a stickler for accuracy. No aspects of clothing, speech, or fact seemed out of place. It just seemed lacking in fuller detail in some spots… it needed background, if you will. Of course, to compare a two hour movie to the 14 hour “Band of Brothers” on this count isn’t really fair either.

This movie did however, fall victim to something that plagued another movie so much it actually had to break with historical accuracy on purpose, that being: keeping characters straight. In “Black Hawk Down,” the producers put soldiers’ names on their helmets to avoid confusion for the audience, which was an intentional break with reality. As a person who enjoys his films historically correct, I was happy to see “Flags” didn’t do that. However, for those in the audience who were not as familiar with the names and roles played by the Marines in the battle (such as my Wif) it proved quite confusing. Short of the three main characters, it was very hard for her to keep straight who everybody was, and then when the survivors were talking about their fallen friends it became even more difficult because name-to-face recognition was not there. But, I think this is something that should only affect an initial screening and should clear up upon repeat viewings (of which there should be many).

All in all, this was a strong film with great performances. The directing was there, the effects were impressive, and the story is far better and more emotional than any type of fiction. Look for this one to be a strong contender at Oscar time. Now get thee to a theater… but maybe do yourself a favor and read a short history of the battle before you go. It’ll pay dividends in your appreciation of the story you’re seeing.

"Flags of Our Fathers" is rated R, and has some graphic scenes on par with the kinds shown in the other films I mentioned (though there actually are fewer of them, it seemed to me). This is a film worth taking out the small loan you need to fund a trip to the theater these days. Go. Well, read my Bro's review, too. Then go.

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