Clint Eastwood's new film begins with a sly homage to Saving Private Ryan. You'll remember that in Ryan, the soldiers approaching the beaches of Normandy had to dump themselves over the side of their landing craft before it beached, to escape a preemptive barrage of machine gun fire. Flags of our Fathers begins with the storming of Iwo Jima, but this one goes as smoothly as ice cream, with no resistance whatsoever. After a couple of minutes you begin to wonder if our boys have stormed the wrong beach. Then, in some kind of abstract rendering of the director's famous squint, we begin to see through tiny horizontal slits of daylight that appear at ankle-level. It's the Japanese, waiting in dugouts for the Americans to finish coming ashore. The storytelling in these opening sequences is gripping -- the audience is in a virtual choke hold. Unfortunately, the squinty-eyed realism of the early scenes eventually gives way to the same kind of teary-eyed chest-beating and speechafyin' that screenwriter Paul Haggis has become infamous for.
The story revolves around the grunts who hoisted the flag in that famous photo and then got pulled back to the States to go on a war bond tour. On the tour, firecrackers and other shocks jolt their memories of the fighting. This sounds like good movie fodder, but monkeywrench, thy name is Haggis. The 'collective crisis of conscience' motif that Haggis invented in Crash, where everyone stands around feeling sorry for themselves and talking in circles, has now been shoehorned into a period story. For example, there's a teacup tempest over whether or not the soldiers in question actually lifted the famous flag, or another that was lifted afterwards. If they aren't the original lifters, does that affect their status as "heroes?" If someone lifted the real flag halfway up, is he half a hero? What's the lifting-to-hero ratio? To the real stormers of Iwo Jima, talk like this would probably have sounded as creepy as the honey-voiced Tokyo Rose on the radio, urging all G.I.s to "think of your girls back home."
At one point, the trio of grunts, which includes Ryan Phillippe and Adam Beach, are asked by publicity minders to recreate their slog up an artificial Iwo Jima hill made of paper mache, for a parade. Admittedly, this was over the top and if it actually happened, then the soldiers had every right to wig out over it. But it still shouldn't have provoked Haggisian blubber-eruptions of the scale on display here. Haggis also relies heavily on race for effect, which is becoming something of a calling card for him. At least a third of the film is devoted to explaining to the audience that the American Indian character played by Adam Beach is viewed as being different from the white soldiers. Seemingly everyone he meets has a remark about a Tomahawk or something similar. This eventually leads to a "We don't serve Indians" scene in a restaurant, so that there can be a chair-throwing and screaming match. Haggis seems to think that conjuring up scenarios of racial tension is money in the bank, either adding to, or working in lieu of, character-driven drama.
Regardless of who writes them, all Clint Eastwood films have their pitiless moments, and this one is no exception. An early scene of the American fleet putting to sea is a good example. A sailor falls overboard in some kind of prank gone wrong, and the audience expects him to be swiftly rescued. But the boats are under orders to steam to a certain place in a certain amount of time -- they can't stop. He's left behind. There's also some remarkable violence in the film, including shots of Japanese soldiers who have committed suicide by grenade, reducing themselves to a pile of guts, literally. Another soldier has his head cleanly sheared off by an explosive device. It plops down onto the sand, upright. Still another soldier has something done to him that's so unspeakable Eastwood refrains from showing. He keeps the camera on the soldier who's looking at it. Little moments like this shine through, but they have to do battle against a screenplay that's operating on a whole different level.
Excessive narration is also employed in the film to plug holes in the story and tie together various loose ends about who ended up where in real life. There are lots of wives and girlfriends that all need resolutions. The longer Flags goes on, the more you start to get the feeling of a panic job in the editing room, which is surprising from a director who is usually firmly in control of the pacing and tone of his pictures. A third layer in the timeline, which takes place in the present day and has Iwo Jima veterans recalling their memories to relatives and therapists, is totally redundant and could easily have been snipped. It's also somewhat far-fetched. How old are these old men supposed to be, anyway? Even Clint Eastwood, who is older than dirt, would have been too young to be there when Iwo Jima was stormed. There's a good thirty-minute war movie in Flags of our Fathers, if you're willing to sit through another hour and a half of vintage Paul Haggis crybaby-psychobabble to see it.