Co-produced by Steven Spielberg, the first part of Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima diptych admittedly bears some textural and thematic resemblance to Spielberg's 1998 war drama, Saving Private Ryan: aside from a huge beach assault that replicates a docu-drama feel with gory cutaways (itself a bit of a nod to Cornel Wilde's bloody 1967 war film, Beach Red), the film deals with a group of marines affected by the ugliness of war, and a key figure who needs to be saved from further harm.
In Spielberg's drama, Private Ryan is the actual target in need of saving for a band of specially selected recruits, whereas in Flags, it's arguably the native American soldier, Ira Hayes (beautifully played by Adam Beach), who's similarly forced to play a part in the army's media and P.R. plan, putting on a grateful face when guilt from a series of lies seethe within.
The media factor involves the famous shot of soldiers trying to raise a flag in the midst of heated battle – except it's a shot of a second group taking down the first flag by Hayes and his team because a visiting politician wanted the first flag as a trophy.
Eastwood and screenwriters Williams Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis deal with the revelation in a fractured series of time planes, but once the bunny's out of the hat, the film's final third becomes a slow, meandering curtain call as the three marines encounter token doses of racism, guilt, absurdity, and death.
The most engaging character is Hayes, but like the other two, we don't really learn any significant personal details, which itself becomes a tragic lost opportunity for audiences; one can embrace the impersonal moments and pre-battle vignettes (all expertly handled without any pretense or cliché) and stellar battle scenes, but the film just kind of runs out of steam once we're stuck following the men on their media tour. Not dissimilar to a road movie or concert film, unless the personalities of the characters are opened by further dramas, it all becomes a repetition of stage and behind-the-scenes episodes.
Like Spielberg's Private Ryan, Flags is bookended by contemporary scenes with a surviving member of the trio, which function as lead-ins to the more potent WWII flashbacks; the present-era characters are thin, and the survivor's grandson remains a mysterious silent figure until it's clear he's the source of the film's otherwise eloquent narration that tries to subvert the last scene's dreadful sentimentality.
Maybe Eastwood, like Spielberg, felt audiences needed a ray of hope by having family members reassure the battle veteran that his decisions, acts, and choices were always for the good of the country, but there's something tragic when filmmakers don't trust an audience's maturity; in Flags, it's a compromised epilogue that acknowledges the military's exploitation of the group because war bonds were the only venue with which arms and supplies could be manufactured or acquired to help America win the war against fascism, but it also stays true to a dated sense of closure typical of fifties war dramas.
Paramount 's DVD is a bare bones release (you know there's gonna be a special edition before Remembrance Day, pairing Letters from Iwo Jima in a fancy 2-pack) and it sports a crisp transfer with an aggressive Dolby 5.1 mix.
Clint Eastwood's score is fairly minimal, although for the final third he grossly overuses his singular theme; when orchestrated for full orchestra by Lennie Niehaus it's serviceable, but when replayed scene after scene on solo guitar (oddly echoing a similar melodic structure and performance style to Quincy Jones' tender “Percy's Theme,” for the 1968 version of In Cold Blood), it's interminable, and a classic example of a director who should have left the primary score and its dramatic placement to a professional, which Eastwood's generously done with past associations with Niehaus, John Williams, and Lalo Schifrin.
Based on the non-fiction book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, Flags is more satisfying than Private Ryan, but the final act's unraveling is far too ponderous, perhaps signaling the filmmakers' own realization that the more visceral drama resided within Letters from Iwo Jima Jima, whose own video release has been pushed back in lieu of that film's Oscar Nominations, and the awards show telecast in March.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan