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Movie Review: Flags of Our Fathers

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That Clint Eastwood, he’s like Stephen Spielberg – but with a gun.

Eastwood’s journey in Hollywood has taken him from a six-shooter toting, all star actor to a Director who always draws the quickest come Oscar time. Over the past few years he has unleashed such wonders as Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and this year's blockbuster war memorial Flags of Our Fathers. He directs, produces, and even composes the scores – and yet he still finds time for a round or two of golf. Is there anything this guy can’t do?

Well yes, there is something he can’t do. Just like Yahoo can never be Google, Clint Eastwood will never magically become Stephen Spielberg. And though his film, Flags of Our Fathers makes a noble attempt – and has Spielberg as a producer, it will never be Saving Private Ryan. But what is the sense in not trying – especially if you are Clint Eastwood?

Flags is the story behind the swirl of controversy surrounding the picture taken of American troops planting a flag atop a mountain on the island of Iwo Jima during World War II. It exposes things your kids won’t get in their 10th grade history books; like the fact the picture was not of the original flag erected on Iwo Jima, but of a replacement flag being put up because some commander wanted the first as a keepsake. But besides showing the real story of the flag raising, it shows how the moment, which is so prominent in American history, affected the lives of the soldiers involved. We watch as John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) – the three survivors from the picture – are paraded around by the U.S. government in a large publicity venture with hopes of selling war bonds.

It is this politically charged theme of soldier exploitation that overshadows the scenes of actual battle used every 20 minutes or so by the director to remind us how horrible the experience of Iwo Jima was for the men. The battle scenes, while not overwhelming, are very powerful and well shot. Eastwood has a knack for giving his films a unique look that sets an intended mood – with the battle scenes in Flags, he chooses to turn up the contrast between black and white, making the island itself seem darker and eerier. And just like any epic WWII flick, Flags does not hold back when it comes to intestines hanging out of war-torn men scattered along the beach.

Aside from the well put together battle scenes, the film is anchored by some very solid performances. Ryan Phillippe, whose acting talents came blazing onto the silver screen last year in Crash, delivers a surprisingly good performance – playing “scared and out of place” extremely well. Jesse Bradford also holds his own as the cocky, attention whoring Rene. But the standout of the bunch is Adam Beach, who delivers one of the best supporting performances I have seen all year. Though the director could not deliver a solid storyline for the other two, the journey of Ira Hayes, the bullheaded native American carries much of the emotional weight of the film.

It is the muddled storytelling that eventually gets Mr. Eastwood into trouble. The thing that makes a film like Saving Private Ryan so amazing is the fact that after the wow factor of the great battle on the beach of Normandy, there was a story chock full of heroes we could easily latch onto and follow the rest of the way. Flags falls short in this regard – as if Eastwood couldn’t decide what kind of a film to make. Is it about the exploitation of American soldiers? Is it a political statement? Is it just about the journey of three young men and their horrific ordeals on the island of Iwo Jima? For the audience, it is very difficult to tell.

In the end, Flags of Our Fathers is still one of the better made films of the year. It is very visually captivating, politically relevan,t and is made on an epic scale – it is no secret the American public eats this sort of thing up. But unlike great war epics of the past, it struggles with its identity and never delivers unto the audience a hero to whom we can cling. A valiant attempt by Mr. Eastwood, but it never makes it past just being good.

Perhaps next time, less golf and more plot development are in order, eh, Clint?

The Upside: The film is visually powerful, and the performances are surprisingly good.

The Downside: The film lacks identity, never able to decide what message it wants to convey to the audience.

On the Side: Clint Eastwood shot this film back-to-back with Letters from Iwo Jima, which is set to be released next year and tells the story of the battle from the Japanese perspective.

Final Grade: 3 Stars

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