Flags of Our Fathers was one craptastic movie.
I consider it my professional responsibility to see most every major war movie. People ask me, in class and out, what I thought of particular films, whether they were realistic, and so forth. I answer as best I can, never really having been in Ancient Greece, or Omaha Beach, or Stalingrad. So I felt compelled to watch Flags of Our Fathers, even though I had some deep reservations. Critics love Eastwood for some reason, and when an Eastwood film gets only mediocre reviews, you have to suspect that there might be some major problems.
Eastwood uses more or less the same framing device that Spielberg used in Saving Private Ryan, bookending the film with modern day scenes of the veterans and their families. This is handled, if anything, in a more clumsy fashion that Spielberg’s treacly sentimentalism, which at least had the virtue of being short and of not trying to make any deep observations about the father-son relationship. The scenes of the preparation for the invasion and the beach assault are alternatively reminiscent of The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan, without the metaphorical weight of the former or the technical expertise of the latter. It’s perhaps unfortunate that I watched parts of Saving Private Ryan the afternoon before I saw Flags, although I can’t imagine that my conclusions wouldn’t have been different. Simply put, whether you liked SPR or no (and I quite like it), it really changed the way that war movies should be made. Spielberg’s Omaha Beach can’t be outdone, both because most directors lack the chops and because Spielberg says all that there is to be said about high intensity combat. One can prefer, for example, Malick’s battle on the hill in Thin Red Line or Fuller’s depiction of Omaha Beach in The Big Red One, but both Malick and Fuller were after different responses.
Eastwood’s Iwo Jima, on the other hand, comes off as warmed over, half-baked Spielberg. He simply doesn’t have the technical ability to pull off an impressive invasion scene, or the good sense to realize that it’s already been done. I enjoyed the battleship porn (although I don’t recall hearing about an Iowa class battleship being heavily damaged by coastal artillery at Iwo), but that’s about all Eastwood had to offer. There was nothing in the battle scenes that we hadn’t seen before, and Spielberg actually did a much better job than Eastwood of conveying the quiet periods of the campaign. Say what you will about the various ethnic stereotypes that populated SPR, they at least helped distinguish the characters from one another such that the conversations made sense. As pointless as the war footing is, however, the scenes in the United States are even worse. Believe it or not, the US war effort was not about to grind to a halt in mid-1945 had the Iwo Jima photo not been taken. Eastwood has three things to say while his characters are in the US; Ira Hayes liked his booze, these guys were really popular, and it was all really important. He proceeds to say these things over, and over, and over again.
Finally, we’re supposed to care about the son of one of the veterans, even though he has very little dialogue and appears irregularly during the film in utterly uninteresting scenes. I suppose that Eastwood does a good job of lighting those scenes, which could count for something. Although I almost never walk out of a movie (Pearl Harbor and The Terminal being the exceptions that leap to mind), I really wish that I had saved an hour of my life by leaving halfway through Flags. I hope that the Japanese perspective is better.