Friday, February 23, 2007

Heroic epic against hero worship

Film: Flags of Our Fathers
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, John Benjamin Hickey, Keyes Beech
Playing at: E-Square

Circa: 1945. War between America and Japan at the island of Iwo Jima. In the midst of it all, one day a few US soldiers hoist the national flag on the mountain. It’s an act of heroism. The General demands the flag, to be sent to the president as a souvenir of the war. As the first flag is taken down, a few of them raise a second one. An Associated Press photographer captures the moment in his camera and sends it home. The next morning the photograph of five soldiers and a sailor raising the US flag at Iwo Jima is flashed in all the newspapers. The government grabs this opportunity to boost the deteriorating public morale. America is doing great!
Finally, the war is over, but not before three of the six flag-raisers are dead. The remaining three men return home to a hero’s welcome. The government immediately takes them away, and cash on their heroism to sell war bonds. But all’s not well. The soldiers begin to collapse mentally. One of them, an American Indian, Ira Hayes takes up drinking, as the sailor sinks into oblivion. Only John ‘Doc’ Bradley is moderately happy. He gets married, and does everything to forget this episode of his life. His children have no clue that their father is a war hero. It was only after his death that his son James Bradley learns about his father’s exploits in Iwo Jima. This led him to seek out veterans and ask them what happened at Iwo Jima and to do some research on the men who appeared in the photo. His story is narrated in the book Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley and Ron Powers. The Clint Eastwood film, with screenplay by Williams Broyles Jr and Paul Haggis, is the dramatised version of the book.
So much for the background and plot! On the screen, you have a war movie that is trying to demystify the act of heroism, besides exposing the political exploitation of war veterans. The survivors say: “The only heroes are the ones who did not come back.”
Given today’s context, you may ask, do we really need a war movie now? Eastwood, in this sense succeeds in making a point that all those who fight in the war aren’t heroes, someone to put in the pedestal, but normal human beings like us, and we must given them their due. This is the central messenger of the film spoken through a war veteran’s son and the entire film is an attempt to prove this point.
It is admiring how Eastwood, who is used to handling neat well-rounded plots, manages a film of epic magnitude. The end result is owe-inspiring, tinged with a sombre pathos, which is a characteristics of Eastwood.
It’s not a easy film to sit through. Especially with the jump cuts and random flashbacks. The film deals with three narratives simultaneously, the son’s interviews, the aftermath of the war and the actually happenings at Iwo Jima. It can be quite unnerving the narratives interchange, but at the end it’s a rewarding experience. For the connoisseurs, there are extended war scenes a la Saving Private Ryan, shot in dull grey. Actually, the entire film is grey, verging to B/W lending to its authenticity and solemn tone.
The focus of the tale John ‘Doc’ Bradley and Ryan Phillippe has done a marvellous job essaying an ordinary soldier handing his new-found heroism. But it’s Adam Beach (remember Windtalkers!) as Ira Hayes who steals the thunder. It’s almost ironic that while demystifying the hero myth, the film actually makes Ira a hero, and a tragic one at that (He walks from Arizona to Texas just to tell a grieving father that his son was one of the flag-raisers.).
At the end, the film raises many question, and diligently recreate the story behind an iconic picture, which was to be the symbol of American military pride. If you are seeing the film, please sit through the end credits just to acknowledge the real people for what they really were.

Rating: *** 1/2

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