Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Flags of Our Fathers

Has anyone else noticed that Clint Eastwood has become more liberal and muddled in his thinking, the older he gets? What a shame.

His new movie illustrates that to a tee. It elaborates on the battle of Iwo Jima and its aftermath--on site, and back in the U.S.

First, the technical problems: the script jumps around like a cricket on a pogo stick, telling the story in a nonlinear fashion. This method of exposition works well in some stories; in others, it's irritating and creates confusion. The latter is what happens, here. Before we know much about the characters, they're launched into the meat grinder of war. Character development--what little there is--comes later, in stateside scenes. The battlefield episodes are chaotic, which is realistic, but it's difficult determining who was just riddled with bullets or blown into steaming gobbets by artillery.

The upside is that the action elements offer some genuinely harrowing or riveting moments, such as a cockpit's-eye-view of U.S. fighter planes attacking Jap entrenchments, or the massive beach landings.

Regarding the acting, it's uniformly competent. However, the only actor who shines is Adam Beach, playing the Indian soldier who becomes perpetually sloshed during and after the war. None of the other characters have enough fleshing-out for stellar performances, though they do their best.

The philosophical problems and worldview are far more problematic and disturbing than the technical quibbles. Nothing in this movie offers any context, or reason to believe that America was in the right in fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. One scene reveals a glimmer of Japanese character, when a missing soldier is found later, tortured to death; even this scene is non-specific. Otherwise, the enemy is a faceless cardboard running target.

None of the men are portrayed as patriots who fight for their country. Sure, they're loyal to each other, as comrades-in-arms, but no ideal exists beyond this. All of the soldiers have cynicism seeping out of their pores. Back home, during a fundraising tour involving three of the surviving members of the flag-raisers on Mt. Suribachi, two express reluctance in their participation. Bureaucrats use them as pawns for a buck--literally--and reveal little or no sympathy for them. They present a phony facade of concern. I'm not saying there's no historical accuracy in this; just that it exemplifies the whole tone of the film.

Most aggravating of all is the constant barrage of epithets endured by the Indian. If the bullets didn't kill him, maybe the slurs would. The white men who encounter him call him chief or redskin or a host of other names, whenever possible. It's as if Eastwood's point--driven home with the gentility of a doublejack--is: "Whitey's racist to the core. He just can't help himself; it's in-bred." After the first ten times, or so, it becomes distracting and ludicrous. Of course, the Indian weathers it all with the grace and Job-like patience we've come to expect from the noble savage, even the 20th century variety.

This movie is about men who go to the killing fileds and die. Those who make it through go back to the world and become propaganda mouthpieces for the selling of war bonds. If you know little about World War II, you'll gain no insight into the whys and wherefores of this conflict. You'll come away puzzled about who our enemy was, why his defeat was important and just, and why the American cause in general was worthwhile.

Eastwood's film is watchable and has some good moments. But given the subject matter, there's no reason why it didn't transcend the mediocre and become a classic.

The men who gave their all deserve better. Hopefully, someday they'll receive it.

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