We begin with the preparations for the U.S. invasion of Iwo Jima island in 1944. As the battle begins, we start flash-forwarding to the aftermath of the battle, where three members of the invasion force have been dubbed “the heroes of Iwo Jima” because they were in a photo of a flag being raised on the island, seemingly against great adversity. For the rest of the movie, we see more of the original conquest of the island intercut with shots of the “heroes” rolling their eyes on the endless publicity tour that followed. Halfway through, in the island based-story, we see the ironic moment when the flag was actually raised, which turns out to have been a calm, utterly un-heroic moment of downtime between battles.It’s not that Flags of Our Fathers totally fails: we do feel the sense of irony that the filmmakers want us to feel, but we also feel patronized and bored, because this movie isn’t about the actions or even the realizations of the characters onscreen, it’s about the point the filmmakers want to make by intercutting the two stories. This focus makes the filmmakers into the heroes, rather than anybody onscreen.
In an essay film like The Atomic Café, the filmmakers are the heroes, and that’s okay. Each piece of footage is morally inert in and of itself, but the meaning comes from how the filmmakers juxtapose that footage together. When we watch that movie, we root for the filmmakers to successfully expose the cravenness of their targets. But nobody goes to a non-documentary drama to root for the director. We want to root for one of the characters onscreen.
But Eastwood leaves the poor actors helpless and hapless. None of the characters really wants or goes after anything. They don’t act, they just react. Whether they’re on the mountain or on their promotional tour, they’re just passively reacting to orders. On the island, they dutifully attempt to take the hill but you certainly never get the sense that they have any personal ambition or, god forbid, any animosity towards the Japanese.On the promotional tour, they resent the crassness and dishonesty of it, but the only result is a few snide remarks—they don’t do anything to stop or correct the misperception they’re creating. Instead, two of them just go along with it and the other descends into alcoholism until he’s forcibly shipped back to the front. That’s a bummer, but it’s not tragic, because nobody tried to prevent that from happening. Irony is a discrepancy between expectation and outcome. This sad outcome here was pretty much what everyone suspected.Another problem is that the central irony of the movie is made clear in the first ten minutes of the movie, and then the rest of the movie merely illustrates that same irony over and over again. If you’ve got a point to make, then you have to have that point hit unexpectedly, as a result of what we’ve seen onscreen. First you have to create the impression that things are going to turn out the other way, and only then you can ironically reverse those expectations later.Also, way too much time is spent on a pointless subplot about a mix-up regarding which dead man’s butt was in the photo. There’s no bad guy in that subplot, just a misunderstanding, so who cares? And ultimately this bizarre digression undercuts the overall point of the movie. If it was unjust to misidentify one of the men in the photo, that contradicts their larger point that it was silly to single out the men in photo for praise in the first place.
So is there a version of this movie which would have worked better? I’ll try to find it tomorrow.