MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland


Why Eastwood Was A Bad Choice For This Material

It’s really mind boggling how far off the mark Flags of our Fathers is. The failure comes on three levels.

If you are looking for a war movie, you will be sadly disappointed. There is plenty of sepia-toned beach landing/gun fire/machine gun/grenade/flame throwing/body splitting stuff here. These battle sequences are episodic and uninspiring. It’s almost like they went through books and found all the cool ways people died and placed them end to end. For about 20 minutes, it seems like we are watching a poor man’s Saving Private Ryan.

But unlike Private Ryan’s opening sequence, the idea behind the landing is not really about the fury of the assault, which creates a power in the relentlessness. Nor do we have the established relationships with any of the actors going in – though there is a pre-fight training and traveling sequence here – so we don’t get the sporadic jolt of “Is Tom Hanks still alive?” that we got there. We have no emotional connection to any of these deaths, outside of basic human decency.

So when condolences are paid their families – repeatedly – we as an audience don’t have the relationship with the characters that the people on screen do. And they, of course, are signaling us to feel.

Returning to the movie a second time, I made more sense of the storytelling, as I knew what characters to pay attention to as they marched toward death. But as much as I embrace the idea of multiple viewings of films to explore the ideas and emotions, I don’t think a movie that needs a second viewing to understand who is being talked about in many of the scenes is doing its job well.

So it doesn’t work on the Saving Private Ryan scale. But we also miss the kind of elegantly structured assault that we got in Terrence Malick’s poetic The Thin Red Line. If you recall that film, the one central assault on a fortified hill was complicated, explicit, and brilliantly constructed. Here, it’s like a bunch of random war footage we have seen a million times. Nicely shot, but so what?

The story of the taking of Iwo Jima is simply not told. There is no real context for the importance of the event, except for constant repetition of the fact that it is important. And we never see the actual taking of the hill that is the primary focus of the group of Marines with whom we land. Perhaps Eastwood is saving that for the second film, Letters From Iwo Jima.

This is, by far, the most CG ever used by Clint Eastwood. And as a result, the sepia look also makes the CG look even more fake. If you sit through the credits, you will see real images of the landing and assault on Iwo Jima. And the huge number of boats was real, even if it feels fake in the film. The failure, I’m afraid, is that we have no insight about why so many boats were there and what function they served. Even when one Marine talks to another about how they will take a motorized vehicle to the island and not just drop off the side of a ship, we never see what that apparently unpleasant alternative is… or why what these Marines do end up doing is good… or bad…or indifferent. It is just more war jargon that has no meaning. And that is one of the stories of this film. It tries to tell us everything and it doesn’t really make us feel anything.

If you are looking for a movie about the hypocrisy (or honorable slight of hand, if you prefer) of the government in using the image of the flag raising in the pursuit of financing an ongoing and growingly unpopular war, you will be sadly disappointed. We get the surface of it, from paper mache recreations of the flag raising to stuffy cocktails parties to overripe Times Square celebrations.

But Eastwood (and Paul Haggis, the screenwriter, who shares credit with first-writer William Broyles) is stuck between two notions of the War Bond Tour that makes up roughly 40% of the film. There is the glad-handing, tap-dancing bullshit of turning three men of three distinctly different levels of skill, heroism and bravery into male models for “The Cause.” But there is also the ongoing sense that this War Bond drive was every bit as important as the (poorly dramatized) military goal of taking Iwo Jima. If they didn’t raise the money, the threat that we would “be speaking Japanese” today is held out there as very real. This is an interesting and complex view of military issues. But it is not well handled in this film. That kind of subtlety is not a strength of wither Eastwood or Haggis.

For people who are – with an abandon bordering on critical negligence – trying to connect this film to the current Iraq War, this is also a problem. Cherry picking the shallowness of the publicity effort around the flag raising is cute, but the analogy gets hit by an intellectual truck when these same people – all (understandably) against the current war – have to deal with the fact that the Japanese were the aggressors in the Pacific Front of WWII and an aggressive and immediate threat to America. The only real connection to Iraq here is that war is hell, then and now. (Shocker!) There is no conflict in this film other than bullets killing people.

The War Bond Tour is a misfire, focusing on three of the six men who were photographed raising the flag high on Iwo Jima. There is the quiet blonde doctor (Ryan Phillippe), the chatterbox thick-browed ethnic (Jesse Bradford) and an American Indian (Adam Beach) who gets to cry a lot (hence the Oscar buzz) and whose ethnicity – and bigotry against it even though he is considered a war hero- is a repeated theme, all but ruined as a point of vulnerability by his soldier family calling him “Chief” without objection. (This last one goes into the “it may be true, but it’s crap drama” category.) I don’t know whether you are still susceptible to “we don’t serve his kind in here” drama, but unless it is just a set up to Danny Glover beating two guys up and John Cleese entering with a quip in Silverado, count me out. It is such a loaded pistol and the movies fires it only in the most conventional ways. (The Indian also drinks and vomits endlessly, serving up another stereotype without a satisfactory discussion of how it fits into his story on a cultural level.)

There is also a lot of talk about who the other three soldiers in the picture were or were not. And the movie signals us to feel strongly when it puts tears in the eyes of mothers, fathers, brothers, and soldiers. But we feel little, as the story structure fails to set up any depth to the emotion.

The problem seems to be that there is just too much to this story… and yet, the movie makes us feel like there is all too little to this story to support its two and a half hours. When adapting a story like this, there has to be some clear idea of what case the film is out to make. After that, there can be all kinds of complexity inside the structure. But without the central heart of the matter, everything else feels like so much frou-frou.

The basics here seem to be that war is hell, that the surface image of something like the Iwo Jima image is always very much surface and not the real story, that military thinking often overlooks the lives and deaths of those in its care, and that domestic racism is more powerful than national pride. The film cheats on that last one by never really facing it, but it just plain forgets to take a strong enough position on the rest to get the feelings of it across.

If you are looking for a compelling version of Citizen Kane, as a young reporter travels to meet with survivors of his dad’s outfit, seeking out truth… well, it might be the most fully successful element of the movie… but it still doesn’t quite work. For one thing, it is very confusing about which old man is connected to which young man. (There is also an odd casting choice in hiring all of Broadway’s aging baritones – Len Cariou, George Hearn, Harve Presnell) to play the old men, as though if you hadn’t been in Sweeney Todd or worn a dress in La cage Aux Foilles, you didn’t qualify, George Grizzard excepted) And then, there are odd misunderstandings, like a man who seems to be having an attack of some kind saying, “Where is he?,” which his son thinks is “Where’s Iggy?” Who the hell is Iggy and why would the son think that if we, as an audience, don’t?

But more importantly, it is a device that could have worked. But it needed to be “The Device” and not one of a few devices. The thing about Citizen Kane and the many other films that have taken that track, is that the structure had a real flow and a punchline. Here, the punchline ends up taking place before the movie, as it’s laid out, even starts. Huh?

None of the versions of Flags of Our Fathers really worked for me… though I think there is one that will. The Japanese version.

The most effective war movie here is the p.o.v. from inside the caves and tunnels. The fear factor of being buried alive, essentially, and having these waves of troops coming at you must be terrifying. The issues of cultural thinking which lead to the unique Japanese choices when they realize they are about to lose are definitive and profound. And the irony of the gentle letters home from the general leading that group offers hope for great passion and profundity.

What the combination of the two films into one, with a lot less of the War Bond Tour and perhaps a 3 hour running time might have been a great film that worked on many more levels. Maybe the split is a great choice. I won’t know until I see Letters From Iwo Jima.

But I will say this. Flags of Our Fathers is more than a disappointment. It is a bad movie. It’s not a decent, flawed film that isn’t a major Oscar movie, which something like Gangs of New York might have appeared to be or small, like Good Night and Good Luck might have seemed. It’s not even like Crash, in which there was a line between lovers and haters that was as clear as the structural conceit of the film. There will be some good and even great reviews of this film. There always are for Eastwood movies. Blood Work had a 77% Cream of The Crop rating at Rotten Tomatoes… Space Cowboys, 88%…. even Absolute Power did 22% better in CotC than the overall ranking.

But this much is clear… there wasn’t a wet eye in the house when I saw it. And there was no applause at either screening. And there may not be wild applause for a lot of films. But no applause for an alleged crowd rouser? The thing most likely to flag is your interest.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon