An intimate epic and a war film that questions the wisdom of rallying around the flag, Flags of Our Fathers is a courageous, if flawed, attempt to reinvent an overplayed cinematic genre.
Shot as a trio of connected stories, the film documents the bloody battle of Iwo Jima during World War II, the subsequent bond drive undertaken by the survivors of the famous flag-raising at the island's highest point and a contemporary tale of a son trying to establish his father's place in history.
Where the film succeeds is in its visual representation of war. Rather than taking the epic approach, director Clint Eastwood shoots his battles as an intimate affair, as an ordeal each man must endure alone in his own way. There are certainly establishing shots that set up the scope and scale of the battle of Iwo Jima, but the film is more successful when the camera follows soldiers into bullet-riddled foxholes or up the steep, shelled slopes of a barren mountain for a symbolic, meaningless, flag-planting.
The sequences that follow the three survivors - Navy corpsman John "Doc" Bradley and Marines Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes - on a bright-lights tour selling bonds stateside prove as affecting as the terrible moments of battlefield violence. Each man approaches the task with some degree of discomfort, each assuaging his guilt in his own way.
Adam Beach, who plays Ira Hayes, an Indian pummeled by his battlefield experiences and the sometimes passive, sometimes overt racism he encounters, is particularly riveting. Unable to reconcile the violence he has witnessed or society's desire to objectify him as the Indian Marine, he gets caught in a tragic spiral of alcohol and self-loathing. His stirring performance serves as the cautionary spine of the cinematic story.
It's only when the film shifts to the contemporary story that the narrative starts to stagger. Just as the cemetery bookends in Saving Private Ryan cheapened all that came between, so do the scenes where this period tale is examined with modern eyes. It hurts the metaphor, hammering the idea that war is painful and rarely understood from the outside just a bit too hard.
It's a message delivered loud and clear by the battle and bond drive segments, and to assume that contemporary framing is required to ensure that message is delivered damages the movie and insults the audience.
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WHAT: Flags of Our Fathers (Paramount Home Video, $29.99)
THE VERDICT: *** out of *****
DVD EXTRAS: A special edition can't be far off, because this is a bare-bones release. No commentary, no documentaries, nothing at all. Only a few promotional previews and the movie itself.