There’s a scene early in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers where, after landing upon Iwo Jima in an eerily quiet manner, the U.S. Marines peer into a dense fog and wonder to each other why they had been permitted to enter the island with such ease. The marines knew something was coming — they just didn’t know the when or what. Much like the fog, an impending ambush hung in the air.
Sadly, this scene serves as a template for the film.
Flags of Our Fathers is the story of the men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima atop Mt. Suribachi. The flag-raising, captured in the famous Joe Rosenthal photograph, sent the soldiers who raised it home on a tour to raise war bonds. A son of one of these soldiers, James Bradley, wrote Flags of Our Fathers to look at the lives of each of these men through the lens of the flag-raising. The book is an engaging, sometimes poignant look at men who found extraordinary courage in their ordinary lives.
Eastwood’s Flags, however, is a war story without a story — a patchwork without narrative. The film goes back and forth, starting with a flashback that begins in the middle of the film’s timeline. Narrators switch back and forth without introduction, and character development is nearly nonexistent. There is no focus in Flags, not the memories, not the war, not the propaganda tour, and certainly not the soldiers.
A bleak chaos rules the film, darkened even by the desaturated Saving Private Ryan/Band of Brothers–style film techniques. After all, the director’s explicit agenda in this and Letters from Iwo Jima, its sister film, is not to glorify war:
The two films “are not pro-war stories,” Eastwood said. “They are stories about the human condition of war and how tough that is on people, and the futility of war.”
Eastwood’s rigid adherence to this agenda becomes the movie’s undoing — the film’s constant disjointedness is Eastwood’s round-about way of showing the disjointedness of war. If this is the case, Eastwood forgets one important truth: while battles (and even war campaigns) may indeed be disjointed, they still sit within a larger narrative of history. Where there are people, there are stories. Eastwood’s hapless portrayal of these unassuming heroes does them a disservice.