Published October 12, 2006
Clint Eastwood is 76 years old, and in less than four years he’s made three remarkably good films: "Mystic River," which was nominated for an Oscar; "Million Dollar Baby," which won Best Picture; and most recently, "Flags of Our Fathers," which opens a week from tomorrow.
This is a film with much merit, and it will get a lot of kudos, "thumbs up" and the all the rest. The question is, is it as good as the other two? I’m not sure.
“Flags of Our Fathers” tells the story of what happened to the soldiers who were photographed in the famous picture of an American flag being planted on Iwo Jima during World War II.
The story is based on a book written by James Bradley, the son of one of those soldiers, with Ron Powers, one of the great dramatic non-fiction prose writers of our time. I’d love to see his “White Town Drowsing” made into an HBO film. It’s wonderful.
The screenplay for “Flags” was written by William Broyles Jr. and then tweaked by Paul Haggis, who wrote the screenplays for “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby.” It’s too bad he didn’t just overhaul “Flags” from top to bottom.
Broyles — who started out at Newsweek years ago — can be pretty stodgy in his delivery. Witness such lumps of exposition as "Jarhead," "The Polar Express," "Planet of the Apes" and — ugggh! — "Cast Away," in which the most memorable character was a volleyball.
Broyles also co-created “China Beach” for TV, and that’s what “Flags” reminds me of the most. It has a big ensemble cast and one self-destructive main character.
In “China Beach,” it was Dana Delany’s alcoholic McMurphy, the nurse. In “Flags,” it’s Ira Hayes, actor Adam Beach’s Native American soldier whose lack of self esteem sends him into a downward spiral. Luckily, Beach like Delany, finds the vulnerability. Delany won Emmys; Beach will at least be nominated for Oscars.
“Flags of Our Fathers” soars in many regards. Grisly and realistic, Eastwood’s battle scenes are incredibly exciting.
He’s shot most of the movie in dull blues and grays, and black and white. In fact, the only real colors you ever see are bright blue (in a dress, in the ocean) and red (in the stripes on the American flag). Otherwise, as just about everything blows up and limbs are shorn, the picture is muted of life.
At the same time, though, Eastwood has to balance the story of the soldiers from that picture. They’re sent home to become public-relations icons; heroes who must sell war bonds to a weary, financially-drained populace.
In the process, they see the act they performed diminished, and the heroism that’s projected on them becomes uncomfortable.
Ryan Phillippe and Jesse Bradford, playing Hayes’ buddies, do a good job as likeable guys caught in a tricky spot. Eastwood does everything he can for them, but the screenplay is their enemy. The pair gets no showy scenes, nothing that might illuminate their plight separate from Hayes’.
And there are so many pointed digs at Hayes’ heritage (everyone, annoyingly, calls him “Chief” as in “Indian Chief”) that it almost seems that being Indian is more central to the story than having planted the flag at Iwo Jima.
There are some caveats about “Flags of our Fathers” that can’t be overlooked, and again I think they have more to do with Broyles’ script than anything else.
First, there don’t seem to be any black soldiers at Iwo Jima. Outside of Beach’s character, it’s an all-white American army. This is historically inaccurate.
Writer Christopher Paul Moore talks about the Army’s 471st, 473rd and 476th amphibious truck companies in his excellent book, “Fighting for America: Black Soldiers — The Unsung Heroes of World War II,” and includes many pictures of black Marines and soldiers from the month-long battle of Iwo Jima. Certainly, at least one of them could have been represented (to be fair, black soldiers were also omitted from Steven Spielberg’s "Saving Private Ryan," as Moore notes).
No black characters, but more than 30 actors from Iceland, where a big chunk of the movie was filmed, are credited as soldiers.
And there’s almost no mention of Joe Rosenthal, the Pulitzer prize-winning photographer who took the picture of the flag raising. An actor who resembles Sean Penn snaps the photo in the movie, but he’s uncredited and never again discussed (there are about 40 references in the book upon which the movie is based, however). Rosenthal died this past August at age 95.
But these are mere quibbles: “Flags of Our Fathers” remains undiminished. “Flags” also has a cast that’s a who’s who of solid actors, including John Slattery, Jon Polito, Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough, Barry Pepper, John Benjamin Hickey and Judith Ivey.
There’s also a top notch selection of younger actors in key soldiers’ roles with Jamie Bell, Joseph Cross and Paul Walker (in a cameo) as the standouts.
And the older actors who play the WWII soldiers in the present — Harve Presnell, Len Cariou, George Grizzard and George Hearn — make the whole thing that much more believable.
All the actors are, as Eastwood once told me, “get up and go” kind of actors, the sort who are already so talented he says he doesn’t have to tell them much.
“Flags of Our Fathers” comes out at an interesting time. Like “Bobby,” which doesn’t hit until Nov. 20, “Flags” is a historical picture with a lot of contemporary resonance.
Setting aside the tremendously grand nature of the battles, the central issue of “Flags” — how a war is sold to a country that may no longer want it — is far too important to dismiss without discussion. That the discussion comes from Clint Eastwood, an American icon, means the director earns even more respect this time around.
In keeping with the Iceland theme today:
I told you that Yoko Ono and May Pang would each be in Iceland on John Lennon’s birthday, Oct. 9. Well, they were in the same hotel!
May Pang reports the following: “While having buffet breakfast, Yoko walked in with her entourage. I saw her, then went over but kept my distance. I then said I wished her well with her project after I announced it was me. Her assistants were all staring. She smiled and said 'thank you.'
"As I was eating, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that she went over to the buffet again but really was looking to see who I was with. She then stopped when she found me and waved and smiled at me again. I, of course, I waved back.
“Upon leaving the restaurant, I was speaking with people from my group and Pat [Jennings — May's business-partner] noticed that Yoko kept looking over to see who I was talking to. Many witnessed that historic moment. So as I left, she waved again. As I sat out in the lobby talking, Pat noticed that everyone in Yoko's party was peering — including Yoko — through the window.”
Barbra Streisand’s mega-concert at Madison Square Garden last night yielded a panoply of New York celebs. Among them: Regis and Joy Philbin, Rosie O'Donnell, Bill Clinton, Sting and Bebe Neuwirth …
Lorne Michaels’ “30 Rock” finally aired last night, and it was a helluva lot smarter than that “Studio 60” soap opera. Alec Baldwin was sublime and Jane Krakowski is brilliantly cast. I found only one problem: NBC’s insistence on running banners, ads for Pentium Intel, and anything they can think of in the margins around the show.
Also, having the show start with talk of a GE convection oven, which was also being advertised during the breaks, wasn’t meta, it was just annoying.
Meantime, “Studio 60” is sinking, and deservedly so. The whole show is about Matthew Perry. This week, it took 23 minutes to get Bradley Whitford onscreen. As I said before it aired, the problem with “Studio 60” is that no one really cares if a comedy show gets on the air or not. It’s not dramatic.
This past Monday’s episode about the West Coast feed was preposterous. My guess is "Studio 60" is off the air by March.
And the lesson we’ve learned here is: Never bet against Lorne Michaels.