Clint Eastwood has made a good, but not a great war movie. Flags Of Our Fathers falls short of greatness due to a number of problems.
One, it suffers from a difficulty common to many war movies. When you dress your actors in uniform and cover them with the dirt and detritus of war, it becomes very difficult to tell them apart. This is the reason, I suspect, that many war movies made use of a cast consisting mainly of household names. See for example The Longest Day (1962) which had Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Rod Steiger. Robert Wagner, John Wayne, Paul Anka and many others. The idea is that you recognise these faces and care about the characters even after only a small amount of screen time. The problem with using unknown actors is the audience is not able to pick out and bond with the characters quickly and then doesn't care enough about what happens to them on the battlefield. This sounds callous, but it’s a fact of life. I’m sure Mr Eastwood deliberately used actors who are not instantly recognisable so as not to distract form the realism of the film. Not that the leads in Flags are completely unknown, but they are not internationally instantly recognisable. At least not yet.
Secondly, there is the problem of it becoming increasingly difficult to shock audiences with battlefield gore. The opening sequences of Saving Private Ryan had enormous impact because it brought into the mainstream a level of realism that we had not seen before. Now, war film makers feel compelled to up the ante to keep up the shock value. They run the risk of going too far and crossing the line into schlock horror. A few scenes in Flags come dangerously close to this line. In my view these scenes were distracting and decreased, rather than increased the realism of the, on the whole, expertly staged, battle scenes.
A third and critical problem is with the complexity of the story around the photo itself. I found it very confusing and must admit that I still could not tell you who was actually in the photo and who not. I also didn’t really understand why it mattered that much.
I am reluctant to nitpick any further at a film made by Clint Eastwood, undeniably a pillar of the movie industry, but perhaps one last gripe. I think it was a mistake to shoot the film in near black and white. This, together with the extensive use of voice-over, gave it a rather old fashioned feel.
This is such a shame as the prospect of a war movie directed by Clint Eastwood held so much promise. Here’s holding thumbs that all is made good by the forthcoming second instalment, Letters From Iwo Jima.
(Worth watching) - review by Adriaan