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Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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Eastwood's "Flags" a Near Miss

Making war movies has to be hard these days. There was a day when it was socially acceptable -- almost even required -- for Hollywood to crank out patriotic war movies that glorified combat and heralded our troops as generally good guys fighting for the freedom of their girls back home. Then along came Vietnam and with it films like Apocalypse Now (1979) that portrayed war, the cause, and even servicemen in a decidedly negative light. When he helped resurrect the World War II movie with Saving Private Ryan (1998), Steven Spielberg returned the role of the serviceman to glory but very viscerally pointed out the horrors of combat.

In the last few years, most American war movies have followed a road similar to Spielberg's so that by now that, too, is charted territory. Clint Eastwood, then, decided to employ a different tactic: his latest film, Flags of Our Fathers, casts a critical eye on the way Americans treated their alleged heroes during WWII, perhaps the most glorified war in our history. He succeeds in parts, but ultimately the script by William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis isn't quite sharp enough or poignant enough to deliver on the promise of the film's premise.

The movie follows a group of American troops who raised an American flag during the battle for Iwo Jima, the most horrific battle of WWII's Pacific theater. The picture of five Marines and a Navy Corpsman raising the flag became one of the most iconic images of the war -- it eventually would serve as the inspiration for the statue used by the Marine Corps in its WWII memorial -- and the men in the photo who survived the battle became celebrities back home.

The screenplay, based on the book of the same name by the son of one of the men in the photo, crosscuts between the action at Iwo Jima and the strange fundraising tour the surviving men embarked on after. This structure works well to give us an understanding of how the characters relate their experiences back at home with their memories of the war, but as a side effect the battle becomes nearly impossible to follow. The movie basically assumes you already know a lot about the battle for Iwo Jima. Though well made, the combat scenes play more like a series vignettes than a cohesive picture of the battle.

In and of itself, I don't think that would be a bad thing. The movie's real focus is on the homefront, and how the men in the picture were used by a government and a country that were hungry for heroes and not people. This is interesting stuff, but it all seems really surface level. The movie is a little too distant for its own good. We see the government coldly exploit the photograph to sell war bonds, and we meet a bunch of civilians who seem only superficially interested in the Marines they're meeting, but we never really get a good sense for what the people at home think. Eastwood seems to be reluctant to push the point very hard and as such we get the general idea but only at a very high level.

Even worse, the movie's three main characters are ciphers throughout. In an attempt to avoid the old war movie stereotypes, Flags goes too far in the other direction, giving us a bunch of characters without much detail. We don't really get to know much about any of the Marines (or the Corpsman), and so much of the personal tragedy is lost. Yes, we feel bad about what happens to them, because it's clearly wrong, but it's not nearly as hard-hitting as it could be.

I wanted to like the movie a lot more than I did. Considering how great Million Dollar Baby was -- the previous Haggis and Eastwood collaboration --- I was expecting something more. Interestingly, Eastwood has another Iwo Jima film, called Letters from Iwo Jima scheduled for release early next year (though there are rumors it may be out as early as December). That film recounts the same battle, but from the side of the Japanese. I'm hoping it will feel a little more focused than this one.

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