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Flags of Our Fathers - Movie Review

Opening lines: Every jackass thinks he knows what war is. Especially the ones who've never been in one.

Flags of our Fathers is somewhere between a movie and a documentary. Based on a book, the movie recreates some of the events that transpired during WW II, employing an unbiased tone in it's narration. It's a meditative look at the nature of war. Critics have called it a confusing product because of no clear demarcation between various timelines, no definite storyline and under-developed characters. But I think it was all very much intentional. Steven Spielberg (Producer) and Clint Eastwood (Director, Producer) must have deliberately made the movie look the way it is, so that neither the story nor the characters are etched on the minds of the audience. What remains at the end of the movie is a buzz, a hazy picture of the enemy, a persistent humdrum and a sombre feeling. There is no heroism or glorification here, which is exactly the point - everybody in the war is an ordinary human being trying to escape from bullets whizzing at him. With this atmosphere soaked in, you get up from your seat.

The central themes (if I'm allowed to use those words) of this cinema are about the government's machinations which plays cheaply on the minds of the public to make money out of war and the true nature of these so-called heroes. When the long World War II was reaching it's climax in 1944, a bunch of marine corps take an American flag atop a mountain in Iwo Jima, a Japanese island and perch it over there, which gets wonderfully photographed and sent back home. The government is out of money and can't sustain the war. It needs people to buy war bonds. To make money, you need to make heroes. The photograph, which symbolizes the patriotic spirit of the soldiers and their march ahead in covering ground, appears on the front page of all the dailies and the government decides to bring three of the six soldiers in the picture (the other three were killed in combat). These soldiers go around the country canvassing the mass to part with their dollars.

American marines landing on the beaches of Iwo Jima is reminiscent of the opening sequence of 'Saving Private Ryan'. A faded look with colours toned down, a faceless enemy operating machine guns, men with gun firing sporadically and trying to get covered, medics rushing aimlessly... but the power-packed punch of Spielberg's visualization is absent here. And that absence very much helps the story, because these is no glorification here. When those three soldiers are asked to recreate the flag-perching in a huge stadium, in a ceremony organized to raise funds, we realize the absolute hollowness they feel and their repulse for showmanship. While one of the marines Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), enjoys his brief fame, John Bradley (Ryan Philippe) expresses his indifference and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) exhibits his revolt. Beach delivers a memorable performance as man unable to grapple with loss, one who finds it impossible to put a fake smile. In an extended epilogue, we see that he had long lost his passion to live and the screenplay deftly doesn't say if it's this war that made him what he happened to be.

The movie doesn't blatantly say anything, but the current situation calls for a comparison with the American troops in Iraq. The movie features a few scenes, where the American president and many senators congratulate the marines and say something like "You're doing a great job" or "It must have been like hell". Whenever someone said that, I was reminded of the opening lines. The governments, have time and again deluded the public into buying the theory that fighting a war will result in lasting peace or something as unimaginable. As to the second theme, about the so-called heroes' real life, they saw each other in a totally different light. In a sublimely touching scene, John Bradley says that he remembers one of his friends, not the way the public remembers, but as someone swimming in the beach very spiritedly after putting that flag up.

Closing lines (as told by James, son of John Bradley): I finally came to the conclusion that may be he was right, may be there are no such things as heroes, may be there are just people like my dad. I finally came to understand why they were so uncomfortable being called heroes. Heroes are something we create, something we need. It's a way for us to understand what is almost incomprehensible, how people could sacrifice so much for us, but for my dad and these men the risks they took, the wounds they suffered, they did that for their buddies, they may have fought for there country but they died for there friends. For the man in front for the man beside him, and if we wish to truly honor these men we should remember them the way they really were the way my dad remembered them.

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3 Responses to “Flags of Our Fathers - Movie Review”

  1. # Anonymous Anonymous

    A country goes to war...rescues a nation or devastates it...critics of war are ignored...the war gets over...some thinker like Kubrick or Eastwood makes a critical movie...the crowd becomes reflective...a brief lull...another war begins...the cycle repeats...a different scale of justice to people who are viewed as belonging to a different "group"....

    -Varaha.  

  2. # Anonymous Anonymous

    Excellent review of one of the best movies of 2006. Flags was a reflective, thoughtful film with a kind of melancholy sadness. As much as anything Flags is an examination of a culture that demands heroes, just as Eastwood's companion piece Letters from Iwo Jima is an examination of a culture that demanded death of its troops rather than the 'disgrace' of surrender. Both films evoke great sympathy for the men we ask to wage war whether it's on or off the battlefield.  

  3. # Blogger Prasad Venkataramana

    >> Flags is an examination of a culture that demands heroes

    Very well said, and very unfortunately almost all the nations/cultures fall for that trap. As Varaha (the first commentor) put it, unless there is a transformation at a fundamental level, we'll be witenssing such cycles.  

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