Flags of Our Fathers: Special Edition
One can't help but approach Flags of Our Fathers (2006) with a certain bit of trepidation arriving in theaters during the ramp-up to Academy Awards season, directed and produced by Oscar winners (Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg), and taking on the subject of a nobly remembered past war while an ill-advised military occupation dominates current headlines, it appears to proffer a well-meaning history lesson, a cinematic equivalent of the high-fiber diet well all should at least try to pursue. Told primarily in asynchronous narrative, the story begins in a rush of scenes introducing several characters pinned down in combat, razzing each other during training, waving to crowds at a victory celebration. Where they are isn't entirely clear at first, but we soon learn that they all have some relationship with the most famous photograph of World War II: the raising of the U.S. flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima. While the war in the Pacific had continued unabated since Pearl Harbor, the invasion of Iwo Jima in February of 1945 marked a turning point for U.S. forces, who viewed it as a prize of opportunity after the quick fall of the Philippines, in particular for its emergency airfields. It also would become the first Japanese soil that Americans would overwhelm and occupy. However, the famous photo never told the full story of Iwo Jima (literally "sulfur island"). The flag-raising atop Mt. Suribachi happened very early in the month-long battle, and three of the marines in the photo did not survive. Furthermore, there were two flag-raisings when the Secretary of the Navy (present at Iwo Jima that day) demanded the flag, Col. Chandler Johnson (Robert Patrick) was so offended that he ordered a replacement flag be raised, saving the original for the battalion. The second flag is in fact what's captured in Joe Rosenthal's emblematic, Pulitzer Prize-winning photo. However, once the U.S. government realized how powerful the image had become in the American imagination and facing bankruptcy due to an increasingly long and unpopular war three identifiable men from the photo were immediately brought home to raise money for war bonds: John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). The trio is fully aware that they are not heroes, and while many Americans had died in the Pacific war effort, the flag-raising on Iwo Jima wasn't the U.S. military's finest hour, but instead little more than a bunch of guys parking a flag on an iron pole into a volcanic pile of rock twice somewhere between having a smoke and enjoying the view.
Considering that Flags of our Fathers arrived in the post-Saving Private Ryan universe of war films, it's surprising that Steven Spielberg originally considered directing the project. When Ryan debuted in 1998, it marked a palpable turning point in the war-film genre itself. It many ways, it was a conventional in its New Hollywood sensibilities, peeling back the veneer of patriotism to reveal a stark and cynical view of war, where heroism is often compromised and the decisions that drive battles are subtly influenced by inscrutable politicians half a world away. But Ryan undermined the war film as a storytelling exercise with its justly famous opening sequence on the shores of Normandy, illustrating that a little bit of optimism and a lot of guts are never a match for the spray of bullets and shrapnel; it was here that chaos and combat became cinematic yin and yang. Flags' scenes on the black beaches of Iwo Jima (shot in Iceland, also volcanic) matches the Ryan template, but without the ability to shock and subdue, simply because what once was unexpected in film is now commonplace we now know that the most casual of remarks or jokes is likely to be a man's last before a sudden, gory decapitation. But Flags isn't meant to be Ryan, or even a "war film" in its most dominant arcs. It's just as much a story about the war at home, and the costs applied to men who are virtually invented as "heroes," simply because war to government is like oil or cars or software to Fortune 500 companies it must be constantly marketed and sold. It is in the Stateside sequences that Eastwood's film finds a quiet, dramatic power, particularly in the story of Ira Hayes, a Native American who suddenly had to confront a remarkable amount of casual racism from his admirers, only to turn his back on the war-bond effort, and eventually society itself. Flags of our Fathers is a well-meaning film that wants to be important cinema however, save for the dynamic, CGI-enhanced battle sequences, this intimate story would work just as well as a made-for-TV event. Perhaps sensing this, Warner Brothers put Eastwood's companion film, Letters from Iwo Jima, in limited release at the end of 2006, which fared much better in the season's Oscar nominations.
* * *
Warner Home Video and DreamWorks' second DVD release of Flags of our Fathers follows up the bare-bones single-disc edition with new special features. The original DVD returns intact as Disc One with the same offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) and broad Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, while Disc Two includes an introduction by Clint Eastwood (5 min.) and the featurettes "Words on the Page," (17 min.), "Six Brave Men," (20 min.), "The Making of an Epic" (30 min.), "Raising the Flag" (3 min.), "Visual Effects," (15 min.), "Looking Into the Past" (9 min.), and the theatrical trailer. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case. Also available in Warner Home Video's "The Battle for Iwo Jima: Commemorative Collector's Edition," which includes Letters from Iwo Jima and the documentary Heroes of Iwo Jima.