Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers uses the famous Iwo Jima image that "won" World War II for the United States and the Allies to dissect the conflicting experiences of war for the warrior: the unimaginable violence of war and the decadence of the home front.
Since I really love war films well made, Flags really got to me. Its stylized colors during the battle scenes imps Spieldberg's Saving Private Ryan (he produced Flags), as does the utter carnage that shocks us.
Eastwood distances us from sentimentalism, which allows us to understand the ugly sentimentalism we place on war -- the "hero" and "victory" so sought after, generation after generation, brutal war after brutal war. A line of dialogue goes: "There's no such thing as a hero or a villain. They're things we create later."
Like all honest representations of war since Remarque's novel All Quiet on the Western Front, the main themes are 1) we fight for our comrades, not for "country," etc.; 2) the chaos of war is so brutal and earth-shattering that the non-warrior can't understand; 3) wars create towering hypocrisy between the safe and the combat veterans/casualties/fatalities.
Now, I know that Eastwood's other twin film, Letters from Iwo Jima, has been better reviewed than Flags, and suspect the reasons. The latter creates a semi-superficial narrative level, where a son of a WWII vet writes a book on the Iwo Jima flag-raising picture -- this is in the present. Then there is the Iwo Jima battle, the time leading up to it, the immediate time after it, the war bond-raising trip afterwards, and then a "years after the war" sequence.
With all of this shifting time, the narrative cannot keep up -- the script's time changes do not follow a readily-available logic, or even one that would imitate confusion or fracture. The same trope of shifting "presents" is used in Citizen Kane, but there's one important difference: the "real present" is weirdified -- documents are kept in a cavernous vault, and we never find Kane's "rosebud," although we know that that was his Colorado snow sled.
Despite Eastwood's efforts, Flags' script thinks it's smart enough to get down to the truth of the Iwo Jima photograph. Now, don't get me wrong -- the film goes to impressive lengths to successfully create its own "filmic world," one that informs us so much about why the "greatest generation" phrase is so much BS. That's the most important thing about Flags -- its shocking contrast between combat zone and stateside safety. But in working toward an " = " equals sign instead of a weirdified "?" question mark, we're left with an answer that doesn't fill the belly.
The true story of Ira Hayes, the American Indian flag-raiser, is indeed amazing; that said, the latter half of the film spends too much time on him, while the "all-American" looking character played by Jesse Bradford...
...doesn't have any character development. True, this film is a representation of things that happened, but remember Francis Ford Coppola's statement about Apocalypse Now:
It's true that Bradford's character was just some guy who raised the flag and then spent his life as a janitor, who may not have been reflective or thoughtful. But that's a hole in the script. Further, the narrative does not move forward when we find out that there were multiple flag-raisings and some people got told outright lies -- the script assumes this is news to its audience. The Iraq War gave us Jessica Lynch.
"My film is not a movie; it's not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam."
The strengths of the film lie in Eastwood's donnée -- the visuals of the battle scenes and the sets for the stateside scenes. All of the following were so awesome that I could not help drinking vodka to enhance the experience while viewing Flags: explosions, battleships ("we can't stop" for a man overboard), cannons, machine guns, fatal injuries, maimings, the guilt of the living, the "soldier's heart"/crying scenes (Civil War-era term for PTSD), the guilt of having to kill the enemy, the unbelievable way soldiers keep charging as their comrades are vaporized.
All of these are contrasted with the milk-and-honey stateside scenes, where every road, house, and hotel is nice and tidy, where a crazy amount of fighting-age and physically able men are cooks, doormen, waiters, etc., where the civilians wish they could understand the war but cannot. Along with this goes the politicians who equally (when compared with the combat soldiers) do their part for the war effort by schmoozing with rich people and selling their "product" -- the Iwo Jima photograph -- to a public battered by a four-year old, two-front war. Sound familiar?
One insightful line goes, "A picture can win or lose a war. Remember that picture of a South Vietnamese commander shooting a VC in the head? People kept fighting, but the war was over right there." Flags ultimately succeeds in communicating the arbitrariness of war, of Us vs. Them.
Disregard the artificiality of the film's narrative and its sentimental turn toward the end, and realize that Flags of Our Fathers succeeds in showing us that
The ability of human beings to separate themselves into arbitrary and meaningless groups is endless and ingenious.