Tag Archives: B

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS

The iconic photo of American soldiers raising Old Glory at Iwo Jima during the Pacific war against Japan is the springboard for a canny exercise in mythologizing and demythologizing from Clint Eastwood. “Flags of Our Fathers” doesn’t much resemble Franklin Schaffner’s “Patton” (1970) in visual terms, but just as that picture, penned by Francis Ford Coppola, managed both to glorify the general’s eccentric genius and to embody, for many viewers at least, an anti-war attitude, so Eastwood’s film, written by William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis, unravels the tangled, and none too uplifting, reality behind the photograph (as well as the rather crass use of some of the men in it as PR puppets in a desperate War Bond drive) while simultaneously exalting the true nature of the heroism the men who fought and died to take the island exhibited (as well as the lasting effect the experience had on those who survived).

In a way the film can be seen as a blend of “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Best Years of Our Lives.” On the one hand it offers intermittent scenes of the horrors that the 30,000 troops who clambered onto the island in February, 1945, confronted over 35 days of fighting in trying to take the strategically important locale against some 20,000 entrenched, committed defenders. These episodes, which include impressive aerial vistas of the fleet and powerful images of the landing and the soldiers’ grueling process over the landscape (complete with scenes of great carnage and sudden death), are spread throughout the film in the form of flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks, taking us from the on-board preparations for the assault, in which the major players are all introduced, through a final victory swim on the island’s beach by some of the survivors. Juxtaposed with the battle scenes is the story of how the photograph was taken–it was actually a shot of the raising of a second flag, put up as an afterthought after possession of the first became a bone of contention among the military and civilian leadership, and quickly became a source of hope both for a war-weary public and for the cash-strapped Washington administration. The government decided to hustle the three survivors captured in the image back home to hawk War Bonds at massive rallies, despite the fact that the men harbored serious reservations about being identified at heroes at all (as well as guilt over what they had actually done or left undone) and there wasn’t even agreement about who all the men in the picture actually were (a problem when it came to events at which the grieving mothers of the other three, all since killed in battle, would be present.

By dividing up the film between glimpses of the actual battle and the process of the men’s fund-raising tour back home (as well as scenes in which the son of one of the three men researches his reticent father’s past in conversations with other veterans about the battle, and summary accounts of how the trio all fared in post-war America), “Flags of Our Fathers” attempts to capture the dichotomy between the true nature of heroism, exhibited in messy, often ugly circumstances that make for a good deal of self-doubt and second guessing, and the urge to fashion a simple, unequivocal image of nobility that can serve a unifying and uplifting purpose. In one sense the film could be read as a somewhat cynical take on the old newspaper adage that when the legend becomes fact, print the legend; but it wants to get at something deeper, namely the ambiguous but still deeply real heroism represented by men who themselves realize that they aren’t the perfect embodiment of the ideal that the public thirsts for and that their pain–and that of their fallen comrades–is being exploited.

The film, made with Eastwood’s customary intelligence (if not brilliance) and considerable visual elegance (with a superb production design by the late master Henry Bumstead and excellent widescreen cinematography by Tom Stern, who employs a bleached-out color scheme emphasizing greys, browns and greens with only occasional splashes of color), is quite successful in dramatizing these themes, even if in doing so it sometimes slips into the cliches of World War II military drama (especially in the macho camaraderie that fills the opening pre-assault sequences, but elsewhere too, and in the repeated scenes of combatants agonizing over the deaths of their comrades). The turn at the end to explicit reflections on the nature of heroism and the need for heroes is, moreover, a heavy-handed miscalculation.

A similar feeling of competence occasionally overmatched by the film’s demands can be seen in the acting. Ryan Phillippe does a solid job as stoic Doc Bradley, the Navy Corpsman who provided on-field medical help to wounded Marines and is haunted by the enormities he’d witnessed, as does Jesse Bradford as Rene Gagnon, the limelight-seeking runner who found that his celebrity was short-lived and the public only briefly appreciative. Adam Beach has the more difficult part of Ira Hayes, the Native American who had to endure the almost nonchalant racism of the era and whose demons led him into the alcoholism that eventually killed him. Beach works hard to capture the character’s desperation and self-loathing, but doesn’t always succeed, sometimes seeming as clumsy coping with the role’s demands as the man he’s playing was in embracing his casting as a hero.

The small army of largely male supporting players acquit themselves well in most cases, though sometimes it’s difficult even to keep the players straight. Among the more notable faces among the company are Jamie Bell as the somewhat goofy, doomed Ignatowski, Paul Walker as clean-cut Hank Hansen, Joseph Cross as boyish Franklin Sousley and Benjamin Walker as Harlan Block, whose distraught mother Belle (Judith Ivey) recognizes him in the photograph, along with Barry Pepper as their dedicated sergeant and Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough and Robert Patrick as officers. John Benjamin Hickey and John Slattery come on strong as the men’s handlers, one military and the other civilian, during their tour, and Tom McCarthy is okay as Bradley’s researcher son. Older actors have been enlisted to play some of the characters in the more contemporary scenes, although the identities aren’t always ideally clear. So Len Cariou shows up as the elder military handler Beech, and Harve Presnell the older version of McDonough, both doing reasonably well. But though his performance is fine as the elder Bradley, George Grizzard will be almost unrecognizable for those who remember only the reedy, intense actor of his younger days.

Like its three major characters, “Flags of Our Fathers” isn’t perfect, but its flaws arise from an attempt to deliver a message about the complicated nature of heroism that’s worth hearing in our own time of conflict. And it can serve as a useful counterpart to a picture like “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” the John Wayne vehicle that, typical for its time, reduced the terrible assault to a simplistic exercise in patriotism. That 1949 film may still be of interest to you, though–not only because it can serve as an instructive contrast to the more subtle and layered depiction Eastwood has created, but because the three surviving flag-raisers actually appear in small roles in it–a continuation of the very exploitation of them that this picture treats with such mixed emotions.

FACTOTUM

The late Charles Bukowski has become something akin to a cinematic cottage industry. A whole raft of documentaries have been made about him, and now “Factotum” joins Barbet Schroeder’s 1987 “Barfly” in dramatizing the writer’s semi-autobiographical accounts of his hazy, lazy early days. And it’s as good, if not better, than that earlier film.

Of course, it’s not your typical action-packed Hollywood flick, chock full of preposterous twists. Though as its name implies, it depicts Bukowski–or more properly his fictional alter-ego Henry Chinaski (Matt Dillon)–making his way through a succession of short-term jobs (taxi driver, factory worker, maintenance man) separated by prolonged intervals of binge drinking and sex, as well as one long stretch when he enjoys a spell of success at the race track, the fact is that plot-wise, nothing much happens in the picture. Chinaski is at the end what he was at the beginning–an alcoholic consumed by the drive to be a writer and not so much defiant as simply oblivious to social expectations. (One of the most telling moments in the script comes when he demands a salary check for the half-day he worked at a new job before wandering off to the nearest bar, informing the personnel manager that he needs the money to get drunk and explaining, “I know it’s not noble, but it’s my choice.” And though one of the stories he’s been obsessively sending off to magazines has finally been accepted for publication, he doesn’t even know it because his mail hasn’t been reaching him.)

What keeps “Factotum” from dissolving into tedium is the cooly minimalist style brought to the material by Norwegian writer-director Bent Hamer, who has a deft way with the no-frills approach that marks a good many of today’s best Scandinavian filmmakers. A good deal of the episodic script by Hamer and his collaborator Jim Stark is offhandedly amusing, not only in the scenes showing Chinaski’s checkered employment career but also in those involving his off but mostly on-again bar partner and squeeze Jan (Lili Taylor), the dissolute hooker (Marisa Tomei) he briefly takes up with, his racetrack pal (Fisher Stevens) and even his parents, an adoring mother and contemptuous father. Hamer stages them all with delicious restraint, never pushing too hard or belaboring the obvious but keeping a bemused distance.

He’s blessed with a superior cast. Dillon, who’s shown a real flair for broad comedy in the past (just think of “There’s Something About Mary”), here submerges what’s left of his leading-man image in the shambling figure of a perpetually lethargic man who simply refuses to hurry. His ingrained deliberation is even better than the approach Rourke took to the character in “Barfly,” and his exhausted, grizzled appearance will make you forget that he’s still a boyishly handsome fellow under the beard. Taylor is more experienced at this sort of dissoluteness, and once again she carries it off well, and Tomei does her surprisingly brief turn nicely, too. The supporting cast is fine across the board.

On the technical side “Factotum” is strictly functional, but John Christian Rosenlund’s cinematography catches the grubbiness of the urban locations nicely, and Kristian Asbjornsen’s spare score suits the visuals. What really distinguishes it is Hamer’s amusingly deadpan take on the material and Dillon’s uncanny ability to embody it in his performance. Like Bukowski himself, the picture requires you to tune into its peculiar wavelength, but if you do, the rewards are substantial.