Curiously Timely Flags Is Ego-Lite, Except for Eastwood

Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, from the screenplay by William Broyles Jr. with Paul Haggis, seems to have captured

Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, from the screenplay by William Broyles Jr. with Paul Haggis, seems to have captured the spirit of our time with its mixture of cynicism and idealism, irony and conviction, satiric skepticism and red-blooded patriotism. In the end, it leaves newspaper reporters—the media mavens of their time—unsure and suspicious about what really happened at the top of Mount Suribachi on the blood-drenched island of Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945, when Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal took the picture of five Marines and one Navy Corpsman raising the U.S. flag after one of the fiercest engagements of World War II.

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At the time, I was in high school, just below draft age at 16. It was around then (or later) I heard that the official footage of the battle, which had raged for over a month, had been kept from the nation’s movie-newsreel outlets because of the depressing effect it would’ve had on the civilian population’s morale. (Censorship was tighter then than it is now, even under President George W. Bush—and no one complained.) The battle scenes reproduced in Flags of Our Fathers were shot in Iceland, and I have no way of comparing them to the real thing, since, to my knowledge, the official footage has never been released. Over the course of that single battle, 6,821 Americans were killed and 20,000 were wounded. The island’s Japanese garrison suffered even heavier losses: Out of 22,000 defenders, there were only 1,083 survivors. And the nuclear horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still to come.

Of the six heroes of the world-famous, endlessly recycled photograph entitled “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” three died in subsequent combat on the island. The three survivors were paraded before huge crowds for a short time as war-bond-selling patriots, after which they returned to obscurity and varying degrees of disenchantment.

This is essentially the curiously timely story of Flags of Our Fathers. Enough of the film, of course, concerns itself with the warfare on Iwo Jima to qualify it as a contemporary “war is hell” statement. And Mr. Eastwood and his many collaborators have told it with enough crisp authority to make it a strong candidate for this year’s Oscars, though not for the acting from an ego-lite ensemble—except possibly for Adam Beach’s strikingly aggrieved incarnation of the ill-fated Native American soldier, Ira Hayes, already the subject of a creditable Tony Curtis vehicle, Delbert Mann’s The Outsider (1961).

As it happens, the scenes in which Hayes is the victim of racial prejudice in the midst of his bond drive are doubly ironic in view of the rigid segregation of the U.S. Armed Forces during the war (which may explain the total absence of African-American faces among the U.S. Marines in the film, though there were black Marine units that fought at Iwo Jima). Ultimately, it was Harry Truman, not F.D.R., who desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces, during the Korean War. Truman is presented warmly and sympathetically here at an audience with Hayes and his fellow flag-raisers.

The production notes trace the genesis of the project through its high-powered sponsors: “Eastwood was initially attracted to the project after reading the best-selling book, Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley with Ron Powers. Bradley is the son of John Bradley, the Navy Corpsman in the photograph.

“Bradley was inspired to write the book after his father’s death; realizing that he knew only that his father had been a flag-raiser and nothing else, he began interviewing the families of the other flag-raisers. ‘I never set out to write a book—I set out to find out why my dad was silent,’ says Bradley. ‘I decided to write a book when I realized that everyone knows the photo but nobody knows the story.’ His goal was to break down the hero myths about the men in the picture: According to Bradley, because of the way the photo is shot, with every man’s face obscured, it is easy to think of the subjects of the picture as supermen; instead, of course, they’re everyday people. ‘To me, the beauty of the photo is that they are us—six ordinary Americans doing their duty.’”

I’m sorry, but what the photo and the film tell me is that the six initially anonymous fighting men have been frozen, by an artist’s accidental improvisation, into a timeless tableau of heroism, patriotism and self-sacrifice. It is not “us” up there in the photo; it is, as always, a select few who are chosen to transcend their own “us-ness” so that the rest of us can live in peace and comfort. This is truer today than it was back in 1945, when a larger percentage of us were physically and emotionally involved in a major war on five continents. The memory of Pearl Harbor may have been a greater inspiration than the memory of 9/11, but if Flags of Our Fathers has any contemporary kick at all, it is because Mr. Eastwood, Mr. Broyles Jr. and Mr. Haggis, as well as the late production designer Henry Bumstead, the late casting director, Phyllis Huffman and many others, have managed to make most of us see ourselves not in the six men who raised the flag, but in the throngs of cheering noncombatants and well-heeled well-wishers—all with very short memories.

The film has been dedicated to the memory of Huffman, Bumstead and Rosenthal, the man who took the famous picture. Unfortunately, there is no Mount Suribachi in Iraq to inspire us anew. For the record, the six flag-raisers are played by Ryan Phillippe as Navy Corpsman Bradley, Jesse Bradford as Rene Gagnon, Adam Beach as the aforementioned Ira Hayes, Barry Pepper as Michael Strank, Benjamin Walker as Harlon Block, and Joseph Cross as Franklin Sousley. (I have much more to say about Mr. Cross in my review of Ryan Murphy’s Running with Scissors, below.)

All in all, Mr. Eastwood’s skillful direction of Flags of Our Fathers makes it such a model of grace and lucidity that the only mystery arising from it is why the film has been slapped with an R rating.

Cut to the Quick

Ryan Murphy’s Running with Scissors, from his own screenplay, based on the personal memoir of Augusten Burroughs, struck me as one of the funniest movies I have seen this year—though that may just be me. I have a weakness for crazy people just this side of homicide and suicide, but I have also encountered otherwise reasonable people who fervently hate this movie. So the reader is duly forewarned.

I hadn’t read Mr. Burroughs’ memoir (or even the film’s production notes) when I saw Running with Scissors at the critics’ screening. Afterward, I looked everywhere to find the name of the child actor who played the 6-year-old Augusten, who seems to hang on every word spoken by his delusional mother, Deirdre (Annette Bening), an unpublished confessional poet with fantasies of selling out Carnegie Hall with her readings. The production notes asked me to believe that Joseph Cross—the same actor who played one of the six soldiers in Flags of Our Fathers, and who plays Augusten through his teenage years in Running with Scissors—also played the 6-year-old Augusten. Then I started thinking that I never saw the child Augusten in the same frame as his mother whenever they had a scene together, and that he was always sitting down. Moreover, I doubt there is a child actor alive with features identical to Mr. Cross’ (who is reportedly a student in real life at Trinity College).

In any event, the movie starts in 1971, when people were recovering from the let-it-all-hang-out 60’s with all sorts of primal-scream therapies to repair the psychic damage. Deirdre, a terminal case of psychic damage, is perpetually arguing with her heavy-drinking husband Norman (Alec Baldwin), a math professor. For his part, Norman never even pretends to understand Augusten because he is so much like his loony mother.

Before giving up on her marriage completely, Deirdre insists that Norman accompany her to a joint consultation with her new shrink, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), a wildly unconventional and peculiarly passive-aggressive therapist. The two men take an immediate dislike to each other, which makes the session a madhouse, like something out of the comic strip The Lockhorns. This effectively terminates the marriage—which doesn’t bother Augusten very much, since he never communicates with his father. What does bother him enormously, however, is Deirdre’s growing dependence on Dr. Finch, whom he distrusts. Matters come to a head when Dr. Finch persuades Deirdre to leave Augusten in his care while she moves to a motel where she can recuperate from her attacks of paranoia with a steady dosage of Valium.

Augusten quickly realizes that Dr. Finch’s home—to which Deirdre has thoughtlessly consigned him—is a veritable shambles of damaged psyches belonging to the rest of the Finch family: badgered, dog-food-eating Mrs. Finch (Jill Clayburgh); her “Bible-dipping,” humorless daughter, Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow); her “disco-rebel” daughter, Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood); and Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), Dr. Finch’s manic-depressive 35-year-old “adopted” son, who lives out his tortured existence in a shed in back of the house.

Augusten immediately bonds with Natalie, in whom he confides with teen-age bravado that he is gay, without understanding the implications of what he says. When he repeats the same casual boast as if it were a mantra to the all-too-understanding Neil, Augusten is immediately seduced in a shockingly carnal fashion. Along the way, Dr. Finch is repeatedly exposed as a cheat, a fraud and a swindler without ever losing any of his aplomb.

I know already that many viewers and reviewers will be disturbed by the film’s lack of moral accountability on any level; yet the glorious multiple charismas of a dream cast have completely won me over to the skewed vision projected by Mr. Murphy. For starters, the magical versatility of Ms. Bening in the role of one of the worst mothers imaginable stirred me immensely, even though her character never knows a moment of moral indignation except as it concerns her egocentric delusions. She is brilliantly supported (though that may not be the right word for it) by the rest of the cast: Mr. Cross, Mr. Cox, Mr. Fiennes, Mr. Baldwin, Ms. Clayburgh, Ms. Paltrow and Ms. Wood.

One of the funniest lines in the film takes as its premise Dr. Finch’s casual reference to his “masturbatorium,” the room next to his office to which he repairs for relaxation after—or even during—a tedious session with a patient. One can say, after Running with Scissors, that now one has heard almost everything.

Curiously Timely Flags Is  Ego-Lite, Except for Eastwood