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Based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers tells the story of the six men who were unforgettably photographed hoisting the American flag at Iwo Jima and the celebrity thrust upon three of the survivors afterward. Our society’s universal reverence for both the soldiers of World War II and Oscar-winning Eastwood is certain to generate a great deal of knee-jerk accolades for the director’s latest. With a wide, subtly stylized canvas, harsh battle scenes, and its challenging us to see ambiguity in those we unequivocally elevate, the film shares elements of the Eastwood’s Unforgiven, the Academy’s nod for Best Picture of 1992. The problem is that in the hands of scripters William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, there seems to be little story to tell.
The photo—which actually captured a second raising so the first flag could be kept as a souvenir—was viewed by most Americans as a sign of sure victory. And, à la the also-staged toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Iraq, the government squeezed the life out of the propagandistic opportunity. Three of the men involved were later killed; the government shipped the others back to the United States and sent them on tour so they could soak up the country’s adoration and shill for war bonds. Only one of them, limelight-seeking Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), was enthusiastic about making the most of his fame. The others, the co-author’s father, John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe, blank as ever), and Native American Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), were troubled by the activities they were forced to participate in, with the official in charge of selling war bonds, Bud Gerber (John Slattery), even going so far as to call it “showbiz.”
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Flags of Our Fathers is undeniably if sometimes unsettlingly beautiful, with, for example, epic scopes of an armada or battle flares erupting in clouds of ink-black ash. Eastwood also presents the warfare, which was filmed in Iceland, bled of color so that the scenes are nearly black and white. But he chooses to unveil the narrative nonlinearly, skipping among combat, the soldiers’ American publicity tour, and somewhat confusing scenes of James Bradley (Tom McCarthy)—he isn’t introduced until near the end—interviewing veterans for his book. These last scenes yawningly reiterate the film’s central ideas: War is brutal, and the appointment of heroism is often misplaced. The young figureheads constantly emphasize to the public that they, in fact, did little, and the true heroes are the fallen.
The second hour of Flags has more direction, though Bradley’s out-of-nowhere voice-over and shift to sudden prominence is awkward. There’s a bit of Haggis’ Crash-like contrivance. The soldier having the hardest time with returning to the States is Hayes, who never wanted to leave his fellow fighters and tried to lie about being in the photo. He responds to the situation—and constant, though period-appropriate, slurs such as “redskin”—by turning to alcohol and hence being stereotyped. Hayes’ story is the most interesting trajectory of the movie, and though Beach at times overemotes, he’s by far the best actor here. (Slattery, giving Gerber the motormouth of a particularly eloquent salesman, is also notable.) The biggest emotional punch of Flags comes not from the war scenes but from the fate of these traumatized men after they were used by the country they served. The audience, sadly, might also find resonance in Hayes’ speech at a Native American conference. It concludes: “It’s going to be a better world.”
Neale Donald Walsch also envisions a better world for himself, by loading money into his pockets. OK, that’s the cynical perspective on Conversations With God, Walsch’s best-selling three-book series about his own bootstrap-tugging and the subsequent divine voice that spoke to him, answering his questions when the former DJ was at a low point in his life. Reportedly, the tomes are rather repetitive. Definitely, Walsch’s advice can be found elsewhere. And unquestionably, if the Lord is truly a loving God, Stephen Simon’s same-named film about the series should have been stricken to back-of-the-rack DVD hell.
It’s not only the automatic-writing part of Conversations With God, adapted by Eric DelaBarre, that makes it difficult to digest. There’s the choppy editing, which travels in every direction including the afterlife and cuts out details. There’s the terrible acting, from bit parts such as the stiff audience members at self-help lectures to Henry Czerny’s portrayal of Neale, whose affectations include mainly baffled, doleful, creepy, and laughably pissed. His bushier-haired Kenny Rogers look makes the character even less endearing.
The broad strokes of Neale’s story are admittedly sympathetic. After a car crash in 1990 breaks his neck, Neale can’t find a job. We find out later that he was laid off, with his unemployment agent somewhat unbelievably reporting that no one will take a chance on him because of his neck brace. (One potential employer suggests, rather unprofessionally, that his recent lack of work suggests a “desultory path.”) He’s kicked out of his apartment and settles into a tent in a commune for the homeless. He resignedly begins eating out of trash bins and is turned down for even minimum-wage jobs. Finally, Neale lands a position, only to have that go south, too. This is around the time God begins “dictating” to him advice about life, which Neale immediately begins writing down, filling multiple notebooks because the Lord assures him there’s more than one book that could come out of this deal.
A higher power, however, was clearly not guiding DelaBarre when he penned this script. No one talks like these people do: An otherwise laid-back assistant tells Neale that her boss is “extremely preoccupied at the moment, but I’ll see what I can facilitate.” When Neale skin-crawlingly hits on a chatty, attractive, and much younger bus passenger who strikes up conversations with him on their shared route, her response is not only a look of disgust but also, “Are you nuts?” And wait until you hear what God has to say, including a casual “bless you” in response to a sneeze and the observation that staying at a job you don’t like “is not a living but a dying!” Simon’s cheesy touches such as Neale’s slo-mo table-kicking and a weird vision that haunts him throughout the film doesn’t help matters.
Conversations With God is bookended by Neale’s lectures or, more pointedly, the unabashed hawking of the author’s series. Whether Walsch’s experience is true or a farce, his books’ sales indicate that plenty of readers are finding inspiration in his writings. Their get-off-your-ass-and-do-what-you-love advice is obviously a worthy one, as well as the message to listen to your gut or, for some, your God to guide you through life. Why the Almighty granted the movie rights to his “dictation” is another tough question. Who knows, it may warrant another book.CP