"The right picture can win or lose a war."
There's no denying the impressive breadth of Clint Eastwood's ambition in making two back-to-back WWII films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, each telling the story of the same infamous battle but from different perspectives. It's a conceit that had been attempted previously within individual movies, notably 1970's Tora! Tora! Tora! about the Pearl Harbor attack, but dividing the two sides into their own separate films enhances the purity of vision of each, presenting each viewpoint in its entirety without having to constantly switch back and forth between them. Unfortunately, anyone who's seen the two will tell you that the American half of this diptych, Flags of Our Fathers, is certainly the weaker of the pictures artistically. While that's true, it's the combination of the two halves that make a unified whole stronger than either piece individually. Watching Flags of Our Fathers first makes Letters from Iwo Jima a richer, more involving experience.
Based on the non-fiction book by James Bradley, whose father participated in the famous flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi captured in the iconic photograph, Flags portrays a generation of young American men eager to fight for their country and save the world, unsure and unprepared for the horrific conflict in front of them. What seemed surely to be an overwhelming force of American might and technological superiority invaded the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima to face 12,000 Japanese defenders packed into an 8 square mile area, dug in, fortified, and proud to die protecting their sacred homeland. The battle was prolonged and bloody, thousands of men on each side torn to pieces in grisly combat. Eastwood stages the assault with imposing passion and realism. The extensive visual effects convincingly recreate the scale of the invasion, and the director never shies away from the grittier aspects of war.
But this isn't just a combat picture. The movie also attempts to tell the story of the flag-raising itself, or rather flag-raisings, and the implications and aftermath of their public exposure. The initial squad of soldiers sent to mount a flag on the mountaintop did so as ordered, only to have it taken down and replaced with a larger flag set up by another squad. It was this second flag that was caught on film by photographer Joe Rosenthal and distributed worldwide as a symbol of American victory and hope. Three of the soldiers in the photo (the three not killed in subsequent fighting) were promptly shipped back home to America to go on a promotional tour to sell government bonds and raise money for the war effort. Faced with sudden fame and labeled heroes by a grateful public eager to shake their hands, these young boys were paraded around the country as mascots, ordered to sell a story written for them regardless of the truth. On the one hand, their performances did genuine good in raising money desperately needed by the military, but on the other hand they also trivialized the real tragedy of the war at a time while their brothers were still being killed in vicious combat. Each man faced this moral quandary in his own way: one with stoic conviction, one with enthusiastic attention hogging, and one wracked with guilt.
It's juicy material, and the movie has very noble intentions in tackling it. The problem is that the screenplay by William Broyles Jr. (Jarhead) and Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby) is basically a mess. The picture begins and ends with sequences set in contemporary times where the elderly soldiers recount their stories, the war a giant flashback between these bookends. Within this are a further series of flashbacks and flash-forwards to various points during the invasion, before the men shipped out, during the bond tour, and at many other times throughout their lives. The structure is needlessly complicated and confusing, the constant jumping around making it hard to get a handle on who the characters are. Worse, the characters themselves are thinly sketched stereotypes with only the faintest hints of depth or complexity. Though the performances by the likes of Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, Barry Pepper, and others are solid, we barely get to know who these men are, and often have trouble telling them apart from one another. Phillippe's character, "Doc" Bradley, is the least defined of all, which is strange considering that he's meant to be author James Bradley's father so you'd expect him to play the most important role in the picture. The dialogue in non-combat scenes is clunky and unconvincing. Eastwood's direction throughout the movie is assured, but too many of the domestic scenes are uncharacteristically melodramatic, especially the grating voiceover and cloying flash-forwards to the present day, which foist on us a tedious subplot about author Bradley writing the book and some really drippy father/son bonding crap that just has no place in this film. At a little over two hours in length, the movie also feels at least half an hour too long.
On its own, Flags of Our Fathers is a well-intentioned but deeply flawed war film. It has some terrific sequences, but is burdened with a problematic script and lack of focus. As the first half of an important pairing with the superior Letters from Iwo Jima, however, it takes on greater meaning and resonance. Put together, the two works form a fascinating portrait of an important moment in world history.
The HD DVD:
Flags of Our Fathers has been released on the HD DVD format as a 2-Disc Special Edition by Dreamworks Home Entertainment (distributed by Paramount Home Entertainment). A comparable Blu-ray edition is also available. Due to complicated financing arrangements, the movie's Japanese counterpart Letters from Iwo Jima is distributed by Warner Home Video, who have released that film on both High Definition formats on the same day that Dreamworks released Flags.
The Flags disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. If you should pause or fast-forward/rewind the movie during playback, a timeline meter will appear on screen to tell you how far along you are.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc is a Combo release that specifically includes a secondary DVD version) or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Flags of Our Fathers HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
Paramount and Dreamworks deliver a truly stunning High-Def transfer for Flags. The picture is razor sharp with a terrific amount of detail. The movie has an intentionally bleached photographic style, largely desaturated but with tightly controlled use of colors, which is captured on disc with the utmost precision. Black levels and shadow details are richly defined, lending a solid sense of depth. The minimal presence of film grain is well compressed and never noisy. There's not a sign of edge enhancement or digital compression artifacting anywhere to be found. The video on this HD DVD is simply perfect.
The Flags of Our Fathers HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. Paramount has yet to support the lossless Dolby TrueHD format (as Warner offers on the Letters from Iwo Jima HD DVD), but even so there's no faulting the quality of the sound mix here. War movies like this offer a virtual playground for sound designers, and the battle scenes in Flags create an incredibly directional and immersive soundfield. Planes swoop from speaker to speaker, rifles crack, and explosions rock the subwoofer. Sound effects are crisply recorded and delivered with excellent fidelity. Dialogue is perhaps a little low in the mix and the non-combat scenes are much quieter than those during the invasion, thus making the action scenes almost deafeningly loud in comparison, but I'm sure that was intentional. This is a very impressive audio track.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French DD+ 5.1.
The bonus features on Disc 2 offer the same subtitling options as the feature on Disc 1.
The bonus features on this HD DVD title are duplicated from the DVD edition, though all are presented here in true High Definition video using VC-1 compression. All of the supplements from the 2-Disc Special Edition DVD have carried over.
There are no supplements on Disc 1. Aside from the movie itself, everything else is found on Disc 2.
Note that Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima were also released together on DVD in a 5-Disc Commemorative Collector's Edition box set that contained an exclusive "Heroes of Iwo Jima" bonus disc. The contents of that extra DVD (an A&E Channel documentary) are not included in the HD DVD edition of either film.
- An Introduction by Clint Eastwood (5 min., HD) - The director explains how he was affected by the book, some of the background of the story, his attempt to capture a generation, and what it was like visiting Iwo Jima ("It's not a place for sissies", Eastwood declares).
- Words on the Page (17 min., HD) - Author James Bradley talks about his father and his inspirations for writing the book. His father never once discussed the war or the flag-raising: "My dad had a lot not to talk about". Screenwriters William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis are also interviewed.
- Six Brave Men (20 min., HD) - Profiles of the real men the story is based on.
- The Making of an Epic (30 min., HD) - A fairly good overview of the project's origins, Spielberg's role as producer, working with Eastwood on set, casting, costumes, production design, editing, military technical advisors, staging the battle sequences, and shooting in Iceland.
- Raising the Flag (3 min., HD) - The historical accuracy of the re-creation is analyzed.
- Visual Effects (15 min., HD) - Effects artists from Digital Domain stress their emphasis on photorealism for this project. Many before-and-after comparisons are shown. The scale of the visual effects work in the finished film is quite amazing.
- Looking into the Past (9 min., HD) - Vintage newsreel footage of the battle on Iwo Jima and the war bond tour.
- Theatrical Trailer (2 min., HD).
Although I had some issues with Flags of Our Fathers as a movie, the HD DVD edition has sterling picture and sound quality, as well as an impressive selection of bonus features in true HD video. Even with its flaws, the movie is an essential preamble for the superior Letters from Iwo Jima, and the combination of the two together make an indispensable package. For that reason, Flags comes highly recommended.
Letters from Iwo Jima (HD DVD)
Jarhead (HD DVD) - William Broyles Jr.
Million Dollar Baby (HD DVD) - Clint Eastwood, Paul Haggis
We Were Soldiers (HD DVD) - Barry Pepper, war
HD Review Index
High-Def Revolution - DVDTalk's HD Column
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player