Eastwood has made an angry political war movie, in this time of times, that somehow has a soft sympathetic heart.
So you’ve seen Jarhead. And Saving Private Ryan. Full Metal Jacket too. You’ve even caught The Battle of Algiers on DVD (kudos). You know, secretly, that war movies are just a series of stylistic tropes, archetypal scenes and jaded ciphers.
You know about the Sergeant, the first timer, the battle, the bedlam, the chaos, and the sappy ‘War is Hell’ sermonising that makes a victim out of every soldier, and a scapegoat out of some ineffable evil that’s suspiciously devoid of political will. ‘Yes’, you say, further convinced, ‘war movies suck.’
But then along comes one from Clint Eastwood. Yes, Eastwood. That 76-year-old Republican buzzard. It’s called Flags of Our Fathers, and it’s about the men who were famously photographed raising the US flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi. You can see the breast-beating already, and you know you’re going to hate it.
But then the opening credits roll, the Warner logo hits the screen and something strange happens. Eastwood’s frail falsetto trembles through a few bars of World War II anthem 'I'll Walk Alone' (the end credits list the singer as one ‘Don Runner’, but you’re not buying it). You’re unnerved. The movie proper starts.
Three soldiers climb a duff-looking Suribachi. 'Typical,' you think. "Can’t even shell out for some decent sets.' But then a pullback reveals a deliberately ersatz mountain in the middle of a packed football stadium. You’re lost.
Eastwood, it seems, is one step ahead of you. He’s jumping, you soon discover, all over the chronological map. One minute we’re out in the Pacific with our boys Doc (Ryan Phillippe), Rene (Jesse Bradford) and Hayes (Adam Beach). The next minute we’re back in the US on a fund-raising tour for the Army. Then we’re at the end of the war. Then the start again. And then back in the Pacific. It’s deftly done, and you’re finally convinced. You see what he’s doing, or at least, you think you do.
He’s turning the war movie on its head. He’s liquidising it. He’s shooting it in gorgeous greys and bomb blackened shadows. With multiple narrators, with CGI, with blood-squibs, weeping mothers, dying fathers and the latent political rage of obedient cannon fodder. He’s searching for something, on screen, right in front of your eyes. The truth, perhaps.
He doesn’t quite get there. But then no one ever does. And still you feel, by the end, that he’s done something impossible. He’s made an angry political war movie, in this time of times, that somehow has a soft sympathetic heart. And even more impossible, he’s made a war movie that matters.
Great. Another war movie about our boys, and stuff. Yay!
Can’t think. Bamboozled, intrigued, provoked, stirred and, finally, moved.
Award-friendly? Yes. Worthy? Yes. Conscientious? Yes. But sometimes, really, these aren’t bad things.