They don't make wars like they used to. But they do make war movies.
A case in point: Clint Eastwood's latest film, Flags of Our Fathers. This film takes as its central conceit the story of the three men who helped to raise the American flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima during the Second World War. The battle of Iwo Jima lasted 35 days and reaped a bumper crop of blood and bodies. Five days into the campaign, the American forces took the highest point on the island, Mt. Suribachi, and raised a flag to mark the occasion. The moment was snapped by photographer Joe Rosenthal, and the men depicted in the act were thus immortalized. Of the original six men in the photograph, three -- John Bradley, Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes -- survived the battle.
The image, captured almost randomly and seized upon by a nation hungry for some evidence of good news, became an overnight sensation. The suits behind the war pulled the three survivors back from the front, and sent them on a cross-country tour to raise money for war bonds. When the war was over, their moment in history was made into a statue and the men themselves banished to the dustbin of old news. John Bradley worked in a funeral home, Rene Gagnon spent the rest of his life as a janitor and Ira Hayes died in a ditch only weeks after the statue of he and his comrades was commemorated. The perils of worshipping false idols are well known, but as shown in this film, the idols themselves, once elevated to that rarefied air, also suffer.
Adapted from James Bradley and Ron Power's book of the same name, Flags of Our Fathers flips back and forth in time and space, from present day to the height of the war. James Bradley, the son of John Bradley, didn't actually discover that his father was one of the soldiers in the famous photo until after his father's death. James Bradley's fictionalized counterpart is depicted interviewing old veterans of the campaign, apparently trying to understand his father's experiences, but his part of the story is given the least amount of attention, and seems almost tacked on. The battle of Iwo Jima forms the centre point of the film, fulfilling as it does the requisite war porn. You know the drill: men with their guts pouring out, severed arms, legs and even the occasional head flying through the air. More explosions, bullets and a jittery camera that seems as if it is being dragged onto the black sand of the island while tied to the back of some grunt's boot. Eastwood reserves the greater portion of the film for what happens after the war is over, and here he hammers home his message.
Iconography of iconography
It's not particularly new or earth shaking that the fiction of war is just that: fiction. Heroes, glory, medals, the pretty uniforms -- all simulacra, all means of trying to instil purpose to slaughter. An image, like the famous flag-raising, can be manipulated to mean almost anything, and it is this fluidity, this ability to be shaped and aimed for a specific purpose that needs to be questioned. But how do you make a film about the empty glorification of image when you yourself are making a film about the empty glorification of war, and selling it worldwide? There is hypocrisy built into the very foundation of this enterprise.
The iconography of iconography should be familiar ground for Eastwood, since he himself embodies the American myth writ larger than life (soldier, cowboy, rogue cop). As a filmmaker, his breadth of experience gives him a certain gravitas, and supposedly something to say on the big topics of life, but for all this film's length and scope, there is something oddly lacking. If the film has one thing to say, it is just this: art lies. Or perhaps more correctly, iconography lies.
Since even the dimmest of souls has gleaned the notion that war is a little on the hellish side, and most often an enormous waste in every possible sense and meaning of the word, the difficulty in saying something new or different on the subject is considerable. The problem may be that even Eastwood can't do it. As a grand old man of the cinema, Eastwood may have trouble escaping the very conventionality of his own history. The director was born in 1930 and at the end of the Second World War was 15 years old, exactly the right age for all the grand glorious myths to hit home. He is an old-fashioned filmmaker, and in some ways this works to his detriment here, since the subject of war can't (or shouldn't) be painted in broadly patriotic hues any longer.
He makes an effort, but he simply can't escape himself, or his own cultural moment. The corn pone elements begin to stack up -- the swelling strings, the tearful father-son moment, the syrupy voiceover -- and the film starts to resemble an old-fashioned war picture. If only the Duke were to show up, you'd know for certain that you were back in the 1950s. This is especially evident in the way the director treats his female characters, who fall into two camps: bravely long suffering mothers who offer up their sons as grist for the war mill, or giggling gargoyles in heavy lipstick and ridiculous hats. This being a war picture, women are somewhat beside the point; they simper or whimper but don't really do much else. While the mothers sit at home and weep decorously, the business of war proceeds with men, being men, killing men, all together.
The film is rescued by the power of its performances, especially Adam Beach as Ira Hayes, who can't live with the level of hypocrisy asked of him, and basically drinks himself to death. Eastwood also manages to level other, more subtle social critiques. The propaganda machine, fuelled by money and fat with lies, is obvious and explicit, but there are other, quieter issues, such as the casual racism that is endured by Hayes as a Native American. This uncomfortable fact is perhaps more emblematic of the truth of America, fighting overseas for freedom and democracy while maintaining the racist status quo at home.
But even the famous photo itself was something of a falsehood. The film goes to great pains to tell the truth of the matter: that the flag was erected twice. The first flag was taken down to and given to the secretary of the navy; the second flag, from which the famous photo originated, was put up to replace it. As one of the characters remarks, "No one even noticed that second flag going up." It is the power of media to remake or unmake reality that is the critical point; images are only given the meaning we want to see in them. The statues, paintings and endless reproductions of the famous photograph show up through the entire film, perhaps most memorably sculpted in vanilla ice-cream, over which a waiter helpfully pours crimson syrup.
Bathos and pathos
This scene is one of those film moments, when bathos and pathos come perilously close together. Eastwood's previous film, Million Dollar Baby walked a similar line, but that was entirely fiction; here the reality of history keeps intruding, making art seem cheap, shameful almost. To take someone's experience of horror and make a movie for the delectation of the punters in the front row, who're often simply getting off on endless montages of bodies torn asunder by bullets and mortar rounds, can make for a queasy feeling.
The grotesque reality of war has been captured so deeply and so well in documentary film, that the fictional version now seems woefully inappropriate. If film is, as another famous director remarked, 24 lies per second, here that statement is a little too apparent. The gleam of expensive production values that only a huge amount of money can buy glosses the film into buffed and polished form, tarting up the plain facts, but missing the heart of the story. That hollowness is the biggest problem here; it is a void where real feeling is largely absent.
Whether it is even possible to make a war movie in good conscience any longer is debatable. But Eastwood seems determined to try. The director has a second instalment of the story in the works, Letters From Iwo Jima, which takes the Japanese perspective on the battle. Making a war movie, while your country is in the middle of another war, is another complicating factor, since it implies that some wars are better (nobler) than others. But there is something that feels almost irrelevant about art, the nature of fiction being always lesser, only able to throw back a feeble copy of reality.
Ironically enough, the most powerful part of the film comes at the very end, when all the Hollywood tinsel, the digitally recreated battle sequences fall away, and the credits roll over the real pictures of the men involved, along with the battle itself. The genuine images of war in all their black and white immediacy have a simple power that all the flash and style of film simply cannot match.
Would that Eastwood had taken a page from journalist I.F. Stone writing about the Second World War: "I wish it were possible to throw on some gigantic screen for all to see some fraction of the suffering, the treachery, the sacrifice and the courage of the past decade. For how are we in America to fulfil our responsibility to the dead, and to the future, to our less fortunate allies and to our children's children, if we do not feel a little of this so deeply in our bones that we will be unswervingly determined that it shall never happen again?"
Such a film has yet to be made, but maybe it simply isn't possible.
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