By lex, on November 6th, 2006
Saw the movie this weekend, went by myself. The Hobbit was up north with the Kat, celebrating regional championships at Six Flags, and the Biscuit was trying out for the girls’ rugby team, of all things.
I knew it wasn’t going to be a Sunday afternoon “feel good,” but I’ve gained an appreciation for Clint Eastwood’s skills as a director that Flags of Our Fathers does nothing to dilute. The story of the three young men – two Marines and their Navy corpsman – ripped from their comrades’ sides and the butchery of a Pacific combat zone and thrust into the national spotlight to stiffen a buckling national spine is not a new one, but the tale is woven seamlessly here.
It’s a brilliantly executed film from a technical standpoint – the balletic complexities of amphibious warfare have never been drawn so vividly, for example, and the battle scenes at Iwo Jima – a ground I have trod myself, gaining new respect along the way for the men who had to fight there – are as realistic as any art done on the subject of warfare. The transcendent splendors of personal heroism are illuminated as are the vivid horrors of random, anonymous, indiscriminate slaughter. So too are the vagaries of chance, the impermanence of fame, how quickly truth is sacrificed on the altar of necessity and what personal consequences obtain when young men who have already borne too much are further burdened with the hopes and fears of a war-wearied country.
The tale’s protagonists are average men who have been a part of extraordinary events, and chosen almost at random to be heroes, asked to stand in the stead of their fallen comrades – they believe none of it themselves, but are eventually led – some might say manipulated – to see their work as another kind of national service. In their fresh young faces we see fear, indecision and ultimately courage. We recognize in their youth the people we knew only as elders, the ones that built this land for us, who indeed built this world for us and deeded over to us in stewardship and trust.
The movie moves at the director’s pace, and Eastwood will not be rushed – his body of work will never be mistaken for a Run Lola, Run or The Fast and the Furious. This is no quick-turning MTV slide show set to explosions and rock music – the viewer is expected to bring an adult attention span. While unhurried, it never quite feels long though, and you never have a moment where you say to yourself, “I can just step outside and not miss anything.”
Because most of all Eastwood wants you to see it all, to be a part of it, to touch and taste it, to understand the warriors and the citizens and the times they lived in. He wants you to see the burnished steel sleeper trains moving the three veterans across the country. He wants you to understand how a war was financed when the dollar was still a hard currency linked to gold reserves, and deficits – “printing money” – were still an undiscovered innovation. He wants you to understand, without preachily rubbing your nose in it, what it meant to be a Native American war hero in a dominant society accustomed to its racial distinctions.
And it all works. You find yourself immersed in a time that you know you only just barely missed experiencing for yourself, whose echoes you heard, a time that was bright and vivid and real and shockingly ephemeral – this was your parent’s youth and a entirely different country, pre-interstate, pre-jetliner, pre-every convenience we now take so thoroughly for granted.
Which for me anyway was the most compelling thing. The movie has been out for weeks, it’s nearing the end of its first run and among the audience that I shared theater with were at least a half-dozen very elderly couples from that Greatest Generation, some of them mere wisps seemingly prepared to vanish before your eyes so frail did they appear. This part of the audience did more than bear witness to a tale; they were transported by the director back into their own youth. They were brought face to face again with the glories and grittiness of the world they once knew, saw again the comaraderie and horror of a war they fought, an epic clash which cost all of them so much and which cost the ones that didn’t make it back everything. And although Eastwood graciously spares us the usual thick ladles of bathos that might accompany such a spectacle, even so by the end of the movie many of these people in the audience were openly weeping, the women shaking in their seats remembering all the faces that didn’t come home, while their normally-granite faced men sat beside them immobile, weak-kneed, unwilling to move until the moment had passed. Until they had recovered some remainder of the strength that had built a nation.
A part of me wanted to ask them what it was that they lamented, these ancients – their lost friends, the lost years, their own lost youth? But I didn’t want to intrude upon them and I don’t know if they could have answered me. All of it perhaps.
Not much longer now, and they will be lost to us too.