Thursday, December 21, 2006

Film(s) Review: "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima"

War is hell.
Death is sad.
Pain is horrific.
People are terrible.
Life is short.
I need more.

"Flags of our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" are two war movies, two complementary looks at a battle seen respectively from US and Japanese points of view, focusing on one of the great island-hopping-warfare battles of WWII, Iwo Jima. One ("Flags") is told in English; the other in Japanese (with English sub-titles).

The landing and the attack on the Japanese held and cave-fortified black sands of Iwo Jima was, as the film presents, a tale of wartime carnage on both sides (I saw the original Marine footage of the landing and battle at Quantico Marine film library many year ago, and the death and destruction of the battle I saw in official Marine footage was as horrific in the staged scenes of the Spielberg/Eastwood movie. I say Spielberg/Eastwood movie because while the former produced it and the second directed it, both films bear more Spielbergian than Eastwoodian sensibilities, if I can coin the phrases.

The films (or rather, the one LONG two-part film) are well mounted, beautifully filmed, but they are poor in narrative and concepual effort.

The whole filmic venture is under dramatized (explosions and deaths do not necessarily equal drama). While the film's expository conceits are interesting and imaginative (the one follows the story of the men who raised the victory flag on Iwo and their subsequent soldier-lives as hero-pitchmen back in the States selling war bonds), and the other story arcs from the letters from the prinipal Japanese general in charge of the defense of Iwo to his loved ones back home, the film(s) offers too many simplistic opinions about soldiering, fighting and commanding troops in WWII and, by extension, all wars. There are not enough dramatically developed moral dilemmas confronted in the battle/war by the characters (an Native American private who was one of the flag-raisers constantly called 'Chief' by his military and civilian bosses and yet has to raise money for the war effort IS a sort of moral dilemma for that character, true; and the dilemma about who was really in the iconic photo of the flag being raised over the island--there were two flag-raising, one actual, and one follow-up--is also a quandary leading to moral concerns), but the complexion of these moral questions are sophomorically developed and predictably portrayed as 'good-guys-are-us-and-bad-guys-are-them' dilemma, not in a manner equal to the demands of memorable drama.

Moreover, I found it hard to connect emotionally and deeply with any of the characters. It should have been easy; young innocent men in battle is rich with emotionally connective possibilities--SEE almost any other war film--but this film failed to move me. In fact I was moved most by the scene of a death of a horse--a bad sign. This lack of emotional character identification signified for me that the characters that were not fully fleshed out, but symbols, attitudes/cardboard cutouts of the author's, director's and producer's anti-war message.

The film reminded me of "The Passion of Christ" and its incessant flagellation scenes--but without Christ--and most imporantly, without Christ's resurrection (to be honest, Mel barely got the mythically uplifting resurrection scene, the scene underscoring Christ's pain's purpose, into his film.) To be further honest: Mel seemed to have tacked-on resurrection scene; it looked like it was shot after the movie was finished, and failed thereby as anything other than a narrative anti-climax! Did the distributor's want a happy ending, Mel?

Spielberg's/Eastwood's downbeat nature in this film is very au current...which is also always a problem for me. May I ask: What is it nowadays: with everybody (at least in films) believing that life is pain, and most relationships and events are ultimately unrewarding? Is life nothing less than a series of unrelenting tragedies without meaning, pathetic at best, bathetic at worst? Film characters these days seem so depressed, so filled with the pain and despair, caught up deterministically in their inevitable victimization, that I get bored. Is Ralph Finnes destined to play all the roles? Have we in 2006 never gotten out of the children stage: "Mommy and Daddy don't love me! Life is meaningless!"

If, as they say, art is 'a mirror to nature', are we as a society, an epoch, so starkly in the suicide-stage of adolescence (read Goethe's "Sorrows of Werther"), that uplifting, heroic adult-visioned drama is left forfeited ironically to Disney and its clones?...Perhaps that is that the poetic justice of Hollywood playing to a teen-age market? Life is nothing more than a series of tragic 'zits' on poor society's face? Are we as a nation so run out of hope, not to mention complexity, responsibility, love, purpose and passion, that we are left with nothing but despair? Have we finally developed a tolerance to Prozac?

Film--as an art--as opposed to its reportage and informational tasks--is not merely to report the truth even when it it depressing. It's purpose as art is to give that even depressing life meaning (by meaning I mean a sense of life's purpose. And even if in the end result there is no purpose, LIE TO ME! Find me a meaning when there is none. That's why they tell funny, uplifting stories about the deceased at funerals and laugh at Irish wakes! Even in the face of inevitable death, life--for those of us remaining--must go on!)

I don't want to see the pain of childbirth without the celebration of new life. I don't want to be made to pay for the coat of life without ever being allowed the chance to wear it. Purpose--in this film's analogy--achieved without pain may be Pollyana-ish; but pain without purpose is sadistic/masochistic and/or even worse, a waste of an audience's good time. I want Good Friday with Easter. (Let's be honest: If Christ's passion had been only pain and persecution, death without resurrection, that story would have died at history's box office long ago. Millions of adherents would have scurried after some other personage--and story--to give personal uplift to their all-too-personal-and-real tales of human sacrifice.) the makers of "Flag of Our Fathers' and "Letters from Iwo Jima": Don't show me the carnage of Iwo Jima without telling me, at least a little, bit about the horrors of the earlier Pearl Harbor attack. and (implicitly if not explicitly) conjecture about or hint at the potential fate of the rest of the Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals still left in the world at the time of Iwo--humans whose brethren had already gone up in smoke (Auschwitz, et. Al.)--if Iwo Jima and the island-hopping march to Tokyo (and Berlin) had failed?

'War is only pain without positive payoff'? Nonsense. Come on...didn't anyone ever hear of "a just and necessary war". And there is necessary and sometimes unavoidable carnage in human life. All wars are not Viet Nam and Iraq. (Spielberg seems to wants to use WWII to soap-box on Viet Nam. SEE "Saving Private Ryan")You think today we'd still be talking about the Holocaust, defending Israel (Israel? You mean German-held Palestine?), debating gay marriage and celebrating gypsy weddings if there was no purposeful glory in the spilled guts of WWII?

The purpose of any war film (unless it is merely exploitative--READ $$$--and/or propagandistic...or fulfilling the fantasy of a depressed studio exec) is to find and reveal the sometime human dignity amidst the war's costs. Show me the perveived or real value contained in death and pain as well as the costs attendant by that painful engagment. Be a true artist--and be personally honest: A true accounting of war demands a fair showing of both sides--positive and negative--valuable and futile--of war's--and in life's--equation.


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