For my triumphant return to blogging, I am going to try to start a fight, and here is how I shall do it: by claiming that Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers is the greatest of all contemporary World War II films.

By which I do not mean it is the best film set during WWII; that is and will likely remain The Thin Red Line. Rather, it is the greatest analysis of the war's meaning, its effect on America and its effect on the soldiers who fought in it. And, unlike every other American film I can think of set between 1941 and 1945, it is not a paean to the so-called Greatest Generation; in fact it's a shockingly cynical, skeptical revisionist history that comes as close as anyone ever has to arguing that the last good war was not actually good whatsoever.

Now, before I get into that, I should acknowledge that the film has a flaw, and it's a doozy: the script, written by William Broyles, Jr. and extensively reworked by Paul Haggis, is just about as unsubtle and didactic as anything you've ever encountered. The story, as is widely known, is about three soldiers brought back from the Pacific Theater for their heroism in raising the flag at Iwo Jima; more specifically, the film is about how very much they do not want to come back, how little they think of themselves as heroic, and how much they resent people who lionize their struggle.

There are so very many ideas stuffed into this story, some of them obvious and well-worn, some of them almost frighteningly radical given our current political climate (surprise, surprise: this is "actually" a film about Iraq). What's frustrating is that Haggis wants to make sure we get this, and hence he SPELLS IT ALL OUT IN GREAT BIG LETTERS. Most notoriously, he uses a clunky framing device, in which the son of one of the Iwo Jima heroes narrates his experience of reconstructing the events of those days from interviews with the survivors. It's a nice tribute to James Bradley, author of the film's source and son of John, one of the three soldiers, but it's not very useful or very pleasant, especially when it allows Haggis to ventriloquize themes that were perhaps better left unexplicit.

Thank God then for Eastwood, who for whatever reason did not direct the script he was given, but instead a script of subtlety and mystery. The themes that Haggis draws out with leaden exposition, Eastwood evokes through nothing more specific than camera angles, saturation levels, and shockingly impressionistic sound design (including a typically minimalist, typically perfect score composed by the director himself).

It's strange for a director to bring more work upon himself than the script requires; but that is exactly what we see in Flags of Our Fathers. The script would work as well as it does with a much weaker visual language, and the movie would be kind of bad; it's entirely fair to say that Eastwood (and cinematographer Tom Stern) have saved the script from itself, for the film we ended up with is a minor masterpiece. As I said, it is the greatest WWII film in recent history, and it surely would not have been if it began and ended with Haggis.

The filmmakers have the sense and bravery not to disagree with the basic premise that war heroes aren't really heroes at all. They're anonymous cogs who sometimes have to do amazing things, and this is why the volume of criticism declaiming the film for its thin characters is missing the point: it is not, contra the framework, about the men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. It is in fact specifically about how the six men who appeared in that photograph were not special, just very lucky. And while the screenplay is somewhat interested in the men as men, Eastwood doesn't really seem to share that interest: his direction uses the three soldiers as a narrative hook to hang all sorts of observations about how the media lies about war, how Americans have a pornographic need for heroes, and how immoral it is to ask young men to kill people and risk being killed, no matter what possible justification.

These themes, which collectively try to demythologize war, form one leg of the film. The other leg is correction of these myths. A major theme of this film, and we know it's major because Haggis helpfully has a character say that it's so, is that nobody who ever served in war can possibly understand what it's like. But a war movie is a war movie, and there's quite a lot of time spent in flashback on Iwo Jima. The film's war scenes are inevitably compared to those in Saving Private Ryan, thanks to producer Steven Spielberg, but this totally misses the point. The 1998 film attempts to put us in the thick of Normandy, experiecing the noise and violence of open war. Flags of Our Fathers is not remotely like that, and if it weren't for the heavily desaturated look of the battle scenes, I can't imagine that anyone would ever make the comparison. The battles here are surprisingly nonviolent compared to virtually every war film made in the last decade, and they are much more impressionistic (again with that word!) than visceral. And there is a very good reason for that: we can't know what it's like to be in war. Eastwood doesn't want to trick us into thinking we can. So battle in this film is a very clinical and removed experience, and the heavily stylized look of the thing draws our attention to the fact that it has all be constructed. We are watching memories that we cannot take part in, and this recognition that we are not there, and cannot be there is a key component of the film's must important truth: people who served know what war is like. The rest of us should just shut the fuck up. We can't make them heroes because we need heroes; they know better than us, and if they say it's not a big deal, we should probably believe them.

Such a flat rejection of the standard idea about war in America makes this Republican-directed film the single politically brave Hollywood film of the year, or perhaps of the whole Bush administration. In his next outing, Eastwood will tell the Japanese story of Iwo Jima from from a non-Haggis script, and I couldn't be more excited; if I had managed to see this film with the dialogue turned off, it would almost certainly be the best film I'd seen so far this year.

9/10