Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Flags of Our Fathers


Movies, at their fundamental level, are for entertainment. They’re a way to occupy two hours, and you’ll hopefully get something out of those two hours. Now, good movies will teach you something about yourself that you didn’t know before, or connect with a part of you like nothing else can, and it will do all of this while entertaining you. The subject matter doesn’t necessarily have to be uplifting, but the story has to engage you, and reward you for investing yourself.

That’s part of why I didn’t like Flags of Our Fathers, and why I generally don’t like war films. I fully recognize that it was a competent and good movie. Acting, cinematography, plot flow, theme, music, etc., all those elements were in place for Flags; but it wasn’t entertaining. Why? It was about war.

War sucks. I don’t think anybody actually likes war. It’s tiring, it’s messy, it’s evil, and it crushes the human spirit if carried on too long. Sometimes it’s necessary, but it’s never glorious, never loving, and never a good thing to do. Nations will do what they have to do, but when they go to war, they better damn well have NO other options left. The idea that war is a last resort isn’t new, and has indeed been around since the first time a human did something that another human didn’t like.

Flags of Our Fathers didn’t suck, but its subject matter did. That’s not a death sentence for a movie, but war is pretty much the suckiest of the suck. To me, war is never a good place to start a story. You can have a war in it, but start with something else; a character, an event, a blade of grass, anything. There have been lots of good war movies, and Flags can count itself as one of those, but none of them have been entertaining experiences for me. Schindler’s List had that Spielbergian element of hope and goodness to it, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the dismal subject matter. Platoon had fantastic acting, but that’s very cold comfort among the horribleness of Vietnam. And I’m blanking out on other war films I’ve seen; I dislike them so much I black them out.

And therein lies the problem with Flags of Our Fathers. Because it wasn’t entertaining, I didn’t feel satisfied at the end. It wouldn’t even be all that different if it had a very good story, or more relatable characters, neither of which it had. It didn’t try to give you resolution or have a summation; none of the Clint Eastwood films I’ve seen do, actually. On top of that, it contained some pretty horrible things, because hey, war is pretty horrible. Two sequences in particular stuck with me; one in which a main character is having flashbacks of all the men he saw die during the war, and one in which some soldiers stumble across an underground bunker where some Japanese have set off a grenade on themselves so as not to be found. That’s the kind of thing you wish you could unsee.

Now, the themes of Flags were not lost on me. I totally got the idea that we should pass down things from generation to generation, so as to always learn from our forbears’ mistakes. I also saw the value in honoring those that made the ultimate sacrifice in service of their country, those who died abroad in order to protect the safety of those at home. Also, there was the idea of what a hero actually is, and how all the people we say are heroes would strongly disagree with us. There was even an indictment of American sensationalism, and how great things are made fake and cheap through over-attention. So don’t get me wrong; I think this movie has a lot to offer. But I can’t in good conscience recommend it since I didn’t enjoy it, and sorta wish I hadn’t watched it at all.

Iconic Lines:
“Well what’d you do, raise a goddamn flag every time you stopped for lunch?”
“With all your friends dying, it’s hard enough to be called a hero for saving somebody’s life. But for putting up a pole?”
“You want us to plant a flag on a mountain of papier-mache?”

22 Rating: -2

Particle Man

18 comments:

Your Racist Friend said...

I don't think this was a good movie at all. I think it was workmanlike, at best, but the real weak link was the performances. I couldn't have given a damn about anybody on screen.
This is easily the worst film I've ever seen that Eastwood directed. It wasn't the subject matter at all.

Wicked Little Critta said...

Interesting review, PM. I didn't see this film, but I did see Letters, which I liked a lot.

I'd like to finally take issue with one of your core film beliefs: that a movie that isn't entertaining isn't a good one (using the definition of "good" from the beginning of your review.) Now, this may be purely subjective, but I have to admit, this view leaves me a bit sad. Especially because I think that many people feel the same way.

Why can't we also enjoy movies that aren't "entertaining"? What is blocking that from happening? This isn't just in reference to this film, as it has been mentioned before. Please enlighten me.

Stormy Pinkness said...

Well as everyone on TMBC knows, I have a penchant for studying Military History. I appreciate learning about tactics and formations and weapon advancement and how they affect humanity. That is not to say that I like war, I agree that it is a horrible thing. I haven't seen Flags and your review makes me sad.
I feel that you decided to not like this movie before watching it, merely because of the subject matter. While war is horrible, it is also unfortunately common and something that has touched everyone at some point. PM, I know and love your tranquil personality, but I feel like you didn't give the movie a fair shot.
A movie can be good without enjoying it. If you look at my last review (which maybe we should have switched movies;))I gave a score for enjoyment and then a score for how good it was. What would your rating be at this point?

Eve said...

Hey, I'm posting! Like YRF, I didn't think this movie was good either. In my view, movies do have to be "entertaining," to be good, only that depends on what you think the word means.

For me, a movie has to not be boring, at the very least. I don't know why I sat through this movie, because it was the most boring thing I've seen since BUFF. (Why did we watch the whole thing? I think we were hoping something interesting would happen.) Since I define "entertaining" as "not boring," then to me every movie has to be entertaining. I guess something like Schindler's List doesn't fit the classic definition of "entertaining" as "enjoyable," but I wasn't bored, so it gets a plus sign from me.

I think there are some aspects to a movie that most agree make it bad, or boring: 1) characters who are not well-defined, and who therefore do not excite any caring in the viewer; 2) jumping around in time confusingly, so that viewers get all turned around and eventually shut off trying to follow the story. In a way, Flags is about how not to make a movie. It really suffered from the classic problem of movies made from books: trying to fit too much into too short a span of time. It almost never works.

Read the book. It's really good. One of the best books I read that year, seriously, and you know I read a lot of books.

Wicked Little Critta said...

Yay! Eve, I'm glad you posted.
You and SP make good points, and I'd like to reiterate that I think people's arguments will differ on how they define "entertaining." I looked it up in the dictionary, and it basically said "amusing," but I don't think that's how most of us think of the term. I think of it more in the same way Eve does.

Basically, the point I'm trying to make is that to me, film is an art form, and like art can be enjoyable, entertaining, but also sobering and educational. For me, all of these things can make a very good piece of art.

Considering how much film is a part of our culture now, it makes me sad that people only enjoy or get something out of films that are pleasant, happy, or reinforcing the ideas they already have. I think film is something that can be very powerful and can potentially change lives, if only people will let it.

This was brought up after my review of the Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but I decided not to get into it then. Basically, PM decided not to see it because he didn't think he'd enjoy it. (I'm not saying I think he should, or that there is a particular message in there for him). But in general, films like that which are difficult to watch but extremely meaningful and beautiful have a lot of worth, and I hate to think that people pass them by for more "enjoyable" subject matter.

Of course, some of it does come down to taste, as well. Am I making sense?

Particle Man said...

very deep thoughts, WLC. but i think you're operating under some misconceptions, particularly about me, so let me gently correct you. i don't automatically equate "good movie" with "entertaining movie." that's what i apparently didn't pronounce loudly enough in my review (though i honestly don't know how i could have made it more clear...). just look at Crash, one of my favorite movies, and a 19 in my book. that movie's not very entertaining at all. but it captures your attention and imagination, and causes you to examine yourself very soberly. it is, as you put it, "sobering and educational." my issue with Flags of Our Fathers is not that it wasn't entertaining; it obviously chose to be more artful and less popcorn-ish in its presentation, and that's fine. rather, it's the thing it chose to be artful about. as i said before, war sucks. war can be compared to a fiery piece of crap. you can make a beautiful ballet about that fiery piece of crap, and hire the best dancers in the world to perform it, and have the music for the ballet composed by John "Dollar Signs" Williams, and draw rave reviews from EVERYONE who sees it. but at the end of the day, it's still about a fiery piece of crap. at the end of the day, Flags of Our Fathers was still about war. i'm all for films being positively educational, but i don't need to be educated about war. i already know enough to know that it sucks.

and for the record, i too lament the fact that so many people need a film to be uplifting or happy to get anything out of it. you don't need to feel good when a film is over (though it helps), but you do need to feel as though you can take something away from the experience. with Flags of Our Fathers, i didn't. that was probably because the subject matter didn't have anything to teach me, or at least nothing that i feel like a better person for learning.

i was originally intending to watch Flags and Letters back-to-back, but changed my mind after seeing Flags. that is not to say that the possibility of watching Letters is forever nil, but i don't think i can handle so much war all at once.

SP, your question about a split rating is a good one. i find it very hard to do that, though, as it's hard to separate one from the other. but here goes. i give Flags a 14 on the "good movie" scale, but a -2 on the "i liked it" scale.

Your Racist Friend said...

The Lady Eve summed up my feelings towards the movie quite succintly.

But, PM, I really think you're selling war movies short. They can be somber (Platoon), frightening (Apocalypse Now), searching (saving Private Ryan), exciting (The Great Escape), funny (Kelly's Heroes), epic (The Two Towers), etc.
In short, just any other genre of film. Where does Flags of Our Fathers fit it? It's "mediocre". Another botched adaptation, like The Great Gatsby or the like.

Particle Man said...

let me address the example of The Two Towers you cited. that isn't a war film, at least not in the way that Flags and all those other movies you mentioned are. for those other movies, war is the focal point; not so with The Two Towers, it's a movie with a war in it, but it's about something far greater and more valuable. as stated by Sam in the film, it's about the fact that there's some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for. Flags isn't about that. Platoon isn't about that. Apocalypse Now isn't about that. Saving Private Ryan isn't about that. in The Two Towers, war was couched in a great story, not the other way around.

Your Racist Friend said...

I disagree. LOTR may not be overtly all about war the way, say, Platoon is, but what's it about? Sauron has regrouped, and he's preparing forces to crush the world of men. All of the action is wrapped up in war. The Fellowship of the Ring is a small force intended to stave off the war by using stealth to get the Ring to Mordor, and destroy it. Essentially, a special forces unit using guerilla tactics. When that fails, Sam and Frodo continue that method on an even smaller scale, while the remaining others fight Sauron's forces on various fronts. War infuses the story in many places. Tolkien's experiences in World War I were too profound to have not had a serious inpact.

Dr. Worm said...

Dr. Worm, checking out the comments on "Flags of Our Fathers," reads this comment from Particle Man:

"i don't automatically equate 'good movie' with 'entertaining movie.' that's what i apparently didn't pronounce loudly enough in my review (though i honestly don't know how i could have made it more clear...)."

Dr. Worm thinks to himself, then checks back to Particle Man's review, where he reads this:

"Movies, at their fundamental level, are for entertainment. They’re a way to occupy two hours, and you’ll hopefully get something out of those two hours. Now, good movies will teach you something about yourself that you didn’t know before, or connect with a part of you like nothing else can, and it will do all of this while entertaining you."

Dr. Worm furrows his brow and scratches his head.

Dr. Worm said...

On a slightly different note, I think part of the difficulty here comes from how we're defining the word "entertaining," as WLC and Eve mentioned. I'm thinking "entertaining" comes too close to "amusing," when we really mean something more like "engrossing." "Entertaining" seems to suggest that movies need to include fun and whimsy, whereas "engrossing" simply means the movie has to invite you to pay attention.

And, making a third point, I'd argue that almost no war movies are broadcasting the simple message "Look! War!" or even the slightly more complex "War is hell." Most war movies, I'd suggest, have that additional there's-good-worth-fighting-for (or something similar) theme that Two Towers has.

And while I never thought of it as such before, I kinda have to agree with YRF that Two Towers really is a war movie (albeit a fantasy one).

Particle Man said...

Particle Man grits his teeth and becomes annoyed that 1st impressions are so strong that everyone ignores 2nd, 3rd and 4th ones.

to quote his review:

"I fully recognize that it was a competent and good movie. Acting, cinematography, plot flow, theme, music, etc., all those elements were in place for Flags"

"There have been lots of good war movies, and Flags can count itself as one of those,"

"I think this movie has a lot to offer."

Particle Man is dismayed that people tend to go with what they perceive the first time and ignore everything else.

Wicked Little Critta said...

In our defense, the primacy and recency effects are pretty involuntary.
But seriously, I get what you're saying, PM, but I just think that the way it has been said is just a little confusing, especially since the opening paragraph comes across so clearly and strongly. And considering our comments after the Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I think what stuck with me most there was: “first and foremost, the story's the thing. i don't particularly enjoy movies that are a lot of ponderous themes and important experiences, but neglect the story part. to me, they need to go hand in hand.” But maybe I misunderstood you?
I dunno, I'm just confused.

Dr. Worm said...

And, to be fair, none of the quotes you mentioned there seem to counter or even complicate your initial gambit that movies are fundamentally about entertainment.

Particle Man said...

i guess i shouldn't have phrased it in exactly that way in my opening paragraph. really, the word "entertaining" has a very subjective meaning. so what does "entertaining" mean? to me, an entertaining movie will invite me to invest myself in it, and will reward me for my investment. the biggest part of that (again, for me) is that it have a good story. the story has to have a great premise, as well as stay interesting the whole way through. of almost-as-great importance is that it have interesting and well thought-out characters. not only that, but the actors playing them must put in a good performance. after that, the trappings of movie-making must be in good order; things like cinematography, lighting, angles, timing, music, and pace. "entertaining" does not have to involve a happy story or a pleasant theme, and it certainly doesn't have to reinforce ideas i already have. in fact, the best movies are ones that forced me to look at something from a new angle, and presented ideas that i not only didn't already hold, but had never thought of before.

i find it very odd that by presenting a clear and definitive argument in my opening paragraph, i made it so much more confusing.

Particle Man said...

war is different, though. what it really comes down to, though, is that i have a prejudice against war films. when a film has war as its starting point, that's a big detriment to my enjoyment of it. i don't think it completely kills it, but it's a pretty big hurdle. to be brief, Flags fell short of that hurdle, and thusly gets a negative rating from me. but i recognize that those movie-making elements that i mentioned before were in place for it, as well as competent (if not inspired or noteworthy) performances from the actors involved. so, is it a good movie? yes. did i like it? not one bit.

i'm really not sure if that clears up any of the confusion you experienced, WLC, but i gave it a shot.

Your Racist Friend said...

"so what does "entertaining" mean? to me, an entertaining movie will invite me to invest myself in it, and will reward me for my investment. the biggest part of that (again, for me) is that it have a good story. the story has to have a great premise, as well as stay interesting the whole way through. of almost-as-great importance is that it have interesting and well thought-out characters. not only that, but the actors playing them must put in a good performance. after that, the trappings of movie-making must be in good order; things like cinematography, lighting, angles, timing, music, and pace. "entertaining" does not have to involve a happy story or a pleasant theme, and it certainly doesn't have to reinforce ideas i already have. in fact, the best movies are ones that forced me to look at something from a new angle, and presented ideas that i not only didn't already hold, but had never thought of before."

I see what you're getting at. I find, say, Requiem For A Dream satisfying on an artistic level due to the powerful acting, innovative cinematography, score, etc. I don't find watching it "fun" on the same level that I would find Ghostbusters or The Dark Knight. But it is fufilling on an artistic level, and in that, "entertaining".

Dr. Worm said...

You know, with all this talk about the word "entertaining," I could get into some really geeky communication theory stuff here. Stuff like how words don't actually carry their own meaning, the way a cargo truck carries freight (even though that's often how we think of them). Rather, they act as "activators," so a word like "entertaining" might activate a different map of understandings, feelings, and memories for me than it would for PM, and for YRF, and for WLC, and for everyone else.

But that would be really geeky, so I won't get into that.