Cinema: Raising the bar

Clint Eastwood's attempts to demystify the heroism of war in Flags of our Fathers, are unusually clunky for such a talented director, but Woody Allen's Manhattan, now showing on the big screen, is still picture-perfect. By Declan Burke.


Clint Eastwood is a canny man, but even he had no way of knowing when he began pre-production on Flags of our Fathers /images/village/people/flags2.jpg(15A), that America's disastrous blundering in Iraq would cause public opinion to turn so abruptly against the gung-ho certainties of Bush, Rumsfeld et al. But it can only be the feelgood factor engendered by the recent results in America's midterm elections, that accounts for the easy ride Flags of our Fathers has received from the critics. Touted as a contender to sweep the boards come Oscar season, the film is a worthy, evocative but unforgivably clumsy account, of the experiences of the men involved in the iconic image of the Stars and Stripes being raised over Iwo Jima, during the Pacific campaign of WWII.

Led by the experienced Sergeant Strank (Barry Pepper), a platoon of fresh-faced Marines are hurled into the living hell of beach assaults and hand-to-hand fighting of Iwo Jima. During a lull in the fighting, when the Marines appear to have taken the island, only to later discover the Japanese forces have honeycombed its mountainous area with impenetrable bunkers, Old Glory is run up the flagpole. Determined to maximise the impact of the image, the powers-that-be back in Washington, fly the soldiers involved home – at least, those of them still alive – to embark on a fund-raising tour, designed to convince the public to buy war bonds. But the men – Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) – suffer from survivors' guilt, and know that the public perception of events is fatally flawed. Then rumours begin to circulate in the press that the photograph is a fake.

Eastwood's attempt to deconstruct the myth of heroism in war, via his investigation of the iconic image, is a laudable one. Unfortunately, his method, which involves extended flashbacks to the fighting on Iwo Jima from the vantage point of the trio's fund-raising tour back home, is unusually clunky for a man who has directed some modern classics, including Unforgiven and Mystic River, with the characters delivering huge chunks of exposition, thinly disguised as dialogue. The action scenes are expertly handled, and the lunar landscape of Iwo Jima is suitably surreal. Yet, Flags of our Fathers, while making a valid point about the prosaic nature of heroism, is a dud that fails to ignite.

Swoonsomely ravishing (apologies, but it's a film that lends itself to purple prose), Manhattan (18s), is as subtly understated as Flags of our Fathers is earnestly obvious. Its lush black-and-white cinematography by long-time Woody Allen collaborator, Gordon Willis, an achingly beautiful paean to the film's place and time. Underpinned by the Gershwin soundtrack, and featuring note-perfect performances from Allen, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway and Meryl Streep in a tale that mocks Allen's public persona as a bumbling lothario (and eerily prefigures future real-life conflicts), Manhattan is Allen's finest hour-and-a-half. Showing at the IFI in Dublin over the Christmas period, this deserves to be seen on the big screen.  

Flags of our Fathers ***

Manhattan *****