Flags of our Fathers (Special Edition) Blu-ray Review

What constitutes a hero? If you go by one dictionary definition, a hero is “”a person of distinguished courage or ability, admired for their brave deeds and noble qualities.” Another definition is “”a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal.”

When 70,000 United States Marines stormed the beaches on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in February 1945, America was in dire need of heroes. The public had grown tired of the war by this point, and the last war bond drive orchestrated by the United States Government was less than successful. On the fifth day of the 40-day conflict (of which 6,851 Marines would die and another 25,851 were wounded), a picture was taken of six Marines raising a flag atop the island’s high point, Mt. Suribachi. As we all know, this picture became an iconic one, proving to be an inspiration for the weary American public and the lucky break the government needed for stimulate sales of war bonds.

In the days following the taking of the photograph (which turned out to be the second raising of the flag on the summit, not the first), three of the six men were killed during combat. The remaining three, John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillipe), Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), were sent home and marketed as The Heroes of Iwo Jima to help sell war bonds. But Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon found that the newfound celebrity status and hero worship heaped upon them conflicted with whom they believe were the real heroes of the battle: the ones who gave their lives in service to their country.

Flags of Our Fathers was the first of two films directed by Clint Eastwood last year that dealt with the battle of Iwo Jima (the other being my personal pick for 2006’s best film, Letters From Iwo Jima), and it arrived with extremely high expectations, especially from me. Eastwood, who has been on a creative roll the past few years, would be calling the shots. Steven Spielberg, himself no stranger to World War II movies, would act as a producer and screenwriters Paul Haggis and William Broyles Jr. were adapting James Bradley’s best-selling novel. Given that assemblage of talent, it was pretty hard not to get ones hopes up too high that Flags could turn out to be one hell of a great wartime drama.

Before sitting down to watch anticipated movies, I really need to learn to temper my hopes as Flags turned out to be a good, but not great, drama. Eastwood’s work, to be expected, is solid throughout. He employs his trademark, restrained directorial hand to full effect while getting fine performances by his large ensemble cast, in particular Adam Beach and Ryan Phillipe. He expertly stages and executes the large-scale battle scenes while conveying the horrors of combat and the struggles Bradley and Hayes (Gagnon’s story is the least interesting to the three) deal with back home without beating the viewer over the head with manipulation or cheap sentiment.

And yet, one walks away from the movie with a certain sense of detachment. This isn’t the fault of Eastwood or his cast. This is more the fault of Haggis and Broyles” screenplay adaptation. Encapsulated in an awkward and unnecessary narrative framing device, Haggis and Broyles” script attempts to cover too much ground and thus simplifies several of the film’s more important events, and it has too many characters that aren’t given the time to properly develop. Even worse is its coda, which is drawn out to a level that rivals 2003’s “The Return of the King” (okay, Eastwood deserves to share blame on this one). Eastwood has been known to shoot a movie based on a screenplay’s first draft. Sometimes, it works (Million Dollar Baby) and sometimes it doesn’t (Blood Work). The script to Flags, if this was indeed a first draft, would lean more toward the latter than the former. A rewrite or two was definitely in order.

There is a lot to admire in Flags of Our Fathers. It’s a technically accomplished piece of work (I am amazed that this film was made on a $55 million dollar budget) that manages to elevate itself on quite a few occasions above the screenplay’s limitations to the level of greatness one would expect from a Hollywood powerhouse trifecta such as Eastwood, Spielberg and Haggis. But it’s not enough to make it stand alongside other recent, great works on World War II such as Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Terrence Malick’s remake of The Thin Red Line, the miniseries Band of Brothers or Eastwood’s follow up to this film, Letters From Iwo Jima. I liked Flags of Our Fathers, but I was really hoping to love it.

For their second next-generation high definition home video release, Dreamworks/Paramount Home Video have given Flags of Our Fathers the two-disc special edition treatment, with the film presented by itself on the first disc (a BD-50) and the supplemental material housed on disc two (a BD-25).

The audio and video presentation of Flags of Our Fathers on Blu-ray is nothing short of excellent. The 2.40:1 theatrical ratio is preserved in a near-flawless AVC/MPEG-4 encode. I say near-flawless only because there were one or two very small instances where background detail is a bit soft and blacks tend to be slightly crushed in one or two scenes. Overall though, the picture is a beauty. Colors, be they of the muted variety that populate the Iwo Jima sequences, or stateside scenes brimming with vibrant colors, are nicely handled. Black levels and details are spot on, while there are no instances of grain or compression artifacts to be found anywhere. In comparison to other studios, Paramount (who now owns and thus handles Dreamworks) may be a bit slow on getting a quantity of titles out on the market. But when they do, they deliver some fantastic presentations. This is no exception.

One area Paramount continues to be dead last on is embracing lossless audio. There hasn’t been a single title from the Viacom Company that has utilized PCM or Dolby TrueHD yet. You would have figured that M:I-III and Dreamgirls would have been givens, but they were not. Sadly this tradition continues with Flags of Our Fathers (watch, Norbit will be the first), but that is not to say that the 5.1 Dolby Digital Stereo Surround included is a dud. In fact, the 640kb Dolby Digital track is quite strong. Dialogue is always clear, the left and right front stereo and surround channels are constantly active during the film (especially during the combat sequences) and bass also makes it presence known throughout.

The 100 or so minutes of supplements found on the HD DVD and Blu-ray editions are identical to the standard 2-disc DVD special edition, all presented in 1080p high definition and 2.0 Digital Stereo. The sound and picture quality on the extras is as first rate as the featurettes themselves, which go a long way to enhancing one’s appreciation of the film (One small complaint: the nonstop use of the film’s theme during the docs. Talk about overkill.).

The supplements begin with An Introduction by Clint Eastwood (5:00) in which the two-time Oscar winning filmmaker discusses the real-life battle, the island of Iwo Jima itself and the time he visited it in preparation of making the movie. Words on the Page (17 minutes) comes next, and focuses on the James Bradley novel that served as the basis for the movie. Bradley is interviewed at length and talks about his father and the research process he went through to write the book. Screenwriters William Broyles Jr., himself a former Marine, and Paul Haggis are also interviewed about adapting Bradley’s novel for the big screen.

Six Brave Men (20 minutes) is a look at the six men who raised the second flag on Iwo Jima (In addition to Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon, the other three soldiers were Mike Strank, Harlon Block and Franklin Sousley) and were featured in the iconic photograph. The actors who played the men in the film give a brief background on their real-life counterparts and what they did to prepare for their roles. Raising The Flag (3:30) is a short look at shooting the flag raising sequence and makes for a nice, albeit brief, companion piece to the Six Brave Men feature.

The bonus material really kicks into high gear with the half-hour documentary The Making of an Epic. Eastwood and his crew of long-time fellow associates, including editor Joel Cox, director of photography Tom Stern, producer Robert Lorenz and production designer Henry Bumstead, talk about the origins of the film, the various aspects of getting a project of this size off the ground, the initial reservations from Bradley about adapting his novel for the big screen as well as Eastwood’s style of filmmaking. The doc closes with a nice dedication to Bumstead, who died of prostate cancer in May of 2006 at the age of 91, and casting director Phyllis Huffman, who also passed away in 2006 at the age of 62. Flags and Letters were the final projects for both.

Visual Effects (14:55) is an interesting look at how digital effects help transform a beach in Iceland into the shores of Iwo Jima. Visual effects supervisor Michael Owens and members of Digital Domain discuss the challenges of presenting realistic visual effects that would enhance what Eastwood was trying to create with the film. While a few of the film’s effects shots were quite obvious (namely the big crowd sequences back in America), I found the visuals during the battle scenes to be excellent. After seeing several before and after shots in this short, I was even more impressed by the work done in the film.

Best of the supplements, without question, and the one that shows that Eastwood and his crew really did their homework when it came to authenticity, is the nine and a half minute Looking into the Past. There are no interviews here, no sound bites from the cast or crew. Instead, “Looking” is a collection of actual footage from the battle, narrated by reporters who were there alongside the Marines. This fascinating short concludes with some newsreel footage of the real-life Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon during their War Bonds tour after they had returned to the States. The footage is in excellent shape given its age and this featurette is an excellent, unexpected and moving addition to the release.

The film’s Theatrical Trailer closes out disc two. The three-minute trailer is presented in 1080p and 5.1 Digital Stereo Surround and is in perfect condition.

Flags of Our Fathers is a solid enough drama that both pays tribute to the real heroes of wartime, the men and women in the military who have and continue to serve and protect our country, while being rightfully critical of the government’s continued use of soldiers as propaganda tools (Jessica Lynch, anyone?). It’s an admirable piece of work from one of America’s best directors; I just wish there had a stronger script to work from. That said I have no reservations whatsoever with Dreamworks” Blu-ray release of the film. The picture and sound quality are excellent, and the extras are both informative and worthwhile. For fans of the film, this disc is a no-brainer in terms of purchase. If you haven’t seen the film yet, I strongly recommend giving the Blu-ray a rental.

– Shawn Fitzgerald

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