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Issue Date:  November 10, 2006

Brutality and its aftermath

'Flags of Out Fathers' shows Iwo Jima battle; 'Last King of Scotland' the reign of Idi Amin


Clint Eastwood has come up with a wrenching new movie on the American invasion of Iwo Jima in 1944, Flags of Our Fathers. The raising of the American flag on the fifth day of that murderous battle, immortalized by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, was one of the most frequently invoked images of World War II, but those who anticipate a simple exercise in patriotism will be disappointed.

Largely based on the book of the same name by James Bradley and Ron Powers, the film’s action is presented from the viewpoint of Bradley’s father, John, a Navy corpsman. It makes clear that the flag in that photo was the second raised that day; the first was taken away as a souvenir by a high-ranking officer.

Director Eastwood does a brilliant job recreating the horror and intricacy of the battle in vivid terms. We can’t really understand the strategy, but we see its nauseating cost in human life. The movie, however, is even more concerned with the aftermath of the fighting. The three surviving flag-raisers are taken away from their unit by government authorities and forced to be the chief attraction in what they are told is a much-needed war bond drive. At one such performance, they find their Iwo Jima photo transformed into an ice cream sculpture.

We see differences in the attitudes of these men. John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Philippe) tries to maintain some reserve. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) thinks he may gain something from the powerful men he meets at the rallies who tell him to look them up. The proud Pima Indian, Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), descends into alcoholism. The screenplay by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis constantly shifts from the bond drive back to the battle. The terrifying violence of one only makes the other more disgusting.

Less successful are the scenes in a later time frame between an older Doc and his son. The intensity of Mr. Eastwood’s revulsion at the exploitation of those who fought leaves the portrayal of the survivors much too sketchy.

It’s ironic that Mr. Eastwood, whose reputation was originally based on an identification with violence, is asking if any war, even one in a “just” cause, is worth not only its immediate destructiveness but its ugly aftermath. His next film will tell the Iwo Jima story again, this time from the Japanese side.

“Flags of Our Fathers” is a powerful movie, but its didactic passion weakens its humanity and prevents it from being a great one.

A good actor finds it hard to resist a great role. Forest Whitaker must have seen immediately the possibilities in the part of General Idi Amin Dada in The Last King of Scotland. Director Kevin Macdonald, a Scot, was probably drawn to the subject by Giles Foden’s novel about the former dictator of Uganda, who was responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen. Forest Whitaker is somehow able to make us believe that the man could be both brutal and charismatic, frightening and funny.

The central narrative shows the delayed education of the naive Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young Scottish doctor with a burning desire to get away from his bourgeois father. He spins a globe to decide where he will go. It stops at Canada, which seems not to be far enough from Scotland. He tries again, and the next thing we see are some beautiful children playing peacefully in Uganda in 1971. Nick knows nothing about the country but has total confidence in his own instincts. These serve him well in a chance meeting in which he mends the hand of the all-powerful dictator, whose experience with British imperialism before taking over Uganda has made him bitterly anti-English -- and sentimentally pro-Scottish.

In a fine comic scene, Idi Amin offers to make Nick his personal doctor. The doctor abandons his position at a medical mission station, where he had begun a romance with the wife of the director, and takes up residence at the presidential quarters. Dazzled by his sudden eminence, Nick enjoys seeing Amin’s troops parading in kilts and tartan but fails to pick up on hints that something is seriously wrong in Uganda. Enjoying the raucous lifestyle of the dictator’s entourage, he never suspects that opponents of the regime are being slaughtered. Despite the beginnings of ambiguities in his exchanges with Amin, he is glad to show his loyalty to the regime.

The complications that lead to opening his eyes are inevitably violent; the fact that Nick ultimately becomes involved with one of Amin’s wives only make things especially melodramatic. Viewers will obtain a sense of the scary nature of Amin’s possessiveness; in a brilliant scene with the world press, which is checking on rumors of mass repression, one of his eyes opens wide, while the other droops with menace.

Go to “The Last King of Scotland” for Forest Whitaker’s performance, but ask why it leaves out the heritage of British imperialism that left Uganda with Amin, and perhaps why films by African directors do not get financed or remain virtually unscreened.

Joseph Cunneen, the regular film reviewer for NCR, is the author of Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film (Continuum).

National Catholic Reporter, November 10, 2006

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