It's the fifth anniversary of 9/11, and I think it's probably appropriate to consider a patriotic topic. Though on the subject of 9/11 we've got World Trade Center, United 93, and whatever the ABC effort was called (did anyone watch?), it's my estimation that all of the films suffer from a giant lack of perspective. History is still unfolding on the fallout of the terrorist attacks, and so movies about the subject generally come off as unfocused ... because no one knows what to focus on yet. We'll most likely need a few decades to truly digest the event that defined the current generation, but there is a topic out there which is both patriotic and completely approachable.
I speak of course of World War II and the movie universe that's been created around it. This winter brings us Flags of our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood, which leads in nicely to my question: Is the cinematic book already complete on World War II?
I should first point out that Flags of our Fathers looks really well done based on the trailers. It's the story of the war in the Pacific, focusing on the famous photograph of Marines lifting up the American flag in Iwo Jima. I know it's a little unfair to consider closing the door on the subject of World War II before Eastwood's effort has even been screened, but we're all about unfair here in the blogging world.
Now, for brevity's sake I'm going to focus on the past 20 years in World War II films because looking at the genre over 60 years would devolve into a thesis. I know this leaves out films like Patton, The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape, but sadly I don't see an alternative.
In general there seem to be three types of film regarding WWII over the past two decades, those that deal with the conflict in personal stories, those that deal with issues around the war itself, and finally those that don't do too well dealing with much at all.
The first group includes films like Saving Private Ryan and Enemy at the Gates. Both of these take a look at fighting for the greater good on a localized scale. They are both great efforts, though the first moments of Private Ryan may be the best minutes of any type of film over the past two decades. For my money Saving Private Ryan does err dangerously close to melodrama at points, so I'll point out my favorite humanistic potrait of World War II, Band of Brothers. The 2001 HBO series infuses short documentary-style moments with ten hours of riveting and courageous drama. It has a depth that few series have ever matched, and it remains the standard by which I judge a war movie. It also has an amazing 9.6 out of 10 rating on IMDB which would place it among the greatest works of cinema of all time, so it's not just my opinion here. Seriously, if you haven't seen it try one episode and I guarantee you'll be there for ten hours.
The films that work with the circumstances of the war but not really the conflict itself include The Pianist and Schindler's List. Both were quite rightly awarded multiple Oscars (3 for The Pianist and a whopping 7 for Schindler's List) and remain very highly regarded in the world of film in general. The last major film to consider in this category is The English Patient, which I consider too slow to capture the imagination, but I know it has its defenders.
For films that don't really work on any level, the obvious loser is Pearl Harbor. Audiences rightly cringed at the lack of story for the sake of unearned dramatic moments, and the film is derided even now. The Thin Red Line is another film that translated very poorly to audiences, and though it had some amazing moments, on the whole it remains largely unapproachable. I didn't see We Were Soldiers Once or Windtalkers but would welcome thoughts on where they fit in.
So which will Flags of our Fathers be? Have we run out of room in the cannon of World War II film? Has the topic been approached from enough angles already?
At the end of the day I guess the answer to that turns out to be the same for all subjects -- there's still plenty of room for good film. Here's hoping Flags fits the bill.