Why Clint Eastwood's film about Iwo Jima was a box office flop

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At the very same moment that Sacha Baron Cohen's Yank-bashing Borat was setting box office records in the United States, Clint Eastwood's sombre, dignified Flags Of Our Fathers, commemorating a handful of America's most revered war heroes, was dying a slow, quiet death at multiplexes all across America. Hollywood is now trying to figure out what went wrong.

It is certainly a conundrum. Unlike last summer's crummy The Da Vinci Code, which garnered harsh reviews and poor word-of-mouth because of a meandering script, Ron Howard's slovenly direction, and ill-advised casting, no one believes that Flags Of Our Fathers fell flat because the film itself is a dud. Though the revered if somewhat overrated septuagenarian director had made a few clinkers in the past few years (Space Cowboys, Blood Work, True Crime, Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil), he had recently come back strong with Mystic River and Million-Dollar Baby, both of which won Oscars. The only legitimate criticism of Eastwood's latest endeavour lay in the casting; Flags has no major stars, a decision partially made to hold down costs, but also made to emphasise the very anonymity of the soldiers, who have not entered American mythology as individuals, but merely as components of a sainted ensemble. Eastwood may now be having second thoughts, wishing he had opened the vault for Johnny Depp or Matt Damon.

Promiscuously hyped long before its release, and generally greeted with slobbering reviews by the legions of accommodating bozos who masquerade as film critics in America, Flags Of Our Fathers tells the story of three United States Marines who planted the American flag atop Mount Suribachi during the siege of Iwo Jima in February 1945, resulting in one of the most immortal photographs in the nation's history. Though no one has ever denied that the photo is a retake (the flag in the first shot was deemed too small by the top brass) the image is as celebrated in American folklore as George Washington crossing the Delaware River on Christmas Eve 1776, or George Armstrong Custer perishing at the Little Big Horn exactly 100 years later. There is even a gigantic statue in Washington that captures the image in bronze, and it is by no means an unpopular tourist attraction. Yet by and large, the American public voted with its feet when Flags Of Our Fathers was released. Either they stayed home, or they went to see Cambridge-educated Jackass Goes To Kazakhstan, or a movie about Beantown psychopaths, or a film about convivial penguins. Eastwood's thoughtful film they could do without.

Because the USA is now mired in a war it appears to have no chance of winning, Eastwood may have picked the worst possible moment to make this film. There is a good chance that Americans on the left are avoiding the film because they mistakenly believe it is a flag-waving venture, while people on the right are avoiding it because America is losing the war in Iraq, and Flags reminds them of a time when America didn't lose wars....

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