An ode to Iwo Jima's conflicted heroes
Clint Eastwood's 'Flags of Our Fathers' juxtaposes wartime carnage with media spectacle.
Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" is based on the 2000 nonfiction bestseller about the three surviving soldiers who raised the flag at Iwo Jima in a moment memorialized, almost accidentally, by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal. Clearly Eastwood wants the story of what happened to these men to resonate as much for our own era as for theirs. It's a movie about the toll that heroism extracts in a wartime culture ready-made for heroes.
Almost half the film's running time is taken up with the military assault on the desolate Japanese air base. Eastwood doesn't skimp in his depiction of its brutalities. Not since "Saving Private Ryan" has there been such an up-close rendering of the thick of battle, where a life can be lost in a millisecond by the thwack of a bullet or bomb. (Americans suffered more than 2,000 casualties on the first day of the invasion.) Eastwood's camerawork is less virtuosic than Steven Spielberg's, which in this case may be a plus. I felt I was looking at the unvarnished horrors of war.
Continually intercut with these scenes is the story of the three survivors who raised the American flag on Mount Suribachi on the fifth day of fighting. (Three of the participating marines died soon after.) It actually was the second flag-raising of the day, and none of the faces in the photo can be seen clearly, which only added to the iconic Everyman effect.
Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), and John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) are brought back to the mainland as heroes to head up a much-needed war-bonds drive. Gagnon doesn't much mind the hoopla, but Hayes and Bradley resent being pulled out of battle and singled out as saviors. (Bradley's son, James, in collaboration with Ron Powers, wrote the book on which the script by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis is based.) (See related story.)
The stark contrast between the blood-and-guts realities of Iwo Jima and the fripperies of the bond drive are not lost on these men, particularly Hayes, who calls the tour a "farce" and becomes progressively more unstable as it unwinds. By intercutting between the war zone, which is shot in near- monochrome, and the spangly drive, Eastwood toys with our perceptions. An apparent mortar explosion turns out to be fireworks; a shot of the men clambering up a hill really is a reenactment of the flag-planting in Chicago's Soldier Field.
We are meant to greatly empathize with these men and their revulsion at being spotlighted. Some commentators have pointed to their predicament as the first large-scale example of media myth-making in America, although Abe Lincoln and Buffalo Bill are two earlier examples. But unquestionably, Americans back then were far less accustomed than now to being media-hyped as celebrities.
Eastwood simplifies the issues behind the hype. Although "Flags" makes clear that the bond drive is a necessary stunt to raise money for ammunition and uniforms, the film presents Bradley and Hayes's resistance as a noble response to coercion. The explicit plea at the end of the film is for us to honor these men by respecting them for who they really were.
Perhaps it is a sign of today's cynicism, but I didn't feel there was dishonor in having these men parade as heroes in order to shore up support for their comrades in arms. Bradley and Hayes felt otherwise, but Eastwood doesn't do enough to dramatize their torment. With the exception of Adam Beach, who gives Hayes's story a measure of pathos, none of the actors has the force of personality to put his life in focus.
If Eastwood is making an analogy between World War II and our current situation in Iraq, it doesn't wash. The three soldiers in "Flags" are a far cry from Jessica Lynch. The uses of heroism in wartime is a much more complex issue than Eastwood allows for. He has made an honorable movie about honor, but the naivete of the conception – which some will call purity – keeps "Flags" at arm's length from greatness. Grade: B+
• Rated R for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language.
Sex/Nudity: Some mild innuendo. Violence: 22 scenes of harsh violence. Profanity: 88 harsh profanities. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 12 scenes of smoking, 6 scenes of drinking.