Sixty-one years after the fact you’d think that the movies would have nothing left to say about the Second World War. When it gets to the point where we’re seeing army units fight Nazi occultists plotting to end the world, like the prologue of Hellboy, you’ve got to figure that the war’s been covered from every angle. Enter Clint Eastwood, the Man with No Name turned auteur with a cause. Following up his devastating masterpiece Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood tackles the story behind one of the most famous war photographs ever taken and in the process he makes some pointed commentary about media and war and deconstructing the making of a hero.
The events of Flags of Our Fathers center around the ferocious battle between U.S. and Japanese forces over the island of Iwo Jima in February 1945. Iwo Jima had strategic importance for it would make an ideal landing and fueling station for American bombers to carry out attacks on the home islands of Japan. About seven days after the battle for the island began, a team of Marines had reached the summit of Mount Suribachi and planted a flag there to the jubilant reactions of the GIs holding the shore. Suribachi was the most secure position on Iwo Jima and had to be taken before the more important air fields on the island’s north end. James Forrestal, the Secretary of the Navy had come ashore to inspect the battle, when he saw the flag high atop Suribachi, he declared his desire to take it for a souvenir. Much to the chagrin of the Marines they were ordered to raise a new flag, and it was this raising that was captured in that eternal image taken by Joe Rosenthal.
Much of Flags of Our Fathers focuses on what happened after the picture was taken, when the three surviving flag raisers, two marines and a navy corpsman, are brought home to America with heroes’ welcomes and a new mission to raise $14 billion in war bonds. John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) is rather sanguine about his role; although he’s glad to be home, his thoughts drift to all his buddies still serving abroad. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) is excited to be a part of history as he looks forward to being heralded a hero with all the benefits that come with it. Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), meanwhile, is just messed up; not only is he a Native serving in a prejudice-filled unit, he also seems to be the only one genuinely upset and devastated by everything that happened to him on the island and begins drinking to handle his demons.
Eastwood’s typically laid back directing style is apparent in the film, the story doesn’t feel rushed but is allowed to unfold in its own time. The narrative plays back and forth between the brutal action on the Iwo Jima to the more morally ambiguous ground back home. Eastwood’s never done action on this scale before, but he handles it with tremendous skill. This isn’t the same as Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan though, with its elongated sequences chalked to the brim of the harshest, most realistic battlefield recreation ever. It should be pointed out though that Eastwood doesn’t ignore the brutality but he manages it differently because this isn’t about the violence but rather the effect of violence on the witnesses and survivors.
Storywise, Eastwood works from a number of angles: first and foremost he exalts the sacrifice of the “Greatest Generation” but at the same time tears into the way the media machine will turn people into symbols no matter the consideration of the facts or the feelings of the people involved. Obvious modern parallels could be drawn to Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, soldiers whose battlefield exploits were edited or omitted to garner support and sympathy for the political wing of the war effort. The film shows how the brass was surprisingly harsh on Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes as, even in the face of Hayes’ developing drinking problem, the three men are shuttled around like prize horses.
There’s been a lot of Oscar buzz around Adam Beach’s performance, and deservedly so, because his character is the most sympathetic and his internal plight represents Eastwood’s dual focus of the nature of heroism and the politics of war. Hayes is almost the main character; even though the story is being told to the grown son, Bradley. Hayes’ journey exemplifies the way we all too often discard our heroes once we’ve gotten what we need from them. Phillippe also does his best work here mastering a kind of stoic determinism in Bradley that eliminates the need for him to say much, at least not with words. Pleasantly, their fellow soldiers are all fully rendered characters that don’t fall into convenient, predetermined stereotypes, which was even a problem in Private Ryan for all it’s accomplishments. In Flags of Our Fathers you won’t see the psycho or the brain or the quiet religious guy that goes mad; you just see people, and the message is that that’s all these men ever saw themselves as.
If there’s a failing to the film it’s that the third act just doesn’t stand that well structurally, unlike Million Dollar Baby wherein the twist is held until then, and the whole direction of the story is switched around in a matters of seconds. Still, the first two acts are enormously compelling and even an appearance by Paul Walker can’t ruin it. Eastwood proves that there are some things that still get better with age and that 76-year-old Eastwood seems to be just hitting his peak as a filmmaker. I’m looking forward to seeing what he cooks up next year in Letters From Iwo Jima, which will tell the same story from the Japanese side.