Three U.S. soldiers struggle to climb a sandy hill in the dark as bombs explode around them. When they make it to the top, the men work together to plant an American flag in the ground. As the camera continues upwards, we see that the “bombs” are fireworks and the men are standing atop a paper mache mountain in a stadium, being cheered on by thousands of Americans.
This scene, from Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of our Fathers,” is a powerful condemnation of America’s tasteless commercialism and the “selling of war.” What makes this World War II drama such an even-handed story, though, is that it also asks us to sympathize with the public relations men and the government. By asking citizens for money to support the war back home, the men in the iconic photo were actually supporting their friends and fellow soldiers who were still caught up in the heat of battle overseas.
Iwo Jima was the first battle fought on Japanese territory in WWII, and the photograph of six men raising the flag atop its highest peak is one of the enduring images in the history of photography. No faces can be seen clearly in the photo, therefore the soldiers are a perfect stand-in for all who fought in the war. The film, based on the best-selling book “Flags of Our Fathers” by James Bradley with Ron Powers, deconstructs the myth and shows the real circumstances surrounding the photo and the real men behind the flag.
Eastwood, along with screenwriters Paul Haggis (Oscar-winner for “Crash” and “Million Dollar Baby”) and William Broyles, Jr., offers capsulated characterizations of the Marine fifth division who captured Mt. Suribachi on February 19th, 1945. Wisely, however, the script primarily sticks with the three men who were brought home early to pose for photos, glad-hand politicians, and make speeches as part of the Seventh War Loan Drive.
The brotherhood of serving alongside fellow soldiers is explicitly felt in “Flags of our Fathers.” It is so strong, in fact, that Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) and Navy doctor John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) feel like they are betraying the men who remain in battle on the island. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), the runner who took the order to raise the flag, is happy to be home and out of harm’s way. The story of their bloody battle at Iwo Jima and their psychological struggle with being elevated to hero status at home is told congruently, through a constant barrage of flashbacks that work with varying degrees of success.
The Marines’ accomplishment on Iwo Jima was huge, overpowering a force of 22,000 Japanese soldiers, and Eastwood’s film does not shy away from the more gruesome aspects of the fight. The battle scenes are so violent and dramatic that when the action skips forward to the war bond tour in the States, the director runs the risk of losing momentum. During the scenes with the three main soldiers, this is not the case. Eastwood blends a modern cynicism with the old-fashioned managing of the PR tour seamlessly, forcing us to question the validity of our current government’s tastlessly-staged photo ops.
It is when the narrative shoots all the way forward to the present day, showing author James Bradley interviewing the old men who fought beside his father, that “Flags of our Fathers” starts to lose its footing. The horrible “old man flashback” framing device that Steven Speilberg used to bookend “Saving Private Ryan” should have been warning enough, but Eastwood plows ahead with several conversations between an actor we can barely see and don’t care about and some elderly gentlemen who are not easily identified by their young counterparts in the island scenes. It brings the movie to a standstill every time. I understand the need to relate the story to a generation that is passing on, but showing the photos of the real men who served during the credit sequence was an effective enough tool.
And don’t get me started on the needless voice-over narration that explains everything that the movie has already done a great job of illustrating.
Besides giving us a direct correlation between the actual men and their portrayals, many of the photos shown at the end were meticulously re-created as shots for the film by Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern, from subject all the way down to background. Seeing them gives the movie a certain sense of accuracy. Considering that the entire film is devoted to breaking down the hero myth of one very famous photograph, the credit sequence underlines that point poignantly for the characters we’ve just spent the last two hours and ten minutes getting to know.