Flags of Our Fathers
Rated R, 132 min. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, Barry Pepper, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Paul Walker, Jamie Bell, Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough, Melanie Lynskey, Judith Ivey, Tom McCarthy.
When Eastwood’s new film about the heroes of Iwo Jima sticks to its central concept – articulated in the following statement: “The right picture can win or lose a war” – his film is on fertile soil. After about the first third to half of the movie, the story detours from this quintessentially Eastwoodian theme of the deconstruction of the hero myth into a repetitive road tour of the American home front that merely marches in place while adding uncharacteristically sentimental mulch to Eastwood’s earlier thematic assault. The picture in question is of course Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of six faceless soldiers – five Marines and one Navy Corpsman – raising the American flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi. The vicious battle against the Japanese for the desolate island was a tipping point in the World War II campaign for the Pacific, although it came at a time when the American people were wearying of the war as the European campaign was drawing to a close and the government coffers for the war effort were running out of funds. Thus, the military shipped home the three surviving members of the photo (which was shot on the fifth day of the battle that ground on for another month) to tour the country on the government’s Seventh War Bond Tour, pimping their celebrity to raise cash for the war. The bulk of the film focuses on the subsequent discomfort the three men faced, knowing that the flag-raising was hardly a heroic moment, but rather a randomly captured moment of soldiers carrying out symbolic orders. They suffer a form of survivor’s guilt, knowing that a couple of the faceless flagraisers were misidentified and that other fallen comrades were more deserving of iconic celebrity. Of the three, Rene Gagnon (Bradford) takes to fame more readily than the others, ironic because his mediocre military skills had relegated to a behind-the-front role as a runner. The Corpsman, “Doc” Bradley (Phillippe), takes to the task of celebrity with the same easy grace he brought to everything else, although we see that dreams of Iwo Jima haunt him in his old age even though he never talked about the experience with his family. The third survivor, Ira Hayes (Beach), could have a whole movie devoted to his turmoil. A Native American, who only reluctantly participated in the War Bonds tour, Hayes descends into a spiral of alcoholism and sadness that becomes his life’s ongoing signature. Yet, Flags of Our Fathers barely scratches the surface of his story. Not helping the film coherence is its out-of-order chronology that hinges around the research Bradley’s son Jim (McCarthy) conducts decades later in preparation for his book, Flags of Our Fathers, which had been optioned by Steven Spielberg, who served as a producer on Eastwood’s film. (The script is by back-to-back Oscar winner Paul Haggis, from a first script by Bill Broyles.) It’s impossible not to compare the landings on Iwo Jima with Spielberg’s heralded D-Day landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan. Though filmed with more emotional restraint than Spielberg’s assault, Eastwood adopts more CGI strategies than in his previous films, and his sepia and khaki color palette isn’t always supportive of the illusion. It’s also impossible not to find resonance in the movie regarding the current war in Iraq, particularly the notorious photos from Abu Ghraib that managed in their own way to galvanize a nation’s emotions about the war effort. Maybe we won’t fully understand Eastwood’s film until we see the second part of this project, Letters From Iwo Jima, his companion film seen from the Japanese viewpoint expected in 2007. On its own, however, Flags of Our Fathers merely flags.
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