The Reeler


October 20, 2006

Flags of our Fathers

Eastwood crafts an austere, knowing film about the power of images and the work of the everyday soldier

"We like things simple. Good and evil, heroes and villains… Most of the time they're not who we think they are." Thus Flags of our Fathers' opening narration announces its thesis, and thus director Clint Eastwood spends the next two hours investigating it thoroughly, thoughtfully and dramatically. The setting is the Battle of Iwo Jima, where six American soldiers raised their country's flag -- inadvertently emboldening the nation's patriotism when the event was captured by war correspondent Joe Rosenthal in the definitive photograph from World War II.

The men in Rosenthal's photograph did not consider themselves heroes. They simply followed orders to put up a flag -- a replacement, in fact, for the first banner hoisted that day (the original was salted away by a general to keep it from winding up in a politician's hands) -- that was raised only five days into a battle that would rage for 30 more. By the time it was over, three of the six soldiers were dead. As one of the survivors, Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) puts it, "All I did was try not to get shot."

Eastwood then follows Hayes, Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) along two divergent chronologies. In one, the trio fight for their lives on Iwo Jima; in the other, the men tour the United States, making public appearances to drum up war bond sales after the photo has turned them into national celebrities. Few soldiers return from war with the desire to relive what they've done (both of my grandfathers served in WWII, and the only stories they ever offered were silly, basic training mishaps), but by appearing in that photo, Bradley, Gagnon and Hayes are doomed to repeat it. Eastwood's cross-cutting beautifully illustrates these soldiers' haunted psyches, constantly reminded of the horrors they've endured. As their likenesses become a rallying cry, Rosenthal's picture is reproduced endlessly: as painting, statue, war bonds poster, even as a syrup-slathered dessert. The American people look at the Iwo Jima flag raising and see heroism. The men who raised the flag see only tragedy.

Ultimately, Flags of our Fathers is about the power of images, and the film itself does not lack for impactful visuals of its own. Aside from the lengthy daytime beachfront assault by U.S. forces that functions as Flags' gut-wrenching centerpiece, Eastwood's approach to the Battle of Iwo Jima is almost impressionistic: shot largely in darkness and fog, the Japanese rarely represented by anything more than the barrels of their machine guns. (Eastwood will explore the Japanese perspective in the upcoming Letters From Iwo Jima.) Here, war is ultimately a nightmare in the minds of the men who've lived it.

Despite his spotty war film record as an actor (his most memorable war roles, as Corporal McBurney in Don Siegel's The Beguiled and as Private Kelly in Brian G. Hutton's Kelly's Heroes, were hooligans at best and traitors at worst), Eastwood has made an austere, knowing movie that, above all, celebrates the work of the everyday soldier who does his job willingly, quietly and unglamorously. The single greatest act of heroism in Flags of our Fathers belongs to Bradley, but it's not his role in the flag-raising; it's his determination to continue helping his fellow servicemen even after shrapnel in his legs has stifled his ability to walk. Even as he analyzes the process by which governments invent and bestow greatness on individuals, Eastwood celebrates the individual acts that truly win wars. Bradley's son James -- Flags' narrator and the author of the book on which it was based -- says at the film's conclusion that in order to "honor [the soldiers], we should remember them as they really were." In this case, the greatest compliment one can bestow on Eastwood is to observe that he has done just that.

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