The iconic photo of American soldiers raising Old Glory at Iwo Jima during the Pacific war against Japan is the springboard for a canny exercise in mythologizing and demythologizing from Clint Eastwood. “Flags of Our Fathers” doesn’t much resemble Franklin Schaffner’s “Patton” (1970) in visual terms, but just as that picture, penned by Francis Ford Coppola, managed both to glorify the general’s eccentric genius and to embody, for many viewers at least, an anti-war attitude, so Eastwood’s film, written by William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis, unravels the tangled, and none too uplifting, reality behind the photograph (as well as the rather crass use of some of the men in it as PR puppets in a desperate War Bond drive) while simultaneously exalting the true nature of the heroism the men who fought and died to take the island exhibited (as well as the lasting effect the experience had on those who survived).
In a way the film can be seen as a blend of “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Best Years of Our Lives.” On the one hand it offers intermittent scenes of the horrors that the 30,000 troops who clambered onto the island in February, 1945, confronted over 35 days of fighting in trying to take the strategically important locale against some 20,000 entrenched, committed defenders. These episodes, which include impressive aerial vistas of the fleet and powerful images of the landing and the soldiers’ grueling process over the landscape (complete with scenes of great carnage and sudden death), are spread throughout the film in the form of flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks, taking us from the on-board preparations for the assault, in which the major players are all introduced, through a final victory swim on the island’s beach by some of the survivors. Juxtaposed with the battle scenes is the story of how the photograph was taken–it was actually a shot of the raising of a second flag, put up as an afterthought after possession of the first became a bone of contention among the military and civilian leadership, and quickly became a source of hope both for a war-weary public and for the cash-strapped Washington administration. The government decided to hustle the three survivors captured in the image back home to hawk War Bonds at massive rallies, despite the fact that the men harbored serious reservations about being identified at heroes at all (as well as guilt over what they had actually done or left undone) and there wasn’t even agreement about who all the men in the picture actually were (a problem when it came to events at which the grieving mothers of the other three, all since killed in battle, would be present.
By dividing up the film between glimpses of the actual battle and the process of the men’s fund-raising tour back home (as well as scenes in which the son of one of the three men researches his reticent father’s past in conversations with other veterans about the battle, and summary accounts of how the trio all fared in post-war America), “Flags of Our Fathers” attempts to capture the dichotomy between the true nature of heroism, exhibited in messy, often ugly circumstances that make for a good deal of self-doubt and second guessing, and the urge to fashion a simple, unequivocal image of nobility that can serve a unifying and uplifting purpose. In one sense the film could be read as a somewhat cynical take on the old newspaper adage that when the legend becomes fact, print the legend; but it wants to get at something deeper, namely the ambiguous but still deeply real heroism represented by men who themselves realize that they aren’t the perfect embodiment of the ideal that the public thirsts for and that their pain–and that of their fallen comrades–is being exploited.
The film, made with Eastwood’s customary intelligence (if not brilliance) and considerable visual elegance (with a superb production design by the late master Henry Bumstead and excellent widescreen cinematography by Tom Stern, who employs a bleached-out color scheme emphasizing greys, browns and greens with only occasional splashes of color), is quite successful in dramatizing these themes, even if in doing so it sometimes slips into the cliches of World War II military drama (especially in the macho camaraderie that fills the opening pre-assault sequences, but elsewhere too, and in the repeated scenes of combatants agonizing over the deaths of their comrades). The turn at the end to explicit reflections on the nature of heroism and the need for heroes is, moreover, a heavy-handed miscalculation.
A similar feeling of competence occasionally overmatched by the film’s demands can be seen in the acting. Ryan Phillippe does a solid job as stoic Doc Bradley, the Navy Corpsman who provided on-field medical help to wounded Marines and is haunted by the enormities he’d witnessed, as does Jesse Bradford as Rene Gagnon, the limelight-seeking runner who found that his celebrity was short-lived and the public only briefly appreciative. Adam Beach has the more difficult part of Ira Hayes, the Native American who had to endure the almost nonchalant racism of the era and whose demons led him into the alcoholism that eventually killed him. Beach works hard to capture the character’s desperation and self-loathing, but doesn’t always succeed, sometimes seeming as clumsy coping with the role’s demands as the man he’s playing was in embracing his casting as a hero.
The small army of largely male supporting players acquit themselves well in most cases, though sometimes it’s difficult even to keep the players straight. Among the more notable faces among the company are Jamie Bell as the somewhat goofy, doomed Ignatowski, Paul Walker as clean-cut Hank Hansen, Joseph Cross as boyish Franklin Sousley and Benjamin Walker as Harlan Block, whose distraught mother Belle (Judith Ivey) recognizes him in the photograph, along with Barry Pepper as their dedicated sergeant and Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough and Robert Patrick as officers. John Benjamin Hickey and John Slattery come on strong as the men’s handlers, one military and the other civilian, during their tour, and Tom McCarthy is okay as Bradley’s researcher son. Older actors have been enlisted to play some of the characters in the more contemporary scenes, although the identities aren’t always ideally clear. So Len Cariou shows up as the elder military handler Beech, and Harve Presnell the older version of McDonough, both doing reasonably well. But though his performance is fine as the elder Bradley, George Grizzard will be almost unrecognizable for those who remember only the reedy, intense actor of his younger days.
Like its three major characters, “Flags of Our Fathers” isn’t perfect, but its flaws arise from an attempt to deliver a message about the complicated nature of heroism that’s worth hearing in our own time of conflict. And it can serve as a useful counterpart to a picture like “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” the John Wayne vehicle that, typical for its time, reduced the terrible assault to a simplistic exercise in patriotism. That 1949 film may still be of interest to you, though–not only because it can serve as an instructive contrast to the more subtle and layered depiction Eastwood has created, but because the three surviving flag-raisers actually appear in small roles in it–a continuation of the very exploitation of them that this picture treats with such mixed emotions.