FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS Send This Review to a Friend
Clint Eastwood has made a different type of war movie with enormous skill and understanding. “Flags of Our Fathers,” based on the book by James Bradley with Ron Powers, resonates with insight into the aftermath of the horrendous experiences of combat and the cynical way in which heroes are created out of men who don’t consider themselves heroes but mainly grieve for the buddies they have seen killed.
This astonishing drama is built around one of the most renowned photographs of World War II—Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s shot of servicemen raising the flag after bloody battling on Iwo Jima. In truth it was a second raising of the flag. The first one was not captured for posterity. That flag was taken down because someone in authority wanted it. So it was done again, and this time Rosenthal got the picture. As the men’s faces could not be seen, there was speculation as to who was really there.
When the picture hit the papers it so dramatized the war and the men fighting it that three of the men were brought back to the United States to tour and be acclaimed for heroism to help sell war bonds needed to help pay for the costly war. The screenplay by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis contrasts the humility of the men with the facile public relations attitudes of those using them. Ryan Phillippe plays John Bradley, Rene Gagnon portrays Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach is Ira Hayes, the Native American whose life is a tale of woe.
Hayes is subjected to taunts about being an Indian, is discriminated against, is deeply disturbed by his memories of combat and takes to drink. He deeply resents having to go through the hero routine, including symbolic replanting of the flag before huge audiences in bond drives. The film tracks his decline to being interrupted from working as a field hand by tourists who tip him for posing with them for a photograph. He is eventually found dead, still a young man. (Hayes was 32 when he died.)
Eastwood stages some of the most vivid battle scenes ever filmed, but he does so to contrast the nightmare of battle that leaves a mark on those who manage to survive with the platitudes of those who create heroes for publicity campaigns. The juxtaposition is effective, as are the later scenes and flashbacks around which the script is built.
World War II has generally been regarded as a necessary war and the men who gave their lives or suffered wounds, physical or psychological, have been honored. Iraq is another matter, but what the film tells us about the toll taken in a cause deemed just can also stimulate thoughts on what troops have been going through in a war that is clearly a disaster. Apart from the large number of soldiers killed, thousands more who have been wounded, many crippled for life, now face the agony left by what they have experienced.
Eastwood’s canny, mature filmmaking captures the World War II period, the fighting and the human story with depth and simplicity. He has a critical viewpoint, but at the same time expresses his reverence for those who fought and died. “Flags of Our Fathers” is among the year’s best. A DreamWorks Pictures release.