Flags of Our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood explores some of the same territory as the Steven Spielberg epic Saving Private Ryan. In fact, Flags of Our Fathers credits Mr. Spielberg as a co-producer, and also shares some of the same cast. (Barry Pepper and Harve Presnell were in both movies.) But Saving Private Ryan was fiction. Eastwood sets out to tell a true story. The movie braids together three separate stories about the Marine assault on Iwo Jima, the personal stories of the men who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi, and the efforts of the son of one of the flag raisers to understand his father’s story and experiences. The first two stories Mr Eastwood tells with power and conviction. The third is more problematic.
Much of the movie cuts back and forth between scenes of the battle for Iwo Jima and a subsequent War Bond drive in the States that featured the three surviving men from Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi. The battle scenes are remarkable, even in an age when sophisticated CGI effects in movies are becoming commonplace. Eastwood shot the film’s location scenes in Iceland, which has the same sort of barren, unearthly landscape as Iwo Jima. The combat scenes mostly stay tightly focused on the individual Marines whose story Eastwood is telling, but occasionally the camera pulls back to show masses of men and materiel pouring onto the beach, and a vast armada offshore. These shots awe the viewer with their incredible special effects, but they also convey an important point, namely the near complete lack of cover for the Marines on the beach.. When we look down from a Japanese gun emplacement on Suribachi at the Marines below, we realize that men under those guns were quite literally fish in a barrel. The Marines fight their way inch by inch across what looks like the surface of an alien world, or perhaps Dante’s Inferno , being cut down at every step by a deeply dug in, mostly invisible enemy.
These surreal and unbelievable battle scenes are interwoven with scenes of something almost equally surreal - the media frenzy that the three surviving members of the flag raising detail came home to. The picture of the flag raising had made them heroes to a nation grown weary of the war, and the government, strapped for cash to continue the fighting, made them the centerpiece of a drive to sell War Bonds. The three men, played by Ryan Phillipe, Rene Gagnon, and Adam Beach, are all uncomfortable with their fame, and the circus atmosphere that surrounds them. To the public, they are the heroes of Iwo Jima, but the men themselves see nothing remarkable in simply raising a flag. Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) in particular is unhappy about leaving his unit. The glaring contrast between the hell of the battlefront and the hype of the home front makes clear, in a way that perhaps no movie ever has, the vast, unbridgeable gulf between those who served on the front lines and those who stayed home. The celebrations are frivolous, silly, and tasteless in part because the people doing the celebrating do not know, and cannot imagine, what these men have faced.
Eastwood evokes the period atmosphere of 1940's America with the same care and attention to detail that he brings to his battle scenes. (Except that no one, anywhere smokes. This movie is rated R for soldier language and graphic violence including scenes of men with their guts literally blown out - but some things are simply beyond the pale.) He also shows the racism of the time. Ira Hayes, an Indian, could be lauded as a hero of Iwo Jima, but could not be served in many bars and restaurants.
Both of these threads work, especially the battle scenes. Eastwood shoots these in subdued color that almost suggests the black and white newsreel footage of the time. For all of their scope and grandeur, Eastwood’s landing on Iwo Jima is more restrained in its violence and more personal in its focus than Steven Spielberg’s assault on Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan. But the kinetic and emotional impact is still there. The scenes of the War Bond drive are a bit less effective, partly because they run a bit too long. The three survivors try, with varying degrees of success, to adjust to their fame. The story of Ira Hayes, who descended into alcoholism after the war, is particularly moving, in part because of Adam Beach’s strong performance. He may well be nominated for best supporting actor at Oscar time. (Beach also played Private Ben Yahzee in Windtalkers.)
The third thread of the film, about James Bradley writing the story of his father and the other five men who raised the flag, does not work as well. It is jarring when, late in the movie, the point of view suddenly shifts from that of the men who raised the flag to someone completely uninvolved in the episode. Flags of Our Fathers is based on the book of the same name by James Bradley, son of Navy Corpsman John “Doc” Bradley, the only Navy man involved in the flag raising. James Bradley’s story is inherently less interesting than that of the men who fought on the island, and it isn’t clear why Eastwood spends time on it. Perhaps it was a convenient way to insert a message, since a good deal of time is spent near the end of the movie listening to James Bradley (Played by Thomas McCarthy) preach that heroes do not really exist, and that we manufacture them because we need them.
But this is arrant nonsense. People don’t manufacture heroes so much as they manufacture symbols. The men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima became, through circumstances not of their choosing, symbols of something greater than just six men running a flag up a length of pipe. Perhaps their actions did not seem remarkable to them as compared to the actions of other men on the island. But the men who took Iwo Jima were a pretty remarkable group. It took great courage to land on that beach and move inland, in full view of the guns on Mount Suribachi. Whether or not the flag raisers considered themselves heroes, the heroism they came to symbolize was real enough.
Flags of Our Fathers stumbles at the end, although the first 3/4 of the movie are at times powerful and affecting. The battle scenes are excellent, and the tribute to the men who served is heartfelt. But the movie is harmed by way it projects modern attitudes onto people of the 1940s. The film can depict 1940s American racism, but not the will to win that carried the nation through a long, hard war to final victory. Mr. Eastwood can show American fighting men advancing against murderous fire, but cannot see the men themselves as heroes. In the end, Flags of Our Fathers tells us less about America in 1945 than it does about America in 2006.