At first glance, Clint Eastwoodís Flags of Our Fathers seems like another Hollywood war picture. The film, which is set during the battle of Iwo Jima, resembles other patriotic movies that reminded us about the heroic actions of soldiers who fought our nationís wars. Once you start watching the movie, though, you canít help but look deeper. And when you do, you realize that this is anything but a big-budget exercise in flag waving. Instead, it is a deeply provocative deconstruction of the very idea of heroism. It suggests that heroes can be manufactured more or less from thin air. Running counter to that is the idea that true heroism (the kind that doesnít necessarily call attention to itself) is often left unrecognized. I went in expecting Saving Private Ryan transplanted to Iwo Jima and walked out riveted by the filmís unexpected themes.
In a narrative that jumps around between time frames, we follow three characters: John ďDocĒ Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). The men are among the many who storm the beaches at Iwo Jima. They are also among the men who raise the American flag there. Iím talking, of course, about the flag in that famous photograph that is familiar to anyone who ever took American history in school. Afterward, the three main characters are brought back to the States, where they are paraded around as heroes. The image of them raising that flag has caught the nationís attention, and the government intends to exploit it to sell war bonds.
Hereís the problem: When you look at that picture, it seems very dramatic. It looks like six men struggling to raise an American flag in the middle of an immediate battle fraught with casualties. The truth is that the flag was actually the second one raised. It was, in essence, a replacement flag. And it wasnít hoisted in the heat of battle. Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes know that, but the politicians force them to hide that fact so the public will cling to the power of the image and buy the bonds. The soldiers certainly donít feel like heroes; all they did was switch the flag. They react in different ways. Gagnon, who kind of enjoys the attention, plays along. Bradley isnít entirely comfortable with the ruse but doesnít take a stand. Hayes, on the other hand, is resentful and tries to rebel.
Compounding the vocal misgivings of Hayes (and the slightly less vocal misgivings of Bradley) is the fact that the government isnít even accurate about the other three soldiers shown, all of whom died in combat. One guy is listed as having been there, even though he wasnít, and another guy who was there doesnít get the credit. This only compounds the guilt Hayes, in particular, feels. He knows his fellow soldiersí parents are emotionally affected by the heroic status (or lack thereof) of their sons.
Flags of Our Fathers, based on a book by James Bradley (Docís son), has a certain amount of cynicism toward the idea of heroism. It shows an overzealous government trying to sell the public a false bill of goods in an effort to rally their support for a particular cause. (Similarities to recent events are assumed to be unintentional.) Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes are treated as heroes wherever they go. People take their pictures, ask for autographs, and basically worship them. It takes a toll on each of them after a while. In scene after scene, the film (written by William Broyles and Paul Haggis) shows how the men struggle to define themselves in a situation where everyone else defines them inaccurately.
Clint Eastwood was the perfect choice to direct this project. His well-known style of straightforward, no-frills storytelling is exactly what the film needs. You can see it most clearly in the scene where the flags are switched. Flag number one is already there. A politician arrives and wants the flag as a symbol for his office. A commanding officer, furious that someone would try to take the flag his soldiers fought for, orders the real one to be replaced with another one. The first flag is taken down and a new one is put on the pole. Because itís heavy, it takes six men to lift it up. Eastwood plays the moment in a casual way, showing the routine quality of changing a flag. This draws a significant contrast in our minds between what really happened and how it is ultimately portrayed to the public. In that moment, we understand perfectly why the three soldiers feel uncomfortable with the hero label. Thereís nothing heroic about changing a flag. Their true heroism Ė serving their country, going forward while watching their friends die next to them Ė doesnít seem to be merit quite the same amount of interest.
All of this is not to say that the movie dismisses the events of Iwo Jima. The other side of the story is the admiration it gives the men who fought there. Eastwood draws a clear line of distinction here: lots of soldiers bravely fought against an enemy that was both cunning and ruthless. At one point, Bradley talks about being willing to die not for his country, but for his friends. That, the film seems to say, is authentic heroism. Itís not necessarily found in a big, spectacular act; instead, itís found in a willingness to look out for oneís fellow man.
Flags of Our Fathers goes into a lot of depth on both counts. The recreation of Iwo Jima is done quite powerfully. At the same time, as we follow the characters, we come to recognize how images and facts are often manipulated to fulfill their maximum potential impact. While adjusting the truth to make people feel good and support their country may sound okay on the surface, there is Ė as we can see Ė a human toll that comes from this kind of thing.
The actors are superb across the board, particularly Adam Beach, who is Oscar-worthy as the most conflicted of the soldiers. Then thereís Clint Eastwood who, at age 76, has given us an amazing 1-2-3 punch: his last three pictures (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and this one) are certainly the finest of his distinguished career. Flags of Our Fathers is extremely well-made and insightful. Itís a movie that means something.
( out of four)
Incidentally, Eastwood is currently working on a companion piece, called Letters from Iwo Jima, that tells the same story from a Japanese perspective. Itís due for release in early 2007.
Flags of Our Fathers is rated R for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.
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