Flags of our Fathers
War is hell, of course, but war is also ironies, and the famous photograph of American marines raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi at Iwo Jima has given the 76-year-old director Clint Eastwood a chance to look at war with the eyes of a wise and understanding man. "Flags of our Fathers" is at once both the most brutal and the most compassionate war film I know, made with an absolutely sure hand from beginning to end.
There are many ironies connected with that photo. Here are a few: it did not mark the capture of the island, but was raised on Day 5 of a bloody 30-day battle. Three of the six men in the photo died before the battle was over. The survivors were hailed as heroes in order to be used as figureheads in a War Bonds drive back home.
Eastwood and his writers William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, working from the book by James Bradley with Ron Powers, have laid out all the action and all the ironies without ever slipping into sentimentality, or romanticizing the events. The film moves back and forth from the battles on the island to recollections years later by those who survived. It begins as the marines are preparing to land on the island; an aerial barrage for two weeks has not drawn even a hint of return fire. A vast armada of ships lies offshore and pours out many thousands of marines. On the beach there is still no visible enemy, until the marines begin the climb up the hillsides, when all hell breaks loose. The Japanese have secreted themselves and their artillery in dugout caves and the Americans are sitting ducks.
The film's footage of the battles - and every machine-gun nest, cave and rock crevice was its own battle - will be compared with Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," but the coolness, the frankness, the objectivity with which Eastwood films it all makes the horror even more palpable. He follows one platoon - the one that raised the flag - and three men who were there: John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). He moves back and forth between the island and its horrors and the War Bonds tour. Bradley and Gagnon, though aware of the ironies, are able to handle the tour; Hayes, a Pima Indian, cannot and drinks his way through it. We learn what the future holds for each of them and it is not to be a happy life.
Part of Eastwood's achievement is to stand back and let every event, episode and act speak for itself; he doesn't impose any overt message or point of view to tell us what to think. When the three men tell the Bond Drive audiences that the real heroes are the men who died on the island, we understand that that is true; good as they are, the three know that they were just lucky to escape alive, and that knowledge eats away at them.
I was brought up on World War II movies, where war is heck and Americans are always the best, by jingo; "Flags of our Fathers" is an excellent corrective, breathtaking and frightening in its footage, and sadly understanding in its message. It is in every way a masterful film.