Flags of Our Fathers
February 21, 2007
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, Barry Pepper, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Neal McDonough, Joseph Cross, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Melanie Lynskey, Tom McCarthy,
In 2006, Clint Eastwood took on his most ambitious project yet: depicting the famous battle of Iwo Jima from both the American and Japanese perspectives. He had so much material and wanted to give equal time to both sides that he decided to make two films. The first one, entitled Flags of Our Fathers, is from the American point-of-view with the focus on three of the six men (the other three died later in combat) who were captured in Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s famous picture of five Marines and one Navy Corpsman raising the American flag in the battlefield. Eastwood’s film attempts to tell three stories: the battle of Iwo Jima, how it affected the three soldiers and show how this now iconic image of the flag being raised was used by the United States government as propaganda to bolster the war effort.
Eastwood starts off by playing with our perception of the photo by showing three of the surviving soldiers – John “Doc” Bradley (Phillippe), Ira Hayes (Beach) and Rene Gagnon (Bradford) – lifting the flag in what we assume is a flashback of the actual event but turns out to be nothing more than a recreation for a war rally. This sequence itself is self-reflexive since the film is yet another recreation. Later on, Eastwood will show us what actually happened at the original flag raising and at a second one.
Flags of Our Fathers flashes back and forth from present time to the battle to its aftermath which some have found confusing and unnecessary but I think that Eastwood adopts this approach to show how the battle of Iwo Jima was a nightmare that these three men could never escape. When we meet Bradley, Gagnon and Hayes, they are anonymous cogs in the vast military machine heading to Iwo Jima. Eastwood does a good job of showing the men bonding before battle, each of them has their own distinctive quirk – Bradley cuts people’s hair, Gagnon plays the guitar and Hayes is a quiet, contemplative type who stoically endures his fellow soldiers’ explicit racism (he’s Native American Indian).
Eastwood depicts the actual battle with the same horrific realism of Saving Private Ryan (1998) complete with shaky, hand-held camerawork and muted colour palette. Not surprisingly, it’s a slaughter with body parts strewn everywhere and soldiers being picked off in a blink of an eye. Most importantly, we see how this carnage affects the three protagonists with Hayes being the most strongly affected by what he has seen and done. Eastwood does an excellent job of showing the human cost of the battle: the long line of body bags and the traumatized wounded waiting to be taken away.
Bradley, Gagnon and Hayes are sent home to participate in a public relations tour despite Hayes’ vehement resistance to the idea. They make appearances at a major league baseball game and are overwhelmed by the reaction that they receive. Their job is to tour the country and sell war bonds to the American public, inspiring them through their own heroism. To this end, they attend public rallies during the day and swanky dinner parties with rich socialites at night. However, it’s all a sham. Hayes senses it first and is the only one of the three to call their handlers on the lies that they are spreading. But it is more complicated and bigger than any of them. The government needs money to keep the war effort going in a big way and the purpose of parading around these “heroes” of Iwo Jima is to give people hope and inspire them to give money. What really brings it home and makes them truly understand what they are doing is when they meet the mothers of a few of their dead comrades. However, it also illustrates the lies perpetuated by the government as they refuse to tell these families how their loved ones died.
Hayes develops a drinking problem as a way to cope with hypocrisy of what he is doing and as a way to deal with the fact that his fallen comrades, including the other three who helped raise the flag, aren’t there to enjoy this with them. His drinking begins to affect the PR tour and cause a rift between him and the other two men. The performances of the three lead actors are all superb, especially Adam Beach as the tormented and tragic Hayes who is unable to escape his memories of the brutality he witnessed at Iwo Jima. The things he saw and did would make anybody traumatized for life.
Flags of Our Fathers explores the differences between reality and illusion and the effect that perpetuating a myth has on those who propagate it. Eastwood has said in an interview with Time magazine that “the propaganda machine is our subject matter.” The bottom line is that these guys had to watch their friends die in often the most terrible ways that defy description. That is something you never forget and that people who weren’t there will never fully understand. The film is certainly not without its flaws. The material set in the present with Bradley’s son trying to find out why his father did not talk about what happened at Iwo Jima should have probably been removed. I understand its purpose in the movie but I don’t think it was necessary. The most interesting aspect of Flags focuses on the machinery of selling and “winning” a war to the American public. Eastwood seems to argue that it in the case of World War II, it was a necessary evil. Going back to that Eastwood quote – “the propaganda machine is our subject matter” – I felt that his film never lost sight of that mission statement. Of course, one could argue just how successful Eastwood was but I thought he nailed it. The veteran filmmaker manages to be critical of the government and its practices while still celebrating the troops and their sacrifice.
None. Although, one wonders if they will re-release it with Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) and load it up with extras.