Clint Eastwood’s cinematic examination of the story behind one of the most famous photographs in history, the flag raising on Mount Suribachi during the Battle for Iwo Jima, does have a great deal of relevance today.
Media manipulation in cases like the rescue of Jessica Lynch and the death of Pat Tillman have somewhat cheapened the meaning of the word hero. This film attempts to look beneath what we think we know about our heroes at the real men beneath the image. It might have succeeded if the film weren’t such a disorganized mess.
The movie presents the story in a complicated, non-linear fashion, as the main characters flash back from the stateside war bond drive to their experiences on Iwo Jima. This approach could have worked just fine, but the structure seems to stand in the way of our making an emotional connection with the character. As the result, I had a hard time sympathizing with their hostile reaction to the demands put on them by the bond drive. A more linear approach, like Saving Private Ryan or this film’s companion piece Letters from Iwo Jima, might have allowed us to form a more meaningful bond with the film’s main characters that would have carried over to their stateside experiences.
Flags of our Fathers follows the three survivors from the six men who raised the famous flag during the battle and after they were recalled stateside to help sell bonds for a financially strapped U.S. war effort. John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillipe), father of the author of the book on which this film is based, is a Navy corpsman. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) is the child of French-Canadian immigrants and his fellow Marine Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) is a Pima Indian. Gagnon embraces his newfound celebrity while Hayes retreats into a bottle.
We are obviously supposed to empathize with Hayes’ indignation over the way he is being feted while his dead comrades are forgotten, but as portrayed by Adam Beach, Hayes comes across as a pathetic drunk who only manages to embarrass his two compatriots on several occasions. And for someone whose son wrote the original book, “Doc” Bradley fails to emerge as a vivid character. Only Rene Gagnon really seems to step off the screen and establish an identity.
Another flaw, in my opinion, is that the film tends to paint virtually all of the stateside expression of patriotism as cynical or somehow insincere, making the conflict between the survivors and their “handlers” too simplistic.
On the positive side, the portrayal of the fighting on Iwo Jima is vivid and on par with the Omaha Beach scenes in Saving Private Ryan. Given the more advanced filmmaking tools that Eastwood had to work with, his battle scenes are probably more realistic than Spielberg’s, but lack the sheer visceral terror with the exception of one scene of mass suicide by a group of Japanese soliders.
It’s a shame that Flags of our Fathers isn’t a more coherent effort, given the level of Eastwood’s craft as a director. In the end, what we have is a noble effort that manages to outsmart itself.