Eastwood delivers his most ambitious project to date
Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers” isn’t a traditional war story, though it does feature some of the grimmest, most visually striking combat scenes in recent memory. It is the account of three American servicemen who survived the battle of Iwo Jima, the bloodiest U.S. campaign of World War II. The struggle claimed the lives of nearly 7,000 Americans and 18,000 Japanese, and made reluctant, almost arbitrary celebrities out of the three, who happened to be captured on film, raising the flag on enemy soil. The movie is a meditation on the nature of celebrity, its effects on three battle-weary veterans and how a single photograph galvanized a nation at war.
Understandably, John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) grow uneasy during their brief time in the spotlight, though Gagnon, the most opportunistic of the lot, tries unsuccessfully to parlay his moment of fame into a postwar career. As three of the six men seen in Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” taken on the fifth day of the 39-day battle, they are whisked from the front lines and returned home to promote war bonds for the Truman administration. (The three other flag-raisers were killed in action.)
Despite the hollow accolades of politicians, the men don’t feel like heroes. As members of the second team of servicemen to raise the flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi — the first flag was claimed as a souvenir by a Marine corpsman — they cannot fathom how their contributions to the war effort could be valued more than those of men who gave their lives on the island. They’re right, of course, but dead men don’t sell war bonds, and the American propaganda machine needs living heroes for its PR campaign. Hence, a wartime legend is born.
The burden of celebrity affects the men in different ways. Gagnon is a natural, self-assured spokesman, while Bradley accepts his duties with quiet dignity, despite his misgivings. Hayes, a Pima Indian, is the most conflicted, unwilling and unable to forget his fallen comrades or the horrors they faced. He combats his trauma with alcohol, stumbling about in a haze of depression until his premature death at 33. By the time of his death, he and his fellow flag-raisers have been long forgotten by their country.
Beach, who played a World War II Marine once before in John Woo’s “Windtalkers” is a revelation here, burning with the intensity of a man tortured by his demons. As Bradley, whose son James wrote the book on which “Flags” is based, Phillippe gives a poignantly understated performance as an emotional stoic who maintains a veneer of calm amid chaos.
As for Eastwood, he has already proven himself one of the finest American filmmakers, and “Flags of Our Fathers” is perhaps his most impressive achievement. At 76, an age when many directors might have tackled a less ambitious project, Eastwood has delivered his grandest vision to date, depicting the wrenching ferocity of the Iwo Jima campaign with a stunning clarity that recalls Steven Spielberg’s D-Day landing in “Saving Private Ryan.” More important, Eastwood deconstructs the trumped-up, jingoistic mythology that is so often ascribed to war by those who never fought. For them, war provides the perfect backdrop for patriotic posturing; for men like Bradley, Gagnon and Hayes, it is a scarring reality that haunts them for the rest of their lives.
Flags of Our Fathers ???½
Starring Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery and Barry Pepper
Written by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Running time 132 minutes