“Every jackass thinks he knows what war is, even if he’s never been in one.”
So begins Flags of our Fathers, easily one of the year’s finest films. Based upon the book of the same name by James Bradley (son of John Bradley, one of the six men who raised the American flag in the famous “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal) and Ron Powers, the film is a thought-provoking take not so much on the battle of Iwo Jima itself, but on the effect a single photo can have on a nation – both good and bad – and the perception of war in the eyes of the average citizen.
The narrative contains three stories, all of which are told in bits and pieces as they meld together. One involves the battle itself. Our three main characters are John “Doc” Bradley (Phillipe), Rene Gagnon (Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Beach). They are the three who survived Iwo Jima and made it home to become heroes to the degree of all-out celebrity. The second story is just that: how the government and special interests used the men to help convince people to buy war bonds to pay what was a $14 billion debt. Thirdly, a young James Bradley (Tom McCarthy) performs his research regarding just what happened on the day the picture was taken.
The results are staggering and simultaneously challenging. While most will probably be attending for the extended battle sequences (and they are a technical marvel), I found the story of how the government used the men to bolster goodwill more fascinating. The screenplay by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis makes it very clear that the men never felt like heroes, even though Gagnon did embrace the attention to some degree. In their minds they simply placed a symbol in the ground to commemorate not only victory, but their lost brothers in arms. The papers, public, and government authorities made them heroes, and it was with solemn and fresh memories that they had to face it. The way they saw it, the only heroes were lined up along the beach with tags on their collars.
There is a scene in which the three are being honored at a ritzy dinner function. For dessert they are served vanilla ice cream shaped exactly like the bust of the photo. Asked what kind of topping they want, one of the men chooses strawberry. The red against the white is the single most unforgettable image in the film. The meaning is both celebratory and blood-curdling, but ultimately heartbreaking.
Director Clint Eastwood turns in one of the best efforts of his career. His battle scenes are breathtaking not only in execution, but also scope. His knack for drama gives Flags of our Fathers a depth and note of sadness that few other director could achieve (save Steven Spielberg, who is a producer here). The performances by the low-key cast are excellent, particularly Adam Beach as the troubled Ira Hayes. Hayes not only had to deal with his own demons regarding the war, but also the blatant and passing racism that stemmed from his Indian heritage. Beach is put through the emotional roller coaster, and he shines.
Flags of our Fathers is one of those rare films that truly resonates. I have been thinking about it for nearly two days straight now, and that is a testament to the power of the film. Eastwood has brought our heroes down to the earth, and if today’s soldiers are anything like the three at Iwo Jima, that’s where they want to be.
Length: 132 Minutes
Rating: R for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language.
Theatrical Release: October 20, 2006
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: William Broyles Jr. & Paul Haggis. Based upon the book by James Bradley & Ron Powers.
Cast: Ryan Phillipe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Barry Pepper