Every war movie is essentially anti-war, and Clint Eastwood, who once piled up bodies in Where Eagles Dare, is now perhaps seeking redemption, this time as director, with his Flags of Our Fathers.
This is the story of a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph, a shot that became more than that - a symbol of victory and later victim to a propaganda. James Bradley, whose father is one of the six men in the picture, attempts to chronicle his father’s wartime exploits. Shot during World War II at the top of the obscure, lava spec of a Japanese island that is Iwo Jima, it is also, at least according to one of the film’s protagonists a “farce”. It shows six US soldiers raising a flag after they have “captured” the island on February 19, 1945.
Eastwood, once the quintessential director of small movies who quickly compiled one-take shots, finally abandons his minimalist style. Working with producer Steven Spielberg, Eastwood seems all the more conscious of the Normandy invasion sequence from Saving Private Ryan, comparisons to which are inevitable. Spielberg thrilled us with the brutal violence of war and Eastwood only ups the ante.
The movie flicks back and forth between Iwo Jima, where the 20,000-strong Japanese have engaged the US marines in a guerrilla war, and the subsequent war bond drive launched by the American government using the heroes of the photograph. The “farce” is that none including those in the picture is really sure who is in it. To complicate matters, soldiers erect two different flags after instructions from above that the original flag is to be preserved.
Half of the six in the picture are dead within weeks and the rest are quickly flown to the US, where they are propped up us heroes. They move from town to town, hotel to hotel asking people at public gatherings to fund the bankrupt US government. After raising millions, they are discarded to live out their empty lives.
Editor Joel Cox successfully meshes the parallel narratives, the live reality of the war and parched images of it that haunts the three men on the bond drive played by Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach (Ira Hayes). The actors are not chosen not for their power to draw audiences, but for their resemblance to their real life counterparts.
The conflict between everyman and hero is present most in Ira Hayes, the Indian “chief”, whose character lends to the movie its theme – the exploration of heroism. Ryan Phillippe, John ‘Doc’ Bradley, plays the only Navy man in the group otherwise consisting of Marines. It’s perhaps that the book on which the movie is based on is written by his son that the doctor father is shown as a stoic, silent observer. Rene Gagnon represents both the hero and the “farce” perpetuated on the American people.
The script is by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis. The movie is a tribute to the late Henry Bumstead, who could not have had a better way of going out, casting director Phyllis Huffman and the photographer Rosenthal.