"Flags of Our Fathers" is a story of extremes. It's the story of great heroism on a tiny island, of a photograph taken in 1/400th of a second that wreaked havoc with the lives of everyone in it and influenced the course of a war.
It's also a very American tale, set 60 years ago but startlingly relevant today, which intertwines and often contrasts bravery and chicanery, idealism and disillusion, war and propaganda, truth and national security. This sad true story wrings you out emotionally because it's concerned with both the deaths of young men in battle and what happens when the needs of those who survive clash with what society expects and politics demands.
A narrative like this requires a measured, classical style to be most effective, and it couldn't have found a better director than Clint Eastwood. After two best picture Oscars, 26 films behind the camera and more than 50 years as an actor, Clint Eastwood knows a gripping story and how to tell it. He found this one in James Bradley's book about the celebrated Feb. 23, 1945, flag-raising on Iwo Jima, a narrative that was nearly a year on the New York Times bestseller list and has 3 million copies in print.
Bradley (who co-wrote the book with Ron Powers) was not a disinterested World War II historian. His father, Navy corpsman John "Doc" Bradley, was the only non-Marine of the six men who raised the flag and figured in Joe Rosenthal's iconic photograph.
Bradley was also one of the three who survived perhaps the most hellish battle of the war only to be brought back to the U.S. and exhibited like a prize heifer in a crucial war bonds tour, nicknamed the Mighty 7th, which saw the raising of an unprecedented and much-needed $26.3 billion for the war effort. The author's quest to understand how that unnerving combination of experiences whipsawed his father and his comrades is the engine that powers both the book and this gripping, emotional film.
Certainly everything about the Iwo Jima firestorm and its aftermath turned out to be so much larger than life that it led to three previous films, a Johnny Cash song and the 100-ton statue of the six men that dominates Arlington National Cemetery.
Twenty-seven Congressional Medals of Honor, the most ever for one battle, were earned on Iwo Jima; one-third of all Marines who died in World War II were killed on that 7 1/2-square-mile island, as were 95% of its 22,000 Japanese defenders, whose story Eastwood will tell in a parallel film, "Letters From Iwo Jima," to be released in early 2007.
Making this carnage that much more poignant was the fact that most of it was happening to boys/men in their teens and early 20s. Eastwood and his casting director, Phyllis Huffman (who, like veteran production designer Henry Bumstead, died before the film was released), tried hard to select actors who either were young or looked it. The result is a strong ensemble that includes Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach as the three flag-raising survivors and Barry Pepper as their sergeant.
Written by William Broyles Jr. (himself a former Marine) and Paul Haggis ("Million Dollar Baby," "Crash"), "Flags of Our Fathers" opts for an opening that is structurally complex, touching lightly on most of the situations and viewpoints the film will eventually flesh out.
The first shot is of a young soldier (Phillippe) alone in the devastated lunar landscape that was Iwo Jima in combat (these sequences were shot in Iceland, which has similar black sand beaches). This, we learn in seconds, is a recurring dream an elderly Doc Bradley has of himself on Iwo, desperately looking for the close buddy, Ralph "Iggy" Ignatowski (Jamie Bell), who he has unaccountably become separated from.
In addition to Bradley in combat and in retirement, we witness the fuss Rosenthal's photo, considered perhaps the most reproduced shot in history, made from the moment it was first seen. And we also get a glimpse of the surreal nature of the ensuing bond tour; the first flag-raising we see is not the real thing but a garish re-creation before 100,000 spectators at Chicago's Soldier Field.
We also hear photographer Rosenthal as he attempts to explain why his picture touched a national nerve. "What we do in war, the cruelty is almost incomprehensible," he says. "But somehow we need to make sense of it. The right picture can win or lose a war. I took a lot of other pictures that day, but none of them made a difference. Looking it at, you could believe the sacrifice was not a waste."
It's at this point that the men who raised the flag are introduced softly, not really differentiated from the others in their units. Though "Flags" eventually shows us all six, it concentrates on experienced Sgt. Mike Strank (Pepper, a veteran of "Saving Private Ryan") and the three men who will make it back alive.
First among equals is Bradley, the calm, centered undertaker-in-training whose character is well served by Phillippe's naturally haunted air. Most problematic as a soldier is handsome Rene Gagnon (Bradford), a.k.a. "our own Tyrone Power," who literally joined the Marines because he liked the uniform.
Then there is Ira Hayes ("Smoke Signals' " Beach), a Native American from the Pima tribe, a soldier whose grim experiences putting up with constant prejudicial put-downs and surviving the most brutal hand-to-hand combat are the emotional heart of the film. With the Japanese so entrenched in a system of underground bunkers and tunnels that many Marines never saw an enemy soldier alive, the landing at Iwo is portrayed, in the film's action centerpiece, as especially devastating in the "Saving Private Ryan" tradition. As shot by Eastwood veteran Tom Stern, the battle is pure, pitiless chaos, an unflinchingly graphic look at the split-second randomness of who stays alive and who is savagely cut down.
Compared with this brutality, the two flag-raisings that took place on Iwo Jima's Mt. Suribachi (the film is careful to explain this often misunderstood situation) ended up being no big deal at all, mundane moments that were the equivalent, as one of the survivors said, of "becoming a hero for putting up a pole." But that is precisely what happened.
It happened because no one counted on the torrential impact of that photograph, which, among other things, ended up on 150 million postage stamps. The trio of surviving flag-raisers are air-lifted back to the States, in Hayes' case very much against his will, and in effect press-ganged into an extensive public relations tour to raise that much-needed money.
The bulk of "Flags of our Fathers" cuts back and forth between the tour and the men's flashbacks to the hellacious combat on Iwo, detailing the reality the survivors are haunted by, a reality that makes them powerfully uncomfortable with being lionized for their connection to what they consider to be a misleading picture.
This conflict between the reality of the flag-raising and the image the government insisted on projecting for its own needs (a conflict that including refusing to correct a misidentification of one of the dead flag-raisers) is the "Flags of Our Fathers" theme that resonates most pointedly today.
It is interesting to note, in this age of the overblown Jessica Lynch story and President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" aircraft carrier speech, that the need to create media heroes and the determination to use war for political/governmental purposes has hardly gone away. The war in Iraq was likely not high on anyone's mind when this film was conceptualized, but the echoes of the current conflict turn out to be inescapable.
Also inescapable is the wonderful appropriateness of having this thoughtful and disturbing meditation on the qualities that make up heroism and the quixotic nature of fame come from a man who made his considerable reputation playing clean-cut heroes.
As he did in "Unforgiven," "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby," Eastwood handles this nuanced material with aplomb, giving every element of this complex story just the weight it deserves. The director's lean dispassion, his increased willingness to be strongly emotional while retaining an instinctive restraint, continues to astonish. We are close to blessed to have Eastwood still working at age 76 and more fortunate still that challenging material like "Flags of Our Fathers" is what he wants to be doing.
'Flags of Our Fathers'
MPAA rating: R for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language
A Paramount Pictures release. Director Clint Eastwood. Screenplay William Broyles Jr., Paul Haggis. Producers Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Robert Lorenz. Director of photography Tom Stern. Editor Joel Cox. Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes.
In general release.