Flags of Our Fathers
2006Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Barry Pepper, Jesse Bradford
he problem with war, you see, is that people die. Hundreds of thousands—millions even. Years later, it’s all academic; storming a beach at Normandy or Okinawa sounds not deadly or foolhardy, but downright agreeable. This is why the opening sequence depicting the American storming of Iwo Jima in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers is so profound, so purely revelatory, as to not only pin viewers in their seats, but to pin something deep within each of those viewers. In a bleary, perpetual dawn, the Americans infiltrate the island—slowly, cautiously, vulnerable. Their adversaries are nowhere to be found, and it’s only after we’re all sure there will be no battle that the first of the enemy’s lethal turrets emerge from the scenery, strategically placed to surround the invaders. Troops are gunned down like the grains of sand crushed beneath their feet. Every movie seeks to capture the “grim reality of war,” but only a handful manage so stark and immediate a portrayal—and it’s not even the main point of this film.
There is a reason most good war movies aren’t really about war. Eastwood’s first foray into that world since 1986’s Heartbreak Ridge tells the story of three young American soldiers unwittingly framed in the “one shot that can end a war.” As they and several fellow servicemen planted a flag atop Iwo Jima’s barren Mount Suribachi, they couldn’t possibly have known that they’d soon grace the front page of every major newspaper in their country. They couldn’t have known that they’d be featured in 1945’s only Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph and become the symbol of the American war effort. More surprising, however, is that had they known, they wouldn’t have wanted any of it.
As a cash-strapped government pulled sentimental strings the photo had so freely tuned, an effort was begun to round up the soldiers in the photo and bring them back home to convince people to buy war bonds. As it turned out, several had died, and most of those remaining had no desire for publicity, or even a safe ticket home. But wars are won not by valor, simply by the constant assurance of its presence; when a government wants heroes to put on posters, it will have those heroes.
Threatening, coercing, and even falsifying along the way, the government gave America its heroes, and they were: Doc Bradley (Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). Perhaps Gagnon’s teary sentiment is correct and the true heroes lie dead on that island, but if that’s the case, these poster boys better hustle or more and more will die on other islands. Our need for heroes runs deep, but we only need them for so long.
Cutting back and forth between their time on the battlefield and on the propaganda tour, the film presents its three young heroes as confused boys, first enshrined and then forgotten, both against their wishes. Their courage and patriotism is beyond question, but why then are they made so miserable? In the grand scheme of the war effort, they could make a huge difference by compelling weepy housewives to meaningfully tug their husbands’ sleeve but they were, after all, just three boys. Often, when we deal with the finished puzzle, we forget the millions of little pieces that compose it. Even as they were treated to cakes sculpted to resemble their celebrated pose, their sacrifice and the respect due to them is already forgotten. Whether wincing as an airy waiter pours thick scarlet strawberry syrup over the sculpted cake, or being refused service at restaurants because they “don’t serve Indians” (Hayes was a Native American), the soldiers are left to fend for themselves in the very society that is supposed to revere them— before they’re completely forgotten.
The film manages to present its ideological, yet sympathetic, message without an ounce of sappiness until the end. As is too often the case with great stories, an ending is hard to design and the writers (among them Paul Haggis, the man who wrote the Academy’s last two Best Picture winners, Million Dollar Baby and Crash), seem to have just decided to throw everything in for the finale, layering on the schmaltz they had so keenly avoided until that point. As a result, Flags isn’t the best film of the year, or in the same thematic league as its aesthetic twin, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (Phillippe, clean-shaven and under a helmet, oddly resembles a similarly outfitted Tom Hanks). However, the very need to mention such clarifications should be indication enough that Eastwood’s film is a worthy classic in its own right. At a time when the term “heroes” is once again in vogue, the film’s lessons are refreshingly pertinent.
Flags of Our Fathers is playing in theaters across the country.
By: Imran J. Syed
Published on: 2006-10-27