We've all seen the iconic photograph of six Marines raising the American flag at the top of Mount Suribachi on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. It's an image that's forever burned into our collective consciousness. But there's something about that photo that we don't know, and that many won't realize until they see Clint Eastwood's brutal, melancholy, thoughtful, and oh-so-sad film: You've never seen the faces of the men in the picture. They're all facing away from the camera.
That fact is a major part of the multiple and multi-layered stories told in Flags of Our Fathers. Starting with the simple structure of a man searching for some answers about his recently deceased father -- who was one of the flag raisers in the picture -- Clint Eastwood's World War II epic gets very complex very quickly. But the director, along with writers Williams Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, and with his editor -- Joel Cox, who's been working with Eastwood since The Gauntlet in 1977 -- displays a solid grasp of his craft, from intensely violent battle scenes to deeply personal moments of introspection.
The famous photo is shown right away, followed by Americans' reactions to it when it first appeared on the front pages of more than 200 daily newspapers, followed -- comically? shockingly? -- by a reenactment of the flag raising in an American football stadium. But before that last part can sink in, the film throws the viewer right into the heat of battle on that ugly little island that ended up being the locale of a turning point in the war.
This is a story of men who did heroic deeds without thinking about it; about young Americans who, after the fact, didn't want anything to do with the label of "hero." To anyone who would listen, they would say that they were only trying to survive out there in the Pacific.
Six Marines put that flag up on a pole, to the applause of the men on the ground who had endured outlandish bloodshed. Like the D-Day battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan, Flags features a horrific attack on the Americans who first come ashore -- this time, unaware of who or what is waiting for them on Iwo Jima. At first, they wonder why no one is shooting at them; they don't get to wonder very long. The initial attack, lasting about 10 minutes of film time, compared to the 20-plus minutes in Ryan, is just as vicious. But Eastwood takes a different approach than Steven Spielberg (who co-produced this film). In Eastwood's hands, the battle is presented in less chaotic cinematic style. It's every bit as frightening but somehow slightly easier to watch.
What's harder to take, and what makes Flags a member of the pantheon of great war movies, is the focus it maintains on its central characters after the battle, after the flag goes up, after the three surviving members of the sextet of immortalized soldiers are sent home.
The war is never far from their minds, and there are plenty of flashbacks to flying bullets and dead bodies and black sand turned to black mud in driving rains. But the film is mostly about the post-Iwo Jima experiences of Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), the returning heroes who, instead of simply being honored, are forced by the military to travel across America, shilling for war bonds at huge rallies.
The government believed that such a strongly patriotic photo could win the war or at least get more people to contribute more money to the effort. But the exhausted trio, are wracked by recent terrifying battlefield memories and regularly accosted by members of the press who keep asking if the photo was actually posed (and if it was truly them in it). Soon they find themselves at odds with each other as well as being disappointed in their government.
The film is a masterpiece of juggling time periods and examining inner turmoil. Seamless sequences glide back and forth through the years. True, it's an ensemble piece and, like countless war films before it, many of the characters look alike under the grime of battle, and nothing about it is the least bit confusing.
The performance by Adam Beach as Ira Hayes, an American Indian, stands out as the most moving. He plays Hayes as the one who's least comfortable with the "hero" tag, a problem that's complicated by a drinking problem and by being the target of almost good-natured racist attitudes by the white soldiers around him -- and of mean-spirited racism from supposedly patriotic Americans back home who can only look at him a someone who is "different."
An elegiac mood brings the film to a visually beautiful, emotionally sobering conclusion. It's a complete triumph for Eastwood, whose career continues on its remarkable course of superb storytelling.
(dont miss it)
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford, Ryan Phillippe