Flags of Our Fathers

Clint Eastwood's new film raises interesting questions about the meaning of heroism.
Justin Myers | Nov 19 2006 | comment  

Flags of Our Fathers
Directed by Clint Eastwood | DreamWorks | 132 minutes
Starring Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach

Having grown up in Washington DC, I have seen the Iwo Jima Memorial many times. The first time I gazed upon it as a youngster, I assumed that the massive statute were not taken from a real photograph. The eager troops working together to hoist that American flag seemed to be just an artist's image of Allied veterans of Iwo Jima and, by extension, of all of World War II.

It was a terrible campaign, one of the most costly of the whole war for Marines. About 21,000 Japanese and 7,000 Americans died fighting over a patch of ground a third the size of Manhattan in February and March 1945. The battle marked a turning point in the war because control of Iwo Jima (Japanese territory) allowed Allied forces to launch B-29 bomber raids into the heart of Japan.

When I later learned that the statue had been modelled on Joseph Rosenthal's Pulitzer Prize winning photograph, it became even more romantic. Braving bullets and explosions on Mount Suribachi, six soldiers raise the American flag, a symbol of their nation's noble cause. Each of them stretches to grab the flagpole and to be part of this event. Simultaneously, their comrades are wresting the island from the Japanese, yard by bloody yard. But logically, this frozen moment seemed improbable. More likely, I thought, the photograph had been staged or was taken long afterwards. Able-bodied men cannot afford to down weapons and erect a flag out in the open in the midst of a real battle. The mere raising of a flag, furthermore, means nothing in war without a victory to precede it. I must have realized all of this. We all did. Didn't we?

Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood's latest film, adapted from the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, explores the story behind this famous photograph. In truth, as revealed early in the movie, after a few days only three soldiers from the picture still survived. A great many more days elapsed and a great many more lives were lost before the marines actually secured Iwo Jima.

Though not a great film, Flags of Our Fathers is certainly a very good one, and it is fair to say that even in the twilight of his cinematic career old Clint is still a consummate artist. The movie follows the three survivors' lives and illustrates what effect their status as a hero has on each of them. When Rosenthal's photograph appears on front pages of newspapers across the country, the three survivors are plucked from the front lines and brought back to raise morale at home. Though each of them realizes that his presence in the photograph was insignificant and accidental, they are soon recruited to promote the sale of war bonds. John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe in perhaps the performance of his career) remains ever cognizant that the real heroes lost their lives on the island. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) probably feels the same, but he also wants to milk his serendipitous fame for all he can. Meanwhile, the noble but tortured Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), a Native American, wears the label of "hero" as awkwardly as he holds his liquor.

The battle scenes approach the brutal realism of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Just as Private Ryan displaced The Longest Day, starring John Wayne, as the definitive movie about D-Day in Normandy, Flags of our Fathers trumps The Sands of Iwo Jima, also starring the Duke. Unlike the exhausting opening sequence in Private Ryan, this film doesn't linger in the trenches. It meanders from the battlefield to the home front to the present day. This provides a somewhat disjointed narrative, but places the famous photograph -- which is the dramatic heart of the story -- at exactly the right point in the film.

Few critics have noted that Flags of Our Fathers celebrates the art of photography. A snapshot, taken almost as an afterthought, inspired people in a way no politician ever could. Rosenthal got the perfect shot on that hill that day. On a deeper level, however, the film raises questions about the notion of heroism. What makes a hero? Who he is? What he does? What he represents to others? Should the greater good prevail over the awkward truth? This photograph was taken haphazardly and created a kind of contrived patriotism. The survivors were thrust unwillingly into the spotlight and used more or less as pawns of a morale-boosting publicity machine. All of this, however, injected a fresh optimism into a war-weary nation. If this final push enabled the Allied forces to win, ultimately saving lives on both sides, wasn't worth it?

Maybe the image of US marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima is more a stirring work of art than history. But I will cherish both interpretations: the romantic one and the realistic one, because our memories do not give us a choice in such matters. I also look forward to more quality films from Clint Eastwood.

Justin Myers is a film reviewer and teacher of Latin and Greek in the Washington DC area.

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