Flags Of Our Fathers - Review
Review by Jack Foley
THE photograph of six American soldiers raising the national flag on Mount Suribachi during one of the key battles of World War II has become an iconic image in more ways than one.
The picture, by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, inspired a nation, revived a flagging war effort and gave rise to one of America’s greatest monuments. Its legacy is such that New York’s firefighters even imitated the gesture while cleaning up the devastation from 9/11.
The ‘raising of the flag’ is therefore seen as a message of defiance, of hope against the odds and part of America’s glorious heritage.
Yet the story behind it is far from glorious and Clint Eastwood’s powerful war film, Flags Of Our Fathers, bravely exposes the cold, hard truth.
Five days into the battle for the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in February 1945, five Marines and a Navy medic placed the Stars And Stripes atop Mount Suribachi.
After being photographed doing so, the three who survive the battle – John ‘Doc’ Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Native American Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) – are plucked from the front line and sent on a countrywide propaganda tour that’s designed to generate essential funds for the virtually bankrupt US war effort.
But the servicemen in question don’t consider themselves heroes and pay a heavy personal cost as they are paraded in front of millions with scant regard for their true feelings.
Eastwood’s film is based on the best-selling novel by James Bradley and Ron Powers after having been adapted by William Broyles Jr and Oscar-winner Paul Haggis. It also marks his reunion with producer, Steven Spielberg.
Unlike John Wayne’s Sands Of Iwo Jima, it’s far from the melodramatic, flag-waving celebration of bravery that many had been anticipating, adopting a more cynical and jaded view of history that’s more in keeping with contemporary attitudes towards conflict.
War is hell and Eastwood’s depiction of the battlefield rivals the likes of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan for detail and intensity. The Iwo Jima death toll makes for depressing reading, with more than 6,000 Americans and 22,000 Japanese reported to have died. Flags never loses sight of that human cost.
The battle scenes punctuate the movie and are astonishing in their attention to detail (viewers are advised to sit through the photographs that accompany the end credits to see just how close the director has come to recreating them).
But while occasionally confusing in terms of character identification, they serve as a pounding reminder of the horrors the young survivors were subsequently forced to live with.
It’s this emotional toll – coupled with the cavalier attitude of the US government towards their suffering – that provides the heartbeat of the film.
Adam Beach, in particular, is excellent as the distraught Ira Hayes, a living victim of the bloody campaign who turns to alcohol in an attempt to banish his memories.
Beach’s performance is often heart-breaking and a scene where he breaks down in the arms of the mother of one of his dead comrade’s is one of several moving moments.
Ryan Phillippe is also good value as the more level-headed ‘Doc’, as is Barry Pepper as a doomed sergeant with a heart, Jamie Bell as an optimistic foot soldier, and Jesse Bradford as the star-struck Rene Gagnon.
If there are criticisms, a late voiceover from Bradley Jr tends to generate unnecessary comparisons with the scenes that book-end Saving Priavate Ryan, while certain aspects do become repetitive.
But there’s no denying the power of the film, which exists as both a defiant anti-war message at a time of heightened conflict around the world and a tribute to the valour of the men on the front line.
It’s a tribute to Eastwood’s skill as a filmmaker that Flags never loses sight of either, while ruthlessly stripping away the romanticism surrounding one of the key moments in American history.
Coupled with Letters From Iwo Jima, his forthcoming film that chronicles the Iwo Jima campaign from the Japanese perspective, the veteran director – who’s now 76 years young – looks likely to deliver one of the definitive war movies of the modern era.
Running time: 2hrs 12mins