Flags of Our Fathers (2006) / Drama-War

MPAA Rated: R for graphic war violence, carnage, and language
Running time: 132 min.

Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford, Barry Pepper, Neil McDonough, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Jamie Bell, Melanie Lynskey, Thomas McCarthy, Chris Bauer, Judith Ivey, Jon Polito, Gordon Clapp, David Rasche
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: William Broyles Jr., Paul Haggis (based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers)

Review published May 26, 2007

Flags of Our Fathers is based on the bestselling book of the same name by James Bradley and Ron Powers on the background behind one of the most famous of all World War II photographs, the raising of the American flag by the soldiers (five Marines and one Navy soldier) on Mt. Suribachi at Iwo Jima, the first battle on Japanese soil in the war. The photograph quickly spread throughout the media back home, making heroes out of the soldiers depicted, who were quickly taken out of the battle to head home to begin a tour of the country in an effort to generate interest in buying war bonds. It would be one of the most successful of the money-generating efforts in the history of the country.

Although some have accused the photograph of being staged, as the flag was erected twice in order for the photographer to snap a picture of it, the participants in the photograph, according to the book and film, were not aware that a picture was taken. As none of the soldiers' faces are visible, great speculation as to who the men were was generated, and of the known six, only three of the men survived for the tour back home -- Navy man John "Doc" Bradley (Phillippe, Five Fingers), and Marines Ira Hayes (Beach, The Big Empty) and Rene Gagnon (Bradford, Eulogy). as these men became overnight national heroes, they were told to give pep speeches in order to get the public to support the war effort, even though they didn't understand why the mere act of raising the flag made them heroic when so many of their fellow men died in service to their country. They didn't feel their honor was justly deserved.

Flags of Our Fathers, unlike the linear treatment in the book, bounces around in timeline between the battle for Iwo Jima to the national tour of the soldiers to the more modern-day interviews of the survivors by author James Bradley (McCarthy, Meet the Parents), the son of "Doc" Bradley. Though not necessarily a distant father, Doc never talked about the events of that day much to his son, or of the information about the famous photograph, leaving James to piece the puzzle together through talks with others there that day, as well as those who knew bits and pieces. He soon discovered that much of the information behind the photograph was erroneous, including just who were the actual soldiers in the picture, as well as the fact that Iwo Jima was far from captured (taken on day 5 out of the 35-day effort), and not a certainty, at the time of the snapping.

The most striking aspect of Flags is the look of the film, which features stunning cinematography and an impressive recreation of the effort from the sea and air, enhanced with nearly seamless CGI to deliver one of the most visually-rich representations of the conflict seen to date. The ground battle does often resemble the action from Saving Private Ryan, with its shaky camerawork and graphic depictions, though it should be noted that Steven Spielberg does serve as one of Flags's executive producers.

Eastwood's direction is assured, handling the battle scenes and the more intimate moments with equal attention to detail. As far as war films go, there's no question that this one has scope and a feeling of weightiness required to be a worthy entry, and with the new spin on the oft-told historical tale, it does breathe new life into the interest in the battle for Iwo Jima.  Even with the very fine qualities in the production, the one thing that the film truly lacks that would kick it up from a good film into a great one is a heavy emotional impact, as we never quite get to know the soldiers enough to feel the dramatic punch of their deaths. Without the emotional impact, the flashbacks to the battle scenes, while stunning to look at, feel rather prolonged, as continued depictions of bloodshed and carnage do little past a certain point in order to tell the story that war is hell and that the soldiers were courageous. 

The performances are strong across the board, with a particular standout by Adam Beach, who plays Ira Hayes, the Native American struggling with many inner demons and guilt regarding the praise he would receive for the photo.  It's interesting to see a man hailed as a hero find all of the praise bestowed upon him increasing his tragedy, especially when the county was, by and large, still prejudiced against him for his ethnicity, despite his service.  His story is as close as Eastwood's film comes to delivering emotional resonance, but again, it's not quite developed deeply enough, especially after becoming inured by the graphic war scenes, for us to truly feel his pain.

Despite a certain disconnect in the heartfelt nature of the story, Flags of Our Fathers remains a fascinating work intellectually, as it gives us more insight into the psyche of the American propaganda machine, and of the state of the country's mood at the time of these events.  It also contrasts, perhaps unintentionally, with current depictions of war and the control over the images presented by the government, who don't want us to see just how unsavory and harrowing the battles on the ground truly are for America's sons and daughters.  The toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in the war in Iraq also has been criticized as being staged for the purposes of getting the right images, though not nearly as resonant to the American people as the Iwo Jima photograph.  The images, by themselves, do not create the feelings of unabashed support for the war effort; they only facilitate the outpouring of those feelings already welling up in the hearts of those who genuinely care. 

-- Eastwood's companion movie, told from the Japanese perspective, Letters from Iwo Jima, was released two months later.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo