We gave it a B-
Stark in its valor, graphically alive in its pose of action, the famous photograph of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi, one of the crests of Iwo Jima, exerts such a singular and iconic power that almost anyone could come up with a different explanation for what remains so stirring about it. The position of the men — that crouch wrenching upward — is a perfect metaphor for the crucial last gasp of American will that pushed the nation to victory at the end of World War II. And, of course, the fact that you can’t see any of the men’s faces incarnates the selflessness of their mission. They are individuals who, by implication, could be anyone; they are soldiers fused and transformed into a straining human statue that becomes, in an instant, timeless. As they lift the flag, all of us lift the flag. And that is America — or, at least, that is its promise.
In Flags of Our Fathers, director Clint Eastwood pays homage to the physical and spiritual force of that photograph. At the same time, he wants us to know that everything about the image — how it was created, how it inspired people, what went on in the hearts and minds of the soldiers before and after the photo was taken — is less a reality than a mythology, a concoction, a telling, even tragic example of how we, as Americans, are always too eager to overlook the truth and print the legend.
Shot by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal on Feb. 23, 1945, a mere 5 days into the crucial 36-day battle to take the forbidding black-sand Japanese island (which proved to be a tipping point in the Pacific campaign), the photograph entered the national bloodstream virtually overnight, spreading to people through newspapers and other reprints. Eastwood sets his film in two different worlds, cutting back and forth between the Battle of Iwo Jima, in all its shattering chaos and horror, and the homefront public relations war that gets orchestrated around the photograph, with three of those quasi-anonymous, flag-raising soldiers paraded around the country as heroes. They become shills for war bonds, schmoozing with smarmy politicians and posing next to kitschy sculptures of their famous image in a kind of misbegotten military pop-star tour.
As the movie presents it, the stalwart ”Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), the lightweight dandy Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and the courageous, turbulently troubled Native American Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) all, to a greater or lesser degree, chafed at their roles. They knew they were selling themselves — and, in the process, reducing the gritty bravery of their fellow soldiers to a wall poster, a user-friendly parody of itself. In Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood is here to tell us that the reality of World War II was scarier and darker than any inspirational photograph. He comes close to saying that the war had no ”heroes,” just frightened young men straining to survive.
Eastwood pounds us with that message, over and over again. The trouble is, he’s preaching to the choir — or, at least, to a culture, profoundly influenced by Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, that has already absorbed the lesson that ”the Good War,” while it may have been noble, was never less than hell. I think it’s fair to say that most of us are past the point of thinking of the soldiers who fought in WWII as plaster saints, yet Flags of Our Fathers, an honorable and rather plodding movie, insists on demythologizing what no longer needs to be demythologized.
The battle sequences, shot with a desaturated, nearly black-and-white clarity in Iceland, and with an added layer of CGI, evoke Saving Private Ryan, and that’s a problem: The rawness of the action holds us, yet Eastwood never approaches Spielberg’s mesmerizing logistical virtuosity, his revelations of blood and terror. Inevitably, the heart of the movie shifts Stateside. Yet here too, Flags of Our Fathers offers more earnestness than urgency. I never felt we were truly getting to know the three soldiers outside of their awkward PR juggernaut. Phillippe’s Doc is crucially underwritten, and Bradford never gets past a certain self-contained smoothness, though Adam Beach, the star of Smoke Signals, digs deep into Ira Hayes’ tormented, drunken ambivalence about his role as a symbol. His lacerating performance suggests what Flags of Our Fathers, with a less didactic historical focus, might have been: an investigation into the everyday lives of American soldiers who saved the world but never knew what to do with the agonies they carried home with them.