Thursday, October 19, 2006
Despite being one of the most famous photographs in history, the image of the US servicemen raising the flag on Iwo Jima is not what meets the eye. It’s not the first flag raised on Mount Suribachi, a key Japanese stronghold on the island. A smaller flag was initially raised on Feb. 23, 1945, only to be replaced by a larger one later that day, partly due to a military turf squabble over who’d get to keep the original cloth. Nor did the flag commemorate the American victory on Iwo Jima, where fighting continued for 35 days, costing the lives of several men involved in both flag raisings. It was, however, the moment that photographer Joe Rosenthal happened to capture at just the right split-second to create an enduring icon.
Early in Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Flags of Our Fathers, an actor playing Rosenthal comments, “The right picture can win or lose a war.” The line initially sounds like the kind of scripted hyperbole that tries to sell us on a movie we’ve already started watching. However, Flags makes a compelling case that the story of one photograph presents both a microcosm of World War II combat experience and a unique example of how propaganda shapes public opinion.
Based on James Bradley and Ron Powers’ 2000 book of the same name, Flags of Our Fathers takes a long time getting its sea legs. It begins by showing elderly veterans with failing health in shadowy rooms, and then cuts back and forth between just before and shortly after the invasion of Iwo Jima. The clean-cut Marines and naval enlisted men prove almost impossible to tell apart, their sheer youth makes their likely fate as cannon fodder all the more poignant.
The film gets our attention by conveying the scope of a world war. Flags doesn’t equal the jittery, you-are-there terrors of Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach sequence, but conveys even more the quantity and complexity of action going on at once. Roaring shipboard cannons, Marines taking the beach and distant mountain explosions all muscle into the same dizzying shots in some of the most spectacular battle scenes since Return of the King.
The aftermath stateside presents an unexpected ordeal for the three surviving men from the photo: Navy corpsman John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and Marines Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford). A $14 billion war bond drive uses the photo—and the three of them—to give the war effort a much-needed boost. Ira and Rene exhibit deep ambivalence about their unsought status as national celebrities. As a “runner,” Rene kept off the front lines, and though he quickly, almost ashamedly, demurs the notion that he’s a hero, he still hopes his newfound fame will set him up comfortably in civilian life. Ira proves so wracked with survivor’s guilt that he turns into a flailing drunk, weeping in the arms of the mother of one of his slain fellow Marines and, later, brawling when denied service at a bar for being a Native American. While nearly all the actors emulate the steadfast minimalism of Eastwood’s own acting style, Beach at times succumbs to histrionics in trying to tap into post-traumatic anguish.
No one would accuse Eastwood of knee-jerk liberalism, but Flags of Our Fathers views the bond campaign, propaganda and the whole notion of marketing warfare with deep skepticism. Like show ponies, the three survivors are trotted out at massive rallies, and even restage the flag raising on a parade-float hill in a huge stadium. They attend dinners with Iwo Jima flag raising ice sculptures and ice cream desserts.
Flags never suggests that World War II was anything less than justified, or that the war effort lacked moral authority. A brash treasury department honcho (scene stealer John Slattery) argues that the details behind the photo have less importance than its potential to secure vital funds for US victory. Flags of Our Fathers qualifies as a “Greatest Generation” tribute to the soldiers, but affirms the adage that truth is war’s first casualty.
Flags of Our Fathers sinks with a prolonged coda that ties up loose ends while the dreary soundtrack (composed by Eastwood) goes plinky-pink in the background. The voice-over narration muscles in to lecture us about heroism, but it’s an unnecessary and unwelcome touch. Just a few images of bloody warfare or family grief are worth thousands of such condescending words.
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS ( * * ½ )
Directed by Clint Eastwood. • Starring Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach and Jesse Bradford. • R, 132 min. • At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.