- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

On Feb. 23, 1945, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped what would become one of the most recognized and celebrated icons in American history: the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. It made heroes out of the six soldiers depicted, a Pulitzer Prize-winner out of its photographer, and believers out of an American public.

But nothing in real life is two-dimensional and isolated, and sometimes a picture can overwrite or overshadow the way the story actually unfolded. Perhaps that’s why Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” based on the best-selling book by James Bradley with Ron Powers, is so fascinating.

Once we learn what a huge role chance played in this ubiquitous image that turned the tide of public morale, our very notions of heroes and history are called into question. What if it hadn’t happened? The query is even more interesting when one considers just how different war and its photographic representation are nowadays — particularly in the last year.

The 132-minute “Flags” centers largely around the three flag-raisers who survived the war: John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach).

Scenes from different years of their lives are shuffled together, underscoring the disparity between bloody battle and their subsequent celebrity and civilian lives. One moment, Doc is shoving someone’s guts back in; the next, he’s pushing Ira up a fake Mount Suribachi on the Bonds Tour. It’s a painful juxtaposition.

Also painful, apparently, is the act of killing a man — even the enemy.

The foreign enemy, a stealthy presence that lurks in caves unseen and lights up entire hillsides with artillery fire, is more felt than seen. When the camera does focus on an individual Japanese soldier, he’s mostly portrayed as just another determined warrior fighting for his country and to stay alive. (Note that Mr. Eastwood will soon release another Iwo Jima biopic from the Japanese perspective, “Letters From Iwo Jima.”)

If there is any dark foe here, it may be the Bonds Tour organizers who call the surviving flag-raisers to duty in the homeland. Sure, the government needed the power of celebrity to help raise the $14 billion necessary to keep the war going; but the boys, still reeling from gruesome images, don’t feel much like heroes or celebrities — not while their buddies continue to die overseas.

In one scene, the trio must perform a re-enactment at Soldier Field amid fireworks (cue the flashbacks). While preparing for the task, the government’s liaison tells them, “Try to imagine the other three guys with you.”

“But they’re dead,” they retort … to deaf ears.

The tour’s insensitivity and blind eye to the soldiers’ states of mind seem not only cold, but somehow exploitive. When Ira, for example, turns to alcohol to dull his ache and begins to grow increasingly unruly, he is sent not to rehab but back to war. The script is more stinging with respect to these issues than Mr. Bradley’s book.

There is another major divergence from the written work. In print, the author undertakes a personal quest in order to learn about his father’s — Doc Bradley’s — role on Iwo. But in William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis’ script, this father-son relationship takes place only in snippets that bookend the movie. We never really see its evolution, nor do we see these two characters — son and postwar dad — fully developed. Thus at the movie’s end, when the tone changes and Doc is on his deathbed, the narration about what a good father he was and how the soldiers were just brave men feels kind of trite, maybe tacked on. This is really the film’s only major flaw.

On the whole, audiences will walk away with an important history lesson taught by an impressive cast — in particular Mr. Phillippe, with his all-American good looks and understated emotion, and Mr. Beach, who brings an incredible depth and passion to his role. But it’s so hard to pick the standouts; aren’t they all heroes?

***

TITLE: “Flags of Our Fathers”

RATING: R for violence and graphic scenes

CREDITS: Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, based on the book by James Bradley with Ron Powers.

RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes

WEB SITE: www.flagsofourfathers.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide