On February 23, 1945, Joe Rosenthal, an Associated Press photographer, took a picture of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. It was the fifth day of a brutal 30-day campaign across the small island that would cost 6,800 American lives and produce 27 Congressional Medals of Honor, the most ever for a single battle. Rosenthal’s photograph, taken in 1/400 of a second, would become one of the most famous images in history (and quite possibly the most reproduced photograph of all time). It appeared everywhere, including 150 million postage stamps, and it stood as an inspiring symbol of American hope, resolve, and sacrifice.
Within days of the flag raising, three of the young men involved had died during the ongoing battle, and the other three soldiers were pulled from the heat of combat and returned to the United States to make public appearances to build morale at home and raise war bonds for the nearly bankrupt U.S. Treasury. Naturally, the men had mixed feelings about serving as public “heroes,” but their tour raised an unprecedented $26.3 million and greatly aided the war effort. Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood’s new film, attempts to tell the story of these three young men, based on the bestselling book of the same name by James Bradley, the son of John “Doc” Bradley, the Navy corpsman who helped raise the flag on Suribachi. Unfortunately, this worthy and interesting subject is totally mishandled in Eastwood’s confusing, focusless, and superficial film, which seems more intent on deconstructing the concept of heroism than in telling a good story.
Eastwood’s script was written by Paul Haggis, the talented author of Crash (2005), along with first-time writer and former Marine William Broyles Jr. They tell the story in three intertwined parts: a number of contemporary scenes; the initial battles on the beaches of Iwo Jima, and the war bond tour with the three soldiers. The contemporary sequences, along with a rather dull narration, add very little to the film, and create various confusions as the audience tries to figure out who each speaker is. The battle scenes are shot in exactly the same vein as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg co-produced Flags) with lots of jerky hand-held camerawork, quick and disjunctive editing, and visual chaos. Certainly, the randomness of death in battle comes through, but the audience has little emotional engagement with these faceless young men; and the three faces that are clearly recognizable, we’ve already been told, will survive the battle, thus eliminating any suspense. Cinematographer Tom Stern has shot these scenes in a sepia monochrome, and they’re inter-cut with a number of unrealistic and overly symmetrical CGI shots (especially those of the ships in the harbor), but all the film’s endless images of violence seem rather familiar. After one blast, a G.I. looks down and sees the decapitated head of a dead soldier, but it seems fake and oddly unaffecting. In the end, it’s over-the-top filmmaking, and it leaves the viewer uninvolved and unsatisfied.
Finally, there’s the core of the story: the war bond drive and its effect on the three soldiers. John “Doc” Bradley, a heroic medic, is played by Ryan Phillippe, who looks intriguingly haunted and thoughtful, but who, inexplicably, says almost nothing during the entire film. Rene Gagnon, a “runner” on the battlefield who certainly risked his life but never engaged in hand-to-hand combat, is played routinely by Jesse Bradford. Lastly, Ira Hayes, a Puma Indian who greatly resents serving on the tour and being called a “hero,” is played by Adam Beach. Unfortunately, Beach is excessive in his emoting (lots of crying and drunken vomiting), and Eastwood’s superficial treatment of the tragic and oft-told tale of Hayes quickly degenerates into the old stereotype of the drunken Indian who can’t deal with his problems. These three young men are at the very heart of the film, but they’re never developed into anything more than types.
So what are the themes of this 132-minute epic film? Eastwood has called it an “anti-war film,” but it hardly seems a good choice since the United States had been attacked at Pearl Harbor and the country was fighting against an implacable enemy in the Pacific. The film also wishes to expose government (and media) myth-making. But everyone on the home-front in 1945, from FDR to the man-on-the-street, was greatly moved by the image of the Stars and Stripes flying over Mount Suribachi, and it seems perfectly reasonable that the government would expect the surviving soldiers to help raise money for the war effort. Propaganda is always a significant aspect of any war, and to point out that it’s not always done in the fairest or most ethical manner is hardly surprising, and Eastwood’s sprawling, superficial film merely glosses over the complexity of the issue.
The real point of Flags of Our Fathers is to undermine the concept of heroism. Eastwood clearly believes what his narrator explains at the end of the film, “Maybe there are no such things as heroes,” concluding that “heroes are something we create.” But in truth, real heroes, with the grace of God, create themselves. Extraordinary courage and the sacrificial laying down of one’s life for God or for one’s brethren are perfectly appropriate definitions of heroism. Christians, of course, revere heroes—we call them “saints”—whether they’re martyrs or those who heroically chose to follow their personal way of the cross. Although one could certainly behave heroically without a specifically religious motive, Flags of Our Fathers never even considers the possibility. There’s not a single moment in the film when any of these young men from the 1940s calls on God, except as an expletive. Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth about the men who island-hopped across the treacherous Pacific or fought in the dangerous African and European campaigns.
Eastwood is now 76, and he’s directed 27 films, beginning with Play Misty for Me (1971). The common wisdom in Hollywood is that he’s a distinguished director who was once a passable actor, but actually the opposite is true. In the early roles that made him famous—”the man with no name” in the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns and “Dirty Harry” Callahan in the five Dirty Harry films—Eastwood embodied, as much as anyone in cinema history, the lean, dangerous, taciturn, yet intelligent loner. His “Blondie” in the Leone westerns was violent and unscrupulous, but there was still a spark of decency within, and he was clearly the best of a very bad lot. As Dirty Harry, Eastwood created and personified the vigilante cop who cares only about justice, not the machinations of either the San Francisco police department or the California legal system.
In his earlier days, Eastwood was a Republican, even an unabashed supporter of Richard Nixon, and he ran as a Republican when he became the mayor of his hometown, Carmel-by-the-Sea, in 1986. But at heart, Eastwood was always a libertarian, and he broke with the Republicans in 1992, supporting H. Ross Perot. Since that time his work has become more and more politically correct, and he’s publicly supported abortion, homosexual marriage, and euthanasia. All of this has naturally inflated his status in Hollywood, and Eastwood is now one of America’s most honored directors. It’s hard to imagine, but only John Ford, Frank Capra, and William Wyler have won more Oscars for best director.
Yet despite his countless accolades, Eastwood is a rather pedestrian filmmaker whose reputation rests primarily on three films: Unforgiven (1992), an overrated, extremely violent western that somehow wishes to eschew violence, Mystic River (2003), a hyperventilated crime drama with an unsatisfying and almost ludicrous resolution, and Million Dollar Baby (2004), a film about euthanasia masquerading as a boxing flick. One hopes that the Academy will not reward Eastwood’s lackluster Flags of Our Fathers simply because it questions heroism at a time when our troops are fighting in a difficult and controversial war. The heroes of Iwo Jima deserve better, and so do the many heroes fighting in Iraq.