(R) Three stars
Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers is a study of heroism that jumps back and forth between battle scenes at Iwo Jima in World War II and a war bond tour on the home front featuring three of the young soldiers that appeared in Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photo “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.” The film is a noble, ambitious offering that didn’t quite work for me.
Based on a book by James Bradley (with Ron Powers) about his father, who was in the photo, the William Boyles Jr. and Paul Haggis screenplay hops around in time in a fashion likely to leave a lot of people confused at first.
The war scenes, presented with a near-monochromatic look similar to that employed in Saving Private Ryan, aim for the sense of realism and immediacy of movies like Ryan, Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers, but lack the punch of those films, despite all the explosions and grisly visuals.
Speaking of grisly visuals, let me take a moment to address any filmmakers who might stumble onto this piece on the Internet: If you ever make a war movie, resist the urge to include a close up of a severed head in a battle scene. While some audience members will be suitably shocked by the image, others will disconnect from the story as they study the head to see if it is a computer image or a prop and, if it is a prop, how realistic it appears. I’m not being a wise guy here; fake heads are distracting.
But I digress.
During the battle scenes you will meet the aforementioned John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Marines Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), Sgt. Mike Strank (Barry Pepper), Hank Hansen (Paul Walker), Ralph “Iggy” Ignatowski (Jamie Bell), Harlan Block (Benjamin Walker) and Franklin Sousley (Joseph Cross). Even though a few of the actors are fairly well-known, good luck on keeping up with the players and their relationships.
When the now legendary photo of the flag-raising hits the papers back home, it causes a sensation, reinvigorating a war-weary populace. None of the soldiers’ faces are visible in the photo, but the government tracks down three of the men — Bradley, Gagnon and Hayes — and puts them at center stage for a war bonds tour.
The most effective part of the film is the portion dealing with the young men that become designated heroes. In addition to survivor’s guilt, other factors cause them to feel ill at ease. As it turns out, the photo depicted the second flag-raising on Iwo Jima, and the soldiers, to varying degrees, feel like frauds. Worse, three of the six flag-raisers in the photo were killed in battle and, in the confusion over the two flag-raisings, some of the names were mixed up with soldiers from the first flag-raising.
Even when the truth is learned, the propaganda machine rolls on (shades of Jessica Lynch). Of the three soldiers, Ira Hayes suffers the most. An American Indian suffering from poor self-esteem (not helped by the unrelenting racism —most of it casual — he encounters from those around him), Hayes is consumed by guilt and drinks excessively, enough to play out another sad stereotype. As Hayes, likable actor Adam Beach gets to cry and scream a lot. His anguish is moving, but his yowling grows tiresome. I bet he gets an Oscar nomination.
The problem with the designated hero/propaganda machine storyline is that the point gets made about halfway through the film and starts to feel redundant as the war bonds tour keeps rolling on … and on … and on.
Next year, Flags of Our Fathers will be followed by a companion film by Clint Eastwood, Letters From Iwo Jima, which will approach the same subject from the Japanese point of view. Hopefully, Eastwood and company have come up with a story structure that allows their statements to be made in a more visceral, less belabored fashion.