Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Flags of Our Fathers was released last fall with the only kind of campaign that had a chance of succeeding, a literal flag-waving publicity push that goes against the grain of the film. This thoughtful and superior picture about the gap between combat glory and combat reality probably didn't sit well with the core war movie audience: unlike Saving Private Ryan, Clint Eastwood's film doesn't give us feel-good battle thrills, and it refuses to soak its subject matter in sentiment and nostalgia. When people cry in this picture, their tears represent their personal emotions, nothing more.
Clint Eastwood's directing career just keeps getting better. Flags of Our Fathers deftly keeps its splintered time frames straight while fashioning a trio of credible, just-the-facts portraits of American warriors. Even more miraculous, the film takes a balanced view of combat politics, despite being produced and released in the middle of an unpopular war.
Present Day: John Bradley (George Grizzard) suffers a stroke and calls out for a buddy lost 60 years before. April 1945: A huge armada assaults the rocky island of Iwo Jima, suffering massive losses against determined Japanese defenders. Navy corpsman John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and tough Pima Indian Marine Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) slug it out amid the carnage, while Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) is made a runner by officers unconvinced that he can hold up under combat. All three soldiers participate in two flag raisings on Mt. Suribachi, the famous photo of which gives the American public the idea that the island has been subdued and the battle is over. But the fighting goes on for weeks, resulting in the death of several of the flag-raisers. Not long after the flag-raising: Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes are sent back to the states to participate in bond drives to fill the empty war coffers. Although his buddies rise to the occasion to play 'heroes' (Gagnon never fired a weapon), Hayes begins to break down under the strain.
A lot of films have been made about the Pacific theater combat in WW2, starting from the morale propaganda films of the war and moving on through various worthy attitudes from "war is hell" to "don't forget the sacrifice" to "granpa fought a real war." All are valid and honest, from Cornel Wilde's frenzied but awkward Beach Red to Terrence Malick's poetic The Thin Red Line. Iwo Jima was previously the subject of the John Wayne "hate Japs" victory film The Sands of Iwo Jima. Eastwood's writers provide a solid reason to revisit that embattled rock by examining three soldiers given the less-than-glorious job of becoming combat poster boys. Shuffled from city to city to make publicity appearances, the young men can't help but feel like undeserving pretenders, especially when they know that the real heroes are the unsung dead back on the island. Facing the mothers of their slain comrades is just too much, especially when they're forced to lie: One real raiser of the flag is given no credit, while the 'heroes' cannot bring themselves to explain that another buddy was hideously tortured and mutilated by the Japanese foes.
If Flags of Our Fathers were a car design, we'd say it has "clean lines." We're given just enough preparation to realize that Iwo is a death trap. The battle planners know that thousands of enemy troops are there, but the island has no above-ground fortifications or barracks. Four or five Marines die clearing out a single buried machine gun nest, only to see it suddenly re-manned a few seconds later. Not only are the ships, the beach and every point of the island covered by large guns up on Mt. Suribachi, the entire island is honeycombed with underground tunnels and unseen implacements.
The ugly combat is a constant series of gruesome killings. Even the best-prepared fighters are cut down by difficult-to-pinpoint gunfire, or ambushed at night by daring Japanese attackers. Under these conditions, the three untouched soldiers chosen to help sell war bonds feel very guilty at being singled out as heroes. Unable to communicate the abject horrors they've witnessed or the kinds of killings they participated in, the three try to fulfill their PR duties as best they can. Rene Gagnon knows darn well that he doesn't belong, as he was relieved from direct combat. Yet he's the first able to step forward to give speeches. Ira Hayes was a tower of strength in combat but folds under the onslaught of patronizing Indian jokes. He starts drinking to excess -- he's even turned out of a Chicago bar that doesn't serve Indians. John Bradley stays calm through the experience, but even he doesn't realize that the fame and the job offers will vanish as soon as they become 'yesterday's heroes': One of the golden boys of Iwo ends up working as a janitor.
These negative messages certainly prevent Flags of Our Fathers from becoming a feel-good experience, but the film is accurate and heartfelt. The combat is spectacular, with hundred of ships trying to protect an army assaulting the island. Extensive CGI effects put all of this on screen but thankfully do not hype the action with impossible points of view or dizzying flying angles. Our POV stays firmly with the combatants at all times. The only time we get a good look at the Japanese enemy is when the Marines enter the tunnels and find their bodies blown to bits by suicide grenades.
The movie climaxes at a wonderful simple scene at John Bradley's deathbed when he talks to his son. Its understatement is welcome after the relentless hyping of similar material in Saving Private Ryan. The unhappy end of Ira Hayes is also quite different from the man's treatment in The Outsider, an inspirational movie that served mainly as a star vehicle for Tony Curtis. Flags of Our Fathers uses its supporting cast (Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick) in ensemble mode. Harve Presnell is excellent as a friend of John Bradley's who explains things to his son, and provides voiceover narration as needed.
This film is of course the first half of an interesting Clint Eastwood duo of Iwo Jima films; the follow-up Letters from Iwo Jima is an account of the battle from the Japanese side. 1962's The Longest Day began the practice of telling big war stories simultaneously from opposite sides of the fray, but Eastwood's clout is that he can split the form into two separate movies, released only a few months apart. Prior to the Lord of the Rings movies, one must reach back to Fritz Lang to find filmmaking on such an epic scale. It certainly beats sitting through one five-hour epic.
Paramount's Widescreen Edition disc of Warners' Flags of Our Fathers accurately replicates the film's subdued colors. Clint Eastwood's excellent, unobtrusive score is an asset as well. The plain-wrap disc comes with no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Flags of Our Fathers rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 31, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson