World War II movies aren't the same proposition they once were. These days, post-Vietnam and post-Saving Private Ryan, there is no more running at the enemy unharmed, waving an American flag and screaming in manly valor. There was too much real carnage for such an image to last, and now filmmakers are more interested in the true cost of fighting. The nobility of the soldiers is not in question, and it may even be more noble now that we aren't hiding how gruesome warfare is--we just can't accept battle without consequence any longer.
Clint Eastwood's new film, Flags of Our Fathers, recreates the siege on Iwo Jima, a rocky island off the coast of Japan that became a pivotal moment in the Second World War. The boys in uniform who step off their boats and onto the coast get a little farther up the beach than the soldiers at Normandy as depicted in Private Ryan, but the fate that awaits them is no less ugly. Like Steven Spielberg, who directed Saving Private Ryan and co-produced Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood spares his audience no gore, but unlike that fine movie, when he steps away from the action to examine how much the sacrifice meant, Clint doesn't stay on the battlefield, but takes his boys back home.
Adapted from a book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, Flags of Our Fathers is about three soldiers who were part of the historic photo of American troops hoisting the stars and stripes atop the rock that was Iwo Jima. Of the six in the photo, only three survived, and the participation of one of them is questionable. In reality, it's actually the second such flag raising, the first being taken down for a callous officer who felt such an historic item belonged in his personal collection. These and other details just get in the way of the home office, who wants to use these soldiers to sell more war bonds. Truth is not an issue when government has to keep moving.
Truth does matter, however, for at least two of the soldiers, both who find the crown of heroism rests heavy on any head. One of them, a Native American named Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, showing a much deeper acting range than in Smoke Signals) even tries to duck out of admitting it was him up there. It's only because of the opportunistic Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford, Heights) that Hayes and John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe, Crash) are even identified at all: all the men in the photo had their faces turned away from the camera.
Once home, each man takes to his new life as money grubbing celebrities to different degrees. Gagnon, of course, jumps right in, collecting business cards and the admiration of comely young lasses. Hayes can't stand the hoo-ha, and his drinking gets out of control. He finds the whole thing to be hypocritical, an insult to those who died. As he says in one of the picture's more poignant moments, his only act of heroism was avoiding getting shot. He can't forget the horrors he left back on the island, and neither can Doc. Eastwood and his screenwriters, William Broyles, Jr. (Jarhead) and Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby), have structured Flags of Our Fathers over three different timelines: Iwo Jima, the bond drive, and a more contemporary plot line where Doc's son investigates the book that the movie will ultimately be based on. By switching back and forth with hard cuts, Eastwood is emphasizing that regardless of what happens, the war is always with the men who fought it. For all the patriotic fervor that surrounds them, they can never escape the blood and guts spilled in the name of duty.
The movie actually opens with the older Doc having an episode where memory has gotten the better of him. Thinking he's back on Iwo Jima, he is searching for his lost comrade, Iggy (Jamie Bell, Dear Wendy). Iggy's terrible fate will haunt the movie, only being revealed close to the end. Seeing the contemporary Doc feels unnecessary, however, as does all of the modern interviews with soldiers. These segments aren't integrated into the past very well. The people talking to James Bradley (unconvincingly played for the film by Tom McCarthy) are rarely identified, which only creates confusion, and James' identity and the fact that he is writing a book is only revealed well into the final act. To be honest, that whole aspect of Flags of Our Fathers could have been tossed out and the picture would not have suffered for it. Clint Eastwood has a very clumsy relationship with narration, and I think its use in Flags of Our Fathers has the same problem that hurt Million Dollar Baby for me: it serves as redundant explanation for what the audience can plainly see in action. (Is the voiceover making some kind of comeback? I like it when done well, but practically every movie I've reviewed lately has some kind of narration.)
Flags of Our Fathers rests mainly on the shoulders of its three leads, and all of them are exceptional. Bradford has a slick charisma that he puts to good use here, and Phillippe reveals a quieter, soulful side that should up his estimation in most people's eyes. Adam Beach pretty much owns the picture, though. Ira Hayes was easily the best role in the movie, and the actor doesn't waste the opportunity. The man's struggles with alcohol, prejudice, and the damage WWII did to his psyche have previously been chronicled in a song by Johnny Cash, but his long journey from Iwo Jima to his sad death was long overdue for greater study. Eastwood and Beach are locked in, and the fall of Ira Hayes is heartbreaking.
So, don't expect to walk out of Flags of Our Fathers feeling all fired up the way classic WWII movies get the blood pumping. It's a somber experience about the true price paid by individuals who fight in a war and how those individuals can get lost in the great machine. If you think cable news channels have the market cornered on tacky exploitation of tragedy, wait until you see what our government cooked up sixty years ago. They might have forgotten that actual men died at Iwo Jima, but Clint Eastwood has not. He rolls the closing credits next to photos of the real soldiers in the campaign, his own sober music underscoring the poignant images. The director is following this movie next year with Letters from Iwo Jima, the story of the fight for the island as told from the Japanese perspective, and given the respect and insight shown in Flags of Our Fathers, it's sure to be an eye opener, as well. I, for one, can't wait.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.