The battle of Iwo Jima was a stark, blood-drenched campaign during World War II, and with it came a unique flag-raising photograph that reverberated in America when hope was a rapidly plummeting commodity. "Flags" dramatizes the story behind the picture, following servicemen Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), and John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) as the three individuals who found themselves caught up in the fever to capitalize on the warm sensations of potential victory the iconic snapshot brought to the states.
After his achingly soulful, intimate work on the Oscar-winning "Million Dollar Baby," director Clint Eastwood is painting on a bigger canvas here to explore personal doubt and consuming regret. One could easily shove "Flags" to the ground by insisting that it shamelessly pilfers from Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" in terms of both wartime velocity and the humanization of the Greatest Generation, but I like to think of both films as returning the focus of WWII back to the men who fought the battles, and not on the rah-rah romanticizing of the era. The pictures are similar at times (Spielberg is a producer on "Flags"), but they are only pieces of a very intricate wartime puzzle being constructed that I hope more filmmakers will continue trying to solve.
Unlike the straightforward construction of "Ryan," "Flags" bops back and forth between locations and eras. The story is essentially told though Bradley's son James (who wrote the book this film is based on) in the 1980s, as he labors to figure out why his father never spoke of his time in the service. From there we watch the parasitical drain of fame on the boys juxtaposed with their horrific experiences surviving on the graveyard-like black sand beaches of Iwo Jima. Eastwood and his screenwriters (William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis) keep the fractured storytelling to a respectable minimum to best retain the punch of history, but they up losing the emotional buildup that linear direction tends to embrace more profoundly.
Eastwood directs cleanly, as always, and he impresses with his widescreen wartime recreations. The director doesn't veil the gruesome consequences of war, and demonstrates skill in staging unexpectedly impressive special effects sequences that present both the epic wrath of the U.S. armed forces and the pinpoint accuracy of the Japanese soldiers; however, because Eastwood is a no-nonsense helmer, he can't always give the material a lift when it needs it. The focus on racism hurled at Native American officer Ira Hayes is one area of the story Eastwood doesn't quite conquer. Feebly executed with atrociously underlined dialog and severe performances, the Hayes saga isn't given the same depth of feeling the other characters are afforded, leaving his account the most one-dimensional of the three.
The captivating core of "Flags" is found in the aftermath of the flag photo, where the soldiers embarked on a whirlwind tour of America, pushed into the limelight by desperate politicians hoping to capitalize on their fame to sell war bonds. Because the actual events surrounding the picture's taking were sketchy at best, a portion of the men who were directly responsible for the flag raising were misrepresented and lost in the hunt for any splinter of hope to cling to. Sucked into this publicity machine, but readily aware they don't belong there, the anguish of Hayes, Bradley, and Gagnon as they're forced to celebrate a faux sense of victory while their fellow men were still dying in the war was soul-flattening, and ultimately lead to a psychological collapse for Hayes. That rot-gut pain of guilt is what "Flags" conveys best; illustrating the futility of branding heroes instead of recognizing true sacrifice.
"Flags" is actually the first film of a two-part tale. "Letters to Iwo Jima" (due February 2007) will detail the Japanese perspective of the battle, helping to fill in the small lapses in plot found in "Flags." While not Eastwood at his most authoritative, "Flags of our Fathers" still resonates beautifully with a portrait of lost souls searching for meaning and devastating images of a war that we, some 60 years later, are only beginning to understand.