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A single photograph, we’re told early on in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, can win or lose a war. But sometimes that photo shows us only part of the story, whether it’s the part we don’t want to see—slaughtered villagers at My Lai, tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib—or the part we do, with heroes front and center and the carnage out of view.
In Flags, the image under scrutiny is one of the most iconic in American photojournalism: five U.S. Marines and one Navy corpsman planting Old Glory atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during the fifth day of the 35-day battle. That picture, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, helped rally American support for the war, won a Pulitzer for its photographer (Joe Rosenthal), and made overnight celebrities out of its subjects. But the soldiers didn’t feel like heroes, and with good reason.
Based on the bestselling book by James Bradley, whose father, John “Doc” Bradley, was the Navy corpsman in Rosenthal’s photo, Flags of Our Fathers is about the three flag raisers who survived Iwo Jima—Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), the dashing and mildly pompous Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and the proud Pima Indian Ira Hayes (Adam Beach)—and how their moment in the spotlight irrevocably altered their lives. For these men were not the first to fly the Stars and Stripes, but rather a secondary team, assembled after the smaller flag erected earlier by a different group was claimed as a souvenir by a naval officer. It was this second flag, though, that was seen around the world, its raisers plucked from duty and ferried hither and yon by wily politicians who saw the makings of an inspired PR campaign. It was not the first—or last—time that perception trumped reality in the selling of wars to the American public.
According to the press notes, in his later years John Bradley was plagued by hallucinations and night terrors, and Eastwood’s movie unfolds as if it were one of them, flashing back and forth between the charcoal sands of Iwo Jima and the clinking banquet rooms where the flag raisers shill for the war bond effort before patriotic well-wishers. Executed in stark widescreen compositions all but drained of color, the battle scenes are as visceral as anything in Saving Private Ryan—no small feat given that Eastwood is 76 this year and has never before directed a film of this physical scale. The landing on Iwo Jima is a master class in controlled chaos, as bullets stream out of camouflaged pillboxes and mortar fire turns bodies into sizzling piles of flesh and bone. But the most surreal, unsettling images come later, when the three heroes are pressed into re-enacting their storied feat as a vaudeville spectacle before a cheering crowd, and when, at a celebratory dinner, they see their huddled likenesses transformed into an ice cream sculpture.
To an extent, Flags of Our Fathers is to the WWII movie what Eastwood’s Unforgiven was to the western—a stripping-away of mythology until only a harsher, uncomfortable reality remains. But what Eastwood really does is call into question an entire way of reading history, by which the vast and incomprehensible are reduced to digestible symbols and meanings. In war—Eastwood offers us a timely reminder—who is just and unjust depends on where you’re watching from. And to further the point, his next movie, Letters From Iwo Jima, tells the story from the perspective of the Japanese.
With Flags, Eastwood has made one of his best films—a searching, morally complex deconstruction of the Greatest Generation that is nevertheless rich in the sensitivity to human frailty that has become his signature as a filmmaker. You feel this most in the characterization of Hayes, whose postwar descent into alcoholism and near madness has been told before, in song (“The Ballad of Ira Hayes”) and on-screen (1961’s The Outsider), but never with such haunted intensity. Beach’s agonizing portrait is made all the more poignant by the film’s revelation that Hayes, like the other men who raised the second flag, did show extraordinary bravery on the battlefield, just not in the way for which he was remembered. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but for men like John Bradley, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes, there were thousands more that went unspoken.