Flags of our Fathers

Toward the end of World War II, the government was having trouble coming up with the money needed to fund the armed forces. We were just starting to carry the conflict to Japanese soil and suddenly we didn’t have enough money for tanks, planes and ships. As the war dragged on sales of diminished despite a massive effort to push them.

So when Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photo of the marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi near the beginning of the invasion of Iwo Jima hit every major paper in the country, the government went into action, pulling the three surviving soldiers in the picture, marines Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), plus Navy Corpsman John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and sending them on a bond tour to end all bond tours.

But as in all things, the situation was more complicated than at first thought. For one thing there were two flags raised on Mount Suribachi. The first one was taken down and squirreled away to keep it from glory seeking politicians. A photo was taken of that first raising but Rosenthal’s image of the second got to the wire services first. There was also confusion over who was in what picture. The surviving soldiers wanted to clear up the confusion but their handlers wouldn’t let them. The purpose was to sell bonds and any complications, especially rumors that the famous image had been staged would have hurt the effort.

Eastwood’s film is based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers. Bradley is the son of John Bradley, one of the flag raisers. The screenplay for Flags of our Fathers, written by Williams Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, bounces back and forth in time, mostly between the battle and the bond tour. In this, it mirrors the chaos that accompanies all human endeavor, most especially war. Consequently the story meanders a bit in a way untypical of Eastwood directed films. The bond tour scenes in particular don’t really build toward anything. The guys would meet VIPs, make a speech urging people to buy bonds and go on to the next gig. They would convey the same emotions every time: survivors’ guilt, a feeling of unworthiness, outrage over the trivialization of the accomplishments of their comrades, especially the dead heroes on Iwo Jima. And yet, it had to be done. Just like storming those caves interlacing the island, the war effort had to be funded.

Eastwood gets good performances out of his young cast. I tend to think of Ryan Phillipe as a vacuous pretty boy, but if you trim his wavy locks into a military cut he looks like a soldier and he’s actually a pretty talented actor. Adam Beach does a great job as the conflicted Ira Hayes who struggles with guilt and alcoholism. Every time somebody makes a racially insensitive remark about his Pima Indian heritage, the pain registers on his face, and yet he never says anything.

Like Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood uses cinematography that’s so washed out, the film is almost in black and white. At this point he should make a black and white film just ot get it out of his system.

Aesthetically, Flags is not up there with Million Dollar Baby. It is, however, a moving and dignified tribute to those soldiers who gave their lives on the black sands of Iwo Jima.

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