Clint's latest a masterpiece
By Lady Liberty
Flags of Our Fathers
*** 1/2 out ****
I'm not big on war movies. I'm not especially a Clint Eastwood fan, either. And yet I couldn't stay away from Flags of Our Fathers this weekend. That was due in part, of course, to early word on the film suggesting that it was very well crafted (and you likely already know I'm a sucker for really good movie-making). But I confess that it was also because I knew little about a battle that was, I felt, too important for me to know so little about.
Flags of Our Fathers tells the true story of the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. The vast majority of us, whether we realize it or not, know a little about that historic occasion already. The photo taken of the flag raising by an Associated Press photographer is said to be the most reproduced image in history. It was, in fact, so emblematic of the battle and of the Marines that the service chose to use the image as the basis for its memorial in Washington, DC. But at the time, it wasn't history. It was the result of just another order followed by six young and battle weary soldiers
One of the soldiers who helped to raise the flag was John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe). Though his children knew he was a war hero, they knew little else. Their father rarely talked about it with them — or with anybody else. But when Bradley died, his son, James (Tom McCarthy) took it upon himself to learn more. And as he discovered his father's deeds and his friends, he eventually determined to put it into book form. We in the theatre follow the younger Bradley's discoveries as though we, too, were on Iwo Jima when it all happened.
Doc was trained as a Navy Corpsman which made him a virtual certainty to land early in the planned invasion so as to deal with any casualties as quickly as possible. His Marine buddies included the movie-star handsome Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and the taciturn Native American — a Pima Indian from Arizona — Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). Others among his troop included their immediate commanding officer, Sergeant Mike Strank (Barry Pepper), the young Franklin Sousley (Joseph Cross), Harlon Block (Benjamin Walker), Hank Hansen (Paul Walker), and Ralph "Iggy" Ignatowski (Jamie Bell).
Before any of the group could climb Mount Suribachi, they had to endure one of the most horrific ground battles fought in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Bombardment of the island had done little good (though it's not discussed in the movie, the reality is that some 20,000 defending Japanese troops had dug themselves an extensive underground warren of reinforced battlements and command centers, connected by an extensive network of deep tunnels). Casualties were high. In fact, of the six men depicted in the famous photograph, three were dead soon afterward.
The soldiers were exhausted and afraid, and frankly, so was the American public. The photo of the flag-raising incited such patriotism, though, that the federal government determined to take advantage of the "Heroes of Iwo Jima" to raise money for the war effort. And so the three survivors were shipped back home where they were commanded to go on tour stumping for the sale of war bonds. Of the three, one did his best because he was ordered to do so; one reluctantly complied because he had no other choice; and one started to believe at least some of the hype surrounding them at every turn.
Flags of Our Fathers is really three movies and three stories rolled up into one. It's obviously the story of the assault in Iwo Jima, at least from the limited perspective of some of the men who landed on those inhospitible beaches in February of 1945. But it's also the story of a son reaching out to his father's legacy. Finally — and perhaps most importantly — it's a depiction of the aspect of the war machine that grinds on soil that's never so much as heard a gun shot. In other words, it's about the wheels of propaganda.
Ryan Phillippe is well cast as the naive Doc who finds his innocence thoroughly shredded on the volcanic sands of the Japanese island. Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach both also really bring their characters to life. The supporting players are all good, particularly Robert Patrick's Colonel Chandler Johnson. But now, as then, it's really the story that's the star.
The explosions are painfully realistic. The gunshots stitching through human beings — alive one moment, and gruesomely dead the next — and the fear and bravery of the men who faced such awful odds are entirely believable. The juxtaposition of those awful scenes with the festivities surrounding the subsequent "Heroes" tour is jarring at best. The use of handheld cameras just adds to the reality of the battle scenes, and some brilliant edits between time frames along with the washed-out colors of the scenes are beautiful touches.
Clint Eastwood's direction is sure, and his style perfect for this movie (I freely admit I've not been a fan of his previous directorial efforts, though that had less to do with his direction and more to do with the movies themselves); the brilliant Paul Haggis (who was the genius behind Crash) co-wrote a wonderful script with William Broyles, Jr. (who himself penned another Marine-centric film, Jarhead).
I got teary-eyed more than a few times over the course of Flags of Our Fathers, but let me tell you when I truly broke down and wept in the theatre. Most of the audience at the showing I attended consisted of older folks. One elderly couple was seated right behind me. The woman was one of those annoying theatre-goers who just couldn't keep her mouth shut during the film. But before I could turn around and give her my patented, "Shut the hell up!" look, she piped up as Marines on screen were tumbling out of landing craft and crabbing their way up the beach. "Is that what it's like?" she demanded — loudly — of her husband. And after a pause, I heard an old man say — very softly — "Yeah. Yeah, that's what it was like."
I don't need to tell you any more about just how good and how meaningful Flags of Our Fathers is. The man seated behind me on Friday night did that in a way I never could. For his sake — and the sake of the future of our country — I can only hope Flags of Our Fathers helps the rest of us to remember what it was he did some sixty years ago. (As an added note, I'd also point out that Flags of Our Fathers is apparently the first of a pair of films. Eastwood is presently putting the finishing touches on a movie entitled Letters from Iwo Jima, starring the great Ken Watanabe, and which tells the story of Iwo Jima from a Japanese perspective.)
POLITICAL NOTES: The propaganda value of the flag raising on Iwo Jima can't be minimized. The so-called "Heroes of Iwo Jima" raised more money on their tour than three previous campaigns had been able to manage all together. Our behind the scenes look at the tour is illuminating and heart rending. The audiences they appeared for applauded them as heroes, and yet they'd done nothing special they said. Everyone wanted to shake their hands, and yet the only thing they'd done that their buddies hadn't was survive. But the movie noted that we have to create heroes because we need heroes to make what they've done more palatable. In many ways, that's a disservice both to those so labeled as well as to the rest of us who want so much to believe in them and their cause. These lessons are, I suspect, timeless, and as such apply as much today as they did when FDR first decided he could use the heroes of Iwo Jima for his own ends.
I believe that it's also imperative that we consider the value of Flags of Our Fathers from the perspective of those who fought and died in what is apparently the last war Americans actually supported from the home front (mostly, and for awhile, at any rate). So many Americans today don't like the idea of fighting at all for any reason, and willingly give up liberties here and there in exchange for some perceived temporary safety. It's my opinion that that will not only eventually bring the country down from within, but that, until it does, it belittles the grave sacrifices made by better men. I'd almost rather suffer the former than to let the latter go unchallenged.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Flags of Our Fathers is rated R for "sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language." I'd never-the-less recommend Flags of Our Fathers even for children as young as 10 or so. First of all, the history it teaches is important. Secondly, I don't know that it's ever inappropriate to stop glorifying war and to present it as being as filthy, terrifying, and cruel as it really is. In fairness, Flags of Our Fathers is, indeed, very graphic. There are times I wanted to look away. But it's those very horrors that offer up such impact, and I don't believe it should be traded in favor of the sensibilities of the young or the more delicate. In short, I recommend Flags of Our Fathers across the board and for most. What Saving Private Ryan said about D-Day, Flags of Our Fathers says about Iwo Jima, and high time, too.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.