Flags of Our Fathers

  • Clint Eastwood
  • 2006

Fresh from winning an Oscar with Million Dollar Baby (2005), Clint Eastwood turns his attention to historical drama with two films about The Battle of Iwo Jima. This first release tells the American side of the fight through an examination of the famous flag-raising photograph which came to symbolise a nation on the verge of victory. The reality of the shot was very different: it was not the first flag to be raised, the battle continued to rage long after it was taken and the resulting publicity was primarily used to raise war bonds for the cash-strapped American armed forces during World War II. This film addresses these issues from the perspective of the three surviving soldiers pictured who are flown back to the States for a glamorous tour and healthy dose of backslapping while their friends die fighting the Japanese.

The trio who lived to tell the tale are medic John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) who comes from a native American background. The story is told in flashback, as the now elderly Bradley and Gagnon recall their experiences on the battlefield and on their tour of honour in front of thousands of patriotic Americans.

The story focuses on the tormented minds of the trio who try to reconcile their little-deserved hero status with the horrors they witnessed while in Iwo Jima.

Eastwood has avoided telling a linear tale — the film jumps between the flashing lights of press junkets and the flashes of gunfire on Iwo Jima. On the one side of the tale, the battle scenes are stunning. However they also suffer from resembling countless other war films, Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1995) in particular. It is no surprise then to Spielberg’s name crop up as executive producer — in fact he originally had the rights to the novel on which Flags is based. Barry Pepper puts in a fine performance as a bullish fighter during these scenes, a role he seems to have become best at over the years, while the beach landing throws up some breathtaking shots. The other side of the story focuses on the tormented minds of the trio who try to reconcile their little-deserved hero status with the horrors they witnessed while in Iwo Jima. This is well staged, particularly a sequence in which they raise a replica flag in front of a cheering crowd at a baseball stadium. The dramatic impact in the more personal scenes suffers from Phillippe, Bradford and Beach failing to really get to grips with their characters. They pull off the culture shock of fame for very little admirably enough, yet are not the most engaging to watch.

The central theme of the glories of war often overlooking the shocking truths has been told many time before which makes Flags of Our Fathers seem worse than it really is. Oscar-winning writer Paul Haggis together with William Broyles Jr. have done excellently with the script and Eastwood’s direction is well suited to the material. The problem comes in the labouring over such an obvious point. This film would have benefited from taking a look further into the difficulties faced by the three ‘heroes’. There is a slight mention of it in epilogue which deserved more, while the battle scenes are perhaps overused. Nevertheless, Flags of Our Fathers is fascinating at times and should be interesting to compare with Eastwood’s follow-up, the Japanese-language Letter from Iwo Jima later this year.

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