Flags of Our Fathers is Clint Eastwood’s homage to the honored dead of World War II as well as a meditation upon how an icon is formed. Based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, the movie centers around the Battle of Iwo Jima, one of the key late war conflicts in the Pacific. However, unlike other films that have trodden similar ground Clint has decided to ramp up the violence realistic style (a la Spielberg Ryan style). The narrative is also fractured with scenes from America a few months earlier where key events are occurring.
One of the most famous World War II photographs features a group of six soldiers hoisting a U.S. flag upright on the highest point of Iwo Jima. James Bradley’s father, John, was one of those six and Bradley’s book tells the story not only of the Battle of Iwo Jima, but of the photograph, its background, and its aftermath. The picture become an instant icon for Americans and the three surviving soldiers John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) were taken away from the front line and sent back home. The plan was simple to fully cash-in on their new found fame and flog as many war bonds as humanly possible. But of course things cannot be that simple and the truth of their involvement (or lack of it) was kept hidden from the public to not lessen the impact of the picture.
At its best, Flags of Our Fathers is eye opening and thought provoking. The battle scenes are raw and energetic, while the post-Iwo Jima segments question our established ideas about heroism. Release in 2006 America was still trying to digest the new reality of 9/11 and this questioning of images is now key to the modern landscape. Ever since that first plane hit the twin towers people have questioned the validity of what exactly happened and who planned those events. The ability of a government to keep the truth from the public is a key question being digested in this film.
The film is not without its problems that mostly lie in the fractures time-line employed by the narrative. The use of colour is used to differentiate between the three periods being shown but the shift from one to the other is somewhat jarring at times. The noise of the battle sequences are immense compared to the other more drama based parts and it’s hard to mesh them together.
The cast is also somewhat questionable as Eastwood decided to eschew any large name actors and picjed a trio possible better known for lighter stuff. Paul Walker (continuing his attempt to be known as a serious thespian), Ryan Phillippe (ditto), and Barry Pepper are all a little light to fully emote the story they are telling and left me a little underwhelmed. Rest assured this is no Pearl Harbor style travesty of acting driven by the likes of Affleck, Hartnett and Beckinsale but that is hardly a recommendation in itself.
The end credits are worth sitting through if you care about the real battle, since they feature a collection of still photographs. Viewing them makes it apparent how rigorous Eastwood’s attention to detail is. The Japanese refused to allow permission to film on Iwo Jima which is itself revealing about the ongoing scars of war so Eastwood decamped to Iceland instead. This film is the first of a double header filmed back to back which was a first for Eastwood especially given how small and quick his productions usually are. Flags of Our Fathers is an interesting stab at a Historical Epic from a man known for action more than drama. Since his Oscar success with Unforgiven Eastwood became a full on serious film-maker and this is another installment in that canon. Now without its problems the film has enough still going for it to keep the viewers interest but only just.