It was the image that said it all: Every sweetly pent-up emotion concerning American patriotism, war, and national identity could be expressed by the famous photograph of six soldiers hoisting up a flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima. The picture became the icon for the war, if not the entire American military, and helped inspire that final drive to victory. With Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood wants us to know that such images, though necessary, are probably missing the point.
Eastwood’s war biopic pays homage to the World War II veterans who endured the chaotic hell of the Pacific Theater and went on to become symbols of American heroism, three of whom: Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Philippe), and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) went on to tour the States as celebrities. The story is based on the book by Ron Powers and James Bradley, the son of “Doc,” around whom the story somewhat listlessly revolves, jumping back and forth between the soldiers involved with the photograph and the unease with which the survivors deal with their newfound legendary status.
From the beginning of the soldiers’ portrait stateside and their flashbacks to the battle, Eastwood wants to show us that the truth behind the legend was more complicated and dark than popular imagination tends to credit. The flag raised in the picture was actually the second placed on Suribachi, and later it became apparent that one soldier was misidentified in the haste to venerate the participants. In addition, the three survivors from the picture react in remarkably different ways to their icon status: Gagnon revels in it, seeing his opportunity to become the hero that he was not; Bradley endures it, if uncomfortably; and Hayes despises the whole affair, becoming more and more tortured by the thought of being idolized. Regardless of these responses, it becomes obvious that the real force behind the picture was its manipulation by politicians and businessmen who saw it as a means to success instead of one born in harrowing tragedy.
It’s especially ironic, then, that Eastwood’s meditation on war becomes too mired in ideals to really allow a close connection to the human element it espouses. Of all the characters presented, only Hayes seems to evoke the core of tragedy involved. Hayes was an American Indian, constantly patronized for his heritage, and was plagued with guilt for being returned from the war for what he correctly saw as a farcical publicity campaign. Hayes descends into alcoholism and, after war’s end, a destitution that is truly saddening given the excellent performance by Beach. The rest of the characters are pushed to arm’s length, even Bradley, about whom the story revolves, as well as several noted ensemble players including Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Jamie Bell, Barry Pepper, and Neal McDonough.
Eastwood’s filmmaking is consistent and technically admirable; he achieves in his combat sequences an understated realism that is remarkable to watch on the island’s foreboding, black landscape (filmed in Iceland). It’s true that combat in every WWII movie (if not every war movie) will exist to some degree in Saving Private Ryan’s shadow, but Eastwood finds a good middle-ground here between the dynamic brutality of that film and one just underwhelming enough not to feel melodramatic. Eastwood is a much more cautious filmmaker than Spielberg, and he’s able to bring a quietly disturbing element to war where Spielberg was chiefly sensuous.
But in spite of this impeccable presentation, the film is lacking an emotional presence that would really inspire awe and understanding. Eastwood’s narrative is much too grandiose to encompass everything he presents in a meaningful way. Though his heart and head are in the right place, it’s hard to really connect with a film in which the empathy is divided among so many: The soldiers who fought and died, the politicians who used them, the families who found hope and encouragement in them, and the nation that mythologized them, all united by a powerfully ambivalent symbol that, as Eastwood has it, polishes over the truth of the real heroes. Flags of Our Fathers does exactly that to its own characters, making it an easy film to admire, but a difficult one to love.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.The Ashes of American Flags
Film | October 20, 2006 | Comments ()