Flags Of Our Fathers Review
A sweeping deconstruction of heroism and propaganda, Flags Of Our Fathers was probably conceived without the Iraq conflict in mind, yet watching director Clint Eastwood’s reconstruction of these 60-year-old events the parallels seem inescapable.
A single photograph taken on February 23rd, 1945, destined to become one of the most iconic in US history, depicted five marines and one Navy field medic hoisting the Stars and Stripes atop Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima, five days into a five week struggle for the strategic Japanese outpost. The picture earned photographer Joe Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize and was reproduced across the world, rallying the American public’s support for the war effort and turning its subjects into instant celebrities. But the picture’s legend didn’t quite reproduce reality.
Eastwood’s film takes its lead from a bestselling book by James Bradley, whose father, John “Doc” Bradley, was the medic in Rosenthal’s picture and one of three soldiers in the photo to survive Iwo Jima. Played by Ryan Phillipe, Bradley is brave and steady, yet as bewildered by the spotlight he is thrust into as the other two survivors, the handsome but ineffectual Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and the proud Native American Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). Their flag was, in fact, the second to be raised that day, after the first, hoisted by another company was claimed as a souvenir by a naval officer, leaving their moment of ‘heroism’ to be captured by blind luck. On their return home, Gagnon embraces his newfound fame but Hayes is repelled and eventually destroyed by it, the survivors’ guilt shared by the three never really offset by the knowledge that they had shown genuine courage at Iwo Jima.
After his father’s death, the film intercuts the enquiries of James Bradley (Thomas McCarthy) with the old man’s hallucinations and night visions of a blasted, lunar-like volcanic landscape, the hellish, all too immediate assault on the Japanese beaches and the three soldiers’ subsequent publicity tour promoting war bonds. Disorientating and not always to the narrative’s benefit, the temporal switches nevertheless successfully convey the combatants’ traumatic recollections, whether triggered by a misfiring car or, most memorably, by the surreal spectacle of them recreating their feat on a papier mache mountain before a cheering stadium. The battle sequences, shot by cinematographer Tom Stern in muted blues, greys and browns recall Saving Private Ryan in their relentless butchery, and Steven Spielberg takes a producer credit for scenes as visceral and horrific as those under his direction. Yet the most affecting scene arrives in the middle of the film, when Bradley pretends to the mother of a fallen comrade that he was in the photo in order to sustain the myth, even as Hayes collapses into a tearful embrace with their sergeant’s mother.
Flags of Our Fathers isn’t saying anything radically new – war is hell and wartime propaganda is a necessary evil, but it is presenting it on a large, compelling scale that challenges Hollywood’s typical conventions of heroic endeavour, even if, eventually, it succumbs to notions of worthy self-sacrifice that make it seem like a blatant grab for Eastwood’s third directing Oscar. The performances are solid and unshowy, with the notable exception of Beach, who completely centres the film as Hayes, hopelessly trying to maintain a fiction while battling his memories, alcoholism and racism.
Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood’s companion film to Flags, will relate the Japanese perspective of the fight, which killed nearly 7,000 Americans and almost all of the 22,000 soldiers defending the island. Released in the UK in February, on this evidence, it’ll definitely be worth seeing.
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