Flags of Our Fathers
It seems that in the modern world that we live in perception is more important that the actual facts. Public opinion can be based on a sound bite or a few vague images. Clint Eastwood has taken this trend and shown that is far from being a new phenomenon. In his film "Flags of Our Fathers" Eastwood examines one of the most iconic photographs of modern history, the American flag being raised after the battle of Iwo Jima. Most of us have seen the picture in history class but how many of us have actually considered the men in the picture? They are hailed by those history books as heroes, but few of us wonder about those men; the lives their lived before and after the flash of a camera on a remote Pacific island. Eastwood takes his film from the novel by James Bradley, the son of one of the men lifting the flag in the now famous photograph. Between this film and his companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima, also from Eastwood we get to see a different look at war, heroism, fame and public relations.
James Bradley (Thomas McCarthy) grew up knowing his father was in a famous World War II picture. After the dead of his father, John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) James decides to learn more about that moment and the men who shared the picture with his dad. Doc had also been reluctant to speak about the war with his son. James had heard that his father was a war hero but only after his death did James discover that Doc had received the Navy Cross for valor. James sets out to find the men who would know the truth of what happened.
You couldn’t have asked for a better group of men to appear in that photo. They represented the diversity of America. There was of course Navy medical Corpsman Doc Bradley, Marine Private First Class Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), Marine Sergeant Mike Strank (Barry Pepper), Marine Private First Class Franklin Sousley (Joseph Cross), Marine Private First Class Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Marine Corporal Harlon Block (Benjamin Walker). The hailed from all over the country; Bradley was from Wisconsin, Strank from Western Pennsylvania, Block from South Texas, Sousley from Kentucky, Gagnon from New Hampshire and Hayes who was a Native American from Arizona. These men represented the heartland of American, typical of the thousands of young men who choose to serve their country in a time of war. As James Bradley investigated the events surrounding the photo he discovered that much of what the public believed was actually fabrication.
Iwo Jima was important not only from a military stand point but also vital for morale. This was to be the first time American troops engaged the Japanese forces on Japanese soil. We were finally fighting the enemy on their own ground. For the Americans this was important, we were no longer defending little islands, we were taking the fight to the Japanese. From the enemy’s perspective there were now defending a place they considered part of their beloved homeland. This little island in the Pacific was heavily defended. The Japanese had amble time to fortify their positions and create a maze of tunnels all around the island. Entrenched in this fashion the Japanese could pretty much sit back and pick off the American forces at will. It would take 35 days and the loss of over 6,000 American lives before the island could be won. On the fifth day of the battle the Americans captured the high ground, Mount Suribachi. The men raised the American flag and and news of the event was forwarded to Navy Secretary James Forrestal. He requested the flag be sent to him in Washington as a souvenir. A second flag had to be raised to replace the original and the six men mentioned above where chosen while photographer Joe Rosenthal took the picture. Once the photo was published in most American newspapers the public thought this represented a great victory. While the people back home celebrated the bloody fight was still going strong. The surviving men in the photo where reassigned, brought back to the States to go on a promotional tour to sell war bonds. Doc and the other two survivors, Hayes and Gagnon were uncomfortable in their new roles as heroes. They where back home while others were still dying. The impact this unwanted celebrity and the dismissive attitude after they accomplished their promotional tour took a devastative effect on the men.
At 76 most men are think more of relaxing than reinventing their careers. Clint Eastwood has gone from low budget westerns through avenging police office to become one of the most respected and creative directors in American cinema today. Although the story is provided with numerous flashbacks the narrative is never lost due completely to the directorial talent of Eastwood. He pulls the audience in never giving them a chance to become distracted. This film is gripping; it is as relevant today as it was sixty years ago. Here a hero is not seen as a man who comes home to the accolades of the public. From Doc’s perspective the true heroes are the men who are buried on foreign soil. Even thought he flag was raised before the conclusion of the battle it became the lasting symbol of American triumph; an image that the public could hold on to for hope. While there is a strong case for the need for such a symbol Eastwood explores the negative impact on the men involved in this public relations ploy and how the truth weighed heavily on them. Eastwood provides something that most would not expect. This is not a war movie as such; it is not an anti-war film. Instead it is a story about men; their experience and how these events would shape the rest of their lives.
This is a strong cast and Eastwood gets the bet possible performances from them. Ryan Phillippe does well as a man torn apart by what is happening to him. He plays Bradley as a man who joined the Navy to fight for his country. He became a corpsman to help his fellow Americans. Now he is asked to serve his country in a different way. He gets to be photographed, cheered and honored while his friends are back on a remote island dying. He is conflicted by serving his country in a way that seems to betray the other soldiers in the war. Adam Beach gives a poignant performance as a Native American pulled into a world he was never prepared for. He spirals into depression and alcoholism unable to live the lie he was told to present as the truth.
Paramount has done an excellent job bringing this soon to be classic film to DVD. They do justice to it in every respect. There is a full screen, pan & scan version available but do your self and the film maker a favor and forget it. This film demands to be seen as Eastwood envisioned it with every inch of each frame shown. Eastwood’s straight forward visual style is depicted here with a transfer that is just about perfect. The color palette is flawless as is the contrast. The Dolby 5.1 audio brings you right into the film It surrounds you with a realistic ambience. This is one of the best pictures not only for the year but in American cinema.