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|Flags of Our Fathers
It’s been a long time since Clint Eastwood’s movies have indicated that firing a Smith and Wesson was the solution to evil. With “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby,” Eastwood has directed morally complex stories that are as engrossing as they are bleak. In these films and his latest “Flags of Our Fathers,” Eastwood takes seemingly simple situations and expertly deconstructs them. The new film has a much larger scope than its predecessors, but Eastwood manages to keep his intriguing vision intact.In the new film, Eastwood examines the late Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photo of the raising of the American flag during the Battle of Iwo Jima and the remarkably complicated story behind it.
"It made my day."
Because the faceless men hoisting the pole look so dramatic, it’s easy to believe that they had just dodged the final bullets to plant the flag on Mt. Suribachi. In truth, the flag was raised on the fifth day of an exceptionally bloody engagement that lasted more than a month.
By the time the image was printed all over the world, half of the six men depicted were dead. Worse, it wasn’t until years later that Marine on the right of the photo was properly identified.
Nonetheless, Rosenthal’s photo became a remarkable motivator back in the States. Seeing the triumphant figures in the photo made Americans sense the sacrifices of World War II had not been in vain. You didn’t need to see the Marines’ faces to sense victory.
For the three men who survived—Navy corpsman John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and Marines Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, “Smoke Signals”)—the battle ended up following them to their graves.
In the film, the trio is sent home to lead a bond drive in order to keep the war effort going. Although Iwo Jima is one of a long string of American wins in the Pacific, the war is bankrupting the United States. To rally their fellow Americans, the three tour the country reenacting the flag raising in a manner that borders on the absurd.
In a moment that’s worthy of surrealist Luis Buñuel, the men are asked to eat a desert statue of themselves raising the flag, covered in blood red strawberries.
For most of “Flags of Our Fathers,” however, Eastwood and screenwriters William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Gaggis (working from the book by John Bradley’s son, James and Ron Powers) imbue the film with the proper sense of gravity.
Eastwood cribs a bit from the bleached out visual style that Steven Spielberg (who’s credited as a producer for this film) used in “Saving Private Ryan,” but to his credit, Eastwood has an unerring sense of what to borrow. The battlefield sequences are suitably unsettling, chaotic and horrifying.
For the three survivors, living with the label of “hero” is as challenging as surviving on a battlefield. Bradley and Hayes are tormented by the thought of leaving their comrades behind when the war is still raging, and Hayes discovers that his battlefield heroics do little to curb the racism he encounters at home and exacerbate the alcoholism that’s sure to send him to an early grave.
Phillippe and Bradford are quite good, but Beach manages to both make Hayes sympathetic and ends up walking away with the film. You can see his strain at having to recall and celebrate events he’d just as soon forget. One added bonus is the fact that most of the actors actually resemble the real people they’re playing. It aids immeasurably in establishing the authenticity of the story.
The flashback-heavy narrative is a little tricky to follow at first, but as “Flags of Our Fathers” progresses, it helps make the Iwo Jima survivor’s plight more compelling. They may be thousands of miles from the battle, but their memories won’t let it fade.
Eastwood and the screenwriters manage a delicate but assured balancing act. He portrays the warriors of Iwo Jima as deeply flawed men who were heroes for simply coming off the island alive.With the emotional wallop “Flags of Our Fathers” packs, it’s easy to forgive the slightly protracted running time. Eastwood’s next film is “Letters from Iwo Jima,” where he recounts the same battle from the Japanese point of view. Considering how he effortlessly managed to demonstrate the difference between heroics and hollow jingoism in this film, it shouldn’t be surprising if that film works just as well.
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originally posted: 10/20/06 19:10:00