Adam Beach as Ira Hayes
Jesse Bradford as Rene Gagnon
Ryan Phillippe as John Bradley
John Benjamin Hickey as Keyes Beech
John Slattery as Bud Gerber
Barry Pepper as Sgt. Mike Strank
Jamie Bell as Ralph Ignatowski
Paul Walker as Hank Hansen
Joseph Cross as Franklin Sousley
Benjamin Walker as Harlon Block
Robert Patrick as Colonel Chandler Johnson
Neal McDonough as Captain Severance
Myra Turley as Madeline Evelley
George Grizzard as John Bradley
David Patrick Kelley as President Truman
Melanie Lynskey as Pauline Harnois
Brian Kimmet as Sgt. “Boots” Thomas
Christopher Curry as Ed Block
Directed by Clint Eastwood
A surprisingly emotionless retelling of the battle of Iwo Jima, “Flags of Our Fathers” offers little new to the war genre, as Eastwood tries to make every scene powerful and important but falters in the process.
In 1945, a picture taken of six soldiers planting an American flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi became an unforgettable moment in WWII for those watching back home in the States. The three surviving soldiers that erected the flagIra Hayes, Rene Gagnon, and John Bradley (Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford, Ryan Phillipe)were brought home and hailed as wartime heroes, though they knew the truth behind the flag-raising, the harrowing battle that surrounded it and who the real heroes were.
The thought of Clint Eastwood directing a war drama based on one of the bloodiest battles of WWII with the aid of producer Steven Spielberg and screenwriters William Broyles Jr. (“Jarhead”) and Paul Haggis (“Million Dollar Baby”), sounds like cinephile heaven. The fact that it’s based on the bestselling book by James Bradley (with Ron Powers) offers even more hope, which may be why “Flags of Our Fathers” is likely to go down as one of the year’s biggest head-scratchers in its inability to deliver on what could have been a fascinating look at one of the great mysteries of WWII.
It all comes down to that famous 1945 picture of soldiers planting a flag on Iwo Jima, used to symbolize America’s military progress in Japan, even as the actual battle continued to rage and take soldiers’ lives for days after the photo was taken. The surviving soldiers in the picture were declared war heroes and toured around the country to rally money for war bonds. Decades later, James Bradley, the son of one of them started conducting interviews to find out truth behind the flag-raising and the ballyhoo that surrounded it. It’s certainly an amazing story to consider that the movie essentially is trying to debunk one of the most famous war-time images.
“Flags of Our Fathers” breaks down into three main stories: the actual battle at Iwo Jima, the shell-shocked trio of soldiers dealing with their warm reception back home, and James Bradley’s attempt to assemble the pieces of the puzzle in the present day. The movie starts in the latter era but quickly jumps back to the past where with almost no introduction to the various players, we’re thrown headlong into a beach invasion right out of “Saving Private Ryan” as the marines arrive on Iwo Jima and are mowed down by enemy gunfire. Cut to a few weeks later as three survivors are returning home and being declared heroes for their part in raising the American flag on the island, though they’re puzzled by the attention and how that picture is being deliberately misinterpreted. They’re forced to keep quiet on the truth for the sake of their country, as they go on an exploitative promotional tour.
As much as the truth behind the photograph should offer interesting groundwork for political and emotional exposition, “Flags” often gets muddled in the constant jumps back and forth in time between the stories. There’s no real focus as the point-of-view keeps changing with each new person who narrates the story. Many of the same scenes are shown repeatedly, either from a different perspective or to show what really happened, like when the trio have to reenact the flagraising at a football game. There’s nothing wrong with non-linear storytelling but in this case, it’s just not very good filmmaking.
The movie’s lavish set pieces and battle scenes are equal to Spielberg’s previous WWII work, so you have to give kudos to the production and effects departments, as well as regular Eastwood cinematographer Tom Stern, for how great these scenes look. That said, some of the scenes are such a mess that it’s hard to tell who is who, with very few strong personalities beyond the primary trio. Whether it’s because we’re currently at war or have already seen so many bloody atrocities in other movies, the scenes aren’t nearly as effective as they could have been, and we’re given no reason to care as we watch the soldiers die.
The movie also throws too many mixed messages at the viewer, making it unclear what to believe. On the one hand, it pushes familiar patriotic themes of the soldier as hero, but it also takes a cynical view on how the clueless government officials manipulate the soldiers’ fame to sell war bonds, something even our current regime would never dare. Like Spielberg’s “Munich,” it sits high up on the fence between patriotism and cynicism, letting the reader to decide what to think for themselves. Instead, it seems to be trying to have it both ways. Some of these issues might go back to the original source material, written before 9/11 and the Iraq war; Bradley’s book may be too personal and singular of vision to translate into a movie that could be universally appealing, but really, that’s something Eastwood should have realized before taking on such a lofty project.
Considering the pedigree of the screenwriters, the dialogue is surprisingly pedestrian. Most of it is delivered rather flatly by a cast of weak third stringers like Ryan Phillipe and Jesse Bradford, both whom have done stronger work when given better material. Adam Beach reprises his role as “the Native American soldier” from “Windtalkers,” offering the far too obvious racism subplot. He spends most of the movie getting drunk and blubbering about how he doesn’t think he should be considered a hero over his dead compatriots. And yet, those are the three most prominent players in the piece, which isn’t saying much, because stronger characters played by Barry Pepper and Robert Patrick are played down.
Eastwood’s biggest faux pas was allowing himself to write the music, delivering the same recurring musical motifs over and over, mostly on piano but sometimes switching to guitar to add variety. This technique may have worked for “Mystic River” or other dramas, but it doesn’t work for such an epic piece. It’s obvious how much further the film’s emotional content would have been pushed with a stronger score from a better composer.
The high point of the movie comes when we’re finally shown the raising of the flag, which was done purely to boost morale after the initial bloody attack on the island. At that point, the movie hits its peak, leaving nowhere for it to go but down. The last half hour turns into a linear accounting of what happened to each of the three soldiers, narrated by the actor playing the author with text presumably taken directly from his book, before going for the obvious with a “touching father-son moment.” By the time it delivers its final stirring voice-over about heroism, it’s impossible to buy any of it, and it barely recovers with its impressive end credit photo montage.
The Bottom Line:
Good intentions aside, “Flags of Our Fathers” is a rambling mess of random war images mixed with sentimental recollections, trying to create a portrait of the American war hero. Instead, it delivers a generic retelling of events, sampling liberally from other sources without offering anything new. Fans of war dramas might forgive these problems when the shells and bullets start flying, but those looking for solid storytelling will have to remain optimistic that the Japanese retelling of the battle in next year’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” will be better.