It’s easy to see why Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers has been hailed as a masterpiece. Both the subject matter and the theme wrested from it are stirring and important. On the fifth day of the nearly month-long battle of Iwo Jima, some soldiers raise the Stars and Stripes on the island’s Mt. Suri¬bachi and the sight cheers the troops. When the flag is claimed by a bigwig as a souvenir, a second flag is put up by a different group of soldiers; this raising, ignored by the troops but captured in a classic photo, becomes an instant icon of American patriotism. To reinvigorate the public’s enthusiasm for the war, and to encourage the buying of war bonds, the three surviving men of the second group are sent home on a promotional tour.
Two of the three-Native American Ira Hayes and John “Doc” Bradley (whose son wrote the book on which the movie is based)-are suffering from what we now call “survivor’s guilt”: the loss of their comrades is aggravated by their realization that mere chance has placed them in a heroic spotlight. The third, Rene Gagnon, a messenger who never actually saw combat, is portrayed as something of an opportunist intending to use his new status to land a good postwar job; yet he too chafes under the inauthenticity of his putative heroism. The theme becomes clear before the movie is halfway through, but is summed up near the end by the narrator (Bradley’s son): if we really want to honor these men and their fallen comrades, we must see them for who they really were. The gap between admirable but fallible humanity and the monumental heroism required by the propaganda mills is huge and sometimes pernicious.
Eastwood doesn’t coast on the importance of his theme or the poignancy of the story. Scene by scene, his craftsmanship is evident. The combat sequences were photographed by Tom Stern in black-and-white with a greenish tinge, and within this deliberately dreary palate, bursts of gunfire, jets of blood, and the entrails of corpses-all glimpsed in color-disturb, even sicken us, and suggest the panic and vertigo the combatants felt. When the three soldiers reach the United States for the tour, everything in civilian life, from traffic lights to the smear of lipstick on smiling female faces, registers garishly, a sensory overload experienced by men who have spent three years oscillating between utter boredom and hellish violence. Eastwood’s longtime production designer Henry Bumstead has done a terrific job capturing the look of mid-forties America-the sexy but innocent look of a nervously buoyant country pregnant with a million possibilities and disappointments.
Shrewdly, the director has cast up-and-coming actors rather than stars as the survivors. Their relative anonymity permits them to merge into their roles free of the backlog of movie memories that a star would carry.
This very anonymity, however, presents a problem during the chaos of the opening battle scenes. The visualization of mechanized warfare tends to obliterate individuality. The sameness of the uniforms, the way helmets obscure countenances, the grime on faces, the dialogue-drowning noise of guns and machines, the reduction of bodies to insect-like figures within exploding landscapes-all this would make it difficult to distinguish one combatant from another even if star actors were employed. How much more difficult then with not-so-well-known faces? Reading a war novel, we can be inside the mind of a soldier as he fights or flees, we can experience his internal confusion amid the external confusions of the battlefield, and so characterizations needn’t be wiped out by chaotic action. Even so, Norman Mailer spent fully half of The Naked and the Dead establishing the psychology of characters before exposing them to the visceral horrors of combat. Eastwood tries to establish his characters within the first twenty minutes of Flags, but the rather trifling traits he focuses on-the chirping optimism of one soldier, the grousing of another-all go for naught once the bullets start whining and the dirt is flying. Is that soldier screaming in agony the guy called Mike or the one called Doc or somebody else? Eastwood wants us to share the survivors’ sense of loss over the death of specific comrades; the trouble is we haven’t had the chance to get to know these soldiers well enough before they died so that we can empathize with their friends’ grief.
Of course, once the survivors escape from battle on their publicity tour, individuality emerges. But this is precisely when the limitations of the script (by Paul Haggis and William Broyles Jr.) emerge. Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) is all crewcut spruceness and conscientious leadership overcast by the memory of losing a friend to torture and death. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) is spunky and opportunistic with a girlfriend even more opportunistic than he is. These are the adequate beginnings of characterization and we wait for them to develop, but they never do. More complexity emerges in the portrayal of Ira Hayes because of the racial harassment he suffers, and the script captures well his mixture of half-stifled resentment and stoic determination to put a cheerful face on everything-all of this fleshed out in Adam Beach’s excellent performance.
During the PR tour, Bradley and Hayes, confronted by the glitzy version of Iwo Jima the publicists have concocted, experience flashbacks to the real thing, and because we have gotten to know these men by now, these remembered battle scenes carry more weight than the opening sequence. This made me wish that Eastwood had begun his film with his three heroes on tour and had presented the invasion only through their fragmented memories. The result might have been less sweeping, but more intensely moving.
As it is, Flags of Our Fathers is worth seeing, much of it holding up in the memory as quite strong, even if it isn’t the masterpiece our masterpiece-hungry reviewers have taken it to be.