Flags of Our Fathers
By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place
Clint Eastwood's new film Flags of Our Fathers depicts reporter-photographer
Joe Rosenthal wading awkwardly ashore on Iwo Jima. A wave washes over
his camera. All the same, his trusty Speed Graphic captures the iconic
photograph that a few days later will grace some 200 front pages and
win Rosenthal the Pulitzer Prize. Rosenthal worked for newspapers in
his hometown, San Francisco, from 1932 until his 1981 retirement. Nothing
else in that half-century of photojournalism came close to the single
negative around which Eastwood's film is built. As recently as 1996,
Rosenthal, who died just last August, was named an honorary Marine by
the Corps's commandant in recognition of the famous photo.
Flags of Our Fathers is really two intertwined stories. The
scene shifts throughout the film between the action on Iwo Jima and
the experiences of the three surviving flag-raisers. Steven Spielberg
is billed as a producer of Flags. No surprise, then, that not
since Saving Private Ryan have we seen such a frank and brutal
depiction of men at war. In fact, after Marines climbed Iwo's Mount
Suribachi for the flag raising, the battle to secure the island raged
for another 35 bloody days.
The film is based on the 2000 bestseller of the same name, the book
having been co-authored by Bradley's son. His narration, done in voice-over
and via interviews with aging vets, ties the two threads of Eastwood's
tale together. As author and director tell it, the story of the Iwo
Jima photograph and the three surviving men who planted it is a blend
of irony and cynicism, on one hand, and hope and heroism on the other.
Two of the photo's three survivors, Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) and John
Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) resent being separated from their fighting
comrades to accept a hero's welcome and sell war bonds back home.
The America of early 1945 is depicted as war-weary and broke. Three
previous bond drives, a hard-nosed Treasury official tells the reluctant
heroes, have fallen short of their goals. You want to go back to your
buddies? He asks them. Fine, but you'd better take a bag of rocks to
throw at the enemy, because that's all you'll have. The Treasury man's
task is made all the tougher because the identities of the other men
in the picture have become confused. No faces are visible. And it turns
out that two flags were raised that day. The first flag became the subject
of competing claims by the big brass. Outraged, the colonel in charge
has it taken down, ordering it replaced by the one that Rosenthal photographs.
Not only does this lead to the wrong grieving mother being invited to
the fund raisers; it also spawns a rumor that the famed photo was staged.
Life after fame was hard on the three survivors, too. Rene Gagnon (Jesse
Bradford), the one "hero of Iwo Jima" who actually seems to
revel in the attention, finds fame fleeting. After the war, he winds
up working as a janitor. Ira Hayes had it even harder. An American Indian,
he became an alcoholic and died young under somewhat-mysterious circumstances.
Bradley, whose demise at a ripe old age opens the film and inspires
his son to write the book, is the only one of the three to lead a relatively
prosperous afterlife, becoming a mortician with his own funeral parlor,
which some might say was a fitting, if ironic, career choice.
Eastwood's even-handed direction of Flags is highly commendable.
Although he pulls no punches in depicting the discrimination suffered
by Hayes, even as a hero, and the unashamed exploitation of the photo
and the three survivors to sell bonds, Eastwood never lets us lose sight
of the fact that those bonds helped bring the war to a successful conclusion
later that same year. And while showing us the ugly face of war, including
senseless death from friendly fire and horrific incidents of torture
and mutilation, he has an interviewed vet with no arms remind us that
thousands of American lives were saved by the Iwo airstrips that were
Flags of Our Fathers is that rarest of war films--one that
strives from the start, and maintains throughout, a delicate balance
between glorifying war and condemning it. Clint Eastwood gives us real
people struggling with real conflicts, both on the South Pacific battlefield
and in their own hearts and minds.
Rated R - For graphic war violence and for language.