The History Place - Movie Review

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 captured.

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.

Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and lawyer, is the Associate Provost at Rider University and author of the weekly newspaper column Attorney at Large.

Flags of Our Fathers - Official Website
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