Print the Legend
A single photograph, we’re told early in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, can win or lose a war. But sometimes, a photo shows only part of the story, whether it’s the part we don’t want to see — slaughtered villagers at My Lai, tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib — or the part we do, with heroes front and center and the carnage out of view.
In Flags, the image under scrutiny is one of the most iconic in American photojournalism: five U.S. Marines and one Navy corpsman planting Old Glory atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during the fifth day of the 35-day battle there. That picture, “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” helped rally American support for the war, won a Pulitzer Prize for photographer Joe Rosenthal, and made overnight celebrities of its subjects. But the soldiers on Mount Suribachi didn’t feel like heroes, and with good reason.
Based on the best-selling book by James Bradley, whose father, John “Doc” Bradley, was the Navy corpsman in Rosenthal’s photo, Flags of Our Fathers is about the three flag raisers who survived Iwo Jima — Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), the dashing and mildly pompous Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and the proud Pima Indian Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) — and how their moment in the spotlight irrevocably altered their lives.
These men were not the first to plant the Stars and Stripes but were a secondary team, assembled after the smaller flag erected earlier by a different group was claimed as a souvenir by a naval officer. It was this second flag, though, that was seen around the world, its raisers plucked from duty and ferried hither and yon by wily politicians who saw the makings of an inspired PR campaign. It was not the first — or last — time that a war would be sold to the American public.
According to press notes for Flags of Our Fathers, John Bradley was plagued in later years by hallucinations and night terrors, and Eastwood’s movie unfolds as if it were one of them, jaggedly flashing back and forth between the sands of Iwo Jima and the clinking banquet rooms where the flag raisers shill for the war bond. Battle scenes are as visceral and nerve-fraying as anything in Saving Private Ryan. The landing on Iwo Jima is a master class in controlled chaos, as machine-gun bullets stream out of camouflaged Japanese pillboxes and mortar fire turns human bodies into sizzling piles of flesh and bone. But the most surreal, unsettling images in Flags come later, when Bradley, Gagnon and Hayes are pressed into re-enacting their storied feat as a vaudeville spectacle, and when, at a celebratory dinner, they see the huddled likeness of themselves and their fallen brothers transformed into an ice-cream sculpture.
To an extent, Flags of Our Fathers is to World War II movies what Eastwood’s Unforgiven was to Westerns — a stripping-away of mythology until only a harsher, uncomfortable reality remains. But what Eastwood really does is call into question an entire way of reading history, by which the vast and incomprehensible are reduced to digestible symbols and meanings.
With Flags, Eastwood has made one of his best films, a conflicted, searching, morally complex deconstruction of the Greatest Generation that is rich in its sensitivity to human frailty. You feel this most of all in the characterization of Hayes, whose postwar descent into alcoholism and near-madness has been told many times before, in song (“The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” covered by Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash) and onscreen (1961’s The Outsider, starring Tony Curtis), but never quite with the haunted intensity that Eastwood and Beach bring to it. Theirs is an agonizing portrait of a man unable to readjust to civilian life, tormented by the recognition that he felt he didn’t deserve. And it is made all the more poignant by Eastwood’s revelation, late in the film, that Hayes, like all of the men who raised the second flag over Iwo Jima, did show extraordinary bravery on the battlefield, just not in the way he was remembered. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but for men like Bradley, Gagnon and Hayes, there were thousands more that went unspoken.