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FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS(director: Clint Eastwood; screenwriters: William Broyles Jr./Paul Haggis/from the book by James Bradley with Ron Powers; cinematographer: Tom Stern; editor: Joel Cox; music: Clint Eastwood; cast: Ryan Phillippe (John “Doc” Bradley), Jesse Bradford (Rene Gagnon), Adam Beach (Ira Hayes), John Benjamin Hickey (Keyes Beech), John Slattery (Bud Gurber), Barry Pepper (Sergeant Mike Strank), Jamie Bell (Ralph Ignatowski), Paul Walker (Hank Hansen), Robert Patrick (Col. Chandler Johnson), Melanie Lynskey (Pauline Harnois), Ned Eisenberg (Joe Rosenthal), Benjamin Walker (Harlon Block); Runtime: 132; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Clint Eastwood/Robert Lorenz/Steven Spielberg; Paramount/DreamWorks SKG; 2006)
“Does justice to those who are remembered as the Greatest Generation.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An intense but not completely satisfying film about the most noted photo of World War II (and probably of any event), of six service men raising the flag at Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima–which became the photo used to sell war bonds and rally support for the war effort. It’s directed by the 76-year-old Clint Eastwood (“Mystic River”/”Million Dollar Baby”); writers William Broyles Jr. (a former Marine) and Paul Haggis adapt it from a best-selling book by James Bradley (his father was one of the surviving flag-raisers in the photo) written with Ron Powers. It comes across as a parental lecture to the young generation that debunks the mythology of glorifying war (at least from those old Hollywood films such as John Wayne doing heroic battle in the overly romanticized “Sands of Iwo Jima”) and questions how the public’s impressions of war are created by the media and how the politicians manipulate the events to their advantage. The war story is spawned from Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One and Steven Spielberg’s recent Saving Private Ryan, which also indicated that there’s no doubt that World War II had to be fought but the men who fought it were just trying to survive and not be heroes. It says what a lot of other recent war films have said, that heroes are just doing their job and are reluctant to be thought of as heroes, that war takes a heavy toll on a man’s well-being, that the main reason soldiers fight is to protect their buddies and that war is no picnic. These are sentiments that are hard to dispute, and Mr. Eastwood makes sure that his message sinks in so it cannot be disputed. The film’s problem is that the screenplay is not up to snuff, as it fails to ever let the narrative become that inviting except at making lecture points–even the flag-raising, the film’s main reason for being, is done in a matter-of-fact way. It’s also not helped by veering back and forth between three uneven stories: the reluctant heroes feeling compromised by being at those outlandish war bond rallies, the men fighting on the bleached killing fields of Iwo Jima (the film’s best moments) and the contemporary scene of flag-raiser Doc Bradley taking his last gasps in a hospital and trying to relate to his son James while still haunted by the death of his best pal at Iwo Jima (scenes that I failed to connect with).

The iconic photo taken by Associated Press photographer, Joe Rosenthal, that was splashed across the front page of the American newspapers and served to give people hope that our boys were winning, just happened to be of the second flag that was put up that day on the island’s highest point and on the fifth day of the 35-day bloody American initiative to take the island from the 22,000 Japanese defenders dug in there (only 1,083 survived). The Marine casualties were also very high ( 6,821 were killed), in fact one-third of all Marines who died in World War II were killed on that tiny island during that victorious battle. We learn in this pic why it was rumored the flag-raising was staged, as the first flag was ordered to be taken down by a captain who didn’t want the flag taken by a politician to hang in his office when it was the men of his battalion that put their lives on the line to gain a victory. The second flag-raising evidently (at least according to this movie) wasn’t staged, it just didn’t happen during a battle and there was a cameraman there at the time and he just took the shot that the public loved.

The film follows the three surviving flag-raisers — John Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) — who were ordered sent home and were immediately in the spring of 1945 put on a hectic cross-country war-bond drive nicknamed the Mighty 7th that raised a whopping $26.3 billion that was much needed. The easy going Doc was a Navy corpsman and the only one who was not a Marine in the photo. Ira was a Pima Indian who never got over being haunted by Iwo Jima and the buddies he lost and had fits of sobbing, drunkenness, and was finally removed from the tour and sent back to Iwo Jima by his war-bond handlers. He’s viewed as a tragic figure who died not on the battlefield but as a civilian from booze, racism and being so tormented by his war experience he was never able to adjust to civilian life. Doc, on the other hand, raised a large family and became a mortician after the war. He remained stoic about his war experience but felt uncomfortable lying about the second photo and shunned talking about his war experiences to anyone including his family; while Rene relished leaving the battlefield and welcomed the attention of the bond rallies, hoping it would lead to some golden opportunities when the war was over–but he was forgotten as only yesterday’s hero and worked as a janitor in a factory. What all of the men had in common was that they could never leave behind the nightmares of the island, as those dark days stayed with them for the rest of their lives.

I don’t think it’s a great film due to flaws in the narrative structure that leaves too much that’s perfunctory, but I believe it’s a good film that does justice to those who are remembered as the Greatest Generation. It looks for something to say about “war” that makes us think that if we do go to war there’s a high price to pay and we should at least be given a chance to think carefully about it or else we’ll continue to make mistakes like we did in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq (think of those photos of the tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib and you know this war is doomed). Eastwood remains true to the film’s theme and doesn’t use violence to entertain the viewer but only as something that’s experienced as part of the war and necessary to keep things real. His recent films have stepped far away from his Dirty Harry and Spaghetti Western days of reckless violence used as entertainment for the masses and has taken a more serene, mature and wiser turn. The result is that his recent films have been more thought-provoking and challenging.

It should be of interest to note that Eastwood’s next film, “Letters From Iwo Jima,” expected next year, will cover the same battle at Iwo Jima but from the Japanese point of view.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”