It's unfortunate that the publicity team promoting Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers has seized a bite of dialogue for the film's catchphrase. The trailers tell us that, sometimes, a single photograph can win or lose a war. That line is uttered early on in Eastwood's sad and searingly brutal film, but it isn't ever convincing, and it barely registers among the film's concerns. The specific photograph at issue is Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of six American soldiers raising the Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima's blood-soaked Mt. Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945. That image was subsequently used in recruiting and fundraising campaigns and memorialized in marble statues. But Eastwood goes to considerable pains to remind us that no picture won World War II or any battle within it. That war, as are all wars, was won by soldiers, young men barely out of high school, who gave up their lives or their limbs or their lifelong peace of mind, for terribly complicated reasons including duty and honor and patriotism but extensively having to do with obedience. They stormed onto beaches or rushed up mountains into harm's way because they were told to do so by someone in authority, someone who infrequently took a comparable personal risk
Written by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis and based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, Flags of Our Fathers is the story of the men in Rosenthal's photograph and what happened to them after the click of a shutter preserved their faceless images for the propaganda machine of their own time and the history books to come. Though rumors that Rosenthal's snapshot was staged are unfounded, almost everything the photo appears to communicate is tinged with irony. The picture would seem to represent victory and undaunted courage, but it actually captured neither. It was taken on the fifth day of a battle for Iwo Jima that would continue on for another grisly five weeks. And the flag the soldiers planted was the second, a replacement for the first, which was ordered taken down as a souvenir for a ranking officer who had little to do with its planting. The men were not under fire at the time. But neither was victory at hand, and three of the six soldiers would lay down their lives in the weeks immediately ahead. The other three were whisked home to spearhead a publicity campaign arising out of the photograph, but all felt uncomfortable about being utilized in this fashion, each somewhat suffering survivor's guilt and shame over finding themselves in the rear when the men with whom they served were still facing the enemy in the field.
The three survivors were navy medical corpsman John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and marines Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). In the film, this trio is subjected to a series of indignities as they go about their assignment of helping promote investment in war bonds. Gagnon adapts to the role most comfortably. Bradley does his duty with the resolve of Sisyphus rolling his rock up hill. But Hayes falls apart and spends most of his time in a teary, alcoholic fog. Though Bradley's story is the focal one, Hayes' is the more unsettling and traumatic (and the subject of the 1961 film The Outsider, starring Tony Curtis). A Pima Indian, Hayes was forced to endure racial stereotyping and discrimination, even while being hailed as a hero.
Stateside, all these young men are asked to dress once again in battle gear and climb a papier mache "mountain" to reenact their famous flag-planting "heroics" before screaming fans at a football game or speak at a banquet where the dessert is an ice cream sculpture in the shape of Rosenthal's photograph. The experience is so dispiriting that the soldiers never speak of it afterwards. Doc Bradley's son James (Tom McCarthy) learns what his father went through only after his father's death five decades later.
Flags of Our Fathers is structured as a montage. The film cuts back and forth in time from the three survivors on their fundraising tour to the withering fight for Iwo Jima with scenes of appalling violence reminiscent of those in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Though they routinely reject being designated heroes, Bradley and Hayes, in particular, really do exhibit courage under fire. Critically, though, like all the men in the Iwo Jima assault and, in fact, all the men sent into the front lines of wars throughout history, all the men in the survivors' unit are mere human cogs in a massive military machine. They may have families who love them and girlfriends waiting for them back home, but to those who command them they are pawns in a live chess match: They are expendable in the service of a greater objective. Eastwood drives this point home repeatedly. Using young, not-well-known actors, he makes his characters barely distinguishable, one from the next. Early on, when a sailor falls overboard as the American armada sails toward Iwo Jima's black sands, no lifeboat is dispatched to rescue him. The navy has more important concerns than one man desperately treading water in the Pacific brine.
Flags of Our Fathers is not an antiwar film the way Apocalypse Now is an antiwar film. In fact, Flags of Our Fathers doesn't address the larger politics of war at all. It pointedly does, however, take a very jaundiced view of how soldiers are regarded by the military institutions they serve. The film doesn't suggest that it might actually be otherwise, but it does insist that the dignity and even the survival of its individual troops are low among military priorities. And that's something for us all to bear in mind on any occasion that as a nation we ask our sons, and now our daughters too, to take up arms on our behalf.
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- In one of the most famous, popular and propagandized images of wartime heroism, six soldiers raise the American flag during the battle to capture Iwo Jima from the Japanese near the end of World War II.