Flags of Our Fathers (2006): Eastwood’s War Epic–Deconstructive Genre Movie

Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers is this year’s most socially significant American film.
It’s effective as a war epic that reconstructs the cruel battle of Iwo Jima, and as a morality drama that deconstructs how the battle and the iconic photo it produced were perceived by the military-industrial-political complex, the news media, and the American public at large.

Eastwood is obviously experiencing an artistic height, one that began with “Mystic River” in 2002, continued with the Oscar-winning “Million Dollars Baby” in 2004, and now “Flags of Our Fathers.” Three great pictures in a row is an achievement that few filmmakers can claim, particularly directors of Eastwood’s age.

Thematically, “Flags of Our Fathers” establishes a direct link to Eastwood’s 1992 Oscar- winner “Unforgiven,” as both movies deconstruct prevalent myths in American history. If the 1992 Western contests and revises the myth of the gunslinger and violence in the Old West, “Flags of Our Fathers” does the same for the myths of war heroes and American history, specifically, how heroes and images are created, fabricated, and sold to the populace.

As such, “Flags of Our Fathers” is not just an honorable companion piece to “Unforgiven,” but one that in ambition, scope, and timeliness (allusions to Iraq War are inevitable) surpasses that Western. It’s no secret that Eastwood’s films have increasingly become darker in vision, and spiritual in naturesort of uniquely American morality plays that challenge the very foundations of American culture, past and present.

The biggest compliment I can pay “Flags of Our Fathers” is to say that the film is effective as a revisionist WWII film, one that turns John Wayne’s 1949 version, “Sands of Iwo Jima,” into a nave agit-prop piece, as well as sharp anatomy of the zeitgeist–all segments American society, including the government and home front–in 1945, during the last year of the War.

Produced by Spielberg, who owned the rights to the James Bradley’s literary source material, “Flags of Our Fathers” also bears his effect, particularly in the ending, which recalls both the conclusion of “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” Spielberg’s own revisionist WWII drama.

Showering praise doesn’t mean the film is perfect. The last reel is dragging, with too many endings, some of which sentimental in a way that Eastwood’s films usually are not. Structurally, too, the film may be too fractured, with too many and flashbacks, some of which very brief while others inserted in obvious and conventional way. (See below).

The film is framed by voice-over narration of the film’s hero, John Doc Bradley (Len Cariou) as an old man, looking back at the war experience, while talking to his son, author James Bradely, who is researching the event and its aftermath.

The first two reels conform to the conventions of war pictures, introducing a diverse unit, while it’s being shipped to Japan. In quick, efficient brushes–Eastwood’s signature–we get the context, the assignment, the macho lingo (toughening the boys with talk about masturbation papers), but there are also indications of what’s to come, when the sacred motto, “leaving no man behind,” is immediately put to test and violated.

The film’s essence, however, is in decoding the politics and ideology underlining what became the most indelible image of the Pacific War, a moment in time caught on film of five Marines and one Navy Corpsman raising the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi, just days into the vicious battle for the Japanese garrison of Iwo Jima, a desolate island of black sand beaches and sulfurous caves.

It’s quickly established that for the men caught in the photo, raising the flag is one small formal detail in the midst of a grueling battle, one of the worst in casualties. However, to those back home, the iconic image of six men wordlessly working together to prevail against devastating odds instantly reshapes the notion of a new kind of American hero.

The yarn captures, like no other American film, the public’s need and even hunger for heroes, as it’s weary of a seemingly endless war. The iconic photo, which is present and shapes everywhere–including chocolate and strawberry covered desserts in restaurants–gives mothers reason to believe their sons will come back alive, and it bears strong meaning to those grieving for sons who have died.

To capitalize on the wave of sentiment the photo inspires, the surviving Flag Raisers are pulled out of combat by government order and are sent back to the States. Ordered to serve their country not in the battlefield but among adoring crowds, they’re asked play true heroes, so that people would write desperately needed checks to fund the War effort. In these sections, Eastwood captures the notion of the war hero as a salesman, used, abused and manipulated by politicians, the news media, and civilians at large.

Only three of the six soldiers who raised the flag make it back alive: John Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), a Navy Corpsman; Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), a publicity-shy Native American; and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), a wartime messenger who avoids firing his weapon.

On the surface, the three Flag Raisers play the hero role to perfection. Realizing the very power of their image to rescue the flagging War effort, they tirelessly tour the country, shake the right hands, and speak the right words into microphones.

The tone of the film’ second part changes, offering a cynical, sobering lesson of how history is made, or rather fabricated, and then disseminated to the public. Inwardly, the trio finds that, along with their friends felled in combat, their souls will never leave the black soils of Iwo Jima. Some, like Ira Hayes, request to be shipped back to battle.

It also becomes clear that the famous photo of the flag-raising, taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, actually depicts the second flag-raising on the island. After the invasion on February 19, the Marine fifth division–to which the Flag Raisers belong–begins the attempt to capture Mt. Suribachi. By the fifth day, the American forces have suffered devastating casualties, but have also forced the Japanese to retreat into the island’s caves. Which turns into a vicious battle of hidden snipers and machine guns.

That morning, as a gesture of hope and good will toward the men, a flag is ordered to be raised atop the mountain. Secretary of the Navy wants that flag as a souvenir for himself, but instead of that flag, which Colonel Chandler Johnson (Robert Patrick) wants to preserve for the unit, Marine runner Gagnon is instructed to carry up another, larger and cleaner, flag, to raise in its place.

Gagnon climbs to the top of the mountain, where he finds Marines Michael Strank, Harlon Block, Ira Hayes, and Franklin Sousley, who have spent the morning laying a telephone line. They quickly locate an old Japanese water pipe, which requires six men to lift, and Navy Corpsman Bradley lends a hand.

Rosenthal puts down his camera and begins piling rocks to gain a better vantage point. Realizing hes about to miss his shot, he picks up his camera and presses the shutter release. Less than a second later, history is made, literally. AP photo editor John Bodkin sees it and radiophotos it to New York. Seventeen and one-half hours after Rosenthal shot it, the photo is on the AP wire.

Eastwood’s saga gears into a chilly and suspenseful mystery once the photo’s real story begins to spread around. Three of the men in the photo are killed in combat after being photographed, but the three survivors, Gagnon, Hayes and Bradley are brought home. With the government desperate to sell war bonds to fund the USs efforts in WWII, they are asked to serve their country as fundraisers, thus play a crucial part of the Seventh War Loan Drive.

It’s to the credit of scripters William Broyles Jr. (“Apollo 13”) and Paul Haggis (“Crash”) that they avoid clichs in portraying the fighters. All six characters emerge as individuals, and the fact they look, sound, and behave in a personal, even idiosyncratic, way addresses the main problem faced by Ridley Scott in “Black Hawk Down” and Terrence Malick’s “Thin Red Line,” in which there were no individual characters (in the former) and it was impossible to distinguish among them (in the latter).

John Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) is a Navy Corpsman, who administers first aid to the other soldiers on ground. Honest, simple, and straightforward, he plays a crucial role with his medical procedures of doing tourniquets or pressuring bandages and slings. With the brutality of Iwo Jima’s combat, Doc is often the last person the soldiers see before dying. Iggy (Jamie Bell), a young soldier Doc takes under his wing, is among those who haunt him long after Iwo Jima.

Ironically, fate puts Doc into a new smaller unit comprised of the three surviving Flag Raisers, including Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford). As expressive as Bradley is taciturn, as outgoing as Bradley is introverted, Gagnon is the one serviceman who cultivates and celebrates the fame that comes with the bond tour before realizing the price that it takes.

Gagnon, just 19, is sort of a mamas boy, not quite cut out for war. But he turns out to be a classic American hero, always trying to make good, do everything thats expected, in and out of battle. He gets married to the perky Pauline (Melanie Lynskey), who proudly joins him on the road, and Doc is asked to serve as his best man.

While touring the States, the trio is given celebrity recognition, parties and people lavishing excessive attention, an experience that proves discombobulating for youngsters who had tasted real battleand death. Gagnons brashness seems a contrast to the other characters reluctance to play heroes, but his emotions are just as complex. In the end, Gagnon becomes a fallible hero too.

In one of many emotional scenes, as the three Flag Raisers are led onto a platform in Times Square, packed with thousands of people, Gagnon tells the crowd that theyre not the real heroes–the real heroes are dead on the island. He thus conveys the price of becoming a public figure, a celeb under the pressure of needing to smile and look heroic by demand.

The film’s most complex character is Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), the third Flag Raiser, the enigmatic Native American who confronts racism when not on duty. Of the three, Hayes experiences the greatest difficulty adjusting to celebrity and regular life, which drives him to retreat into the bottle. He gets into fights; talks back; and is often drunk in public, which precipitates a humiliating exchange with an official who charges Hayes is “a disgrace to the country.”

Having fought in three of the Pacific’s bloodiest battles, and having survived them, Hayes wants is to be back in the field with his comrades, fighting side-by-side. Unable reconcile being safe while his friends are still fighting, Hayes doesnt know how to handle his new life his fate is the most tragic of the trio.

The film also chronicles the fate of the three Flag Raisers who don’t survive the battle: Michael Strank (splendidly played by Barry Pepper, who was also in “Saving Private Ryan” and “We Were Soldiers”) the brave, inspirational leader, who at 25 is older and more experienced that the novices serving under him.

In early news reports on the photograph, Pfc. Harlon Block (Benjamin Walker) is misidentified as Marine Hank Hansen (Paul Walker). The final Flag Raiser, Franklin Sousley (Joseph Cross) is a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky guy, more nave than the others. He provides a lot of entertainment for his unit. They pick on him as the “younger brother,” but its all good-natured.

The whole cast, there are over 100 speaking parts, is credible, in large measure due to gifted casting director Phyllis Huffman, who passed away during the production. Space doesn’t permit me to dwell on all of them. Neil McDonough portrays the tough Captain Severance; John Benjamin Hickey plays Keyes Beech, the Navy PR officer who joins the Flag Raisers on their myriad personal appearances, first with a handlers indifference before allowing himself to feel compassion for the reluctant spokesmen.

Eastwood doesn’t neglect the home front, specifically the Gold Star Mothers–the Flag Raisers’ mothers, played by Myra Turley as Madeline Evelley, Hank Hansens mother; Ann Dowd as Mrs. Strank, mother of Mike Strank; and Connie Ray as Mrs. Sousley, Franklin Sousleys mother. Judith Ivey plays Mrs. Block, who swears its her own son Harlon in the picture, when told officially its someone elses child, and Beth Grant plays Gagnons mother.

To bring Flags of Our Fathers to vivid life, Eastwood has reassembled his vet collaborators. Producer Robert Lorenz has overseen Eastwoods five most recent films. Michael Owens is the visual effects supervisor and second unit director. Director of photography Tom Stern (5 films with Eastwood), costume designer Deborah Hopper (5 films as designer), editor Joel Cox (20 films), and production designer Henry Bumstead (11 films with Eastwood).

End note

As a testament to their close working relationship and friendship, Eastwood has dedicates the film to the memory of Huffman and Bumstead. Before his death earlier this year, Bumstead, 93, had completed his set design for Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwoods companion film to Flags of Our Fathers, which tells the story from the Japanese’s POV.