Any movie that deals with the battle of Iwo Jima is doing so under the long, tall shadow of John Wayne and his portrayal of Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima. Thematically, however, Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers film has more in common with another Wayne movie -- John Ford’s final masterpiece, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, in which Edmund O’Brien’s soused newspaperman declares, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Flags of our Fathers is faithfully based on the great book by James Bradley, son of Navy Corpsman John Bradley, one of the men who raised the hugely symbolic American flag over Mount Suribachi early in the Battle of Iwo Jima. It tells the real story of the most reproduced photograph of all time, the raising of the flag — actually, “raisings” would be the appropriate word, given the fact that there was a less dramatic one before the iconic shot was taken — and how becoming something close to cult figures for what they felt was a routine act as their buddies were still fighting and dying affected the surviving two Marines and one sailor involved.
A rumination on heroism, war and the role political leaders and the press play in keeping a war effort alive, Flags has a complex structure of flashbacks that reflects author James Bradley’s search for his recently deceased father’s story on Iwo Jima and juxtaposes it with an account of the battle itself. The film’s point is made early on when author Bradley is interviewing a retired captain played by Harve Presnell for his book.
"The right picture can win or lose a war," the captain declares. "The country was tired of war. One photo, almost all on its own, turned that around."
That might be a bit of a stretch, but it is true that the War Department was successful in getting nearly every American newspaper to carry the dramatic photo of the flag raising, which implied victory, on the front page. The department then used the picture to launch a highly successful War Bond effort at a time when the military was starved for cash and Americans were discouraged.
On the flip side, the captain asserts, “That picture of the South Vietnamese soldier blowing that guy’s brains out” lost the Vietnam War.
Whatever image becomes emblematic of the war, Eastwood seems to be saying in a much more forceful way than the book, will determine the American people’s long-term will to carry on. This prompts the question: What journalist today is even looking for today's version of Joe Rosenthal’s iconic 1945 picture? And if such a photo were taken, would a modern network or wire service consider it newsworthy?
Unlikely. Every mainstream journalist today is looking for the equivalent of the Vietnam picture. With similar unanimity to the newspapers of the 1940s, the modern media decided the emblematic image of the Iraq War is a hooded prisoner at Abu Ghraib.
Five days after the bloody Iwo Jima landings — when one might say “major combat operations were over” and a month before the snipers and dug-in emplacements finally were rooted out, a flag was raised at the top of Mount Suribachi, which was a morale boost for those watching.
An officer ordered a switch for a new and bigger flag; whether it was because he wanted the original as a keepsake or for better visibility is arguable. But the second flag raising gave Rosenthal a chance to get a picture that was missed at the first raising. It was a one-in-a-million photo that Franklin Roosevelt and the War Department used as a symbol of victory (although it was taken on only the fifth day of a 35-day battle) and launched the most successful War Bond drive of the era.
By the time of the publicity tour, three of the six flag raisers were dead in battle on Iwo Jima. The survivors -- Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) and John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) -- were shipped stateside to appear at huge bond rallies to cheering crowds.
Wracked by survivor’s guilt, reeling from the sudden change from rockets red glare to photographers' flashbulbs bursting in air, and the feeling they had abandoned their friends in harm’s way for soft duty, the three did not take it well. All the while, they wondered what their buddies would think of all the adulation lavished on them when anyone on Iwo — where more Medals of Honor were awarded for action than any other battle in American history — knew of extraordinary deeds of heroism.
Compounding the problem was the fact that what makes the Rosenthal photo a timeless classic is no faces are featured, which led to one of the soldiers being misidentified, to the resentment of the three survivors.
Hayes, an American Indian, drowned his doubts about himself in booze, enabled by the Marine press secretary whose job it was to keep him together long enough to complete the tour. Gagnon tried to capitalize on his sudden fame to little result, while Bradley, a corpsman accustomed to caring for his men’s physical crises, found himself tending to their mental wounds as well.
The no-name cast acquits itself well, and like the photo itself, may benefit from not having the distraction of recognizable faces. As Pima Indian Hayes, Adam Beach portrays a decent, if troubled, man with admirable nuance.
As Gagnon, Jess Bradford might have the toughest job, and his fine work as the guy with movie-star looks but who isn’t able to hold the limelight easily could have degenerated into caricature. The fact that we like this guy, faults and all, is thanks to a performance that will be mostly overlooked because it seems so natural. Such also will likely be the case with Ryan Phillippe’s strong performance as “Doc” Bradley, the glue that holds them all together.
Eastwood’s battle scenes are less showy than Steven Spielberg’s in Saving Private Ryan, but feel even truer and are just as gripping and horrifying. Some might mislabel Flags of Our Fathers as revisionist or unpatriotic for Eastwood's lack of cheerleading. But this film is a methodical reminder that war — even the most justified war in history — is never what we would like it to be or what we may feel like we need it to be.
The latest Democrat talking point is that we have been in Iraq and Afghanistan longer than we were in World War II. As they say, though, figures lie and liars figure. More than 2,000 soldiers died on the first day of the Iwo landing, for a hunk of volcanic rock. Democrats acted as though that number was a huge indictment of the Bush administration three years into the Iraq War which liberated 25 million people.
Eastwood’s account is matter-of-fact and non-judgmental. While not flinching from the ironies of the often surreal situation in which these heroes found themselves as they were being made into heroes, he neither begrudges the nation what it seemed to need from these men, nor is he unsympathetic to the men for the hard time they had in dealing with it. Only the politicians who line up to bask in the reflected glory of these three and the press who hounded them come in for any scorn — and a few cheap shots.
Flags is a direct rebuke to media types who label the government's presenting its side favorably in wartime as “lies.” Even in WWII, with flag-waving aplenty in the war coverage and headlines, morale was sapped after four years of fighting, and Gold Stars hung in too many windows.
Leftists are trying to appropriate Flags as a condemnation of the use of “propaganda” in wartime. Some on the Right, meanwhile, are acting as though the scenes of the Madison Avenue version of heroism is an anti-American statement. Neither side gets it. Doing the War Bond tour was just another unpleasant thing the three servicemen did for their country, although each was far more comfortable storming off a landing craft in the teeth of machine-gun fire than playing hero before adoring crowds.
In that, they were the exemplars of what Gen. John J. Pershing’s commission found in its exhaustive study of the American soldier after World War I: He enlists because of patriotism but ultimately fights for those around him. He will refuse a suicide mission, but he will die rather than let the men around him think him a coward.
Flags of Our Fathers is not a debunking of an iconic American image — it just sets the record straight. It is unflinching and honest, and Eastwood and company never imply that the manufacturing a synthetic heroism after the fact cheapens the real heroism that preceded or succeeded it.
The fact here is even better than the legend. As the James Bradley character aptly ends the film, “The best way to honor these men is to remember them as they really were, the way my father knew them”: young men willing to give up all their tomorrows for our today.
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