War films in modern times have immersed audiences in violence. The brutal nature of conflict is depicted in ultra-realistic fashion, with little or no attention paid to how the war has been interpreted at home. Clint Eastwood's masterful "Flags of our Fathers" is an all-encompassing story of war. It is the story of the soldiers who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima in 1944. This iconic image galvanized the American war effort. The patriotism that ensued helped to win the war, but had a dramatically different effect on the men in the photograph. They were taken from the front line and sent on a tour to sell war bonds. The military capitalized on their hero status without any respect for their feelings and personal anguish. They were overcome with guilt. The truth was that the picture had been staged. That other men in their unit had raised another flag before, but had taken it down to prevent the real flag from becoming a trophy.
Eastwood's approach is brilliant and poetic. He jumps back and forth in time, employing a series of flashbacks to lay the emotional groundwork for the moment when the picture is actually taken. This structure is initially confusing, but comes together beautifully as the narrative progresses. The film is an ensemble piece with many characters, but focuses primarily on the three men who would become the public face of the Iwo Jima campaign, John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). We see them at various points in their lives. Fighting the war, coping with the stress of the war bond tour, and in the future, years after the war has ended. The picture overtook their lives. They could never accept the mythology that surrounded it.
There are great performances throughout "Flags of our Fathers". However, Adam Beach's portrayal of Native American soldier Ira Hayes is extraordinary. Hayes suffered tremendously after the war. He was overcome with guilt and remorse throughout the war bond campaign. Racism reared its ugly head and he was constantly discriminated against. Hayes became an alcoholic whose life quickly spiraled out of control. The story of Ira Hayes is by far the most compelling. Adam Beach breathes life into a soldier who gave all to his country and received nothing in return. It is truly an Oscar worthy performance.
Clint Eastwood's strength as a director is his uncanny ability to capture subtlety. "Flags of our Fathers" is an epic film. There are huge battle scenes, sweeping vistas, state-of-the-art special effects, everything you expect to see in a film of this magnitude. But the grandeur of these scenes pale in comparison to the subtlety and emotional wallop of the smaller, more interpersonal scenes. Eastwood knows how to direct actors. The scenes between the men, the establishing of camaraderie, the heartbreak of loss; these are the moments that make "Flags of our Fathers" a great film. They show that individuals suffered greatly for the cause. Even though many were lost, they left an impact on the men around them and were missed throughout their lives.
I overheard an interesting critique of this film when leaving the theater. Another critic observed that Eastwood couldn't decide whether to be patriotic or anti-patriotic. This film is both. The men fought for a cause that was just. That's obvious. What happened to them, and the way they were exploited, is a disgrace. Ira Hayes was an American hero. There's a line in the film that refers to him as 'more American than any of us'. His country failed him after the war. That is a fact. "Flags of our Fathers" is a tribute to the honor and sacrifice of these men, but also a sharp rebuke to way they were treated.
Flags of Our Fathers is out October 18, 2006.