Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers is as good a movie as the director has ever made. Eastwood proves, in an era where youth is valued so highly, that people do get better, wiser with age. In fact, this Renaissance man is currently doing his most vital, creative, daring work. He does it his own way. He remains curious, thoughtful, emotional and always unafraid of what might be coming next.
Even though he won the Oscar for Million Dollar Baby, it is the weakest of the last three films he has made. He picked the right actors and the story was decent, but it is, at its heart, a sappy love story. Eastwood makes perfectly fine love stories – he is a romantic, after all. But it’s his darker films that show what he can really do, starting with Unforgiven, for which he won his first directing Oscar. Mystic River and now Flags for Our Fathers show a deeper, less optimistic side. In most of his films a “question authority” theme runs through them, to put it mildly, all the way up to his latest masterpiece, Flags of Our Fathers.
Not only has Eastwood made an unsentimental, terrifying war film, but, at the same time, he has made Letters from Iwo Jima, which tells the story of the battle from the viewpoint of the Japanese, to be released in February of next year. One event, two films, two different points of view.
Flags of our Fathers tells a personal story of John Bradley, a boy reflecting back on his mysterious father’s life during World War II, and specifically, as one of the men who lifted the famous flag on the mountaintop at Iwo Jima – you know, THAT photo. Based on Bradley’s book and adapted by William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis (who also wrote Million Dollar Baby, and last year’s Oscar winner, Crash, which he also directed), Flags is as much about Bradley’s understanding of his father as it is about the idea of mythmaking.
Often, soldiers come back from wars refusing to talk about them. Whatever they had to do over there, whatever they had to endure, must be buried somewhere inside so as not to come back out and ruin their lives. Bradley knew what his father’s past was, but the silence between them made the boy wonder. Through his eyes, we see what his father’s life must have been like.
When the film goes to Iwo Jima, the story is parsed out in groups, saving the most gruesome battle sequences for the end. What is necessary here is the juxtaposition between the horrors of combat on Iwo Jima and the silly charade back home to raise money for the war effort.
A group of guys who had fought in Iwo Jima were suddenly discovered as “those men in the photo.” The other men had been killed in the long battle after the flag was raised. Ryan Phillippe plays Doc Bradley, Jesse Bradford is Rene (a publicity-seeking soldier who may or may not have been the one in the picture) and the most tortured of the three men, Ira Hayes, is played brilliantly by sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated Adam Beach.
Ira is haunted by memories of the brutal combat on Iwo Jima. It isn’t easy for him to transition out of that and suddenly become a famous celebrity. It didn’t help that he was an American Indian at a time when there was still prejudice against them. For Ira, the rallies and the parades felt pointless. But, the war must go on. And those three men were used to make Americans think the war was winnable, therefore, they would shell out their dough to keep it going. As it turned out, that war WAS winnable. And win it we did. But just because we won it, doesn’t mean our men felt like heroes when they came home.
We need them to be heroes; we need to believe that heroes exist. But because we all believed in that one photo, drew our conclusions of what that battle must have been like, we didn’t get the true story. Eastwood shows us at the end that the Battle of Iwo Jima wasn’t one photo. There were many photos; there were many heroes in those weeks on that island. Those heroes were forgotten; those photos never seen. And there was heroism and beauty. Eastwood tells it so gracefully by letting the photographs speak for themselves.
Top to bottom, Eastwood has assembled a fine cast. As if it wasn’t enough he made two films in a year, he also found the time to do the original score. Eastwood, at 76, is just hitting his stride. Way to go, Clint.