Few photos in American history are more iconic than that of six US servicemen raising the flag on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima during World War II. But many may not know the story behind the photograph or the faceless men immortalized in it. That story is powerfully told by director Clint Eastwood in Flags of Our Fathers. (Paramount).
Based on the book by James Bradley — the son of one of the flag-raisers — and Ron Powers, the drama unfolds in Citizen Kane style, as James (played by Tom McCarthy) seeks out insights about his father, John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), by searching out veterans who served alongside him. This shapes the narrative.
Shuttling between interviews in the present and the wartime events, the film revolves around the battle for the Japanese-held island, the capture of which was key to the Allies' victory in the Pacific. After a pre-invasion assault to weaken Iwo Jima's entrenched defenses, Navy corpsman John — who remained very private about his experiences until his death in 1994 — was among the 30,000 troops to storm the beach and later take the strategically vital Mount Suribachi, atop which Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the indelible image on Feb. 23, 1945.
The other flag-raisers — all Marines — were Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), Mike Strank (Barry Pepper), Harlon Block (Benjamin Walker), Franklin Sousley (Joseph Cross), and American Indian Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), whose later life would be marked by tragedy.
The film also addresses the controversy surrounding the identities of the men in the photograph whose faces are obscured, a confusion compounded by the fact that the photo was actually of a second, later flag-raising.
Of the six men, only three — John, Rene and Ira — survive the subsequent fighting. When the widely circulated photo makes them instant celebrities, they are pulled from battle to help boost national morale back home and sell war bonds by touring packed stadiums.
While all three wear the label of “hero” uncomfortably, Ira drowns his gnawing sense of unworthiness in alcohol, believing that his fallen comrades are the ones who deserve the accolades. (He also encounters both subtle and blatant racism.)
The performances by the relatively unknown cast are all superb, but it's Beach's poignant turn that strikes the deepest chord.
Cinematically, Eastwood is at the top of his game. The combat re-creations, including an intense landing sequence that grimly echoes the Normandy invasion in Saving Private Ryan, are horrifying in their realism, showing the obscenity of war. (Eastwood is also directing Letters from Iwo Jima, which deals with the battle from the Japanese perspective.)
With Iceland standing in for the charred, cratered Iwo Jima, the scenes are shot in slate-gray tones also similar to the ashen palette of Saving Private Ryan.
There's quite a bit of carnage — at one point the Americans stumble across the grisly remains of Japanese soldiers who committed suicide by blowing themselves up — but Eastwood leaves a more brutal atrocity to the darker imaginings of the viewer.
In exploring the power of images, Eastwood acknowledges that one strong visual can exploit as easily as inspire.
But while some may interpret the film's subtext as commenting on the propagandizing potential of pictures — as much a concern today as in 1945 — the film is essentially about heroism. In exploring that theme, Eastwood does not subvert the traditional ideal of valor, but honors it by reminding us that the heroes of Iwo Jima were not supermen, but ordinary boys who rose to the occasion, sacrificing their lives to do what was needed, not for glory, but for the greater good and the guy next to them in the foxhole.
The film contains graphic images of combat violence and gore, as well as recurring rough and crude language and profanity. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
(This review appears courtesy of US Conference of Catholic Bishop's Office for Film and Broadcasting.)