Sunday, November 05, 2006

Flags of Our Fathers / **** (R)

John “Doc” Bradley: Ryan Phillippe
Rene Gagnon: Jesse Bradford
Ira Hayes: Adam Beach
Keyes Beech: John Benjamin Hickey
Bud Gerber: John Slattery
Mike Strank: Barry Pepper
Ralph “Iggy” Ignatowski: Jamie Bell
Hank Hansen: Paul Walker
Colonel Chandler Johnson: Robert Patrick
Captain Severance: Neal McDonough

Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks SKG and Warner Bros. present a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis, based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers. Running time: 132 min. Rated R (for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language).

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a friend about relatives who were in World War II. Both of us are movie buffs, and we remembered a scene from the 1999 David Lynch film “The Straight Story” in which two elderly veterans of that war meet in a bar half a century later and express how painful it is to remember that time in their lives and how no one could understand what they’d been through. We both agreed that in our experience with our own family members, no other scene had ever hit the nail so squarely on the head about that war’s survivors.

“Flags of Our Fathers” is based on the third person memoir written by James Bradley and Ron Powers about the men who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima, where that iconic picture of five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising the American flag atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi was taken. Bradley’s own grandfather John Bradley was the Navy medic in the picture and one of three men who survived long enough to be brought back to the States for a war bonds tour that helped save the U.S. from losing the war.

When I first heard of this production, I was both excited and surprised because it marked the first ever collaboration between my two favorite current American filmmakers, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg. The two are pretty much polar opposites as directors, but they match up well together with Eastwood directing and Spielberg producing this war epic. I don’t think one could have made this film without the other.

“Flags of Our Fathers” is really like two different films put together into one. The Battle of Iwo Jima itself is a spectacular war piece. Spielberg and the special effects team go to great lengths to show the magnitude of the U.S. forces sent to take this tiny island of rock between the U.S. controlled Marinas Islands and the Japanese mainland. The landing on the beach, with its black sulfuric sands, acts as a kind of mirror to Spielberg’s own opening to “Saving Private Ryan” with its depiction of the shore landing at Normandy.
It is immediately clear that we were fighting a very different war in the Pacific than the European Theater presented in that film. Instead of the soldiers being mowed down before they even reached the shore, the Japanese allowed the first line well onto the island before engaging in attack because of the way they were entrenched into the island itself with a series of secret tunnels.

Eastwood’s straight forward approach is not wasted in the battle sequences, however.
With Spielberg providing the spectacular details, Eastwood allows Iwo Jima a stark quality that is reflected in its barren landscape. There are none of the “glamorous” Hollywood style shots of soldiers having cinematic moments that many accused “Private Ryan” of exploiting for emotional effect. There is a deliberate confusion to the sequence of events on the island and to the fate of the soldiers that marks the grit of Eastwood more so than the polish of Spielberg. The breaking of linear storytelling allows Eastwood to keep the tension of the action high despite the fact that the audience knows which soldiers make it home.

Eastwood’s strengths as a director are more clearly seen in his depiction of the 7th War Bonds tour three of the soldiers find themselves on while their buddies continue to fight and die overseas. When that famous flag raising photo captures the nation’s attention, the government comes looking for the men in the photo. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford, TV’s “The West Wing”), a runner for the beach base rather than a frontline soldier, claims to have been in the photo and is the only soldier willing to name all of the other men in it. John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe, “Gosford Park”) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, “Windtalkers”) are the only other surviving members of the photo.

Eastwood’s gift for intimate character based drama drives the story of these soldiers turned public relations men. Gagnon is a natural for the role of spokesman. Hayes cannot handle being called a hero for merely “[trying] not to get shot.” Doc must act as the tour’s peace keeper while trying to deal with the hell he has been through himself.

Eastwood has a subtle way of letting the audience experience the inner turmoil of these characters. You can feel Hayes’s anguish, delivered more with tears than words by Beach, in a scene where he hugs one of the mothers of the men from the picture who did not survive the battle. During the same scene, Doc must lie to one of the mothers who was told her son was there, when he had actually raised an earlier flag, not the one seen in the picture.

That the flag pictured is not the original is fairly well known today. At the time, however, it was a thorny issue because the perception that it was not the original flag gave the somewhat mistaken impression that the photo was staged. This brings to mind a great many issues about the state of war in our country today. The press in the film jump like vultures on the notion that the picture may have been set up, while the government holds firm that it was the first flag to be raised on Iwo Jima. This idea that the first report of that photo was the truth was a major factor in the success of that 7th War Bonds tour and the primary reason the U.S. did not have to retreat from the Pacific Theater. This leads to a complicated question: should we perhaps be less quick to question the choices our government makes during war, or should our government perhaps realize that our relationship with the media and the way wee get news is much different than it was in 1945?

This politicized debate, however, does not seem to be the point of this picture. Eastwood makes it very clear the telling of this story is meant to be a tribute to the soldiers who fought for their country, both the idealized version of their tale and the actual story. He intercuts both stories together throughout the film even though the bonds tour happened after the Battle of Iwo Jima, which lasted another 35 days after that famous photo was snapped.

The story of these three soldiers and their fellow Marines from that battle was not something that merely existed in some chronology of the war, but was something they, like the two old men in “The Straight Story”, continued to live with for the rest of their lives. Their story is something we all live with to this day. Their efforts for our country, both the reality and the fiction, deserve tribute and reflection; for both have shaped this country and our lives.

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