A single photograph, we’re told early on in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, can win or lose a war. But sometimes that photo shows us only part of the story, whether it’s the part we don’t want to see—slaughtered villagers at My Lai, tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib—or the part we do, with heroes front and center and the carnage out of view.
In Flags, the image under scrutiny is one of the most iconic in American photojournalism: five U.S. Marines and one Navy Corpsman planting Old Glory atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during the fifth day of the 35-day battle there. That picture, “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” helped rally American support for the war, won a Pulitzer Prize for its photographer, Joe Rosenthal, and made overnight celebrities out of its subjects. But the soldiers on Mount Suribachi didn’t feel like heroes, and with good reason.
Based on the best-selling book by James Bradley, whose father, John “Doc” Bradley, was the Navy corpsman in Rosenthal’s photo, Flags of Our Fathers is about the three flag raisers who survived Iwo Jima—Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), the dashing and mildly pompous Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and the proud Pima Indian Ira Hayes (Adam Beach)—and how their moment in the spotlight irrevocably altered their lives. For these men were not the first to fly the Stars and Stripes but rather a secondary team: a different group had erected a smaller flag earlier, but a naval officer claimed it as a souvenir. The second flag, though, was the one seen around the world, its raisers plucked from duty and ferried hither and yon by wily politicians who saw the makings of an inspired PR campaign. It was not the first—or last—time that perception trumped reality in the selling of wars to the American public.
According to the press notes for Flags of Our Fathers, John Bradley was plagued in his later years by hallucinations and night terrors. Eastwood’s movie unfolds as if it were one of them, jaggedly flashing back and forth between the charcoal sands of Iwo Jima and the clinking banquet rooms where the flag raisers shill for the war bond. Executed in stark widescreen compositions all but drained of color, the battle scenes are as visceral and nerve-fraying as anything in Saving Private Ryan—no small feat, given that Eastwood is 76 this year and has never directed a film of this enormous physical scale. The landing on Iwo Jima is a master class in controlled chaos, as machine-gun bullets stream out of camouflaged Japanese pillboxes and mortar fire turns human bodies into sizzling piles of flesh and bone. But the most surreal, unsettling images in Flags come later, when Bradley, Gagnon and Hayes are pressed into reenacting their storied feat as a vaudeville spectacle—and when, at a celebratory dinner, they see the huddled likeness of themselves and their fallen brothers transformed into an ice-cream sculpture.
To an extent, Flags of Our Fathers is to the WWII movie what Eastwood’s Unforgiven was to the Western—a stripping-away of mythology until only a harsher, uncomfortable reality remains. But what Eastwood really does is call into question an entire way of reading history, by which the vast and incomprehensible are reduced to digestible symbols and meanings. In war—Eastwood offers us a timely reminder—who is just and unjust depends on which side you’re watching from. To further the point, his next movie, Letters From Iwo Jima, will tell the story from the perspective of the Japanese.
In the meantime, with Flags, Eastwood has made one of his best films—a conflicted, searching and morally complex deconstruction of the Greatest Generation that is nevertheless rich in the sensitivity to human frailty that has become, through movies like The Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, the signature of a filmmaker originally celebrated as a strong and silent tough guy. This comes through strongest in the characterization of Hayes. The man’s post-war descent into alcoholism and near-madness has been told many times before, in song (“The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” covered by Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash) and on screen (1961’s The Outsider, starring Tony Curtis), but never quite with the haunted intensity that Eastwood and Beach (who has never registered this powerfully on screen) bring to it. Theirs is an agonizing portrait of a man unable to readjust to civilian life, tormented by recognition he felt he didn’t deserve. It is made all the more poignant by Eastwood’s revelation, late in the film, that Hayes—like all of the men who raised the second flag over Iwo Jima—did show extraordinary bravery on the battlefield, just not in the way for which he was remembered. A picture may be worth a thousand words. But for John Bradley, Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes, there were thousands more that went unspoken.