World War II epic emotional but at times confusing
Even with its assorted imperfections and misfires, Flags of Our Fathers is one of the most impressive American films of the year so far.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, it is by turns a war movie, a multifaceted memoir of World War II and an earnest and daring set of reflections on the tragic paradoxes of heroism in war.
Screenwriters William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis haven’t managed to blend those different levels into a completely harmonious and satisfying whole, but Eastwood and company have generated a good deal of powerful dramatic emotion and a surprisingly complex array of prickly insights into the main characters’ experiences in wartime and after.
The characters in this case are the soldiers involved in the famous and now-legendary photo of the six men raising the American flag atop the Japanese island of Iwo Jima early in what proved to be the final year of World War II. Only three of the six survived the fighting on Iwo Jima, and the photo was already widely celebrated by the time they were ordered back to the States to tour the country making patriotic pitches for War Bond sales.
The variously anguished personal dramas of those three—John Bradley, Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon—stand in pointed, and sometimes scattered, contrast to the film’s hellish battle scenes, large and small alike, as well as to the occasional moments of epic grandeur.
Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), a Marine runner and the least conflicted of the three, exults in being treated as a hero but has almost no aptitude for actual combat. Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), a Navy medic haunted by nightmarish battlefield losses, is central to the film’s overall vision (his ambivalent, half-hidden memories of the war, while the Iwo Jima photo-op spurred his son James to write the best-selling book from which the film is drawn).
Hayes (Adam Beach), a Marine infantryman and an American Indian, is the most dramatically compelling character, and the most violently aggrieved. Beach gives a wrenchingly powerful performance, but the film is also distinguished by good acting in less conspicuously dramatic roles—Barry Pepper, Neil McDonough and Jamie Bell (as other Iwo Jima combatants), for example, and Tom McCarthy (as James Bradley).
On matters of history and political hype, Flags of Our Fathers is sometimes a little confusing or even incoherent. But the cumulative and composite portrait of the three central figures in the story is powerful and revealing, and not without relevance to other wars in times closer to our own.