By the time of the Battle of Iwo Jima beginning in February 1945, the American public was disillusioned with the Second World War, its costs, both financial and human—a fact about the mid-’40s homefront that has been swept into the winds of history. After the U.S. Air Force had bombed the area into barren, desolate pitch, an advance unit raised the American flag on Mount Suribachi, but the flag was removed to accommodate a politician’s appetite for trophies. A second flag was summarily raised, and it is this event that Joe Rosenthal snapped for the Associated Press, creating a powerful photograph that seized the imaginations of folks back home, turning to renewed toughness their frayed hope of victory. (We had already won in Europe, and a weary public just wanted to pack the Pacific war in.) As a result, three of the six men—two marines and one navy corpsman—who had participated in the second flag-raising were sent home for a bond tour to raise funds for continuing the war. They were regarded as heroes, but not by themselves. ( “The real heroes of Iwo Jima were the guys who didn’t come back.”) Taken out of combat for this public relations and funds-boosting mission, two of the three felt that they had abandoned their comrades on the battlefield. All suffered, each in his own way.
Inherited from the nonfictional 2000 book on which Clint Eastwood’s film is based, the title Flags of Our Fathers makes ironical cross-references. The first plural ostensibly refers to inherited patriotism, but this is undercut by the unintentional duplicity of the two different raised flags, which the U.S. government exploited toward its own ends. (One must add that one of those pictured in the photograph was initially misidentified; once officials learned the error, they persisted in its promulgation for the sake of neatness and to save face, thus robbing the actual marine of his due—a metaphor for how easily combatants were sacrificed for the war effort.) The plural pronoun in the title extends the inherited patriotism to the realm of an epic occurrence, but the notion of a unified nation that this implies once again is undercut by the fact that, and possibly the degree to which, the government was lying to its people. (Our government; the United States government.) Finally, the closing plural implies a legacy of governmental deceit where war is concerned, undercutting the honor that ought to be the due of fallen heroes. In truth, as I have already indicated, the raising of the flag was a big lie. The bulk of the battle had yet to be bloodily waged.
I hope my analysis of the title convinces you of its brilliance, the richness of its associations, many of which are also applicable to the current Bush administration’s steady stream of lies pertaining to its invasion and occupation of Iraq, which has led to ghastly civil war there. I regret to say that little if any of Eastwood’s lame film lives up to the title.
The book is credited to James Bradley, the son of the navy corpsman, John “Doc” Bradley, who was involved in the photographed flag-raising—James Bradley, that is, “with Ron Powers.”
Eastwood’s film opens with his own soft, low voice pleasantly though tentatively singing the 1944 song “I’ll Walk Alone” by Jule Styne and Sammy Kahn. This whispery echo of the wartime homefront is all the sound that accompanies the opening title and studio credits; aborting the tune is the combat into which the film’s opening scene plunges the viewer. For no good reason, much of the film is monstrously taken up by this loud and gruesome warfare. The rationale for its inclusion might be yet another lie: “Well, gee, all this repetitious chaos and carnage project what combatants must endure, and it’s important for viewers to get a sense of this.” It is amazing that Eastwood might think that in effect lying to his audience (if indeed I have correctly nabbed his rationale) is a good way to challenge how governments lie to their combatants, their families and other citizens. It takes a liar to expose a liar? Eastwood is being credited for portraying war as lackluster, shorn of all titillation, in whose arena we see that combatants do not fight for flag or country but only for one another, to help one another, to try to keep one another alive so that they might fight another day. Three minutes of such footage, if devised by an artist, would suffice to establish this and convey all this with far greater force than Eastwood’s extended version manages. By making excuses for Eastwood’s rank incompetence, filmgoers, including “critics,” are themselves turned into liars.
The script by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis is incompetent in the extreme, but we have no way of knowing to what degree the film’s final form makes the script appear even worse by a messy juggling of four time-frames: the Iwo Jima battleground; the bond tour (with flashbacks to the Iwo Jima battleground); post-war, as the three former combatants try to get on with their lives (with more flashbacks to the Iwo Jima battleground); near to our own time, where “Doc” is so old that he is no longer played (convincingly) by Ryan Phillippe but (un- ) by George Grizzard. (Eastwood himself might have done a better job, but there’d be no explaining how “Doc” had grown so much taller.) Here also there are flashbacks to the war because in this narrative frame son James is busying about interviewing folks and writing the book. That old warhorse Eastwood, it turns out, is a post-modernist!
Well, not quite. There’s something pre-modernist about that narrative frame: it’s horribly sentimental. It is even more loaded with cheap father-son sentimentality than Chaplin’s The Kid, or Boys’ Town (“father” as in Father Flanagan). This might be an apt time to note that Steven Spielberg is one of the film’s producers.
We more than “get” the message that war haunts combatants long after the fighting has stopped, possibly even for the rest of their lives. But all this zig-zagging amongst four different time-frames is confusing and irritating. Flags of Our Fathers is a narrative nightmare; it’s very hard to follow.
Despite what Eastwood has implied and what others, taking their cue from him, have stated, the film is not antiwar. Nothing in the shots suggests that it is anything other than neutral about war. Eastwood has simply been trying to expand the film’s audience base by saying or not-quite-saying all sorts of things about the film that the film in no way reflects. The ruse hasn’t worked this time; audiences have expressed little or no interest in the film, at least during its theatrical run. As it happens, for all its incompetence, though, this is Eastwood’s best film since Bird (1988).
It certainly is creditable on the score of demonstrating the role of media, embedded or un- , in influencing homefront opinion about a current war. I only wish it had done more with Rosenthal’s photograph per se. As it is, the famous photo is relegated to a launching pad for the narrative and a particular line of thematic inquiry. Eastwood loves jazz, but (as his films also show) he has little if any interest in visual art.
Adam Beach, the likeable Saulteaux Native Canadian who has starred in Smoke Signals (Portland, Oregon-born Chris Eyre, 1998) and Windwalkers (John Woo, 2002), plays Ira Hayes, but, despite the praise he has been receiving (but not the widely predicted Oscar nomination), he has done no better than Eastwood has at establishing a causal connection between the Pima Native American’s alcoholism and his exploitation (during the bond tour) at the hands of his government. By the way, Tony Curtis played the same person in The Outsider (Delbert Mann, 1961).
Eastwood composed the score for Flags of Our Fathers. It’s terrible.