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Movie Review: Flags of Our Fathers

Flags of Our Fathers
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis from the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers
Dreamworks/Warner Bros.

Clint Eastwood is back, ho-humming a big Oscar-bait release into theatres as if it shouldn’t be treated as an event, the same way he dropped Million Dollar Baby, a movie that came out of nowhere to win Best Picture of 2004.  I can’t help but think that Eastwood, who beat Martin Scorsese (The Aviator) for Best Director that year, might not be pitted against him again this year.

This World War II drama concerns the famous Battle of Iwo Jima photograph, the raising of the flag by the soldiers all lined up in a crouching row, backs to the camera.  The photograph symbolized hope for America winning the war, even though the story behind it was a lot of lies.  The living members in the photograph, John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), are back in the States and urged to use their “heroism” as a means to inspire rich people to open their pocketbooks to buy war bonds.  This even though the photograph is of a second hoisting of the flag after the first one was taken down. 

Of that first flag hoisting, the deceased Hank Hansen (Paul Walker) is incorrectly associated with the six of the famous picture, when it is actually the deceased Harlon Block (Benjamin Walker) that took part.  Two other soldiers, Franklin Sousley (Joseph Cross) and Mike Strank (Barry Pepper) are also dead.  The three living members have a hard time considering themselves heroes when they feel those who died are the real heroes, that the photo is of an event that didn’t even closely resemble representing victory (the Battle of Iwo Jima took 35 more days after the flag was planted), and they really didn’t do much other than that; their main function was survival.

We get to know the three living members well, especially Ira Hayes, the Native American who experienced all sorts of blatant racism and casual didn’t-mean-no-harm racism, while having a serious drinking problem.  It’s through Bradley’s eyes (and his son wrote the book on which this is based) that the battle is seen being waged; an epic air, sea, and mountain conflict on Japanese sacred ground.

And what a battle.  Remember how Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan basically blew its wad in the first thirty minutes of the tour-de-force Normandy invasion?  Eastwood’s staging of Iwo Jima is just as impressive, but it wisely cuts it up into flashbacks.  Had he staged it as Spielberg had in SPR, the movie might have seemed a bit flat afterwards, even though the drama is compelling.  I’m not sure Eastwood has ever done something like this on such a grand scale; the battles are breathtaking and horrific.

But the war scenes would mean nothing if the aftermath wasn’t compelling; and Eastwood shows us the big middle finger to the survivors of the photo who were used and abused when they returned home, not to mention the families of the dead.

An all-around good film.

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