Clint Eastwood is a famous actor and respected director, but he also has a more subtle – and, arguably, underrated – talent for musical composition. For his last two films, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby (both Best Picture nominees), Mr. Eastwood has insisted on composing the sparse musical accompaniment himself, a practice whose dividends continue with his most recent project, Flags of Our Fathers, a World War II epic that tries and succeeds, mostly, in carving out for itself a niche in this overcrowded genre that saw its most complete expression in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan not so many years ago.
For better or worse, Flags is strongly reminiscent of that film for much of its running time, offering up the same grisly imagery, disconcertingly disorienting soundscape, and thoughtful meditation on the morally clouded and painfully human aspects of its "heroes." And indeed, it is the very concept of the hero that Flags works to explore, and ultimately to dispel, at least in objective terms.
Revolving around the iconic moment captured in Joe Rosenthal's 1945 photograph "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima," the film eradicates any romanticized notion of the flag-raising as a courageous epitomization of American patriotism by revealing its less-than-savory exploitation by a government eager for some good news. The three surviving members of that motley crew are shipped back to the States for a shamelessly dumb tour of the country in a desperate attempt to raise $14 billion–"that's billion with a 'b'!"–for a dangerously depleted military.
These three men, the proud yet sullen American Indian Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), the nervous and eager-to-please Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and the stoic and wounded John Bradley (Ryan Philippe) are the lens through which we view the drama. They bicker, doubt, and are disgusted at what they do in service to the political machine, perhaps even more so than at the horrors they left dead or dying on the black sands of Iwo Jima, and in this they serve as a proxy for the viewer, though one sufficiently removed as to spare us the unspeakable sorrow that each carries with him.
This is not to say that the film is uninvolving. While the battles can be exhausting at times, the welcome appearance of the score's simple melody, developed on guitar and piano, is sufficient to imbue the scarred vistas of the island with a kind of poetic resonance. That potency is heightened when the camera closes in tightly, as it does at the most appropriate of times, on one actor, time seemingly suspended as grim determination washes over his face, as when John, his silhouette in inky relief against the brightness of a cave opening, peers in to glimpse the gruesome fate of a fallen comrade (a sight that we do not see). To witness his strange mix of fear, anger, and sadness is to glimpse the emotional heart of Flags of Our Fathers, to begin to understand the extraordinary effects that mortality and brutality can have on ordinary people — which Ira, John, and Rene most certainly are.
Rather than telling the story chronologically, Mr. Eastwood makes the risky decision to recount it via numerous flashbacks, the frequency of which increases as the film goes along. It works, mostly, though certain transitions come off as clumsy and others rob us of our connection to a particularly riveting scene. All is forgotten, though, with such a dazzling image as that of Ira, drunkenly slouched over in a hotel room chair, imagining that the violent thuds and bright flashes of the unruly weather outside his window are instead the ominous signs of mortars and flares. And so it is, as we move into the past with Ira, huddled in the crags of a godforsaken hill, pulse racing as he calculates his next move.
It is in moments like these that I see the depths of Flags' respect for its subject matter and, more significantly, the reach of Mr. Eastwood's ability to humanize, without pretense or agenda, what might otherwise be a rather ordinary, though competent, dramatization of the book from which it derives, a book written by James Bradley, son of John, as a response to the memory of his father and the stories he gathered in his interviews with survivors of the war. Writers Paul Haggis and William Broyles Jr. elegantly frame the film with an intimate portrait of that writing process, anchoring it with beautifully lit snippets of conversations and a poignant coda between father and son.
Over the final scene, one that might inspire joy if not for all the harsh realities that surround it, the film returns to its thesis on heroism, spelling out precisely – and also somewhat heavy-handedly – what is more than obvious by then: that the mythical status we lavish upon a certain few is incomprehensible, even unacceptable, to its objects, people like John, Ira, and Rene who, as they say, "just happened to be there at the right time." Yet its necessity is surer than ever, because, despite its lack of substance, it can provide boundless optimism to those who bear witness. And in such a dark time as during World War II, optimism is a rare commodity.
It is not an especially original conclusion, I must admit, but it is a genuinely American one, suiting Mr. Eastwood's restrained style of storytelling most excellently. The same might be said of the film itself, and so I do: it does as it sets out to do, and its flaws, though glaring in the moment, are swallowed up in the wistful contemplation we are left with when it ends.