Flags of Our Fathers is based on the best-selling book by James Bradley (the narrator of this film) and co-written with Ron Powers, which chronicled the battle for Iwo Jima and the fates of the surviving flag raisers.
One moment caught in time in an iconic photograph of six men who raised an American flag over Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945, provides the basis for the story of Flags of our Fathers. Five Marines and one Navy Corpsman raised the U.S. flag on a desolate volcanic island of black sand beaches and scrub brush hills pockmarked with sulfurous caves that prove war is hell.
Flags was shot in Iceland and it certainly looks like hell on this Iwo Jima. Iceland was only other place on earth with a similar terrain and appropriate sulfurous smoke trailing up to the sky from any crack in the ground.
For these men caught in this Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Joe Rosenthal, the battle for Iwo Jima was only just beginning as the flag was raised only after the first few days of a fight that went on much longer. Only three of the six men survived the assault and the two surviving Marines and the one surviving Corpsman were pulled out of action and sent back to the U.S. to bolster sales for the government's seventh war bond tour. Through their efforts they were able to raise $24 billion for the war effort though their war at home and within themselves continued on after they returned.
But these men couldn't leave behind the friends they fought with and they felt guilty every step of the way once they left Iwo. They were selected to be heroes, but they never felt they had done anything heroic. Their compromises with the truth leave them troubled and in emotional pain. Hayes can't stop drinking and all three men can't stop thinking about the men they left behind on Iwo Jima. Confusion about exactly which soldiers were actually in the photo – and the fact that there were actually two different flags raised – only added to their personal problems.
The men were ill prepared for the war bond tour or the greeting they received and felt guilty that they had been forced to leave their units behind. Their guilt is best typified by the complex and enigmatic Marine, Ira Hayes, a Native American played with great fluidity by the excellent Adam Beach (Windtalkers, Smoke Signals), who just might garner a Supporting Actor nomination for his work here.
Ryan Phillippe (Crash, Cruel Intentions, Gosford Park, I Know what You Did Last Summer) plays Corpsman John "Doc" Bradley in a male model performance that could have easily been phoned in, and it is his character's son that narrates this film. Phillippe just does not have the gravitas necessary to play grownup men, nor does he have the acting chops to create a believable war hero. It's a shame casting went so awry and he ended up in the lead role. He plays the role with the same expression for the full 132 minutes of this film.
Director Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Unforgiven) does his usual spare job here, preferring to leave the actors to bring out the spirit of the characters they play. Where Eastwood really excels is in the huge panoramic establishing shots of the American fleet steaming their way towards their destiny on the tiny island of Iwo Jima. What is most interesting is his meditation on the chaos and horrors of war, heroism, and instant media darlings created for ratings. The close fighting scenes are graphic, shocking, and very realistic and we see the men who died in this battle on both sides were little more than boys themselves. Eastwood's score is haunting and his music appropriate for this meditation on the chaos of war.
Eastwood makes the war personal as the film opens with a shot of a sailor falling off a carrier. The first thing we learn about war is that these ships can't stop to pick up anyone who falls. The men on the ship toss a life preserver at him as they watch him struggle in the wake of the big boats that won't stop to save his life. The battle scenes are close and dirty and pure chaos, the beach landings dangerous, the caves of Iwo swarming with dug-in Japanese soldiers, and the panoramic shots of the U.S. fleet in the Iwo bay are huge.
Shot back-to-back with Flags of our Fathers, and due out in 2007, is another Eastwood film, Letters From Iwo Jima that is the story of the same battle, but told (with English subtitles) from the perspective of the Japanese who fought it.
Though Eastwood favors male monk movies he most often has a deft hand and treats his subjects with nuance and respect. At 72, Eastwood is still producing some of the best work in the U.S. film biz. Let's hope he has a long life.
Digital Dogs rating: A-. A good 25 minutes could have been cut from this film without affecting the story or its quality.
MPAA rating: Rated R for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language.
Running Time: 132 minutes
A Paramount Pictures release. Producers Clint Eastwood, Steven Speilberg, Rob Lorenz, Director Clint Eastwood, Screenplay William Broyles, Paul Haggis, Music Clint Eastwood, Editor Joel Cox, DP Tom Stern, Actors Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, Paul Walker, Jamie Bell, Barry Pepper, Robert Patrick