Brutal, bloody realism has emerged as the dominant style in World War II films since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. But a byproduct of that D-Day epic has been that character development and old-fashioned storytelling have become subservient to breathtaking images of carnage and human devastation.
With Flags of Our Fathers, an adaptation of the 2001 book by James Bradley released last week, director Clint Eastwood retains the gritty realism that has become synonymous with the WWII film. But he goes the extra step other directors have been unwilling — or unable — to go, marrying the blood and guts with story and substance. The result is a film that returns Eastwood to one of his central themes as a director: the exploration of violence and its toll on the human condition.
Flags of Our Fathers focuses on the raising of the American flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945. When a photo of the event, the iconic image of six marines hoisting a pole up into position, makes it to the states, hope for victory and a renewed sense of purpose returns to an American population tired of war. Seizing on this feeling, the government enlists the surviving soldiers in the photo — Jon “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) — to embark on a war bonds-selling tour across the country.
Eastwood tells the stories of these three soldiers in a fractured narrative. The film begins in 1945 during the Battle of Iwo Jima, jumps to the present day where Doc is dying, then to the war bonds tour, then back to the present day where James Bradley (Tom McCarthy) is conducting interviews with veterans, back to the battle, and so on. While an unconventional approach to a war film, this allows Eastwood to weave two stories, the Battle of Iwo Jima and the war bonds tour, into one solid narrative.
And this is the key to Flags of Our Fathers. In the moments on the tour, we find Gagnon relishing celebrity, Doc uneasily accepting it, and Hayes rejecting it outright. Their reasons are based on their experiences at Iwo Jima, with some men witnessing worse horrors than others. Hayes, for example, can’t shake the memory of the brutal deaths of friends and enemies alike and takes to drinking for comfort.
But rather than tell us these men went through something serious, Eastwood shows it as well by placing us square in the middle of the action. When mortar explosions and bullets rip into and blow up tanks, the explosions happen so quickly and so closely that the screen is engulfed in flames in less than a second. When the Japanese attack, we’re so near to the guns we can feel the heat from and smell the bitter metallic of the small fires erupting from the tips of discharging weapons. And when soldiers search out the source of the distant thud of explosions only to find a trail of mutilated Japanese soldiers, dead by blowing themselves up, the dead soldiers’ insides almost spill off the screen and into the front row of the theater.
In these moments of man-made horror, Eastwood forces us to confront war’s human toll by rubbing death in our faces. Only by witnessing it as close as possible can we begin to understand why soldiers don’t talk about their experiences and why so many come back from war different people. And on a macro level, only by seeing such destruction so close can we begin to understand why war should be reviled as an evil enterprise.
Flags of Our Fathers is a deconstruction and reassessment of warfare in cinema. Arranging and staging elaborate battle scenes might make for good visuals, Eastwood says through the film, but they’re irresponsible if not associated with actual consequence. This film is as brutally realistic as you might expect, but humanity has been restored as an important aspect of the narrative. Without it, the battle scenes would just be moments of hollow mayhem building to nothing.
That sensibility has characterized the WWII film for the past decade. But Eastwood, thankfully, has changed all that, bringing order to the chaos.