Flags of Our Fathers

Flags of Our Fathers Flags of Our Fathers
4.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

On February 23, 1945 photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped a picture that would come to epitomize the American hero of the Second World War. Five marines and a Navy corpsman hoisted a water pipe bearing the American flag on Mount Suribachi in a symbol of victory. Many who saw the photograph forgot that the flag was raised on the fifth day of what would become a grueling, bloody thirty day campaign for the island of Iwo Jima. The Pulitzer-award winning photo stemmed rumors that the country was on the verge of bankruptcy, convincing war-weary Americans that the Pacific conflict was as good as won.

Within days, three of the six men in the photograph were dead.

“Flags of Our Fathers” centers around the men in the iconic photo and the psychological price the three surviving men paid. The film effectively shifts back and forth between three plots: the horrors the men witnessed on Iwo Jima, the hypocrisy they were forced to live with as designated heroes, and the story of a son discovering his late father was a national hero.

When the photograph hits the front page appearing in more than 200 newspapers, the surviving flag raisers -- stoic Navy corpsman Doc Bradley, opportunistic runner Rene Gagnon, and traumatized front-line soldier Ira Hayes -- are shipped back to the United States to pump up the war effort by selling war bonds. Rene Gagnon (an appropriately starry-eyed Jesse Bradford), was never directly involved in the fighting and was lucky to be picked to raise the flag. He takes to the glamour and attention, savoring his fifteen minutes of fame, hoping to parlay his hero status into a cushy post-war job. Medic John “Doc” Bradley, (an understated Ryan Phillippe) has seen enough of war and would like nothing more than to settle down with his girlfriend and a lead a normal life. Ira Hayes (played to perfection by Adam Beach), once tormented by his fellow soldiers for being a Pima Indian, is now tortured by nightmarish flashbacks of those same men being torn apart in battle.

Hayes may have been called a hero, but he certainly wasn’t treated like one. At one of the endless fund raisers, a Senator with a peerless smile (David Rasche) asks Hayes: “Did you kill (the Japanese) with your Tomahawk?” Before another dinner, Hayes, seeking solace in drink, is turned away at a bar and goes into a rage, swinging a chair in the streets at a group of officers sent to subdue him. Only Doc’s intervention saves Hayes from a beating and incarceration. When Doc asks the bartender why Hayes was turned away, the bartender replies proudly, “We don’t serve Indians.”

Even his fallen comrades had callously referred to Hayes as “Chief.” Spotting him in his bunk looking at pictures before the invasion, one soldier teases him, saying “Is that your squaw Chief? Pictures of your wig wam?”

Back home and running late for yet another fundraiser even Gagnon, fed with Hayes binge drinking, turns against him:

Gagnon: You take out any machine gun nests, Ira?
Hayes: At least I fired my weapon.
Gagnon: You hit anything, or were you too drunk then too?

The three men must endure the added weight of knowing they weren’t even the first group of men to raise the flag raise the flag at Iwo Jima. The first flag had been taken down when Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal procured it as a souvenir. The President’s P.R. people find this out after Hayes, Doc and Gagnon are already stateside and have been publicly anointed as heroes. The confusion and misinformation over the two flag raisings means the first group of men, most of whom are dead, get overlooked altogether.

Hayes continues to get drink until he’s a staggering, puking, tragic figure. When Hayes meets Sgt. Mike Strank’s mother he openly weeps in the arms, much to the chagrin of the Army brass. Honor, irony and sense of the macabre accompany the survivors as they re-enact the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima at Chicago’s Soldier’s Field by scaling a mountain made of paper mache. Hayes is particularly appalled at the idea of staging the raising of the flag in front of 20,000 cheering fans. The hypocrisy of the tour becomes too much for Hayes, who continues to try and wash away the pain and guilt with alcohol. In a private moment, Hayes laments, “I’m no hero. I was just trying not to get shot.”

Hayes becomes “an embarrassment to the uniform” and gets his wish to be shipped back to the front. Doc and Gagnon continue the tour and when the government’s coffers are full again, they’re discarded like yellowing newspaper from a birdcage. After the war, Hayes attempts to right his life by speaking out for better Indian-Anglo relations, but flashbacks and alcoholism continue to plague him. But it’s also Hayes who sets out to right a wrong buried by the government. He walks 1300 miles to Harlon Bloch’s farm to tell the dead soldier’s family that one of the men in the photo was misidentified and that Harlon was indeed in the famous picture. Before Harlon’s father can thank him, Hayes is gone. Gagnon finds that all the promises made to him while he was in the spotlight were empty lies. Only Doc gets his wish. He marries his girlfriend, puts his medals and clippings in a trunk and never speaks about the war, not even telling his own son that he was once referred to as a hero.

Clint Eastwood is an expert at framing and direct battle scenes. No detail of the bloody conflict is spared, from the precise reproduction of the battleship Nevada lofting 12” shells at the shoreline to the damaged B-25 flying overhead. The battle scenes are shot in watery grays, blacks and whites, as if to mimic a nightmare. Whenever color is introduced – usually in the form of blood – the impact is substantial. The sequences of the massacre inland take Steven Spielberg’s battle scenes in “Saving Private Ryan” several gory steps further and bear his mark as the film’s producer. The destruction of human life, both American and Japanese, is incomprehensible and obscene and it’s Hayes who suffers the most. He relives the moment a Japanese soldier tried to jump him and he wound up shiscabobing him; recalls going on a recon mission into a cave to find that the dead enemy soldiers inside preferred disemboweling themselves with grenades over being captured; and remembers holding a fallen comrade torn apart by machine gun fire as the boy’s life ebbed away. In one of the movie’s unforgettable scenes, Hayes and another soldier are pinned behind a sand dune. “Is this a bad battle or what?” Hayes asks his fellow soldier. “It’s a slaughter,” he replies. Rising to his feet, the soldier prepares to charge the enemy -- and his blown apart where he stands. His head bounces off of Hayes’ helmet, landing behind him in the sand. Hayes turns to look at it and the disembodied head sighs, as if the soldier is surprised he was killed so easily. It’s a grisly, but unforgettable special effect.

There are many other gruesome images and scenes that will make viewers chant “War…huh...Good God ya’ll, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” Men are blown out of their boots, perforated with shells the size of Volkswagens, and suffer the indignity of having their dead husks crushed under the weight of their own advancing tanks. The battle for Iwo Jima is a flesh eating blender and no man is indispensable, as evidenced by a pre-invasion scene in which an exuberant marine falls overboard and none of the advancing transports stop to rescue him. “So much for no man left behind,” another marine comments.

The lead actors may not be readily recognizable, but give memorable performances. Ryan Phillippe’s Doc Bradley is the story’s moral compass. Unhappy at being used as a sales puppet by the government, he also understands that selling war bonds is a necessary evil. Phillppe’s character is an emotional cipher and the actor lends his character the right amount of restraint. Jesse Bradford (Renee Gagnon) salivates every time he sees a flashbulb, but Bradford manages to show that Gagnon wasn’t a villain, he was merely more willing to take advantage of the situation than the others were. Adam Beach gives the film’s top performance as the battle-ruined Ira Hayes. You can’t help but feel his pain, anger and humiliation, and you pull for him to find inner peace. John Slattery is solid Bud Gerber, the government P.R. man who must shepard the heroes around the country to raise money. Although he has his hands full with Ira Hayes, he understands Hayes’ pain and treats him with the delicate dignity he deserves. Dozens of familiar faces have scene-stealing cameos: Harve Presnell, who starred with Eastwood in “Paint Your Wagon” thirty plus years ago, captivates early on as an elderly Joe Rosenthal. George Grizzard plays a dying Doc Bradley and keeps the noble part of Doc’s personality – his concern for others – consistent with the way Phillippe portrayed him. Gordie Tapp (the beleaguered Detective Medavoy on NYPD) has only two scenes, but plays both to the hilt. Cast as General “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, he’s first seen screaming at central command for more shore bombardment before his troops invade the island: “If I don’t get ten days of shelling, I’ll be bringing these kids home to their mama’s in buckets!” Barry Pepper plays larger than life Sgt Mike Strank, showing it wasn’t so much Strank’s bravery under fire as it was his concern for his men that made him a hero.

“Flags of Our Fathers” has few flaws, but one problem is that some of the minor characters are underdeveloped and hard to keep track of, making it a little too easy to figure out who’s going to be awarded their medals posthumously. More disconcerting is the way Eastwood deals with their fates. He wipes out three or four of them in consecutive scenes, with each of the characters moving forward, getting blasted, then falling to the ground. Even the scenery around them looks the same. Their death scenes play out like a sniper winning prizes at a shooting gallery – okay, soldier number one, please step forward – BAM! Soldier number two, your turn – BAM! And so on. Their deaths are minimized for the sake of closure.

Don’t turn off the film before the closing credits -- the photos of the battle scene help put the film in a historical perspective. Shots of the real Hayes, Gignon, Doc, Strank and others remind us that many of the heroes of Iwo Jima were kids barely old enough to shave.

If you’re a fan of war movies, the men’s unflinching devotion to duty and the authenticity of the horrific battle scenes make “Flags of Our Fathers” a must see. Even peaceniks (like yours truly) will find themselves entranced by the actor’s concise performances and director Clint Eastwood’s honest and disturbing portrayal of government hypocrisy.

It’s time to enlist soldier. “Flags of Our Fathers” is an engrossing, moving film that demystifies war and shows there’s more to being a hero than living to talk about it.

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