Flags Of Our Fathers

Flags Of Our Fathers


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Unwrapping the old chestnut that war is hell and marketing war is as phony as a tin nickel, Flags Of Our Fathers does a helluva job.

The writers (William Broyles Jr and Paul Haggis) don’t make it easy on themselves. They tell three stories in three separate time zones simultaneously, while keeping it respectful, because these are real stories about real men, who fought on Iwo Jima in 1944 and came back – some of the few – alive.

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The central image is taken when a group of Marines tie a flag to a pole and stick it on top of a hill during a lull in fighting. A pressman happens to photograph the incident and the resulting picture is splashed across the front pages of newspapers in the States, “giving people hope.”

The politicians on Capitol Hill see this as an iconic moment and, desperate for funds to execute the war, use the picture, with the legend NOW ALL TOGETHER, as a fresh drive for war bonds. They recall from the front line three surviving members of the flag incident to become “national heroes” and go on tour promoting bonds. None of these men – naval doctor John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), runner Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Native American Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) – consider themselves worthy. “The real heroes are dead on that island,” Bradley tells the adoring crowds.

The scenes of the naval invasion of a small volcanic outpost in the Pacific are handled with skill and precision by director Clint Eastwood. Comparison with the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan is inevitable, but not entirely fair, as the landing at Iwo Jima is relatively easy. The Japanese are dug in and camouflaged so well that they wait until the bulk of the invading troops are off the beach before opening fire with devastating effect.

US air power has already bombed the island into a featureless mudscape and there is never any conception of where the enemy is, or what victory means, or why they are bothering with this place at all, at such a cost of human lives, when it is not the Japanese mainland.

At home, as “the heroes of the flag” are wined, dined and written about in terms they neither comprehend, nor recognize, Gagnon is quick to make the most of the publicity, Hayes is drunk and Bradley tries to keep his nightmares at bay. This section of the story is ripe with cynicism and exposes the falsehoods upon which history is interpreted. The third layer of the story is the modern one, in which Bradley’s son (Thomas McCarthy) searches for the truth of his father’s life for a book and so uncovers the lies that sold the bonds that kept the nation at war.

With a clever use of monochrome and colour, Eastwood recreates the mood of the times, a mixture of innocence, loyalty under fire, political knavery, ingrained racism and individual acts of extraordinary courage (“They did it for each other, not for their country”), and covers a broad canvas with absolute conviction.

War films have changed. Reality keeps gnawing away at the bones of propaganda. “All I did was try not to get shot,” Bradley says. He bought a funeral home after the peace and gave up medicine. He never spoke about what happened on Iwo Jima.

Reviewed on: 21 Dec 2006
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America, struggling to finance its war against Japan, needs heroes so badly that it is willing to sacrifice the truth.
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Read more Flags Of Our Fathers reviews:

Jennie Kermode ****
Chris **1/2

Director: Clint Eastwood

Writer: William Broyles Jr., Paul Haggis, based on the books by James Bradley and Ron Powers

Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, Thomas McCarthy, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough, Melanie Lynskey

Year: 2006

Runtime: 132 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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