Flags of Our Fathers is based on a book co-written by James Bradley, the son of one of the “Heroes of Iwo Jima” — the six soldiers who raised the flag in that unforgettable picture.
The movie is both a war movie — with some harrowing battle scenes — and a movie about a pop culture phenomenon. When we’re not fighting on Iwo Jima, we’re touring the country with the soldiers from the picture, who have become instant heroes.
In-between, Flags of Our Fathers also manages to be about government’s use and abuse of its citizens, about heroes and hero worship, and about a dozen other themes and thoughts that give depth and texture to the movie.
A Thousand Words
Eastwood on Iwo Jima
2006 Oscar Nominees
- United 93
- An Inconvenient Truth
- Superman Returns
- The Devil Wears Prada
- Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
- Monster House
- The Departed
- The Prestige
- Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
- Pan's Labyrinth
- Blood Diamond
- Notes on a Scandal
- Letters from Iwo Jima
- Oscar Nominees for 2006: Oscar noms generate yawns
The movie takes the position that a single picture — in this case the shot of the flag-raising — can change the course of history. Or as the movie’s tag line says, “A Single Shot Can Win the War.”
Lest you think that’s an overgeneralization, consider the proposition that the photo of the Vietnamese official about to shoot that wincing man in the head signaled the loss of the Vietnam war. Or consider the photo of the hooded prisoner, arms outstretched, from Abu Ghraib.
A modern-day writer is researching his father’s story — dad was one of the six men captured in that Pulitzer-prize-winning photograph — but most of the movie takes place in the past. The color palette quickly tells you whether you’re in the full-color modern world, the slightly faded United States of 1945, or the pallor of battle on Iwo Jima.
The picture gave a huge boost to American morale, and the government capitalized. It brought home Ira, Rene (pronounced “rainy”) and Doc, three of the “Heroes of Iwo Jima” who were in that photo, and sent them on a tour of the United States. They were applauded by the New York Yankees at a home game, cheered in Times Square, and honored at Soldier Field in Chicago. (Eastwood gives a nice closeup on the sign at Soldier Field, as if to shame us moderns for honoring corporations instead of heroes.)
The film has a lot on its mind, but it is always grounded by the three protagonists. They have distinct personalities, but they are not caricatures. Doc (Ryan Philippe) is the stoic who takes everything in stride. Rene (Jesse Bradford) is the charismatic leader of the trio. But the most interesting character is Ira (Adam Beach, stealing the show).
Rene is happy to have an excuse to be sent back home. Although he’s not initially gung-ho about being used to sell bonds, at least he understands the need. He sees how he can be useful, and he embraces his new duty as a tool of government propaganda.
Ira, on the other hand, starts off unsure about being called a hero for having his picture taken. Ira is horrified to be killing Japanese soldiers. But somehow being thrust into polite society seems worse. He can’t say he’s doing it for his buddies anymore. Somehow it seems like the government is taking advantage of him in a way that it isn’t by sending him off to die. With the stress of the public appearances, compounded by the racism of Americans (Ira is an American Indian), Ira ends up destroyed by the weight of his fame.
In fact, all three of the Heroes got chewed up and spat out. After the war, one became a janitor because he couldn’t get a better job (this after being courted by every businessman in New York and Chicago while on the tour). Ira died young, homeless, and penniless. Only Doc did okay, as a mortician, but that’s because it was the family business. (Again, one wonders if we moderns will treat Iraq vets any better.)
Cutting and Splicing
Flags of Our Fathers is told achronologically, which seems to be the current style. But for Eastwood it’s not merely a fad, it also serves a purpose. Ever practical, director Eastwood uses it to put expository conversations up front, followed by some gripping action scenes that suck the audience into the movie. Rather than these scenes being contrived, they can plays more believably — they just happen to be taken out of chronological order.
Elsewhere in the film there is good editing and cross-cutting. Many parallels are drawn between the brutal, gory scenes of battle — Ira impaling a Japanese soldier on his bayonette — and the scenes of high society and hoi palloi being schmoozed for their money.
These cuts show the difference between war and mannered society. It’s a difference that most of us would have trouble reconciling, and it helps explain the stress our three protagonists endure. But the cuts also show the similarities. Ira is horrified to be stabbing a man, but he’s just as reluctant to be mingling with rich white people who make jokes about his ethnicity. In both cases, he is a tool of his government, doing something he’s not good at, that he’d rather not be doing, while trying to meet everyone’s expectations for him.
Manipulating the Image
Cinematographer Tom Stern uses three color palettes. The most interesting is the one used on Iwo. The color is very washed out, which gives the film an appropriate tone for the time. Footage from WWII was almost always black and white (for financial reasons). Stern shoots in color, but fades the colors to almost gray, especially during the battle scenes.
Stern is assisted by the CGI unit. This may be Eastwood’s first animated film — by which I mean that probably half of the first thirty minutes are CGI shots. I’m no big fan of computer-generated graphics, but these are impressive — not necessarily in the quality of the animation, but in how they are used. Eastwood shows us a sea full of destroyers, troop ships, and aircraft carriers, as far as the eye can see. The sheer power of the American juggernaut chugging toward Iwo is awesome. Once the American forces land, it’s computers to the rescue again, this time with either CGI or digital composites filling up the beach with pixel-perfect soldiers.
The battle scenes are harrowing and brutal, not action-movie fun (thank goodness). The first assault on Iwo is not quite as heavy as the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, but it definitely shows the effect of bullets, fire, and grenades on the human body. There are parts of Flags of Our Fathers that are not for the squeamish.
True LiesBut the heart of the movie is the flag-raising photograph. Eastwood stages the flag-raising, and also the before-and-after events that put it into a more realistic context. What actually happened is that the flag was raised twice. It was such a sight for sore eyes that a high-ranking officer demanded the flag. The sergeant who actually ordered the flag be raised thought it belonged with his platoon, so he had a different batch of guys go up and switch flags. The first raising was captured on film, but it was the picture from the second raising that exploded into the national consciousness.
And who can deny the power of that image? People saw in the photo (and still see in it) pluck, determination, teamwork, and national pride.
What people believed about the photograph — that it captured a hard-won victory — wasn’t factually true. As mentioned in the film, the flag was raised on day five, but Iwo Jima didn’t fall for another thirty days. The flag-raising didn’t “mean” anything militarily or strategically. And, as one character points out, half of the people in that picture were dead within a week.
But then again, it really happened. The photograph is documentary evidence of something real. It is no more a lie than any photograph. If people imbue it with emotional power, that is their own doing. If the government happened to take advantage by letting people believe that the picture actually meant something more important, well, we were fighting a just war, so where was the harm?You could say that the photograph is not easily reduced to black and white.
Eastwood does an excellent job — not simply balancing two opposing sides, but digging deep to find all of the truths. “Nuance” is a word he knows well, and it makes Flags of Our Fathers a far better movie than it could have been. Eastwood takes a good, deep, penetrating look at the events around the flag raising, and tells us what he sees. He is always respectful, and never self-deluded.
Fifteen years ago, an artist was pilloried for calling the statue based on the photograph “kitsch.” Speaking as an artist, he knew the meaning of the word “kitsch” and was using it in a technical sense. Americans who took the time to consider his words might have decided whether they agreed or not. But some Americans only heard an insult, and so the shouting began and the country split — as we do so well — into simplistic, dualistic, black-and-white mode.
Can you imagine Americans drawing lines between “us” and “them”? Between red states and blue states, between country and rock, between pro-choice and pro-life, between Pepsi and Coke? Can you imagine the country failing to see shades of gray? Can you imagine America failing to appreciate nuance? Unfortunately, that’s something America does too well.
I propose we draw yet another dividing line, between those who appreciate nuance, and those who hold it in contempt. Only the former will be allowed to see Flags of Our Fathers.
(The latter can re-watch Team America: World Police.)