Flags of Our Fathers (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Flags of Our Fathers is Clint Eastwood's homage to the honored dead of World War II as well as a meditation upon how an icon is formed. Based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, the movie centers around the Battle of Iwo Jima, one of the key late war conflicts in the Pacific Theatre. However, unlike other films that have trodden similar ground (in particular, the John Wayne vehicle The Sands of Iwo Jima), Eastwood's movie does two things differently. First, it uses the Saving Private Ryan approach to battle (not surprising, since Steven Spielberg is a producer) by showing all the blood and viscera older war movies kept hidden. Secondly, it intercuts the Iwo Jima sequences with those happening Stateside several months later, where key events are transpiring.

One of the most famous World War II photographs features a group of six soldiers hoisting a U.S. flag upright on the highest point of Iwo Jima. James Bradley's father, John, was one of those six and Bradley's book tells the story not only of the Battle of Iwo Jima, but of the photograph, its background, and its aftermath. The U.S. military used that snapshot as the centerpiece of its late war propaganda campaign. The three surviving soldiers - John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) - were shipped home to go on a countrywide tour to shake hands and promote war bonds. The truth about their involvement (they only participated in lifting a "replacement" flag, not the original) was kept hidden lest it embarrass everyone. Although the photograph was not faked, the iconic image is less pristine than one might expect.

At its best, Flags of Our Fathers is eye opening and thought provoking. The battle scenes are raw and energetic, while the post-Iwo Jima segments question our established ideas about heroism. The word "hero" has been used often following 9/11, so it's interesting to hear the characters in this movie question what it means to bear that label and whether they consider themselves worthy of it. In fact, most soldiers did not consider themselves to be heroes, but if you asked them, they could identify someone else - a friend, a comrade, a leader - who was. This aspect of the movie differentiates it from any other World War II film to have come before it.

The picture is not without flaws. The intercutting is not done smoothly. Movies that shift freely between time periods must do so in a way that does not interrupt the flow of the story, and that is not accomplished here. Plus, there is a third, unnecessary time line to confuse things - the movie follows John's son, James, as he interviews aging veterans about Iwo Jima while researching his book. Eastwood uses color coding to separate the segments. The present is in color, the Iwo Jima sequences are so desaturated that they're almost black and white, and the 1945 scenes are in between. The problem, however, is not a question of differentiating what's happening when, but keeping the viewer from losing interest when there's an awkward shift.

Character development is of secondary importance to narrative and theme. As a result, we never really get to know any of the film's protagonists. Sometimes, when someone dies, we're not sure who he is or how he fits into the overall narrative. Flags of Our Fathers has a lengthy epilogue that details what happens to the survivors. Unfortunately, these individuals are so thinly drawn that they don't deserve the 15 minutes it takes to sketch out their post-World War II lives. As a result, the movie feels overlong.

There are no acting standouts and no big names. The most recognizable faces belong to Paul Walker (continuing his attempt to be known as a serious thespian), Ryan Phillippe (ditto), and Barry Pepper. In general, however, Eastwood has stayed away from big names not only to keep the budget down but to ensure that viewers will not become distracted by the presence of a star. And the movie is different enough from The Sands of Iwo Jima that John Wayne's ghost does not haunt the proceedings.

The end credits are worth sitting through if you care about the real battle, since they feature a collection of still photographs. Viewing them makes it apparent how rigorous Eastwood's attention to detail is. The use of CGI (to create the massive United States fleet of ships and to show the bombardment of the island) is limited enough to be effective. Because Japan did not allow filming to take place on Iwo Jima, Eastwood worked on Iceland, the only other island to have beaches of black sand. Flags of Our Fathers represents the first of two movies Eastwood has made about the Battle of Iwo Jima. The second, made back-to-back with this one and called Letters from Iwo Jima, presents the conflict from the Japanese side and will be released next year. Until then, we have Flags of Our Fathers - not the definitive cinematic re-creation of the battle, but an interesting (if flawed) production.

Flags of Our Fathers (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 2006-10-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1