In 2006, director Clint Eastwood released two movies – Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima- that dealt with the iconic battle between American and Japanese soldiers over the small island of Iwo Jima which took place during World War II.
Flags of our Fathers is based on the book of the same name written by Ron Powers and James Bradley, who was the son of Navy Corpsman John Bradley (played by Ryan Phillipe). Bradley, along with Marines Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), Harlon Block (Benjamin Walker), Franklin Sousley (Joseph Cross) and Mike Strank (Barry Pepper) were all apart of the second American flag raising on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi, which was immortalized by photographer Joe Rosenthal.
With the now infamous photo on the front of every newspaper in America (in the process winning over a cynical nation), Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon - the only survivors left from the photo – are shipped back home to extreme fanfare and hero worship and are used as propaganda tools by the U.S. government to raise money for the war through an extensive promotional tour urging the public to buy war bonds.
Eastwood has made a solid war film which is staggering in size and broad in its scope. It had the potential to be one of the greats within its genre, but the films loose structure (which is held together by a shaky narrative and patchy editing) is baffling as it switches back and forth from the battle field, to the publicity trail and to the present day.
The battle scenes are extremely well shot in tense, brutal detail. The gunfire is deafening and the body count is high as the war is shown from multiple angles and perspectives. Tom Stern (who is quickly becoming one of my favourite cinematographers) does a great job experimenting with different tones while using an ever present grey tint throughout. The set decoration by Richard C. Goodard and costume design by Deborah Hooper are great, while the use of CGI does not distract from the realism of the movie.
A broad ensemble cast provide solid performances, with the lone stand out being Adam Beach as Native American soldier Ira Hayes, whose heavy conscience towards his new found fame, the constant racism and the effects of war lead to a tragic post war life.
There have been numerous images taken from various wars which have swayed the public opinion of a war. Who can forget the image of Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc running down the street naked and severely burned by napalm or the images of prisoners being tortured by coalition troops in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq?
These images can make or break wars, thus making or breaking governments whose (at times) illusions of patriotism can sweep aside the realities of war. The photo from Iwo Jima was such an image. It turned the tide, changing a pessimistic country into a nation of believers and gave a lifeline to a struggling government who was going broke funding the war.
Flags of Our Fathers shows the truth behind the legend and the comradeship between soldiers who weren’t necessarily fighting for their country, but for their brother beside them.