John Benjamin Hickey
“The right picture can win or lose the damn war”, says the narrator near the beginning of Flags of Our Fathers, before citing the notorious photograph of a South Vietnamese police officer shooting a Vietcong suspect in the head.
One might also think of the more recent, if equally horrific, images of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. For Clint Eastwood’s film may be set in the latter phase of World War II, but it speaks, for those who listen carefully, to subsequent generations too – much as most of it purports to be told by one elderly veteran to another’s son.
The picture in question here is Joe Rosenthal’s compelling photograph of six Marines raising the US flag atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi during America’s first landing on Japanese soil in February 1945 – an image which was immediately reproduced all over America, regalvanising domestic support for the Pacific conflict at a time when the public was losing its taste for the protracted war and military funds had dried up. It is a picture that could truly be said to have won the damn war.
Eastwood, however, is far less interested in renewing patriotic fervour in a nation once again at war abroad, than in uncovering the truth, and exposing the fictions, behind the representation and perception of war back home.
The film focusses on the three flag-raisers who survived and were hastily shipped back top the US to become poster-boy fund-raisers for the war effort. John ‘Doc’ Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) is a softly spoken Navy Corpsman who, as the platoon’s medic, witnessed a hell of horrific wounds and slow death on Iwo Jima, and must struggle with his sense of guilt over the awful death of a comrade. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) is a vain Marine runner who savours his newfound celebrity, despite never once having fired his weapon in the field. Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) is a Native American Marine who, haunted by his experiences abroad, disgusted by his racist treatment at home, and desperate to return to combat, is soon seeking solace in the bottle. None feels much like a hero, and all regard the flag-raising incident which has made them famous as little more than a farce.
And farce it was, for all its iconic power. In fact the six men had raised the second flag of that day, after the secretary of the Navy whimsically demanded the first as a personal war souvenir; and the three survivors soon find the scene being reproduced again and again in ever more ludicrously fragmented versions at home – in parades, in a football stadium, even on a dessert plate – all in a drive to sell war bonds and prevent a US retreat from the Pacific region. Eastwood contrasts the men’s experiences as propaganda puppets back in America with their experiences on Iwo Jima itself, shown in traumatic flashback.
These epic-scale battle sequences, desaturated to the point where only the flash of shell explosions seem to show any brightness, are like an Eastern-arena complement to the Normandy landings seen in Saving Private Ryan (so no surprises that Steven Spielberg is a co-producer here) – or like The Thin Red Line without that film’s lushly vivid colour scheme. Yet Flags of Our Fathers in fact comes far closer to Eastwood’s own Unforgiven, carefully dismantling one heroic archetype only to replace it with another, more nuanced one.
At the same time, in a film suggesting that the representation of war is itself half the battle, paradoxes abound. For even as Flags of Our Fathers dramatises how an image can be wrenched from its context to serve all manner of human needs and ideological ends, the film itself reenacts that same image over and over (the first flag-raising, the second, more iconic flag-raising, and its many reproductions in the US). Eastwood, it seems, is at pains to remind the viewer that his own film, for all its attempts to strip a photograph of its old mythology, is also reinvesting it with a new one. Far from denying the soldiers at Iwo Jima their heroism (as encapsulated, however chimerically, in the photo), Eastwood is just redefining their heroism as something above and beyond what can be conveyed by an attention-grabbing image – or indeed by a war movie such as this, much of whose imagery, as the parade of real-life stills in the closing credit sequence reveals, has been painstakingly reconstructed from war-time photos just like Rosenthal’s.
Certainly the weakest section of Flags of Our Fathers is the last third, when Doc’s son James Bradley (who co-wrote the book on which the film is based) takes over the narrative from his veteran informant, and transforms what has hitherto been a complex account of the notion of heroism into a son’s more mawkish and conventional quest for his father. Yet in a way all this is entirely in keeping with the film’s point. Heroes are what we make of them, and the sentimental image that James (Tom McCarthy) constructs of his father is no more or less valid than the shadowy figure glimpsed in Rosenthal’s photo – or than the wicked invader that Doc would appear to be in Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood’s companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers that shows the same conflict from the Japanese perspective.
In many ways, Flags of Our Fathers is a difficult film to like. Less concerned with real characters than with their empty ghosts, reassembled from memory and myth, it boasts performances that are too low-key to make much of an impression (not that there is anything wrong with them). Its battle sequences offer the sort of grittily realistic spectacle that has become standard in the war films of the last decade – but at the same time Eastwood keeps undermining the notion that images of war can ever come close to its reality, thus calling into question the veridicality of his own, meticulously researched reconstructions. Which is to say that if you are looking for an artwork with a simple, easily digested message about the heroics of war, better just to look at Rosenthal’s photograph and not think too hard; but if you want something altogether more complicated and challenging, Flags of Our Fathers is the real deal.