Clint Eastwood’s creaky history-class lecture Flags of Our Fathers makes the nature of heroism its primary point of concern via the plight of three soldiers who were immortalized in Joe Rosenthal’s iconic 1945 photograph of six marines triumphantly hoisting the stars and stripes on top of Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima. As the faces of its subjects were obscured, Rosenthal’s picture became a vision of national—rather than individual—victory, though for medic John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and soldiers Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), the snapshot became a one-way ticket to unwanted celebrity, as the trio became reluctant tools in the military marketing machine’s efforts to pass a $14 billion bond issue aimed at financing the costly campaign. Adapted from James Bradley and Ron Powers’s book, Eastwood’s tale predicates its thematic thrust on the fact that its protagonists were sold as both literal and emblematic heroes, even though their general contributions to the war effort were no greater (and, in many respects, far less) than their fallen compatriots, and that the three—as proven by a deceased grunt being incorrectly designated as one of the photo’s commemorated men—may not have even been the ones featured in the picture.
The military’s desire to sell the public a disingenuous portrait of success in order to rally support, the discrepancy between image and reality, and the supreme valor of self-sacrifice are all worthy topics that, in this uneven and repetitive WWII saga, are conveyed in the first 10 minutes and then revisited, ad nauseam, throughout the flashbacking remainder. With an overdone divided narrative structure that appears to have been influenced by Lost, a storytelling frame (involving Bradley’s son interviewing his dad’s comrades for a book) that isn’t properly established until the third act, and heavy-handed juxtapositions between Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes’s tacky publicity tour duties with their grim battlefield experiences, Flags of Our Fathers manages to pull off the dubious double whammy of being painfully didactic and emotionally unaffecting. Infantrymen “certainly didn’t think of themselves as heroes,” says a grumpy old man at the outset, “Heroes are something we create,” states another toward film’s conclusion, while in between, shots of tasteless fund raiser desserts shaped like Rosenthal’s photograph (drenched in blood-red strawberry sauce, no less) and the trio reenacting their flag-raising on top of a papier-mâché float offer up more of the same contentions, with William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis’s script restating its themes in virtually every scene with a modicum of subtlety and an abundance of groan-worthy solemn irony.
Working with Million Dollar Baby cinematographer Tom Stern, Eastwood employs a desaturated color palette that borders on black and white during his well-staged combat sequences. While this visual schema nicely mirrors the lustrous silvery hues of Rosenthal’s picture, however, the director’s decision to editorially chop up the island-set battle, and the compounding problem that the characters’ fates have already been established during the early going, saps these set pieces of continuity, tension, and weight. Still, if the wartime material alternates between assured (POV shots from fighter plane cockpits and Japanese beach bunkers) and middling (i.e. every CGI effect), Flags of Our Fathers’ characterizations, aided by nondescript and/or hysterical performances, remain its weak link, with each defined by a puny single trait: Bradley the bland skeptic, Gagnon the limelight-lover, and Hayes the tortured Native American dissenter. It’s the last of these that reeks most foul, as Hayes spends most of his time sloshed, moaning about the unjustness of his undeserved good fortune while his friends continue to perish, and suffering a succession of contrived racist humiliations that culminate in his being asked, while forlorn and working as a crop farmer, to partake in a family picture by a callous Caucasian family. Such race-conscious sermonizing clearly boasts Haggis’s Crash fingerprints—and, it seems, portends ominously for Eastwood’s 2007 Japanese-perspective companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima.