Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006) is ostensibly about an iconic moment in World War II history: the story behind the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima by five Marines and a Navy corpsman, a moment immortalized with a photograph featured on the cover of Life Magazine and later recreated as a sculpture.
It’s about so much more. Adapted from the nonfiction book by screenwriters William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, it frames the battles as a remembrance by its survivors before plunging viewers into the midst of the landing and grueling battle against the doomed Japanese defenders, who were dug into the island in interlocking caves they chiseled by hand in the island’s rocky foundation.
Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, and Adam Beach play John “Doc” Bradley, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes (respectively), three of the Marines who were memorialized in the photo. With the other members of the group killed in battle, the government pulls the three young men from active combat and sends them stateside to play war heroes for civilian crowds.
Eastwood’s film has a very rich sense of the importance of the photo (which, as we learn, was taken of the second flag mounted on the island). He’s not cynical about the way it is used by the army to rally support for the war or rally citizens to buy war bonds to keep the war effort from going bankrupt, but he is clear-eyed about how images are more important than facts in such moments.
Behind it all is a powerful portrait of men in war that reminds us that the legendary photo is a tribute to every man who fought in World War II. It’s a film about duty, guilt, trauma, the way war grinds down soldiers, and the unseen scars that they carry out of battle, especially in the tragic story of Ira Hayes, the Native American soldier who faced more bigotry back home even as he was being celebrated as a war hero. Adam Beach is heartbreakingly good as Hayes.
Eastwood also directed a companion film, Letters From Iwo Jima, which took on the battle on Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese. It came out later in the year and overshadowed the more shaded and complex Flags of Our Fathers.
It earn Oscar nominations for sound editing and sound mixing and, interestingly enough, three Kinema Junpo Awards in Japan.
John Benjamin Hickey plays the press agent who manages the stateside tour and John Slattery, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough, and Melanie Lynskey costar.
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Flags of Our Fathers [Blu-ray]
Flags of Our Fathers [DVD]
Flags of Our Fathers / Letters From Iwo Jima [DVD]