Dir. Clint Eastwood. Starring Adam Beach, Ryan Philippe, Jesse Bradford
A photograph can win a war, an aged Dave Severance (Harve Presnell) says. It’s the sort of dialogue that sounds hokey, but get past the literalism and the message is clear enough. Propaganda is worth something. Maybe it’s harder to pinpoint the ROI on propaganda than it is to know how much damage bullets do, but who can say what the last war was which was won without the messaging to back up the conflict. When Severance says it, he’s referring to the picture of the flag-raising from Iwo Jima and the photograph of the South Vietnamese officer putting another man’s brains on the pavement. One won a war, he says, and the other lost it. He’s referring to journalism, to some extent. But there’s a sly link between the two of them, and Flags of Our Fathers does well to locate that link. The first time we’re exposed to it, three men are putting the flag up in a stadium full of screaming people, with fireworks in the distance. We see the picture on front pages of newspapers in any number of locations. Eventually we see the flag raised on Iwo Jima itself. It happens once, many soldiers below cheer and clap, and then we see it raised again, this time with the benefit of a photographer. (The flag that was raised initially by Americans on Mount Suribachi is taken down so that it can be clandestinely returned to its unit; a replacement flag is delivered up the mountain so that they can give it to some officer looking for a trophy, and this flag-raising is the one that was memorialized.) In this movie, propaganda yields to journalism yields to history, and as far as I can tell that’s not so dissimilar from the way we understand current events, let alone the events of an ever more distant past. There’s insight here, craft in the screenplay and editing which cuts with little warning between times and places, relying almost entirely on mise-en-scène to let us know what’s happening.
That this is the follow-up movie from Clint Eastwood and Paul Haggis, who brought us Million Dollar Baby, one of those movies that makes me question why I watch movies at all if they’re going to suck that badly, has helped me understand what other people are seeing in Eastwood (if not in Haggis so much) about as well as I think I can. I’m on the record as thinking that Unforgiven is, while a better than serviceable western, hardly some kind of new interpretation of the genre. Flags of Our Fathers is not particularly new either, certainly not by the standard of your World War II movie. You can tell that there’s an indebtedness in the combat sequences to something like Saving Private Ryan, what with the focus on a sizeable but not unwieldy number of servicemen who are impervious to harm until they suddenly aren’t any longer. The enemy in this movie is a primarily unseen one, which is an interesting choice. There’s a harrowing sequence on the initial beach landing where a few men go forward while the rest hold back. This is not quite good enough to meet my “Go plug that hole over there” test for war movies, the active admission that human life is worth less than the achievement of a physical objective. To the scene’s credit, it definitely does not make those advance scouts look like they’re expecting to come back. The camera shifts to the perspective of Japanese soldiers, so much so that they are not even visible. The guns they fire and the American lives they extinguish are entirely visible, the former peaking out from their hidden bunkers and the latter falling in front of them. It’s a choice which is better for the film as an exciting picture with action setpieces than it is some kind of meditation on the war itself. Removing the people from the other side of the war makes the film guilty of a Call of Duty approach in lieu of something more rewarding; you can see that also in some shots from the American perspective, where we get the pilot’s eye view firing at weapons installations on the side of the mountain.
Flags of Our Fathers has a great many American soldiers—a few of whom, seen in a shot I think I can only call token, are African-American—but a handful of Japanese ones, men who are literally replaceable, as when one Japanese soldier mans a machine gun, shoots some guys, is shot himself, and then is replaced by another guy who commences firing again. There are good performances among this lot. Neal McDonough stands out as a younger Severance for his solidity, as much physically as emotionally, and Jamie Bell, in a small role as the doomed Private Ignatowski, is a standout for his earnestness. The leads of the ensemble cast—Beach’s Ira Hayes, Philippe’s John Bradley, and Bradford’s Rene Gagnon—are good too, probably in that order for overall quality as well. Beach brings out Hayes’ innate frustration in a role that could have, all too easily, been giftwrapped in a much bigger, awards season style performance. Instead you get a person whose frustration at being away from the unit to do something he can’t find important, whose alienation from a country that won’t shut up about how he isn’t white, and whose growing dependence on alcohol is literally killing him all come through organically. I like Philippe’s approach to Bradley as basically unflappable except in one enormous moment of panic and despair, repeated twice in the film, where he returns to his line after helping out a wounded man and discovers that Iggy is nowhere to be found. And Bradford a role which is maybe even a little bit thankless, at least compared to the deep personal drama that Beach is mining or the steadiness that Philippe provides. Gagnon is not a pure natural for the salesmanship that’s necessary for these men who transition from the battlefield to the bond tour, but he’s sure as heck better at it than Hayes or Bradley. He’s not a Slick Willie, but he gets cast into that role almost by necessity. The first time they’re towed out to start speaking in front of a microphone, Gagnon steps up, and what he says is not all that different from anything that Hayes or Bradley would say: we’re not heroes, we need your help to pay for the war, buy bonds, etc. Yet because he’s the one at the microphone, and because he shows signs of enjoying himself at home after being there for the perdition of Iwo Jima, he seems a little slicker than his comrades.
Where the movie actually feels new and even exciting for me—the kind of excitement which I think other people felt for Unforgiven—is in the way that the movie admits, even rolls around in the knowledge that principle is something for little people to feel. When the flag-raisers come home, they find they’ve been passed from Severance and Strank (Barry Pepper) to Bud Gerber (John Slattery), an agent of the Treasury Department whose job it is to shuttle them from place to place and get them to scare up war bond sales. The three young men are, despite their military service, still fairly idealistic fellows, and Gerber’s approach to them is anything but. Who actually raised the flag—because of the weird circumstances of the double-raising, faulty memory, and more, the identities of who’s actually in the famous photo are staticky—is a matter of debate, and the men are working hard to debate with Gerber. He isn’t having it. Without a bond drive that will outdo the last three, he tells them, there won’t be a war anymore because we won’t be able to pay for it. Faced with the threat that their dead friends might have died for a negotiated peace, the flag-raisers still their objections and, with a few hitches, learn to smile for the crowds. Being brought in front of Gerber is their induction into a perverse elect, one where you leave your ideals at the door and start doing things to achieve goals, where the result and not the process is what gets you your good night’s sleep. A nation could hardly hope to win the biggest war in human history without that mindset, and yet the government of that nation has to sell that myth of ideological purity and total decency in order to get its people to support the conflict. In the end, it comes down to individuals to set things right; it’s worth noting that the flag-raisers who end up telling a higher truth to the parents of their dead friends do so in, for lack of a better phrase, a free country.