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Flags of Our Fathers (A Movie Review)

Updated: May 22, 2022

Flags of Our Fathers

Flags of Our Fathers


Starring Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, Barry Pepper, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Neil McDonough, Melanie Lynskey, Tom McCarthy, Judith Ivey, George Grizzard, Harve Presnell, Len Cariou, Gordon Clapp, Tom Verica, David Clennon and David Rasche.

Screenplay by William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis.

Directed by Clint Eastwood.

Distributed by Dreamworks Pictures.  132 minutes.  Rated R.

Flags of Our Fathers was the first movie in a two-part series created by Clint Eastwood telling the story of a single battle in World War II.  This story looked at one of the iconic images of war photography which was captured on that battlefield and how it shifted the direction of the war, as well as how it completely changed the lives of the soldiers captured in the snapshot.  Letters From Iwo Jima, which followed Flags into the multiplexes by only a couple of months, looks at the same story from the side of the Japanese enemy.

Ironically, the more-difficult-to-sell Letters, which not only looked at the attack from the Japanese point of view but was filmed in the native language, captured an audience in ways that this more obviously audience-friendly film did not.

Apparently Eastwood was not thrilled with the muted, polite but not-overly-enthusiastic response with which Flags of Our Fathers was met upon its theatrical release a few months ago.  However, I can see why this happened.  Despite some very horrific war scenes, the tone of the film in general is like that of a museum display.  You can’t help but respect the men and the horrors that they survived, but it almost feels like it is behind glass, hard to connect with.  Even the title has a wistful, nostalgic, tributary tone.

Ever since his revisionist western Unforgiven almost fifteen years ago, Eastwood has done an impressive job of undoing much of the romanticizing of violence for which he was greatly known as a young actor.  Eastwood has to be commended for having the bravery to make thoughtful, deep, but not necessarily commercial films which deconstruct his Dirty Harry image, with the results fully flowering in his last two features — Mystic River and the Oscar winning Million Dollar Baby.

He had not taken on war as a subject previously during this career resurrection.  In many ways, Flags of Our Fathers is extremely trenchant to today’s world, because it is as much about the selling of a war as it is about the actual battles.  No matter where you come down on the political divide of the war in Iraq (and Eastwood does tend to be conservative about most things, but these two films show that he apparently strongly feels war is wrong no matter what), you have to acknowledge that this was a war which was sold to us.  For better or worse, the weapons of mass destruction, the axis of evil, the mission accomplished banner and Bush in the flight suit with a codpiece — this was all a war that was tested with focus groups.

Now I can’t swear that Eastwood is using the past to comment on the present.  I don’t know what exactly his feelings on the current war are; other than his apparent realization that all war is horrific.

Flags of Our Fathers looks back at an earlier, slightly more innocent attempt to sell war to the American public.  It is the story of one of the most famous war pictures ever.  At the time of the Battle of Iwo Jima, the US entry in World War II was questioned.  A group of soldiers raised a flag on a cliff on the island.  It was decided that this image could be used to sell bonds and the war to a wary public.  Therefore they had the soldiers take down the flag and re-raise it for the camera.

The battle and the photo helped to turn the corner on the war for the US, but Flags of Our Fathers shows that this day and photo were a curse for the six men involved.  Three of the six soldiers were killed during the battle.  The movie intercuts the horror of the battle with the three survivors’ promotional tour of the US.  The army had them appearing at fairs, sporting events and parties to sell war bonds.  The survivors were acclaimed as “heroes” which was not how they felt.  They felt the real heroes were the dead.  It was a guilt that followed them through the rest of their lives.

World War II soldiers deserve to be honored and at the same time the actual wars be protested and Flags of Our Fathers does do both admirably, but it tells their stories with a certain distance and a bit of an agenda.  Both are of these faults are reasonable ones.  While I agree with the politics of Flags of Our Fathers and admire the filmmaking and the stories it is telling, it’s pretty hard to warm up to.  (2/07)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2007  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 7, 2007.

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