In “Flags of Our Fathers,” director Clint Eastwood walks a fine line as he delivers a fresh perspective on World War II. Eastwood manages to exalt the individual sacrifices made by the Greatest Generation while simultaneously rebuking the selling of war through the callous and calculated marketing of select icons and images.
In February 1945, American photographer Joe Rosenthal captured an image of a group of five U.S. Marines and one Navy corpsman raising a flag atop Mount Suribachi even as the battle for the small, volcanic island still raged. The photograph went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and became one of the most recognizable images of the war. Moreover, it became a symbol of victory touted by the American government to sustain support for the war at home.
The story follows the three surviving men who participated in the flag-raising. Eastwood depicts in unyielding intensity the unfiltered ugliness of war as he examines the battlefield experiences of these inadvertent heroes. He achieves the gritty realism that made “Saving Private Ryan” so memorable. The battle, though, is not his primary focus.
The flag-raisers – John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Ryan Beach) – find themselves prematurely (and, at least in one case, involuntarily) removed from the Pacific Theater and charged with a new objective: Raise funds for the government. They are propped up on stages before cheering audiences, paraded before politicians and sold to the public as the heroes of Iwo Jima. The disingenuous powers which claim to honor them in fact only want them so long as they can rouse patriotism and influence Americans to buy war bonds.
Through the scenes of combat as well as the scenes of governmental duplicity, Eastwood never loses focus on the individuals. Their stories are told to Bradley’s son after his father’s death, providing a nostalgic, albeit occasionally muddled, underlying narrative.
Of the three interwoven stories, the most poignant is that of Hayes. A Pima Indian, Hayes selflessly fought to preserve American ideals even when lingering racism prohibited him from fully participating in society. Eastwood recognizes the scope of his sacrifice and honors him fittingly.
In its political aspect, the film sternly cautions against the encouragement of hero worship and the exploitation of images and individuals to stir nationalistic sentiment. Eastwood clearly identifies propaganda and wartime profiteering as evils to be eschewed. A subtly stated message, the director leaves it to the audience to seek analogous events in today’s headlines.
Eastwood’s unique vision does not in any way diminish the substantial contribution made by a generation of Americans. Its purpose is not to belittle the courage, the ingenuity and the resolve of those who fought to defend America. In fact, through the film, the director shows a deep admiration for their understated valor, their altruism and their ability to shoulder the burden of traumatic memories. “Flags of Our Fathers” simply reminds audiences that integrity is always more honorable than blind patriotism.