Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys and Girls!
Clint Eastwood’s long lauded career has spotlighted the individual facing self-serving hypocrisy in a violent, powerful society. The lone protagonist usually emerges with some small actual victory or goes down still wearing his moral boots. However, in Flags of Our Fathers, they -- there are three -- are overwhelmed and defeated, but unlike the classic tragic hero, they arrive at neither self-awareness nor even a modest comprehension.
The two-hours-plus is filled with definitions and designations of the fashionable post-9/11 term “hero.” No cowards need apply, and unstinting bravery is the hallmark of the quick and the dead, fighting men of both sides although Japanese gun barrels are seen more than the faces of Imperial soldiers, who have their day in less confused companion Letters from Iwo Jima.
For this first installment, the six-week campaign’s assault, beachhead and opening five days -- capped by the iconic, now-controversial flag-raising -- are captured meticulously but with conscious effort to avoid cinema’s usual battlefield glorification. This realistic de-mythologizing of the chaos that is war, is but a small part, with most of the rest interspersed in varieties of flashbacks, including the crucial moments on the summit of Mount Suribachi and the battle decimation of a confusing cast of Marines.
More frames are spent on subsequent events, April 1945 on, while fighting for the “ugly, smelly, burnt pork chop” island still raged. The three surviving men in Joe Rosenthal’s (Ned Eisenberg) AP photograph are identified and rushed home, where the image has been so fixed in the public eye that their protestations and corrections of faces are not listened to.
Navy corpsman John “Doc” Bradley and Marine privates Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes (Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach) are sucked into a public relations machine that requires them to barnstorm and urge a war-weary nation to re-loosen its purse strings for war bonds in a final push for victory. Meeting President Truman (David Patrick Kelly), fêted by congressmen, businessmen and the social élite, embraced by commoners, Gold Star Mothers, baseball players and groupies, they are forced into kind untruths and painted as the brave Men and Women of the Armed Service whose sacrifice calls for the same from the home front.
Thrust thus into traveling intimacy, the three are of course different, and their reactions vary aside from the common thread of not believing themselves more worthy than other, unsung brothers in arms. More time is devoted to the Gila River Reservation Pima Native American Hayes, himself a subsequent footnote in a couple of big screen and TV films and protest songs, but, in all three cases, no longer useful as publicity fodder, “yesterday’s hero” quickly passes from sight and memory.
The framing device that would unite everything is employed sporadically, so it seems an intrusion. Some unidentified veterans – a half-century later -- comment on their experience. Those who have not undergone combat only think they know what it is like, muses one of this dying-out species, while most who have actually fought cannot make sense of the experience and do not easily talk about it, mainly in order to forget.
The self-effacing interviewer (but above all listener) drawing out the elderly ex-combatants’ measured memories is “Doc” Bradley’s son, who himself recounts the decidedly inglorious ends of those involved. His epilogue, however, seems no more than an aural substitute for the current fetish for printed end-summations.
The upshot of these disparate views of three stories -- far-away combat, the national mood, and brief reminiscences -- is that there is a lack of probing in any. The nature of heroism, post-traumatic stress disorder or shell shock, manipulation by cynical publicists, racial intolerance and even a bit of spotlight posturing, diverge in too many directions. Thus, the intriguing rumored revelation of an inadvertently staged, second flag-raising, does not have the impact it might, while sequences fade into the pack and make it difficult to differentiate one player from the others, much less remember them after the lights go up. All, in fact, resembles the bleached battle scenes that verge on black and white and olive drab, with bursts of yellow-red flame-flare.
(Released by DreamWorks SKG and rated “R” for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and language.)