Deconstructing Heroism

Maui Time | October 14, 2006
Eastwood Deconstructs Heroism

Iwo Jima Becomes a Talking Point For Reality

Flags of Our Fathers (Five Stars)

By Cole Smithey (627 words)

Clint Eastwood distills a wartime story of epic proportions and personal truths from the worst single engagement of WWII on the island of Iwo Jima. From the brutal reality of the bloody 40-day battle to the way a group of its soldiers were made famous and taken advantage of by their government before being discarded, the movie gives context and personality to the soldiers whose faces were hidden in the War’s most famous image. Based on James Bradley’s best-selling book about his personal journey into his father John Bradley’s wartime achievements, screenwriters William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis (“Crash”) craft a carefully organized script that breathes with poignancy, emotion, and relevance without ever succumbing to sentimentality.

Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal took the iconic “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” picture on Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945 just five days after hundreds of battleships delivered 30,000 soldiers to the shores of the small but heavily fortified Japanese island covered in black sand and volcanic ash. Far from the photo’s perceived significance of triumph, it privately revealed a more prosaic reality beneath the surface. For the picture, the photographer actually recorded a second flag raising, performed in order to insure that the original banner did not end up ‘tacked on some politician’s wall’ after a covetous troop leader demanded it for his own. Of the six men in the photo, only three survived long enough to be returned to America for the government’s Seventh War Loan Drive fund-raising tour to sell war bonds to the American public. The battle for Iwo Jima came at a time when the U.S. military was broke, and only the sale of war bonds could keep the combat effort afloat. The news media’s widespread embrace of Rosenthal’s picture enabled an unprecedented phenomenon of hero/celebrity culture around the country that overshadowed the many sufferings and deaths still taking place on Iwo Jima and elsewhere.

The three surviving flag-raisers Marines Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), Native American Ira Hares (Adam Beach), and Navy Corpsman John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) resist personal issues of guilt as they appear before ardent fans to explain that the real heroes of the battle are the men killed in action or still fighting the war. Doc Bradley is the group’s spokesperson who ends his humble statement with a plea for the public to purchase war bonds. James Bradley said that the goal for his book was to break down the hero myths about the men in the picture. Clint Eastwood helps achieve Bradley’s ideal by interweaving recreated interview sequences with retired soldiers that Bradley spoke to at length when writing his book.

Just as the film follows the somber fate of the three soldiers propped up as war bond hawkers, it also chronicles the fates of the other three soldiers in the photo who died on the battlefield. The deaths of Sergeant Michael Strank (Barry Pepper), Pfc. Harlan Block (Benjamin Walker), and Franklin Sousley (Joseph Cross) give poignant context to the fireworks spectacle at home where Bradley, Gagnon and Hares reenact their flag-raising effort atop a giant paper mache hill in the middle of Chicago’s Soldiers Field stadium.

“Flags of Our Fathers” is a tremendous film about the very beginning of celebrity worship, and our need to invent and memorialize brave men. It is a deeply heartfelt and highly original war movie that takes time to get your head around—days, weeks, or months. Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers” companion film “Letters From Iwo Jima” will continue to provoke contemplation of the battle for Iwo Jima, except as viewed from the Japanese perspective.

Rated R, 131 mins. (A)


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