If you like movies that spew clichés, Clint Eastwood will not make your day. Since winning his first directing Oscar, for 1992’s Unforgiven, Eastwood has been on a creative roll with the unsparing Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby (Oscar number two). At seventy-six, he’s doing risky work while his contemporaries retire or, worse, conform. Even when the plot of his new Flags of Our Fathers steers him toward Saving Private Ryan rah-rah and “Greatest Generation” sentiment, Eastwood holds the line.
Flags of Our Fathers is a film of awesome power and blistering provocation. An amazing feat, since Eastwood is tied to the nonfiction best seller that James Bradley wrote about his father, John “Doc” Bradley, the last survivor among the six soldiers who raised the flag on Iwo Jima.
The bloody 1945 battle on Japan’s volcanic island left 6,800 Americans dead, but the public was rallied by a photo, taken by Joe Rosenthal, that became an iconic emblem of World War II: five Marines and one Navy corpsman (Bradley) planting Old Glory on top of Mount Suribachi in the midst of the carnage. It was the second flag-raising that day, but the only one caught on camera. Eastwood hits you hard with that image. As the soldiers struggle to get the flag aloft, you can almost hear cheering.
Actually, you do hear cheering. The scene, a shocker, is a re-creation of the photo staged for an enthusiastic crowd at Chicago’s Soldier Field in the spring of 1945 as part of a fund-raising drive. As the camera pulls back, we see that the mountain is fake. The only reality is the men in the uniform: Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). Since the other flag-raisers (Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block and Michael Strank) died in battle, the government exploits the surviving trio to drum up money and bolster flagging support for the war in its final months. No longer asked to be heroes in battle but to play heroes Hollywood-style, the men embark on a nationwide tour. It’s pure showbiz. Hide the truth, pump the myth.
It nearly destroys them. Gagnon, 19, adjusts better to fame than the others, mistakenly believing that being a good propagandist will win him jobs after the war. Bradford (Happy Endings) deftly uncovers the doubt lurking under Gagnon’s surface charm. As Bradley, Phillippe (building on strong supporting turns in Crash, Gosford Park and Igby Goes Down) provides the quiet emotional center the story needs. Eastwood wants the reticent Bradley to be our eyes into the film. Phillippe draws us in with a nuanced portrait of a man who bravely administers first aid to soldiers under fire but can’t find words for the horror he’s seen, including the death of his friend Iggy (Jamie Bell). Phillippe’s hauntingly implosive performance makes it clear why Bradley hardly spoke of the war to his family in later years, prompting his son to write the book.
As Hayes, Beach (Windtalkers) burns up the screen, finding the soul of his tormented character. He’s a lock for a supporting-Oscar nomination. Hayes, a Pima Indian bruised by racism in and out of battle, numbed his pain with booze. He died in 1955, at thirty-two. Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan both covered a song about him: “He died drunk one mornin’/Alone in the land he fought to save/Two inches of water in a lonely ditch/Was a grave for Ira Hayes.” Flags of Our Fathers needed to be a sprawling epic to take in all these stories. The ambitious script by William Broyles Jr. (Jarhead) and Crash Oscar winner Paul Haggis jumps back and forth in time in ways that could have been a jumble if Eastwood wasn’t so adept at cutting a path to what counts. That would be the ferocity of battle, edited by Joel Cox and shot in desaturated hues by Tom Stern to show what Eastwood sees as the brutal darkness of it. That would be the parallels to the Iraq War and the lies being perpetrated in the name of blind patriotism. That would be the honor due the soldiers who fight in the face of death on foreign shores and then face disdain at home.
Right at the start, before the first image, we hear a few bars of a 1940s song, “I’ll Walk Alone.” The voice is a whisper, but the lyrics (“If you call, I’ll hear you/No matter how far”) resonate. Eastwood’s film, a fierce attack on wartime hypocrisy and profiteering, is also an indelibly moving salute to the soldiers who don’t deserve to walk alone for following their own sense of duty.
After Flags, Eastwood directed Letters From Iwo Jima, a feature that tells the story from the Japanese side. The film won’t be out till February, but one thing is for damn sure: Eastwood will do it his way. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the gold standard.