The Battle of Iwo Jima was fought mainly between United States Marines and the Empire of Japan during February and March of 1945, during the Pacific Campaign of World War II. As a result of the battle, the United States gained control of the island, and the airfields located there. The battle is most famous, however, for the image of American forces raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi during the battle. It’s this epic moment from this critical conflict that is memorialized in Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood’s follow-up film to his 2004 Oscar-winning drama, Million Dollar Baby. It, as well as its sister movie, Letters from Iwo Jima, were every bit as deserving of their Oscar bids.
That’s not say there are no flaws in this particular work; mainly the disjointed narrative relating the tale of three of the men (two Marines and a Navy corpsman) given (somewhat specious) credit for raising the national emblem; which bigwigs in Washington use as a propaganda tool for selling more war bonds to a battle-weary and increasingly cynical populace.
The three, corpsman John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe, Crash), Pvt. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford, Happy Endings) and Pvt. 1st Class Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, Windtalkers), are merely dupes, but eventually become skeptical about being played up as heroes; especially since none of them participated in the actual original flag-raising (the famous picture was snapped later in the day when the first flag was replaced). But they are pressured by military top brass, as well as political leaders to continue these roles to help raise money for the war effort. This has a disastrous effect on Native-American Hayes (the only one of the three who actually fought on the island), who begins to drink heavily because of the guilt he feels participating in the charade. Beach brings a highly-nuanced and emotional charge to this long-misunderstood character (immortalized in a great Johnny Cash song, The Ballad Of Ira Hayes).
He is marvelous in this role, and should’ve — in my opinion — earned him a Best Supporting Actor nod. Writing that, I wish Eastwood (Oscar-winning director also of Unforgiven) would have used this tragic character to sew together the meandering narrative. Flags of Our Fathers, for all of its stark drama and raw power, jumps around far too much; we get an old man dreaming about the conflict, actual battle scenes, the war bond tour, more Iwo Jima memories from Hayes and Bradley, interviews of veterans by Bradley’s son (Thomas McCarthy), a brief history of Hayes, more battle memories and finally a short look at “Doc” Bradley.
It’s almost too much for the premise of the film to handle; and while it doesn’t completely break down, it does creak ominously under its own pretensions. Had the director, who has had trouble tying films down in the past (check out the last 20 minutes of Mystic River), used the intriguing Hayes thread to tie things together, he could have still incorporated the battle of Iwo Jima, the flag-raising, the war bond tour and just about everything else into a neat, tidy, comprehensive film that gets its point across without the confusing and unnecessary time jumps.
Overall, however, Flags of Our Fathers has much to recommend — great special effect battle sequences, gritty and horrific scenes (of death and dismemberment — the landings borrow heavily from co-producer Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan) and terrific acting. It is also a long overdue honor for those who fought in the Pacific Theatre during WWII (something Terrence Malik’s over-introspective The Thin Red Line certainly didn’t do) against an enemy that seemed to fight until the last man.