Clint Eastwood's Oscar-ready Iwo Jima picture Flags of Our Fathers is a blue-note, two-note look at the appalling experience of foreign war and the concurrent spin control at home. With stoic matter-of-factness, Eastwood avoids direct or implied authorial political pronouncements; rather, the film's moderate stance unambiguously applauds heroic sacrifice even as it roots around in the ambiguity of the enthusiastic sale of patriotism using company-line mythology.
The screenplay by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis—based on the bestseller by James Bradley with Ron Powers—leaps forward and backward to three basic settings: the 1945 battle of Iwo Jima, the homecoming of the men who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi, and Bradley's 1990s search for the truth. There's a distinct Spielbergian vibe to the battle scenes, though budget constraints make the beachfront seem a bit like a digital playground—dramatically upsetting as lambs fall to the slaughter, but far from visceral verisimilitude.
The heart of the film is in the homefront sequences, where the soldiers discover they are marketing tools whose heroism is both wrongly defined and exploited. This point is a fine one, but in the absence of inventive variations, Broyles and Haggis redundantly hammer home the same point in scene after scene. It's an especially egregious miscalculation when you consider that the filmmakers—and, for that matter, the actors—fail in 132 minutes fully to breathe life into their triad of reluctant heroes: medic and Navy corpsman John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Philippe, of Haggis' Crash) and Marine grunts Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach).
It's ironically appropriate, then, when the men become walking action figures, forced to represent the American fighting spirit by reliving the hell of Iwo Jima at every whistle stop of a tour to promote the sale of war bonds. "You fought for a mountain in the Pacific," Truman cheerily tells them. "Now we need you to fight for a mountain of cash." That mountain, tarted up in paper-mâché, shadows them like death itself; preoccupied by fallen comrades caught not in limelight but in lime, Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes demur that the heroes are the men who never returned. In this haunted humility, Eastwood conveys the bygone personal character of what Tom Brokaw popularly dubbed the "greatest generation."
As an audience, we get oriented with the troops (regarding the sacred Japanese soil of Iwo Jima, Neal McDonough's Marine Captain warns, "They will not leave politely, gentlemen"), observe the horror of the shoreline assault (the frontline picked off by buried snipers), and stand witness to photographer Joe Rosenthal's capture of what would instantly become an iconic photograph: the Marines' symbolic raising of the American flag, in victorious triumph. The film succeds best when—like the source material by "Doc" Bradley's son James—it debunks our assumptions about that frozen moment in time (which, in fact, doesn't depict the initial flag-raising at the battle's denouement).
Eastwood's unfortunately belabored modern-day sequences show little faith in his audience. These recurrent scenes follow both Saving Private Ryan's lead and the garish trend of climactically telling instead of showing (see also World Trade Center). For all the film's failings, Hollywood's favorite old war horse admirably refuses to shirk from the story's subversive exposure of historical myth-making while balancing that impulse with sincere respect for America's fighting men (Eastwood dedicates the film to his own fallen comrades, the film's casting director Phyllis Huffman and production designer Henry Bumstead).
In and of itself, the film excavates the twin absurdity of a defining World War II moment, bloodily experienced abroad and uncomfortably repurposed in the form of propaganda; it's also the first in a two-film package from Eastwood, the second (Letters from Iwo Jima, from a Japanese perspective) waiting in the wings. Eastwood's postmodern interest in once-verboten topics of war cinema—though hardly unique—speaks in his favor. Still, Flags of Our Fathers isn't dramatically nimble enough to be what it strives to be: a superior companion piece to Bradley's informative bestseller.