Okay, let me get this bias out of the way to begin with: I don’t very much like the American flag. It’s been used as an advertising symbol to sell everything from hamburgers to politicians to used cars to underwear to wars to, yes, even movies. Any good that it might have stood for at one time has long since been corrupted, sold out, or trampled on. Every time I see it I feel disgusted.
That having been said, I was very moved to watch the current Clint Eastwood film, “Flags of Our Fathers” about the exploitation of that very flag. We’re all familiar with the famous photograph of Marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima and statue based on it, but there is some rather interesting background here. The World War II battle of Iwo Jima, an island off the coast of Japan, was fought in February and March of 1945 and considered an important strategic turning-point in the Pacific. The battle lasted 35 days but the famous flag-raising over Mt. Surabachi, the highest point in the southwestern corner of the island, was actually done on the fifth day of the battle. It was considered a turning point in the battle and gave inspiration to the troops. Some high-ranking political observer wanted that particular flag to decorate his office, so another squad a men was sent to climb up the mountain with orders to take down the first flag and replace it with a second. The second raising was hardly noticed by most and wasn’t considered important at all. But because of an interesting little quirk of history, photos taken of the first raising were ruined before they could be developed, but a photo of the second raising survived and soon was on the front page of every newspaper in the US. This cemented the strange fate of six men who were dubbed “heroes” when none of them thought they had done anything heroic. The battle raged on for another month and during that time, three of the six were killed. The three survivors were taken out of the war and sent on a publicity tour throughout the US to raise money for war bonds. Thus begins the real story of exploitation. Exploitation of a flag, exploitation of people’s feelings of patriotism, and perhaps worst of all, exploitation of three soldiers.
The first thing I need to say about this film is that the acting is excellent. I felt the three main characters were interesting and well-developed. John “Doc” Bradley, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes (Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, and Adam Beach) created unique historical characters and the interesting dynamic between them. All survived the hellish battle of Iwo Jima and all were sent on the same US tour, but their reactions were quite different. Gagnon gladly takes to the spotlight while Hayes, a Native-American, tries to contain his feelings of disgust by drinking to excess. Bradley, not sure what to make of it all, gradually growing more cynical, is caught between them. And yet despite their differences and quarrels, you sense that what they experienced together on Iwo Jima created a unique bond.
Eastwood has paid real attention to period detail, not just in the battle scenes, but also on the home-front and the huge war-bond rallies in giant stadiums complete with fireworks and a gaudy papier-mâché mountain imitating Mt. Surabachi which the three are expected to climb to recreate their flag-raising, even though that’s not at all how it happened.
Although for the first twenty or twenty-five minutes or so I had the feeling I had seen this movie before—it starts out like so many World War II films—it ends up going in a different direction. There are some rather powerful moments in the battle scenes, yet the film as a whole doesn’t have the intensity of “Saving Private Ryan” to which it clearly begs comparison. Yet in many ways it’s so different. For one, the story is not told in chronological order, allowing tensions to rise and fall throughout the film; the audience drifts back and forth between the battle, the war-bond tour, and contemporary times, feeling a bit like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim who became “unstuck in time” in Slaughterhouse-Five. But this may be a bit disorienting; it’s not until the entire film is over, when you have seen every scene, that you can go back and put everything in order in your mind. Is this a good story-telling technique? I’m not sure. But I do know that it makes it confusing.
There are several other confusing things. There is a narrator, but it takes a while—at least it took me a while—to realize just who in fact was telling this story. And there are a number of less-major characters that are hard to keep track of. Worst of all is in the battle scenes. Perhaps because everyone is wearing the same costume, but you can’t always tell which character just got killed. Another flaw, I felt, was that the ending was drawn out too long.
The big question that I have to ask, when it’s all over, is, is this a patriotic film? Is this a movie that loves and glorifies the flag? In the final analysis, I think not, despite some semi-patriotic sounding rhetoric by the narrator at the end. (Perhaps it’s ironic.) But neither is this an anti-war film. The movie doesn’t ask the question of whether or not World War II was wrong—rather it seems to take as a given the necessity to fight. But it does try to point out that it’s wrong for a government to exploit its flag and its soldiers.
I heard the question asked, why do we need another World War II picture? Hasn’t this subject been done to death? What more can possibly be said about World War II? But I believe the reason we’re finding new WWII stories now, more than 60 years later, is because things that are happening in our own world relate to this. For the same reason that we keep remaking movies about King Arthur, or Hamlet, or Greek mythology, or the Titanic, we keep finding new angles that speak to a new generation. In the contemporary world, we see our government wrapping itself in the flag, exploiting its people’s patriotic feelings over 9/11 to justify a war in Iraq. Now when we look back at World War II, we can see the same thing; perhaps we couldn’t see that before. This isn’t just a movie about something that happened 60 years ago; it’s a metaphor for what’s happening today. This isn’t another World War II picture, it’s a story about an icon and the exploitation of it.
If you love the American flag, you’ll hopefully be disturbed by this film. If, like me, you’ve come to hate the flag because you’ve seen it exploited for the benefit of all the things you hate, you’ll be glad someone else sees it that way too.
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