Everybody knows Joe Rosenthal's photograph Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. When the image of the Stars and Stripes being raised atop Mount Suribachi was published across America in February 1945, the photo caused a sensation. For many war-weary home-fronters, it inspired hope of victory for the U.S.
But did you know there were two flags that day, that the famous pic was of the second one, and that the soldiers raising it weren't under fire? Sure, it's the set-up for a mildly interesting episode of History's Mysteries. But for authors James Bradley and Ron Powers -- and now director Clint Eastwood -- it's the basis for Flags of Our Fathers, an account of how that picture affected the country and, better yet, a meditation on the men who fought on Iwo Jima, what the battle's survivors left behind there, and how they were haunted by their experiences forever after.
Once the photograph became famous, FDR recalled the soldiers depicted in it from the Pacific Theater to send them on a War Bond tour. Their new tour of duty didn't involve Okinawa or the Philippines but Griffith Stadium and the Drake hotel. Stateside, the three men were celebrities, and their fund-raising effort was a monumental success.
The three flag-raisers that survived Iwo Jima are spotlighted in the film. Ryan Phillippe is excellent as Navy Corpsman John Bradley, deftly portraying the medic soldier's dogged determination. Adam Beach and Jesse Bradford co-star as Marines Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon, respectively. Beach has a few scenes where he shines and Bradford maybe one, but most of the pair's ineffectiveness owes to failings in the script.
The staging of naval and air assaults in the film are staggering enough to put your heart in your throat. The beaches of Iwo Jima are composed of black volcanic sand (geologically correct Iceland was chosen for location filming), and the battle there looks like it's taking place on the surface of the moon. The editing of the invasion is spectacular, assembled with such care that the viewing experience doesn't degrade into confused chaos but is more like watching a tennis match with volleys, returns, and aces.
And what a battle Eastwood's Iwo Jima is: An armada of warships as if described by Homer; Japanese blockhouses and pillboxes; the flamethrower and the bayonet; naval barrages and self-inflicted grenade wounds. Crucially, a slide show of still photographs of the actual battle shown during the end credits reveals just how exact the film's details are.
Flags of Our Fathers is cut from the same cloth as Steven Spielberg's 1998 masterpiece Saving Private Ryan. They share a look (battles are bleached a gray, muted color); a purpose (unflinching understanding of "the Greatest Generation"); a consequence (making virtually irrelevant past films portraying the same battles, such as The Longest Day and Sands of Iwo Jima); even an actor (Barry Pepper). Spielberg produced Flags of Our Fathers. Comparisons are inevitable.
Technically, Eastwood is Spielberg's equal. But Spielberg's film benefits from a relentless, claustrophobic structure. The narrative structure of Flags of Our Fathers progresses in measured turns -- with home-front touring punctuated by intense vignettes of warfare -- and sometimes the two situations coil around and comment upon one another. Eastwood makes it work. But it doesn't stick to your guts with the same tenacity. It doesn't exact the same toll on the audience.