Heroic, Bloody Hoisting

Flags of Our Fathers. Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, and John Benjamin Hickey star in a film written by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, and directed by Clint Eastwood.

Reviewed by Josef Woodard This year, Clint Eastwood revealed yet another point of heroism in his long and brilliant career as he brought new vision and intelligence to the embattled war film genre. Yes, Eastwood’s dazzling Flags of Our Fathers is a genuine war film, with elements of battlefield strategy and brutal, instantaneous encounters of life and death. But other telling angles emerge in this tale about the battle for Iwo Jima — specifically the iconic photograph of soldiers hoisting the American flag, as if in triumphant conquest.

flags.jpgIn fact, as the film pointed out, it was the second flag-hoisting of the day, coming on only the fifth day of a fierce 39-day battle for the barren island, a tipping point in the victory over Japan during World War II. That legendary image quickly became part of the cunning war marketing and propaganda machinery, as soldiers from the scene were sent around the country on a tour to promote war bonds. Logically, this film covers that part of the story as well as the battle itself, moving in non-chronological patterns between past and present. Its non-linear narrative storytelling strategy helps convey the lingering, haunting memories of soldiers. War happens in real time, but also distorts time and memory forever for those involved.

Even in the period after Saving Private Ryan changed the rules, it’s still disorienting to see WWII — a “good war” — conveyed with the graphic realism of contemporary cinema. Here, the visual effect wavers between quasi-black-and-white and color, sometimes with only bursts of blood and fire jumping out in living color. This forced mixture of the sanitized vintage WWII movie lore and modern spare-no-gore naturalism nudges our perceptions in a subtle way, and represents the film’s agenda as a whole.

In this divisive political period in America, we need more artists like Eastwood, who manages to cut across ideological lines and get to the humanity of the matter. Eastwood takes care not to side with either the conventional “war-is-hell but necessary” rationale or the satirical “war-is-hell and should end now” approach, and he has even pulled back to examine the conflict from the opposite point of view. A companion film, Letters from Iwo Jima, from the Japanese soldiers’ perspective, will be released early next year.

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