DREAMWORKS PICTURES AND WARNER BROS.
The story behind "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima," a World War II photograph by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, is told in "Flags of Our Fathers," a film directed by Clint Eastwood. The moment captured on camera is re-enacted in the film, right.
Heroes by Chance
From the famed Iwo Jima photo comes a rich testament to the paroxysm of war
This is an entirely grown-up movie about a subject that even most grown-ups have difficulty absorbing, the nature of singular heroism in a world of grays. Director Clint Eastwood, who has portrayed artificial heroes for a half-century in Hollywood, must have been powerfully attracted to the story of several regular guys who had been arm-deep in the horrors of war and then were yanked onstage into the glare of a national spotlight. They blink against the harsh light; we would, too; that commonality is the heart of this powerful, harrowing, disturbing movie.
"Flags of our Fathers"
Opens: Friday at theaters
"Flags of Our Fathers" is possibly the richest testament Hollywood has yet made about the paroxysm of World War II, particularly about the critically desperate, bloody days of 1945, when half the casualties of the entire war were suffered. It is an astounding movie on every level, not the least of which is its common humanity.
It's also a picture about a picture, the "decisive moment" as Henri Cartier-Bresson called it, that 1/400th of a second when the elements combine into an unforgettable image. In this case, it was five Marines and one Navy corpsman who stuck a flag into the top of a 500-foot "mountain" during one of the last battles of World War II; they just happened to be there doing their job when Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured an image that encapsulated American sacrifice in the war. It is likely the best-known photograph ever. The visual scheme of the movie has been muted down to shades of gray, like the minimalist palette of a wire-service photo. Color would have been a distraction.
Eastwood's focus on the common man's point of view even occurs in establishing shots, such as one showing the massive American invasion fleet gathered off tiny Iwo Jima. Most directors would have used a godlike panning sweep, showing off the computer-generated ships. Eastwood instead shows the scene as viewed from inside the noisy, vibrating cockpit of a Navy F-4U fighter, flying cover over the fleet.
They just happened to be there; that's the key. They could just as likely have been hit by flak or hand-grenade fragments or bullets or cut down by a crazed enemy. That's the nature of battle.
Within days of the photograph, Marines Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block and Michael Strank are killed -- one by friendly fire -- and survivors "Doc" Bradley (played by Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) are hustled out of the ongoing battle to fight an even more incomprehensible assault. They've become poster boys for war-bond drives, instant celebrities for something they know was just a quirk of fate.
But the nation needs these celebrities. The war is running out of cash, and without their help, it could sputter to an inconclusion. One of the striking things about "Flags of Our Fathers" is the way the film treats the idiocies and discomforts of the war-bond tour as psychologically damaging as battle. The film is structured as flashbacks and flashforwards triggered by the demands of the tour.
The three react in different ways. Doc becomes stoic, tamping down the horrors; Rene, eager to please, imagines post-war employment; Ira, a patriotic Pima Indian, is so rattled that he turns to booze and dies prematurely of exposure -- perhaps joining his buddies who died on Iwo Jima.
One of the interesting motifs of the movie is the casually patronizing racism Ira's fellow Marines speak; he mutely accepts it, because he knows they're actually trying to clumsily bond with him, recognizing him as a fellow American and, more importantly, as a fellow warrior. He holds his tongue, even though it hurts. That's heroism for you.