From moms who undermine us to dads who lift us up: Flags of Our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood from the best seller by James Bradley (with Ron Powers), is a wrenching elegy to the “greatest generation”—a film with enough breadth and spectacle and poetry to transcend some clunky storytelling. At its center is the immortal Joe Rosenthal photograph of six men, their faces obscured, struggling to raise a flag at the top of Mount Suribachi on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima—one of the most inspiring images ever captured on film. Without discrediting the power of that image, the movie (like the book) goes on to expose its petty genesis and dispiriting aftermath.
The movie begins with a voice-over: Harve Presnell (sounding eerily like Bob Dole) asserting that “every jackass thinks he knows what war is.” What follows is a scene so painful that it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around it: A medic (Ryan Phillippe) tries to keep an American’s innards from spilling out, then grinds his bayonet into the stomach of a Japanese soldier leaping over a ridge. This nightmarish parallel isn’t carried through the rest of the film, but everything that follows is suffused by it—by the irreconcilability of the fact of war with the slogans that are meant to sell bonds.
A director known for his casual approach (little rehearsal, few takes, setups that summon comparisons to a jazz musician’s affectless cool), Eastwood has never directed anything this fluid or upsettingly beautiful. His co-producer is Steven Spielberg, and there are similarities between the slaughters on the beaches of this Iwo Jima and the Omaha of Saving Private Ryan. But the way Eastwood backs off from splattery spectacle is moving and decent—the carnage is just enough to haunt you and not enough to punish you. He leaches the color out of the images, leaving a sickly green and the sharp contrast of black and white, and he has composed a spare and melancholy score that makes even victory a loss. We hardly ever glimpse the tens of thousands of Japanese hidden in tunnels in that mountain—the bloodshed is horrifyingly disconnected. (Eastwood simultaneously shot a forthcoming film from the Japanese perspective, Letters From Iwo Jima, that will take us inside that mountain.)
Flags of Our Fathers appears at first to be at cross-purposes with itself. It says the men who returned from the war were not heroes, then it goes on to show them sacrificing themselves for one another with superhuman heroism. That’s where the photo comes in. The mystery of the planting of that flag is carried by the three surviving subjects (played by Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, and Adam Beach)—none of whom feels entitled to the adulation he receives on the home front. There’s a trace of The Right Stuff in the depiction of real men who blanch under the efforts of their handlers to market them for purposes of political propaganda. But The Right Stuff astronauts weren’t eaten alive by survivors’ guilt.
It’s when the movie gets into the specifics of that guilt that we get Eastwood’s familiar ham-handed touch. As the Native American Ira Hayes, whose feelings of inadequacy (reinforced by rampant prejudice against his people) drive him further into drunken disillusionment, Beach has to emote in a vacuum: It’s the sort of performance that gets nominated for awards because you can’t escape the acting. Phillippe is a study in colorlessness, though, and with the exception of Barry Pepper as a charismatic sergeant and John Slattery as a brusque and fast-talking PR guy, the rest of the cast blurs together.
The screenplay, by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, needed another draft: Toward the end, after several narrators have come and gone, the author James Bradley (played by Tom McCarthy) shows up, and we’re meant to realize that he has been interviewing Iwo Jima vets for a book after the death of his dad (George Grizzard, who’s supposed to be Ryan Phillippe 50 years on). The infelicities don’t matter. Flags of Our Fathers fits into Eastwood’s late-in-life agenda—to make violence, even in self-defense, seem soul-killing, and to expose the gulf between reality and myth. After this, how can we ever again make our peace with the iconography of war?
The vocabulary of mainstream movies has changed radically in the past decade: Now, when filmmakers leap back and forth in time, radically shift perspectives, juxtapose narrative lines with no apparent connection, and withhold key information, audiences rarely question what they’re seeing. Maybe they ought to. In their last collaboration, 21 Grams, the director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga did syntactical acrobatics to disguise what a dreary and exploitive little soap opera they’d made. Their new movie, Babel, is more mysterious and less coherent.