The photo of the Stars and Stripes being raised above Iwo Jima is one of the most iconic shots of the 20th Century. Clint Eastwood’s new film — he’s directing, not passing himself off as a young Marine, thankfully — is the story of that photo and the unexpected aftermath.
It’s an interesting take on the story, and a satisfying sideways glance at the politics of war. The problem is it just feels so damn Oscar-worthy, it’s a film that’s easier to admire rather than to get emotionally involved with. Of the six men in the photo, only three make it back alive: John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe, proving there IS more to him than being Reese’s ex), Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford). They find themselves on a whistlestop tour of the States, plugging war bonds, getting on each others’ nerves and basking in the misguided light of heroism that never was.
Their version of the truth — two flags were raised, different men were involved — and the official line — what a great patriotic picture, how about some war bonds? — are at odds with one another. With the possible exception of Gagnon, who never even fired a weapon, the men do not feel like heroes, whatever the crowds might be cheering. As the film progresses, and the “truth” is revealed, there’s a certain emotional power. The unusual narrative structure — the time line is split between the battle, the rounds of promotion and the present day, where Bradley’s son is trying to piece events together — is deftly handled. It’s just that for the most part, Eastwood’s direction — and fellow Oscar-winner Paul Haggis’s screenplay — seem so bogged down in their own sense of worthiness that there’s something slightly cold about proceedings. The battle sequences are astonishing, in a Saving Private Ryan style, and there is a great deal of gut-wrenching power on display. But there’s something slightly laboured about much of it.
Yes, it’s well made, but with one eye apparently on the little gold statues, the film lacks the heart it so desperately needs. The “sister” piece to Flags of our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima — which tells the Japanese side of the story — is the more interesting film, and helps to bring a greater depth to the story. Sadly you’ll have to wait until February to see that. It is worth the wait though, and features the sense of originality that has truly inspired Eastwood’s undoubted skill behind the camera. Flags of our Fathers, for all its obvious quality, lacks that spark and never overcomes its absence.