'Flags of Our Fathers' Salutes The Men Behind The Moment
Friday, October 20, 2006
In his brilliant 1961 book "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America," the historian Daniel Boorstin examined a gullibility in postwar America, a tendency to confuse the famous with the meaningful. He defined a "pseudo-event" as something that was famous for its own sake, as opposed to an event, defined by accomplishment, character, courage, something intrinsic to human nature.
He could have been writing about the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. It was a real event that became a pseudo-event; something genuine that became the engine of a huge marketing machine with goals far more ambitious than the original participants could have imagined. Indeed, once their 1/400th of a second of freakish beauty was forever frozen in an image, it went on and on, feeding on itself, nourishing hucksters and propagandists, arguably destroying the men who had actually done the thing.
And that process, exactly and resonantly, is the center of Clint Eastwood's heartbreaking and sobering film "Flags of Our Fathers," based on the bestseller by James Bradley, son of John "Doc" Bradley, one of the six servicemen who planted the flag on Mount Suribachi that day in February 1945, on an island that still lay at the epicenter of the battle.
Dog-tired after five days of combat, the men had been given the task of running phone wire to the mountaintop, 550 feet up. The presence of Japanese snipers in the area made the mission risky. Once there, they were asked to improvise a little administrative task: They scrounged for a pole, and came briefly together to push the thing up, and then got on with the war. Hardly anyone noted a runty AP photographer, grumpy and also bone-tired, as he snapped a pic and, like the men themselves, thought nothing more of it.
The photo was accidentally brilliant, an image of a nation, particularly its boys, entwined in fighting a global war. A billion kitschy reproductions later, its grace and power remain undiminished.
Within a few weeks, three of the flag raisers were dead. Back in the real world, the photo was noticed by shrewd government operators and took on a life of its own. Thus the survivors -- Bradley, Pima Indian Ira Hayes and New Hampshire millworker Rene Gagnon -- were pulled from battle (actually, the wounded Bradley was pulled from hospital) and sent on a bond tour. Their new mission: Pretend to be heroes.
Most would say: What's the problem? They were heroes.
But the three boys weren't heroes in the one place where it counted: their own minds. No one ever told them the elemental truth: If you do your job, son, you are a hero. They thought they had to take machine gun nests or lead charges. Thus they were ordered to play a role in something like a national delusion: the idea that war is about grace and beauty, that heroism is a posture under a flag. It was true; it just wasn't real.
Like author Bradley before him -- though in not so much detail and in some ways compressed by the necessities of movie storytelling -- Eastwood tells of what still seems shocking. Here was a mighty sales system, industrialized, driven by the best minds of Madison Avenue, to push a product -- the Seventh War Bond Drive -- and nobody gave a lick about the three young men. Eastwood chronicles their destruction under the wheels of commerce.
Hayes, the most vulnerable, was enabled toward the alcoholism that led to his death at 32 by Keyes Beech (played by John Benjamin Hickey in the film), a Marine war correspondent who shepherded the three through their media ordeal, and whose answer to any stressful situation was to pour another drink. Hayes (Adam Beach, who was a more idealized Native American Marine in John Woo's "Windtalkers") deserves an Oscar nom for this, the showiest role in the film. Still, Beach doesn't go outsize on the film, and he stays within the laconic emotional register Eastwood has constructed.
Give it to Ryan Phillippe, as Navy corpsman Doc Bradley, for understanding the reticent, repressed nature of the man he was playing. Doc understood that to get through the immediate ordeal and to survive the much longer aftermath, he had to bury the horrors of the island and the slaughters he witnessed (and the killing he did) far, far away. Thus Phillippe -- muted, quietly in control -- essentially sacrifices himself as an actor for the sake of the story's truth.
Jesse Bradford also has a queasy task: Rene Gagnon, according to James Bradley's book, was immature till the day he died; movie-star handsome (his nickname in the unit was "Tyrone Power"), he was also weirdly passive and hungry to obey. He let his early fame rob him of any career possibilities, kind of like a child star.
While the book was chronological, Eastwood, working from Paul Haggis's version of an earlier script by William Broyles, postmodernizes the story. It flows freely between realities, sometimes in the hell of Iwo, sometimes in the different hell of the bond tour, and sometimes into the future, where old men are interviewed by a shadowy James Bradley as part of his research. Eastwood can cut from a tacky "re-creation" of the glories of the flag-raising in front of 100,000 cheering civilians at Chicago's Soldier Field to Doc's memories of a particularly squalid battle moment, as far from glory as can be imagined and nothing that could be reenacted before a football stadium crowd.
The re-creations of the Battle of Iwo Jima are also brilliantly managed. The movie shows the same high degree of technical accuracy in terms of weapons and uniforms as "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers," and DreamWorks was the production company behind all three films. But Eastwood has a different agenda: While "Private Ryan" gave us battle as narrative -- defining us and them, taking us through tactical maneuver and the search for fire superiority, then climaxing in battle's victory -- Eastwood conjures battle as weather. It simply appears from nowhere, a squall that blows in over the ridgeline -- mean, savage, terrifying, bloody -- and then vanishes. There's no coherence or satisfying wind-up. Moreover his set-piece battle starts and then it stops; there's no "climax" where a gallant major leads troops up a draw and flanks the enemy.
In fact, the battle that Eastwood creates seems almost existential, not that anyone on Iwo ever used that word. But the landscape is so indistinct, the violence so arbitrary, the damage to flesh so grotesque, the enemy so invisible, it seems like Brecht's or Beckett's vision of pointless mayhem. To play up this aspect, he's directed his cinematographer to desaturate the color, so the combat sequences have an almost monochromatic stylization to them.
On the whole, the film lacks a certain clarity for a nonfiction work, so much so that two of the flag-raisers -- Franklin Sousley and Harlon Block -- aren't sufficiently identified. And the suggestion that if the Seventh Bond Drive "failed" then the United States would have to settle for a negotiated peace with the Japanese is bunk; a more pungent argument might have been for the lengthening of the war.
Still, "Flags of Our Fathers" stands with the best movies of this young century and the old one the preceded it: It's passionate, honest, unflinching, gripping, and it pays respects. The flag-raising on Iwo might have indeed become a pseudo-event as it was looted for maximum profit, but there was nothing pseudo about the courage of the men who did it.
Flags of Our Fathers (132 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for graphic battle violence and carnage and persistent profanity.