As he did with the Western in Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood sees the war genre through a realistic and reconstructive lens in Flags of Our Fathers, an emotionally harrowing journey into the psyche of a nation and the men it would hold up as heroes. Based on the bestselling book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, the film examines one of the most iconic images of the 20th century — the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi at the end of the Battle of Iwo Jima, during World War II — and puts it under the microscope, examining the circumstances behind its making, the men caught in the middle of it, and its exploitation by the American government.
Although one might expect a traditional sort of war film from Eastwood, who’s aligned himself politically with the right in the past, his fascination with the media and heroism is the focus here. An unvarnished look at how the government can wield the media couldn’t be more timely or welcome.
The three men on which Flags centers are John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), the only survivors among the six who were captured in Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph. These three are feted and honored as American heroes, all in the name of raising money for the war effort through the sale of bonds, but soon, overwhelmed by the adulation, they try coping in self-destructive ways.
If Eastwood has a fault as a filmmaker, it is that he seldom knows when to call “cut” at the right time, and the movie does move a mite slow at times. However, this is the only real flaw in this ambitious work. Rarely do we get films as complex as this from Hollywood, let alone one that questions many of the archetypes cinema has helped perpetuate.