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Flags of Our Fathers.

Flags of Our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood, written by William S. Broyles and Paul Haggis, starring Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford, and Ryan Phillippe, 132 minutes, rated R.


IWO JIMA IS an eight-square-mile volcanic island in the western Pacific Ocean that was the scene of a hellacious battle between Japanese and US military personnel in February and March 1945. The island itself is the real star of Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers. Like some sort of hovering ghost, its rough terrain--and the rough psychological tortures that were inflicted on the Americans and Japanese who fought against each other there in 1945--continued to haunt the battle's survivors long after World War II ended. The effect the film has on the viewer is partly due to the fact that some scenes were filmed there.

By now, with the barrage of stories written about the film, readers know it was based on a best-selling book co-authored by the son of one of the six people who raised the US flag on Mount Suribachi, an extinct volcano on the island's south side.

Three of the six men--navy corpsman John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), marine Private Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and marine Private Ira Hayes (Adam Beach)--survived the Battle of Iwo Jima and the war to be permanently identified as flag-raisers.

Screenwriters William S. Broyles and Paul Haggis give us these three flag-raisers, plus the same three as elderly men (played by different actors) near the end of their lives. For some reason, the filmmakers decided to make voice-over narration an important part of the film. The end result is too many narrative voices. The cacophony of voices can easily confuse an audience, especially in the last 20 to 25 minutes. Yet for the determined viewer, all these voices have interesting stories to tell. All three men had their lives irrevocably changed by being identified as heroes "all for raising a flag on a pole," as one of them states in the film.

Gagnon is the first of the three men to enjoy the massive media attention. He is the smoothest public speaker at the rallies, always saying the right things to please both the audiences at war-bond rallies and the battalion of reporters who flattered the men in their articles. At parties, Gagnon collects business cards from industrialists, with the dear intention of getting a high-paying job after the war. If the film's script is truth--and that is quite questionable-- then Gagnon was a shallow man. (Some would point out that the fact that Gagnon never got a good job and spent his later years as a janitor casts doubt on this image of him as a ruthless self-promoter.)

Bradley, whose son James wrote the book on which the film was based, is more complicated. He quickly sees the falseness of the conquering hero status that is being thrust on the three men. Yet the smart, savvy Bradley also sees that when the three men appear at war-bond rallies, the audiences are desperately looking for heroes. So he lies to certain mothers of soldiers killed at Iwo Jima, for the sole reason that telling the lies will make their lives a bit happier. These complicated, not entirely truthful characters are the sort of roles actors love and members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (the folks who vote for the Oscars) usually ignore. In the case of Phillippe, that would be a shame, for he gives Bradley a full range of emotions.

It's doubtful that those Oscar voters will make the mistake of not nominating Beach; expect him to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination in the early months of 2007. Lee Marvin and Tony Curtis have played Hayes in television movies and theatrically released films respectively, but it will be Beach's characterization of Hayes--the Pima Indian from Arizona who became an alcoholic because he couldn't cope with the psychological damage of being a survivor of Iwo Jima--that will haunt the movie-goer after he or she leaves the theater. We also see that Hayes was a victim of discrimination because of his Indian heritage. All of the above was probably too much for one person to deal with. Perhaps that's why Hayes died at age 32 from alcoholism and exposure to the elements.

The scenes of Hayes in the film that will long stay in this reviewer's memory are near the end of the film, where he is shown hitchhiking through the arid American Southwest, wandering about barely conscious. To these scenes, Eastwood adds a lone acoustic guitar solo, played at slow tempo. He seems to be saying that both society and politicians shamelessly exploit soldiers to their respective advantages. Some things never change.

Mark Weisenmiller

Tampa, Florida
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Author:Weisenmiller, Mark
Publication:America in WWII
Date:Feb 1, 2007
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