What does it mean to be a hero?
That’s the question at the centre of Clint Eastwood’s new World War II movie “Flags of our Fathers.” It’s a question with no easy answers but Eastwood does a masterful job examining the issue, and ends up creating his third straight powerful movie.
The picture of the soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima in February 1945 has become the most iconic photograph of the 20th century. It has been recreated in movies, monuments, and statues. It has been issued as a postage stamp and a silver dollar. It was even recreated at the Super Bowl. But few people know the real story or even the names of the soldiers, and that’s what Eastwood sets out to tell.
When the picture was taken, support for the war was staring to wane, as it became apparent that the Japanese would not be surrendering easily. Once the picture is published, it becomes a sensation. Of the six men in the picture, three are still alive and are immediately sent home to the states and paraded around as heroes to raise money for war bonds. Yet all they can think of is the horrors back at the mountain
Eastwood is not out to create a rah-rah movie in the vein of patriotic crap like Flyboys or the previous movie on Iwo Jima starring John Wayne. Eastwood is out to tell people that it’s an injustice that people paid the ultimate sacrifice and all anyone can remember are six people planting a flag. Eastwood constantly reminds you the scars war leaves behind, the death war causes, and the guilt war leaves on the survivors. You will leave this movie with an even greater appreciation for our veterans.
“Flags of our Fathers” is based on the best-selling book of the same name, which was co-written by the son of one of the men who raised the flag. Eastwood obviously has a great affection for the book and this is the movie’s only flaw. The movie at times feels like someone is reading you a book. This is especially true in the last 20 minutes, as the movie becomes a voiceover narration and it really starts to drag. A movie like this doesn’t require someone telling me what’s happening; I’d rather let the characters tell the story.
So what makes a hero? Are heroes timeless? How do we treat our heroes? Is Rene Gagon (Jesse Bradford) a hero because he happened to be in the right place at the right time? He’s called a hero, but what do we do with him after the war when he becomes a trivia question and all anyone can remember is the picture? Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) is a hero, yet because he’s Indian, he gets discriminated in the same country that he helped defend. He’s a hero — shouldn’t he be able to drink at a bar? Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillipe) is celebrated around the country, yet all he can think of is his best friend that he couldn’t save. Bradley is hailed as a hero for surviving, but what about the men whose bodies lay in Iwo Jima? Why aren’t they hailed as heroes? If Bradley’s tale of heroism is so stunning, why does he distance himself from Iwo Jima later in life?
“Flags of our Fathers” asks these questions but there are no easy answers. This is what makes it a fabulous motion picture. Clint Eastwood has shown why he’s the finest director in American cinema today. No other director could take a difficult subject like this and turn into something so engaging, yet so deeply tragic.