‘Flags of Our Fathers’ is patriotic but detached


As the daughter of a WWII veteran, I looked forward to seeing Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” but even though I found the subject matter interesting, I didn’t walk out of the theater thinking “This is a really good movie.”

Joe Rosenthal’s image of the soldiers who raised the flag atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945, is probably one of the most remembered photos to come out of any war. People would rather remember patriotic images like this than those of carnage or thousands of soldiers losing their lives.

Until now, most of the public never realized there were actually two flags raised that day, and this is part of the focus of “Flags of Our Fathers,” written by Paul Haggis (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash”) and based on the book by James Bradley. When the Secretary of the Navy requested the first flag as a souvenir, the Fifth Division Marines who raised that one replaced it.

The main plot revolves around John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), the only three of the six flag raisers who survived the bloody Iwo Jima battles. Immediately after the famous photo hits newspapers across America, and someone utters the phrase, “Just the right picture can win a war,” President Roosevelt sends a message down the pipeline to bring the flag raisers home for a patriotic tour to sell bonds.

None of these three soldiers wants this assignment. As with most current military men and women desiring to return to Iraq, they wish to go back to their units and fight with their brothers. They don’t feel like heroes, especially when labeled as the best America has to offer. The three soldiers also regret that the other flag raisers - Michael Strank, Harlon Block and Franklin Sousley- don’t receive the recognition they deserve because they died.

The three men handle their new mission in different ways. Ira Hayes, portrayed well by Adam Beach, is the most troubled. Much as he found in “Windtalkers,” Beach discovers his character bears several burdens. He can’t get over the loss of his friend and comrade, Michael Strank. In addition, he experiences discrimination against American Indians in many places where the guys tour.

Ryan Phillippe (“Crash”) gives a commendable performance as the Navy corpsman who just happened to be in the right place at the right time for the photo. Bradley also feels he could better serve the war tending to wounded comrades than parading around football fields. Philippe threw himself into this role, learning many first aid techniques and meeting author James Bradley, whose father was among the flag raisers.

“There’s a great freedom in playing a man like John Bradley, because he doesn’t lie, doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not,” said Phillippe. “He was a great man.” Bradley didn’t know his father had received the Navy Cross until he started doing research for his book.

Rene Gagnon, the only one into the idea of the tour, is somewhat of a spotlight hog, and soon his girlfriend Pauline Harnois (Melanie Lynskey) literally gets into the picture as well.

“He’s a moth to a flame, and gets burned a bit,” explains Jesse Bradford about his character. “After the bond tour, he tries to trade on his fame, but he doesn’t realize that he’s been cast aside.”

ne of the better performances in “Flags of Our Fathers” is by John Slattery as Bud Gerber, a member of the group assigned to manage the three soldiers on their tour. Slattery makes us see Gerber’s dilemma. He’s affected by what the men went through and understands they don’t feel they belong in the limelight, yet he has to answer to higher powers, and there’s another audience waiting in the next town.

With Eastwood as director and Steven Spielberg as a producer, it’s no surprise this movie is well made. However, many of the action scenes don’t seem real. Perhaps that’s due to colorization of some scenes or because most of the actors never appear thoroughly entrenched in their roles. Still, “Flags of Our Fathers” should interest fans of war films and those who enjoy movies about historic events. As an interesting aside, Eastwood is now directing the upcoming “Letters from Iwo Jima,” a complementary film about the Iwo Jima battle from the Japanese viewpoint.

“Flags of Our Fathers” is playing at UltraStar Flower Hill Cinema.