The Defiant Ones

Right from the opening scenes of Clint Eastwood’s epic Flags of our Fathers, the viewer is dragged into the hell of the pacific War in 1945. Flares burst overhead as frightened soldiers scramble over the black rocks of Iwo Jima, a dot of volcanic land 300 miles south of Tokyo and the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in the entire conflict. An essential air base for the Japanese, the island is guarded by 20,000 soldiers, dug into tunnels dug in the mountain. An expeditionary force of 30,000 American GIs arrives, in an enormous fleet of battleships, to dislodge the enemy and move on to the mainland. Among these men are John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), a navy medic, Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), Native American Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), their leader Sgt. Mike Strank (Barry Pepper), and a nervous teenager, Ralph ‘Iggy’ Ignatowski (Jamie Bell). The film focuses on those that would eventually raise the Stars and Stripes as a display of defiance, an event captured by Joe Rosenthal in an iconic photograph that would define the entire war for the American nation. What the public was not told is that the flag-raising was re-staged for the camera, and that the men, whose faces cannot be seen, might not be the same men hailed as the heroes.

Returned from the battlefield by their superiors, quick to realise their propaganda potential, three of the surviving young men are put to work selling war bonds to the public, advised by one cynical PR man that unless they can help raise $14 billion dollars, America will be bankrupt and will ‘have to give the Japanese whatever they want’. Re-enacting the event for the cameras, and seeing it everywhere from posters to postage stamps to ice-cream deserts, the men are hailed as heroes. The preening Rene delights in the attention, the stoic Doc reminds everybody that the real heroes are dead on the island while Ira the Native American falls further into sorrow and whiskey. The complicated narrative traces a line through three separate timelines – the initial assault on the island, the return to the US for the promotional tour and, rather less emphatically, the efforts, years later, of Doc’s son to write the story of his father’s wartime experiences, the book by James Bradley that the film is based upon. However, Eastwood and his regular writing partner Paul Haggis, concentrate in the later stages on the tragic character of Ira, who is returned to a life of poverty and discrimination once the glint wears off his medals. Regardless of the mangling effect they have on the narrative, these almost-silent scenes are immeasurably powerful. There is further, deep-felt sorrow in the conclusions that Eastwood draws around Doc, who dies in his bed an old man, surrounded by his family, and seems to despise himself for it. Although the war ended fifty years before, Eastwood makes it clear, with considerable cinematic skill and tremendous empathy, that the men that fought it never left it.

A war film, even one as unmistakeably anti-war as this one, uses blood and death as its currency, electrifying us with images of carnage. Eastwood, who has built a career on screen violence, employs all the technical skills that allow that reconstruction today, but throughout forces the audience to confront the carnage, holding his camera still, for long, unendurable moments on scenes of unblinking, graphic brutality. This is an intense and ultra-realistic war film, the initial assault on the black sand beach out-performing Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg is one of the producers), but there is no exultation here. The director is more concerned with the way the truth can be manhandled to fit the circumstances, and the ghosts that live in dim remnants of memory, than he is in rattling his sabre. The effect is profound and deeply saddening. This is a film about the artificial creation of heroes, men made larger than life to fill a gap in the public consciousness, exposing the hypocrisy of the glad-handing US Administration and the manipulative media, as they both seize on any aspect of the men’s experience to further their agenda. The story of these six men must also be compared to the recent US military efforts to adapt the death in Iraq of the All-American Corporal Pat Tillman or the ‘rescue’ of Pvt Jessica Lynch for their own purposes, expediently changing the facts to suit their needs.

Although Flags of our Fathers shows flaws, they are minor defects; more instances of awkward storytelling than any core problem of philosophy or execution. Showing his dedication to and respect for the truth, Eastwood will revisit the battle in Letters From Iwo Jima, set to open early next year, where he will tell the story again, this time from the point of view of the Japanese. I cannot wait to see it.

1 comment:

Bart Berlin said...

I saw both movies and read the book, Flags of Our Fathers. In the book, the author describes finding his friend in the cave with his genitals cut off and stuck in his mouth. Eastwood does not put this in the movie; however, in Letters From Iwo Jima, Eastwood makes a point to show an American soldier shooting a Japanese prisoner just so the soldier won't have to stand guard over the Japanese prisoner. I saw this in the theatre and heard many cries and gasps from the audience.

Eastwood does have an American say early in the film to remember that the Japanese target medics as a way to keep the medics from helping the injured. That didn't get any cries or gasps.

Somehow, I can't seem to dismiss the idea that Eastwood was pandering to the Japanese in order to get his pet movie made.