An interesting history lesson of a movie, Flags of Our Fathers tells the behind-the-scenes story of the three surviving World War II servicemen from the infamous "raising the flag on Iwo Jima" photograph, who were plucked from the battlefield by a US government desperate to raise funds to continue fighting the Japanese, then put to work on the home front, touring America and begging its citizenry to buy war bonds.
The film contrasts - effectively if repetitively - the horrors these men saw in the Pacific with the cake-and-ice cream world of fancy dinners and garish public displays they had to endure in order to coax Americans into forking out money for bullets. The irony is not lost on any of them, particularly Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), the Pima Indian whose own blunt honesty about the war, compounded by his shell-shocked alcoholism and the racism that pervaded his life even when he was being ferried around as a "hero", drives him nearly to madness and eventually to a sad ruin.
The film really is Hayes's story, as the other two servicemen - Ryan Phillippe as the blank John "Doc" Bradley and Jesse Bradford as the well-meaning if opportunistic Rene Gagnon (who never even fired a shot at Iwo Jima) - dutifully obey orders and thus sink into the background. Beach is extraordinary, and his performance makes Flags of Our Fathers well worth seeing.
Yet Eastwood, as director, somehow misses his mark at effectively conveying the impact of the war on his protagonists. Admittedly, I think Saving Private Ryan set the bar sky high for capturing warfare on film, and unless Eastwood out and out copied Spielberg's style, there's no way he could top the intensity of the earlier film's opening sequence.
I also think Eastwood's choice to break the film up into flashbacks may not have been as strong as telling the story chronologically. With all the numerous battlefield flashbacks, the only message it sends across is, "They're living it up with senators now, but a few months ago they were going through hell!" And it sends this message over and over again.
Still, Flags of Our Fathers is a well-made film, certainly educational and demystifying. I for one knew nothing about the men in that famous photograph, or how some of them were used as show ponies for the war shortly afterward. But I'm hoping that Eastwood's promised follow-up feature, about the battle for Iwo Jima from the Japanese soldiers' point of view, will have more to say.