There’s a flag wrapped around the score of men (Hey!)
A gag, a plastic bag on a monument.
I beg to dream and differ from the hollow lies.
This is the dawning of the rest of our lives
–Green Day, “Holiday”
The island of Iwo Jima has an otherworldly look in Flags of Our Fathers. Grand and alien, its moonish lava-rock terrain hardly seems to welcome the U.S. landing in 1945. And as it first appears in the film — inside the nightmare of Doc Bradley (the young incarnation played by Ryan Phillippe, with George Grizzard as the elderly dreamer) — the place is damn scary. As the young Navy corpsman’s face looms in the frame, his environment fades out into a dimensionless blackness: he’s lost in a void of despair, as men all around him yell for his help. He can’t possibly save them all.
When Doc wakes in his bed beside his arm-patting wife, it’s clear that he’s like many war veterans: he doesn’t tell her what he’s been through. At this point, a voiceover provides a frame for his silence and also indicates its costs, for the film will be telling his story and others, in an effort to lay bare those costs. “Every jackass thinks he knows what war is, especially those that never been in one,” says our gravel-voiced speaker. They reduce it to moral terms, “good and evil.” But veterans, Flags of Our Fathers goes on to argue, know this opposition is foolish and untrue at every level. And yet, they do their duty, reinforcing exactly such simplification.
A large, roiling reassessment of the relations among war, commerce, and mythology, Clint Eastwood’s film is at once magnificent and disquieting. It takes on this project by way of Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. While it has long been known that the photo documented a second flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, which featured different flag-raisers than those who appeared in the first photo. The image was almost instantly iconic, appearing in newspapers around the world and signaling — somewhat prematurely — U.S. victory in the war. (As Flags points out, the flag was raised on day five of a 35-day battle, and the original flag-raisers were killed following the event.)
Doc was one of the six flag-raisers for the photo, and that event is one of many he doesn’t discuss with his family. His son James (Tom McCarthy), somewhat astounded that his dad didn’t talk about the flag or the Navy Cross he won for his work as a corpsman during that terrible battle, decides to research the event after his dad’s death, and his interviews with survivors provide a frame for the film’s mostly-flashback structure. (In fact, James Bradley’s book is the source adapted by screenwriters William Broyles and Paul Haggis.) Pointedly, the stories James hears reveal the pain, fear, and calamity of war, as well as the difficulties faced by the three flag-raisers who were sent by the administration on tour across the U.S. to encourage people to buy war bonds and support the “war effort.”
These three are his father and two marines, Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), and they face a raft of ironies as they are celebrated for their action, or more precisely, for being photographed while performing it. As they are tutored in correct behaviors for their appearances — smile, nod, tell ’em to buy bonds — the men are reminded daily of the fact that they survived what others alongside them did not. Their handlers, military man Keyes Beach (John Benjamin Hickey) and treasury department rep Bud Gerber (John Slattery), insist they ignore the details — so what if they’re not precisely the guys who raised the first flag, or that Rene was a runner who happened to bring the flag to be raised? They are now the government’s representatives, with a mission to raise money to perpetuate the carnage they have experienced firsthand.
This hardest aspect of the tour — its association with the actual war — is of course denied in the reenactments and the speeches. But the men’s memories are undeniable, cutting ever more frequently into the tour scenes, as each flag-raiser confronts his own set of flashbacks. While WWII is typically remembered under collective rubrics — “The Good War,” “The Greatest Generation” — Flags means to show at least a few distinct stories, to complicate the usual image of grieving Gold star mothers being polite and (ostensibly) placated by rote tales of their sons’ “heroism.” The trouble for Doc concerns the loss of his best friend Iggy (Jamie Bell), literally disappeared into the dark night of a battle on Iwo Jima, vanished from the foxhole where Doc has left him. Haunted by the mystery, Doc cries out repeatedly during his nightmares, “Where is he?” Though James tries to comfort him and Doc in turn comforts his son, the film submits Iggy’s disappearance as an emblem of all the many losses suffered during the war — innocence, certainly, but also hope and faith.
Such profound losses are only reinforced by the tour that trivializes them, by turning the experience into a show without context or significance. Doc and Ira are repeatedly prompted to remember a trauma by a fireworks display or phrase during the tour. The contrast between the horror in war and the cheesiness of the performance is especially difficult. Repeatedly, they must wave to cheering crowds, extol the war (though they’ve seen its horrors), and pose atop what Ira calls a “pile of papier mâché” that’s supposed to look like Mount Suribachi.
Ira’s sensitivity to the artifice is exacerbated by the artifice of the label “hero,” as assigned to him by any number of racist “admirers” and detractors. A Pima Indian, he’s dogged repeatedly by his fellow marines (they call him names like “redskin”) and civilians. A senator greets him, “I hear you used a tomahawk on those Japs!”; when another complains that Ira doesn’t understand the Pima “gibberish” he’s taken time to memorize for their meeting, Ira smiles painfully: “Sorry, I’ve been away from the reservation too long, Senator.”
Distraught over the death — by friendly fire on Iwo Jima — of his beloved sergeant, Mike Strank (Barry Pepper) and increasingly unhappy over the tour’s many indignities, Ira drinks heavily. (Ironically and predictably, this grants still more abuse, as one observer explains his drunkenness as a function of his being an “Indian”). Eventually, after an unshown return to the front and briefly noted return to the States at last, Ira is found dead at age 33, a victim of exposure, according to the coroner’s report.
The term “exposure” resonates here, as it pertains not only to the usual “elements,” but also to many abuses heaped on the flag-raisers and other veterans generally, and Ira specifically. War, the film argues, depends on lies, on myths and beliefs that could never be sustained were the experience represented or remembered explicitly. Large, complex, and earnest, the movie emphasizes that the men admire most their fallen friends, who didn’t “think of themselves as heroes.” The earnestness occasionally muddles the indictment of war-makers — then and now — who have “never been to war” and so continue to send young men and women to fight. The film wants to leave you with at least a modicum of uplift, and so reveres the dead as “heroes.” It also, less overtly, grants voice to the warriors who saw and committed acts they can never forget.