Flags of Our Fathers may well be Clint Eastwood's finest film. It's a study in the horrors of war; the value of propaganda, and the effects of each on both the soldiers at the front and the folks back home. It's also a study in "the ends justifying the means" – and that makes it both doubly harrowing to watch, and doubly rewarding for its audience.
While being interviewed by the son of one of his men, Dave Severance [Harve Presnell] tells James Bradley [Tom McCarthy] that one photo – the right photo – can win a war. Specifically, of course, he's referring to the photo of the flag being raised at Iwo Jima, during World War II.
Flags of Our Fathers adapts the book by Bradley [with Ron Powers] in an unusual manner. It opens with the elderly John "Doc" Bradley [George Grizzard] calling for "Iggy" as he collapses on the stairs in his home; shifts to the events leading up to his unit's arrival on Iwo Jima – and the bloody battle that began there – and then shifts to the War Bonds drive in which the young Bradley [Ryan Phillippe], Rene Gagnon [Jesse Bradford] and Ira Hayes [Adam Beach] were drafted to play the part of "The Heroes of Iwo Jima."
As the drive progresses, the film flashes back to various events of their time on Iwo Jima – the feeling is that of battle fatigued soldiers having flashbacks, and it adds greater depth to their various reactions on the drive: Bradley's stoic determination to do the job; Gagnon's playing the publicity to make contacts for after the war; Hayes' retreat into the bottle. We learn that the flag-raising photo is not only an accident, but that it was the second such raising – and, more importantly, we learn why…
Eastwood's direction is as sure-footed as a mountain goat and as subtle as a Gurkha guerilla. At no time do any of the film's events seem staged, or calculated [except where such calculation plays a part in the story – as when the decision is made to use the photo of the second flag-raising as a rallying point for the American public]. Several performances are of Academy Award-winning quality. It will be interesting to see which ones receive nominations [my bet is Adam Beach will be nominated for Supporting Actor – and could well win].
While Flags of Our Fathers provides a look at the nature of, and necessity for propaganda, it also makes it clear that it is a weapon – no less than a rifle, or a bomb – and is often used even more ruthlessly. On the other hand, the film also shows how properly used propaganda can inspire – and make mad.
The screenplay, co-written by William Broyles Jr. and Oscar