The DVD
Cinema Signal:

Flags of Our Fathers:
Heroes of Iwo Jima

by James Bradley, Ron Powers



The Last Lieutenant:
A Foxhole View of the Epic Battle for Iwo Jima


. "Flags of our Fathers"

In taking up a unique incident from World War II that retains some mild interest today, director Clint Eastwood ("Million Dollar Baby") and producer Steven Spielberg ("War of the Worlds") have turned in a fog of storytelling. Were they motivated by a need to laud patriotism or to expose the superficiality of the sentiment? The case is strong for the latter in this adaptation of James Bradley and Ron Powers' voluminous book of battles that includes the strategy and tactics for Iwo Jima, as well as the unusual PR aftermath inspired by an iconic photograph of six soldiers raising an American flag on the island's commanding Mount Suribachi to denote their victory.

The story meanders between the current day old men recounting their memories of the events there, and the fight itself, the flag raising, and the government's use of the individuals in photographer Joe Rosenthal's shot for a War Bond Tour. Harry Truman hadn't yet dropped the A-bomb on Japan.

There probably has never been a single photo that so inspired a heroic myth. No one will argue --least of all me-- that the photo as a piece of art in its composition and sculptural triumphalism isn't of museum quality and symbolic power. But the men in the photo and the circumstances of the moment weren't quite up to justifying the universal adulation that sprung from it. Which only demonstrates the weak foundation upon which dreams and fancies of something greater than it is, are built.

This deflation of the mythological pump is worthy in its intention, but only partly effective in its realization. If the editing of the script's story strands is more aimless than exhilarating it may be because it's scattered between two stories. It raises the question of why tell this story this way at all. There are answers for that question but not necessarily a single one that everyone will agree on.

The irony of promotional exploitation may justify a movie and, here, it's evident in the men the Pr guys choose to act out the country's expectations. The chosen are not only flawed in various ways as symbols of warrior heroes as well as in personal character, there is at least one man chosen who wasn't in the photo, and one who was but wasn't chosen. (Only his mother knows it's him, from the backside of his body).

These final three tour ambassadors are Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), a marine with a flair for self promotion who is probably the best psychological fit for his new role; John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), a comparatively level-headed Navy man; and the troubled Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), a Native American alcoholic.

Hayes provides the meat of the drama with his troubled ways and self-destructive behavior. And this depiction of it isn't made up for fictional purposes. The real Ira Hayes became enough of a tragic figure that "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," was written by Peter LaFarge and recorded by Johnny Cash in 1964.

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won't answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin' Indian
Nor the Marine that went to war

But another tragedy is the casting of the part. A more limited actor could hardly be imagined than Adam Beach to do justice to the man's complexities. Here's an actor with the right "look" for parts like this but not enough talent for such a key role. The miscalculation in casting him recalls "Windtalkers" of 2002, to similar effect of a support player being given a pivotal role beyond his range.

But, with a platoon size cast, no single player can destroy or salvage the film. Worthy and innocuous examples fill the Eastwood-Spielberg battlefields and interview rooms. On the positive side, the meeting of the touring group with the mothers of the soldiers thought to also be in the photo and hungering for confirmation from their buddies was deeply touching.

Clint Eastwood composed the music score, which stood up admirably. Tom Stern, a frequent Eastwood staffer ("Unforgiven"), reports to duty with exceptional cinematography, especially in the battlefield sequences.

In the end I felt disturbed by the film's rambling intentions and elements. The re-staging of the assault against 20,000 hunkered-down Japanese fighters was good movie detailing of a major action in the war, but cross purposes in the storytelling didn't end on the battlefield. I came out of this theatre of war more confused than satisfied and it may take some background to understand why.

Steven Spielberg bought the rights before Eastwood could. When William Broyles Jr.'s script didn't satisfy Spielberg, he put it aside until the two directors met a few years later, in 2004, and agreed to do it together as director and producer. Is this, then, a story of two strong commanders on the same field of creative battle? Did this collaboration become a zone of dramatic danger in a strained case of dual-purposed moviemaking?

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                                      ~~ Jules Brenner
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A recreation of Joe Rosenthal's iconic photo
Flag raising on Mount Suribachi, the Japanese island, Iwo Jima
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