Atop Mount Suribachi on the tiny Japanese island of Iwo Jima, a nearsighted photographer took a single shot that, as one magazine put it, "recorded the soul of a nation." It was of six faceless American Marines working together to raise the Stars and Stripes during a turning point of World War II. The photograph, taken on Feb. 23, 1945, almost instantly became a historical emblem declaring victory in a war not yet won. With patriotism waning in light of the costly, depleting fight against Axis forces, the American public latched onto the image as a bastion of hope.
The American government latched onto it as a bastion of fund raising.
Fighting in the days following the flag-raising claimed the lives of half the men involved. The three who survived, Marine privates first class Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon, and Navy corpsman John "Doc" Bradley, are quickly recalled from the battlefield to fight a different sort of war: a war against diminished government coffers. As the poster boys for the "7th Bond Tour" ($14 billion is needed), they crisscross the country giving speeches and posing for the press.
None of them are well-pleased with the arrangement. Rallies, parades and dinners fit for kings are as far removed from bullets, rockets and grenades as they could possibly be. And the men are consumed with a wide range of repulsed emotions, with guilt topping the list. The war, after all, wasn't over. And their comrades were still dying on foreign soil.
Based on the bestselling book by James Bradley, son of the honored Navy corpsman, Flags of Our Fathers is the tale of a country at war on numerous fronts—the most troublesome of which might have been, at least for three "heroes," home.
This is a tragedy that teaches us that war destroys everything it touches. It's an examination of war's effects on a government. And it's a study of three ordinary guys thrown into extraordinary circumstances. It's a story, too, of camaraderie, brotherly love and faithfulness in the midst of excruciatingly difficult circumstances.
When given the opportunity to be promoted in rank and, therefore, positioned in a lower-risk environment in battle, Sgt. Mike Strank refuses in order to stick with the men he leads. "I promised them that they'd see their mothers," he tells a captain, explaining that he feels like he's already lied to half of them (who will almost certainly die), and that he can't lie to the rest. Strank's loyalty and proficiency as a leader are tested and proven at other points in the movie, prompting Ira to tell the sergeant's mother, "He was the best Marine I ever knew." Ira also refers to Strank as a "true hero," a term he's come to regard with some skepticism and therefore uses sparingly.
In analyzing the meaning of heroism, Flags of Our Fathers highlights the unique internal struggle the battle-weary Marines experienced between selfishness and selflessness. A voiceover tells us that every Marine would eagerly leave his unit behind if given the chance of returning home. Yet those of valor instinctively (and honorably) deny that desire and go on to risk life and limb for the sake of friends. (Country, too, but mostly, the movie insists, it's the people around you whom you fight for—if you fight.)
This type of heroism is shown through many of the men's actions in the midst of heavy warfare. Doc, in particular, relentlessly put himself in harm's way to give medical attention to those who have fallen. Even after he's downed by a bucketful of shrapnel, he crawls to the aid of another.
An aging Doc apologizes to his son for not being a better father and talking to him more. "You were the best father a man could have," his son replies sincerely. Despite their initial differences and overt dislike for each other, Ira and Rene eventually give each other due respect.
Institutionalized racism directed toward Ira (a Pima Indian), while difficult to watch, serves the purpose of decrying the mindset that has made it so prevalent for so long. It strikes you to your core to watch military higher-ups hurl derision into his face while simultaneously presenting him to the public as a national hero. His biggest breakdown comes after a restaurant owner in Chicago refuses to serve him.
None. And that in itself is telling. This is one of the differences between James Bradley's book and Clint Eastwood's adaptation. The religious backgrounds and beliefs of the story's central characters are woven into Bradley's account. It's noticeably missing onscreen.
A platoon-mate jokingly tells a naive Marine he needs to get his "masturbation papers" signed before he can fight. Upon arriving on American soil, a Marine is greeted with kisses from his girlfriend. Singers wear cleavage-revealing dresses.
Saving Private Ryan can no longer be referenced as the benchmark for how gory wartime images can get on the big screen. Flags of Our Fathers takes things to a whole new level with both the actual visuals and the frequency with which they appear.
During the film's many battle scenes set in Iwo Jima, innumerable Marines are seen being ripped apart with gunfire. Several bloodied, detached limbs get close-up attention. A Marine's severed head rolls into the sight of a comrade—and the camera. Bodies are crushed by tanks and other vehicles. Enemies get bayoneted in grisly fashion, with blades piercing all the way through their torsos. Others are pummeled to death by rifle butts, stabbed with knives or set ablaze with flame throwers. Scores of men are tossed into the air or, worse still, blown into pieces by massive explosions. These blasts—and their fatal consequences—appear everywhere the camera turns. Ships are shelled. Tanks explode.
Then, when the bombs stop falling and the strafing ceases, we're shown the devastating results. Bodies are lined up and down the beach. And while searching through caves and tunnels, Marines find the bodies of Japanese men who have opted for suicide rather than defeat. And these images are as graphic as it is possible to make them. Heads are half blown off. Chests and abdomens are splayed open, organs and intestines spilling out.
Back on the beach, chests and throats are sliced and diced. And the camera can't seem to get its fill. And Doc can't keep up. We watch as he applies pressure, bandages and any other trick of the trade he can come up with to save lives. One friend dies despite his frantic efforts to stem the flow of blood (with a surgical clamp) from his opened-up neck.
Onboard ship, a distraught Ira holds a knife to Rene's throat. He also shows some photos of Marines captured by Japanese troops and tortured.
Crude or Profane Language
God's name is misused 20 times. In at least three-quarters of those instances, it is combined with "d--n." Jesus' name gets profaned at least that many times, too. The f-word and s-word are uttered more than two-dozen times total. Adding milder profanities to the list brings the tally well above 100. Racist insults are used to define both Japanese and Native Americans.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Marines light up cigarettes in almost every scene in which they're not fighting. A director for the 7th Bond Tour puffs on a cigar and also pours himself a glass of liquor. Numerous other characters drink hard alcohol. Once back on U.S. soil, Ira tragically battles addiction and is shown drunk on several occasions. (He reacts to intoxication by sobbing, vomiting and getting violent.) During one appearance at a fancy dinner, Ira's superior pours alcohol into the struggling Marine's coffee.
Other Negative Elements
After the war, with reporters in the habit of requesting interviews each year around Memorial Day, Doc seems content to have his children lie for him and make up reasons why he's unreachable. Feeling coerced by those who have sent him on the fund-raising tour, the Navy veteran also lies to the mother of a deceased Marine by telling her he was in fact also one of the six immortalized in the flag-raising picture.
Despite Flags of Our Fathers' honoring title and the all-American photograph that serves as its centerpiece, director Clint Eastwood, producer Steven Spielberg, and screenwriters Paul Haggis and William Broyles Jr. did not set out to craft an exhilarating portrait of Marines taking the hill, or even winning the war. Neither did they decide to sugarcoat what went on behind the scenes in the great U.S. war effort.
In fact, at times it seems that they're intentionally trying to undermine the credibility of the political and military heads involved.
But first things first. The incredible level of depicted violence and language contained in Flags of Our Fathers makes this film impossible to quantify as entertainment. Children should never be subjected to it. And adults who do decide to experience it (because that's what this is, an experience, not a movie) should not make their decision quickly or lightly.
Most historical accounts (and this film) agree that the famous scene captured on film that February day in 1945 was not what most Americans thought it was at the time—a vision of final victory. The battle for Iwo Jima was far from over, and it would rage for another month, becoming the Marine Corps' bloodiest engagement ever. Also reality is that Marines had already scaled Mount Suribachi and hoisted a flag earlier that day—and a picture had been taken. Ira, Rene and Doc were dispatched to the U.S. to front a bond-selling campaign. And Ira did die in a ditch a decade later.
More relevant to this review, however, is the tone with which the film presents these facts. Because throughout the course of its objectively depressing, meticulously tiring depiction of war, it seems to be trying to say that nothing about the taking of that singular picture and the military's subsequent use of it was, for lack of a superlative, good.
You walk away from Flags of Our Fathers wishing the picture hadn't been taken. Wishing that those three brave souls had been left on the front. Wishing that the U.S. hadn't been so selfish and cynical in its exploitation of the whole chain of events. And that leaves behind a very nasty taste.
The script raises a few alternate opinions and positions, but almost without fail they come from the lips of unsympathetic characters who seem to be trying to justify wrongdoing by clouding the air with "logic." For instance, it can be quite easily argued that the Marine Corps would have been remiss not to bring those men home and use their notoriety to raise money.
But enough conjecture. It's sufficient to simply report that the overwhelming emotional effect of the film is to make you mistrust the government—and let the chips and facts fall as they may.
Flags of Our Fathers does one other thing, though. And it does it well. It teaches us what a true hero is.
It's now hot to be a hero in America. And we've come to apply the term indiscriminately. But onscreen, three WWII veterans barely out of their teens are wise enough to question a public so quick to adorn them with the label. ("All I did was try not to get shot," says a beleaguered Ira.) "Heroes are something we create, something we need," the film concludes. "[They are] a way for us to understand something so incomprehensible—that [ordinary men] would risk their lives for each other." And in an oddly twisted-up-in-the-gut way it leaves us with the realization that it's often the unheralded men who sacrifice their all, flawed as they are, who can help us make sense of the mess around us.
Scripture emphatically declares, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." So call these Marines whatever you want—men, heroes or possessors of the greatest love of all—but you're left no choice but revere them.