I nodded in agreement when it was mentioned a single photo taken during combat has the power to make or break a war. At a time when the war chest is drained and the battle seemed to be drawn out longer than expected, you need public support to cough out funds and make donations to the manufacturing of arms. In the dying days of WWII, that photo you see above, gave reason to galvanize the American public into making donations for that final push. Now think Abu Ghraib. Nuff said, on its adverse impact to the war machinery.
For WWII movies, the Pacific theatre has arguably fewer number of films made by the West, especially those whose focus is on the ground troops, as compared to the European theatre, and possibly could be due to the availability of locales, as well as budget and (non) permission to film at the actual place. The Iwo Jima here is a substitute backdrop, not the real Iwo Jima with black beaches that you can see right after the end credits roll, as if in silent meditation of the soldiers on both sides who had given up their lives fighting for their cause.
And the Battle of Iwo Jima had its historical significance given it's the first landing of Allied troops on Japanese soil, and one of the bloodiest yet with high casualties on both sides. It also opened up the American eyes to the tenacity of the Japanese troops and their relentless defence of the homeland from invasion, in a Digital Domain CGI-created massive naval beach landing. Those looking for recreated battle scenes will probably not be disappointed with the level of detail shown in Flags, like the weapons, and the infamous use of flamethrowers to smoke out hidden troops in bunkers.
But this movie is not an all out action film. It's not a macro look at how the Allies secured their first foothold in Japanese soil. Rather, it takes a very personal look at the surviving men who hoisted the American flag over a prominent knoll in Iwo Jima. While there are countless of versions of the circumstances surrounding this lifting of a symbol, be it for morale boosting purpose, or politics, or for abstract ideals like hope, the definitive version as recounted in this story is actually quite ordinary, fueled by a mix of human desire for something monumental, as well as the listening to orders to a T.
Told in a non linear fashion with flashbacks and voiceovers, it is extremely difficult that you'll be bored by the movie, unless your expectations have been set the wrong way. There is plenty of material and themes that the movie touched upon, although it can be argued that each doesn't necessarily have enough focus, issues like racism and prejudice. What makes this film compelling is the story of the survivors, being whisked back to the States to be part of propaganda to raise funds. Accuracy and accountability take the backseat against the hail of heroism, and it evolves very quickly into a media circus.
Flags examines the lives of those in the photo who survived the battle, their reluctance to be called heroes, the demons that they faced while on the battlefield, the constant reminder to kill or be killed, the lies they have to tell to sell, and their sense of morality sacrificed for the lesser of two evils. Being soldiers, they have to do listen to orders, even if at the moment, it sounds absurd (I believe those who have been through service in the armed forces will agree on this). It is the conflict, and the need to lie through their teeth, which makes it all the more a sorrowful struggle, especially when you have to deny a fellow brother his moment of recognition, and denying his family the need for closure.
And of course, we all know how fickle the press can be. On one hand they can praise you, on the other, someone's always looking at ways to demean and cast doubts. Flavours of the moment, potshots of controversy like whether the picture was staged, ring to mind that icons can never escape from the cynical eye. Politicians, rich businessmen and the military brass too are cast in none too positive light, as they get portrayed as men who like association with power, fame, and glory.
There are times when you'll do a double take on the cast. Adam Beach, who plays Native American Ira Hayes, also played a private in another WWII movie, fighting against the Japanese army in the Pacific theatre of war, in John Woo's stylized WWII movie Windtalkers. Barry Pepper, as Mike Strank, also an alumni of war movies, starring in Spielberg's (who serves as producer here) all too familiar Saving Private Ryan set in WWII, and alongside Mel Gibson in We Were Soldiers' Vietnam. In war movies, the sniper, commander and medic are roles which are easily made popular, and Ryan Phillippe had his role cut out for him, as the never-say-die combat medic John Bradley, whose son wrote the book this movie is based upon.
Clint Eastwood again never ceases to amaze me. Here's the star of spaghetti westerns, Dirty Harry himself, who has aged but still showing no signs of slowing down. Like fine wine, he has started to show his talents in the films he makes, and award winning critically acclaimed ones too. But what I'm really pleasantly and thoroughly enjoyed, is the score that he wrote for Flags. It's restrained, yet powerful, kept simple in instrument, yet never lacking in grandeur. Being a filmmaker is one thing, but having contribute to a highly effective score complimenting the movie, is another. Not many can do that.
Flags of Our Fathers is a must watch, and I'm already eagerly anticipating the companion movie, with viewpoints from the Japanese, fighting the same war, in Letters From Iwo Jima, and it should be equally powerful.