Arguably at the high point of his career in 2006, having been nominated for Best Picture and Best Director two years in a row, Eastwood next undertook a substantial project, doubly impressive given his ever-nearing 80th birthday. Shot back to back, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima showed, respectively, the American and Japanese sides of the battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, each showing a distinct national perspective of warfare.
Based on the legendary photograph of six American soldiers erecting a flag on the peak of Mount Suribachi, Flags of Our Fathers tells the story of the hope the image bred with a disenfranchised population, and the effect the ensuing reputation for heroism had upon the lives of those forever immortalized therein.
Such an ambitious production as this was an interesting choice for Eastwood to helm, his prior two successes both low-key dramas with little to no action to speak of and big-name casts. Flags of Our Fathers, by contrast, is entirely devoid of star names, the majority of its cast virtually unknown. This is a choice which, in many ways, reflects and reinforces the core idea of the film: the sudden thrusting of these unknown soldiers to widespread celebrity; ordinary men brought to fame by the simple hoisting of a flagpole. Touted as American heroes — symbols of hope, patriotism, and the assured righteousness of this war — they feel upon them the burden to be more than just mere men. In no character is the weight of this more believable than in Ira Hayes. Played by Adam Beach, Ira is crushed by the burden of expectation upon him, succumbing to alcoholism and failing to maintain the heroic façade demanded of him by the propagandic administration. His is a tragic story of a simple soldier asked not only to live with the horrors of what he has done, but to actively celebrate and glorify them as though they were acts of greatness. The tale of the soldier haunted by the sins committed on the battlefield is one as old as war itself, but here Eastwood — working again from a script by Paul Haggis — twists it to comment upon the military propaganda and its effects upon those it exploits. We see that photograph as a symbol of American victory and validation, but its reality is far, far darker.
Continuing his extraordinary streak of eliciting the very best from his casts — his preceding two films having earned four acting Oscars from five nominations — Eastwood guides his leading men to excellence, each of the stories the film weaves as richly composed and emotionally deep as Ira’s. His earlier exercises in action filmmaking predominantly unsuccessful — not to mention his sole prior effort at a war film, the dismal Heartbreak Ridge — Eastwood here brings a surprising command to his scenes of conflict, each stitched wonderfully into the narrative in flashback form by editor Joel Cox. They appear suddenly and jarringly, the noises of warfare punctuating the silence which so often consumes the characters as they reflect on their situations. A scene recreating the raising of the flag in a crowded stadium captures perfectly the sensation of being thrust yet again into the jaws of death as these characters relive their experiences of war, giving us as best we can appreciate an insight into how they feel at every waking moment. It need almost not be said that Tom Stern’s phenomenal abilities with light and shadow complement this entirely, his work with Eastwood consistently providing the director’s most striking visual work.
Tied loosely around a framing narrative of a son trying to discover more about his father’s wartime experience in the wake of his death, Flags of Our Fathers uses this modern character as a surrogate for us to investigate this phenomenon of military heroism, and the reality behind the legends. With Unforgiven, Eastwood de-mythologised the Old West, deconstructing the false heroism it had been attributed by traditional filmmaking and revealing it for the lawless land of murderers and criminals it really was. With Flags of Our Fathers, he does the same for warfare, doing away with the jingoistic ideals of heroic soldiers bravely fighting for independence. These men, the film tells us, are just that: men; average, ordinary Americans. This is Eastwood the iconoclast doing what he does best: holding a mirror to his audience and inviting them to reconsider what they previously took for granted as concrete reality. Flags of Our Fathers invades our notions of what a hero really is, and even those who regard war as forever inexcusable will find comment worthy of attention within.
Once more redressing misconceptions surrounding Hollywood-propagated mythology, with Flags of Our Fathers Eastwood delivers an emotionally impactful and deeply intellectual look at reality and the distorted view thereof we have been fed throughout the years. Combining the engulfing darkness of its themes and aesthetic with the unanimous excellence of its cast, Flags of Our Fathers stands as the third consecutive great work from an American master.
[notification type=”star”]82/100 – Once more redressing misconceptions surrounding Hollywood-propagated mythology, with Flags of Our Fathers Eastwood delivers an emotionally impactful and deeply intellectual look at reality and the distorted view thereof we have been fed throughout the years.[/notification]