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FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, 2006
The story follows the lives and paths trodden by the six US marines who were responsible for setting down the Stars and Stripes on Japan’s Iwo Jima at the turning point in WWII. The film is one half of a two-part war drama by director Clint Eastwood.
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Hollywood has produced a number of visually stunning and emotionally impacting war movies. In recent years, and thanks to the advances in digital technology, we have been treated to some epic WWII movies. Saving Private Ryan’s opening sequence is the first that comes to mind. Spielberg (who also produced Flags of Our Fathers) pulled out all the stops to put the viewer on the ground as if they too were soldiers on the beach. But Flags of Our Fathers is a unique war movie. Not simply because of the structure (telling the story twice from two perspectives) but from its point of view of the war.
While we see plenty of the conflict out on the soil of Iwo Jima, Eastwood’s camera zeros in on the internal discussions going on inside the soldier’s psyche and makes that perspective the central theme of the movie. Although the men stood together on the battlefront, they remain individuals and will have different reasons for going to war and take different things back from the experience. Eastwood’s direction is all the more interesting due to this different angle and way into the war movie genre.
As explained at the start of the movie, winning the war in the minds of people can be done with a single image! As the famous photograph taken in 1968 by Eddie Adams had epitomized the American people’s loss of faith in the Vietnam War, the equally famous picture taken in 1945 of the flag rising at Iwo Jima would encourage American people’s support. As the film progresses we begin to understand what the truth is in such a bold statement. The power of an image can indeed paint a picture of the war effort that in turn sends a positive message to the taxpayers who are desperately required to fund it further.
It brings the whole subject of image and truth into question. So much of history has been sold to us on the strength of a single image like: Anne Frank (an icon of the Holocaust), the falling man (an icon of 9/11) and the two young black men lynched in the South (perhaps the strongest icon of racism in the US). Images like these have shaped many views and opinions the world over and continue to do so. It’s very interesting then to see Flags of Our Fathers as an American director’s exploration into a photograph that shaped his country’s history. Like all good directors, Clint Eastwood discusses a range of perspectives through his main characters.
Perhaps the most interesting viewpoint is that of Native American marine Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). It’s refreshing to see the journey of an actual native American soldier in WWII; one has to think long and hard about when they last saw one! Ira is the most vocal marine when it comes to admitting who really was in the picture. This honesty causes much tension between him and a more enterprising fellow marine Rene (Jesse Bradford) who wishes to accept the undue accolade of being in the photo for personal gain. Ira is perhaps the one who bares the harshest brunt out of all the marines.
With Ira, Eastwood is painting a sad but ultimately true portrait of one of America’s forgotten heroes. While he honorably served his country in WWII, he is reduced to working hard labor in a field afterwards ending up dead in a dirty enclosure at the film’s end. Perhaps even more crushing than this is the scene where Ira is drunkenly fighting policemen because he was refused service at a bar on the grounds that it: “…don’t serve Indians.” The question Ira is asking himself inside is very clear: What did I fight for? Why did my friends and me go off to fight a war against fascism when it’s alive and well on US soil? And in the madness of war, are we the people repeatedly miss-sold by our own government’s exploitation of an image?
Flags of Our Fathers questions war in a way that all intelligent, freethinking people should. Flags of Our Fathers and the accompanying Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) belong right next to Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Schindler’s List (1993) as definitive American movies about World War Two.