(DreamWorks) Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Joseph Cross, George Grizzard, Harve Presnell, Len Cariou, Judith Ivey, Jon Polito, Tom McCarthy, Benjamin Walker. Directed by Clint Eastwood
World War II was a turning point for our country, one in which we made the transition to greatness. One of the defining moments in that conflict was the Battle of Iwo Jima. Who can forget the iconic photograph of the marines raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi, or of John Wayne dying on its sands. Still, the battle has been given short shrift by Hollywood over the years. Director Clint Eastwood looks to rectify it with not just one, but two movies on the subject. The second, told from the Japanese point of view, is called Letters From Iwo Jima. This is the first, based on the book of the same name by James Bradley.
The movie opens with John “Doc” Bradley (Phillippe) in mid-battle, leaving his buddy Ralph “Iggy” Ignatowsky (Bell) in a neighboring foxhole to attempt to save a fallen marine; he is forced to kill a charging Japanese soldier who appears out of the night like a wraith. When he returns to his foxhole, a different man is there. Alarmed, Bradley calls for his friend, earning a sharp rebuke from the man in the foxhole (“What are you doing? You want to give them something to shoot at?”).
Then we discover this is a dream of a much older man (Grizzard) who is remembering a battle long since fought. Now in the twilight of his life, the elder Doc lives with his son James (McCarthy) who discovers his father fallen on the floor, confused and calling out for someone who he can’t seem to find.
From there, we are taken to the beach of Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest battles to be fought in the Second World War. Executive producer Steven Spielberg, who had his own war epic in Saving Private Ryan, may have helped Eastwood stage the amphibious invasion of the tiny island. It is an awe-inspiring sight and must have looked terrifying to the 22,000 Japanese soldiers stationed on the island.
At first, the Marines advance on the beach with no resistance, but when the fight comes, it is terrible in its ferocity and carnage. Eastwood pulls no punches in showing just how terrible conditions were during the battle and just how high a price the victors paid for that victory.
Early on, the United States captures Mt. Suribachi, the highest point on the island. A group of six marines is sent up to hoist the American flag on a pole at the top of the mountain. The sight of Old Glory waving in the breeze gives quite a lift to the men below on the beach. This isn’t lost on a politician who has arrived on the island, and who determines that he wants that flag in his office.
Angered at the gall of the civilian, the company commander sends a much bigger flag up the hill with a group of Marines who had been assigned to string telephone wire to the top of the hill. Led by Sgt. Mike Strank (Pepper), corpsman Bradley (the only non-Marine on the mountain that day), Ira Hayes (Beach), Rene Gagnon (Bradford), Franklin Sousley (Cross) and Harland Block (Benjamin Walker) the men take down the smaller flag and raise the larger one. Civilian photographer Joe Rosenthal (Ned Eisenberg) happens to be there to capture the moment. Nobody thinks anything of it at the time; Rosenthal himself thinks that the picture isn’t all that good, since the faces of the men aren’t easily made out.
That moment, however, would provide a turning point. The war-weary American public aren’t aware that the country is nearly broke and in a month or two, will no longer be able to continue the fight. Bonds must be raised, and that picture has captivated the imagination of the American people. The Pentagon, realizing the worth of these Marines would be incalculable back home, pull them from the fight still raging on Iwo Jima and send them back to raise cash. By the time the summons comes through, three of them are already dead.
Although the movie is ostensibly about the battle (and it is shown in flashbacks regularly), it is actually about the men. Moreover, it is about how heroism is really the manufacture of the perceptions of the public. The Marines are puzzled that they are receiving the adoration that they do; to their viewpoint, their heroism involved sticking a flag on a pole and setting it into the earth. In point of fact, Gagnon had been employed as a runner during the battle and saw little or no actual fighting. This leads to some friction between him and Hayes, who feels a tremendous guilt over those left behind, particularly Strank who was a mentor to him and something of a role model.
They are accompanied on a war bonds fundraising tour by Bud Gerber (Slattery), a military publicist and a liaison (Hickey) whose job is to make sure the men make it from one appearance to the next. This takes its toll on the heroes, particularly Hayes who as an American Indian sees considerable prejudice leveled against him and begins to lean heavily on the crutch of alcohol, and on Gagnon who hopes to turn his notoriety to his advantage.
Yes, there are some tremendous battle scenes, some of the most graphic and disturbing I’ve seen, but Eastwood wisely concentrates his efforts on the story of the flag raisers, the effect that this unwanted fame had on them and on the brotherhood forged in the fires of war. He has a very solid cast of terrific character actors, particularly Pepper and McDonough who play commanding officers with the kind of charisma you’d expect from a combat marine in command.
Cinematographer Tom Stern keeps the focus a little bit on the soft side, which further identifies this as a period piece. Eastwood, who composed the score, uses period music and subdued guitars to enhance the mood nicely as well as set the time and place.
As a sidebar, we were fortunate enough to catch the showing we went to in the company of someone who actually survived the battle; when asked if what was onscreen was accurate, he smiled, said “Pretty much,” and walked off, no doubt lost in his own memories.
Those looking for a more detailed account on the battle should be directed to the documentary To the Shores of Iwo Jima which was produced by the War Department shortly after the battle was won, and contains contemporary footage of the actual surviving flag raisers. Those who want more of a depiction of the tremendous guilt that comes with surviving a terrible battle should see this. What I found most interesting about Flags of Our Fathers is the governmental hero manufacture that goes on even today.
WHY RENT THIS: Terrifying battle footage is offset nicely by the story of the toll that is taken on the heroic Marines. Beach gives a career-making performance as an alcoholic Native American.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Battle footage may be too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic battle scenes as well as some wrenching emotional scenes mark this as one best left for mommy and daddy.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The scenes on Iwo Jima were actually filmed in Iceland; Iwo Jima is considered sacred to the Japanese people and permission to film all but some establishing shots at the memorial on the Island were denied by the Japanese government.
NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are several on the 2-Disc Special Edition DVD. “Six Brave Men” chronicles the lives of the six real-life soldiers who raised the flag. “Looking Into the Past” uses color newsreel footage of the battle, the flag-raising and the bond drive depicted in the movie. “Words On the Page” details the writing of the original novel and translating it into a screenplay.
FINAL RATING: 9/10