Louder than the blizzard of bullets and shells that mangled tanks as easily as human bodies, more deafening than the noise from stadiums filled with marching bands and screaming masses was the silence one man kept for a lifetime. This silence is at the center of Clint Eastwood's remarkable new film, a story of war that's really about conflict raging invisibly, soundlessly, deep in the heart.
Based on the best-selling book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, Flags of Our Fathers chronicles Bradley's effort to reconstruct the World War II experience of his father, John "Doc" Bradley. At the time of his father's death in 1994, the son knew only that he had served in the war as a Navy corpsman and had been one of the six U.S. soldiers who raised the flag on Iwo Jima, captured in Joe Rosenthal's famous 1945 photograph. The subject was taboo in the household. Not until he began to interview men who had fought alongside his father did Bradley begin to understand why.
Eastwood flashes back and forth between the battle to take the strategically pivotal island - the bloodiest, costliest confrontation in the history of the Marine Corps - and the surreal set of circumstances in which three young soldiers found themselves soon afterward. He skips around in time in a way that can seem arbitrary until the film's final harrowing act, when the director's artful, masterly design comes fully into view for the first time.
The movie opens with a night scene. Doc Bradley and another young man share a foxhole. Flares explode overhead. Just beyond view, a Marine lies wounded, crying out for help. The medic prepares to make his way to the soldier despite the knowledge that the Japanese could emerge from the darkness at any moment. "You're not going to leave me here, are you?" Bradley's buddy asks. He does. After attending to the injured soldier he returns - and finds a different Marine in the foxhole. Where is his friend, he asks. "You must have jumped into the wrong foxhole," is the reply.
How could the other soldier have disappeared without a trace in the seconds Bradley left him alone? When he learns the answer, it will turn him into the man who never spoke of the war to his family, and who hid his Medal of Honor like an object of shame.
This is one of three stories Eastwood tells. It's an account of guilt and suffering beyond words. It is the most powerful of the three stories, though the others are also unforgettable. The second offers a glimpse into hell - a portrait of war in all its horror, chaos and capriciousness. To date, the Normandy landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan probably held the distinction of being the most shockingly realistic depiction of battle ever committed to film. It's safe to say that distinction now belongs to Flags of Our Fathers.
The picture is unflinching in its graphic, blood-drenched detail. The first battle of the war fought on Japanese soil, the taking of Iwo Jima required an initial force of 30,000 men to storm a beach at the base of a 550-foot mountain the enemy had transformed into a giant rock fortress.
From openings in the stone, untold numbers of machine guns and heavy artillery fired down on the Americans. Massacre and mayhem continued for five days, after which the Marines miraculously succeeded in taking control of Mount Suribachi; the rest of the island would require another month to secure.
On that fifth day, with the fight for the mountain over, someone suggested raising a flag. That wasn't the famous flag, however. A high-ranking officer commandeered the flag that was raised initially as a souvenir. A second group of soldiers then had to raise a second flag. That's when Rosenthal got the shot seen round the world.
Back in the States, government officials recognized instantly the photograph's public-relations value. With the nation nearly broke and the public grown weary of the war, the image was viewed as a symbol that could make people believe victory was imminent and convince them to contribute further to the war fund. This is the third story Eastwood tells, a story about the way a picture changed the course of WWII and the lives of three young men.
Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach portray Bradley, Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes, respectively, the three flag raisers who hadn't fallen in battle by the time the call came to return home and headline a bond tour that would turn them into overnight celebrities. The film explores the growing guilt each experienced as a result of being wined, dined, and treated as heroes while their best friends continued to face death overseas. It also presents a seminal moment in U.S. politics, the birth of spin as we know it today. Each of the three men realized the flag raising was the least heroic act they'd accomplished on the island. Each knew they were taking part in a sham - one that had a noble enough purpose, but a sham, nonetheless.
To varying degrees, the three lost their souls, if not their lives, as a result of the war. Eastwood's landmark movie documents the waste and folly of what they went through, from the battle campaign to the marketing campaign. All of it is a tragic story magnificently told. Doc Bradley's is the most haunting of all. In the end, he was never able to reconcile the moment he left his close friend in that foxhole with the horror that occurred in his absence. The scene in which he learns the truth about it ranks among the most quietly shattering I've witnessed on film.
The silence one young man carried into old age conveys everything worth saying about humankind's incurable habit of war.