Flags of Our Fathers (15)

A picture tells a thousand lies
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Early in Clint Eastwood's Second World War drama Flags of Our Fathers, a US marine falls off a battleship as the American fleet sails on the island of Iwo Jima. His comrades cheer merrily, then freeze in the realisation that no ship will stop to haul him out of the sea: he will be left to drown, the first casualty of this battle. "So much for 'no man left behind'," frowns one soldier - and so much, you might say, for Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, a film dedicated to the noble myth embodied by that motto. Perhaps Spielberg now regrets that film's naive idealism, for he is a producer of Flags of Our Fathers, a drama altogether more realistic, and indeed bitter, about conflict - as befits an American war film of the Iraq era.

The subject is the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, in which US forces took a key Japanese island. What most people know about Iwo Jima is the photo it spawned: six American servicemen raising the Stars and Stripes on a mountain top. The film is partly about the battle, partly about the photo; above all, it examines the way that such manufactured images of glory blind us to the truth of war. The photo's publication turned the tide in America's enthusiasm for the war effort, but as the film shows, the flag depicted actually replaced one hoisted earlier by other soldiers. An odd accident of combat provided the great icon of America's war in the Pacific - not least, because the picture happened already to resemble the monumental statue that it would later become.

Scripted by William Broyles Jr (Jarhead) and Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash), Flags of Our Fathers is told mainly from the point of view of Navy man John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), one of the flag-raisers. After the battle, he and the two other surviving men from the photograph are brought back to the USA as national heroes, to galvanise the war-bonds drive desperately needed to boost a flagging war chest. Through the trio's reactions to their unexpected and arbitrary demigod status, Flags demythologises the making of official history and the institution of heroism.

While the good-natured Bradley goes into the whole farrago open-eyed, and cheerful narcissist Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) plays his part with natural movie-star aplomb, their Native American comrade Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) feels guilt at playing a false role: "All I did was try not to get shot." His fate focuses the film's exposure of national hypocrisy: paraded as a hero, Hayes is also patronised as an "Indian" ("I hear you used a tomahawk on those Japs," grins a senator), then castigated as a "drunken Indian" when trauma leads him to the bottle.

As a director, Clint Eastwood has spent the last couple of decades very seriously attending to the ingloriousness of violence, notably in the savagely pessimistic revenge western Unforgiven and in Million Dollar Baby, his harsh anti-advert for boxing. Flags, in its depiction of battle, similarly pulls no punches. We see marines, newly killed by Japanese snipers, lying on the beach to be crushed by incoming American transport vehicles. We see bodies blown apart, a severed head still staring in gauche amazement, and the hideous result of Japanese suicide by grenade. On the emotional level, too, the film is icily evocative of the trepidation and false hopes before battle, of the terror of conflict by night, of soldiers' loneliness: the comfort of a swing radio station fades as it turns out to be a Japanese broadcast for demoralising the enemy.

Director of photography Tom Stern shoots the fighting in the harsh bleached-metal look that's familiar since Private Ryan. The film could easily have been entirely about the battle, but that's only part of the story: in its attempt to show what Iwo Jima ended up signifying, the film unpacks itself in a complex, seemingly dishevelled structure involving multiple flashbacks, plus voice-overs by assorted characters: elderly Iwo Jima veterans as well as John Bradley's son James, on whose book the film is based. The structure partly mirrors the disorder of war and its aftermath, partly functions as a rhetorical device for placing certain aspects of war on trial.

What's in the dock is not really official mendacity; if the photo was a lie, the film suggests, it was nonetheless a necessary lie that helped win the war. Rather, Eastwood prosecutes a national culture that at one moment celebrates its heroes, the next callously abandons them, like a dirty secret: that's a truth inescapable since Vietnam. Flags criticises the public institution of heroism ("Heroes are something we create"), yet is unstinting in its admiration of those who fought at Iwo Jima, who stood up not so much for the abstraction of a flag as for each other.

There's a certain stolidity and unwieldiness to the film, something of that knitted-brow solemnity you associate with Eastwood (and if only someone could prevail on him to stop writing his own scores...) but Flags of Our Fathers is undeniably a major statement, and a commanding one. Ultimately, though, it might prove to be most fascinating as half of a diptych: if the Japanese on Iwo Jima are oddly invisible in the battle scenes, it's because they are the subject of Eastwood's companion film, the Japanese-language Letters From Iwo Jima, to be released here in February, which, by all accounts, really is essential viewing.