Clint Eastwood's new World War II docudrama, "Flags of Our Fathers," begins in the midst of battle. On a dark, denuded landscape, a solitary combatant stares blankly at us, his face transfixed with shock. We're on Iwo Jima and looking at John "Doc" Bradley, a Navy medic assigned to a Marine infantry company. Or is this Doc Bradley's combat flashback sometime in the future?
We move forward in time--which happens often in this film, as it interlaces combat scenes with fragments of subsequent events down to the present day--and meet Doc Bradley's son, James. He grew up knowing that his father, a prosperous mortician, had been a corpsman during WW II and was one of the six men who planted an American flag atop Iwo Jima's Mt. Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945, an act immortalized in an almost accidental photo by Joe Rosenthal that became one of the most famous pictures in the history of photojournalism.
The elder Bradley was celebrated as a hero, awarded the Navy Cross, and repatriated to the United States, where he took part in a barnstorming tour of the country to promote war bond sales, along with the two other surviving flag raisers. Thereafter, Bradley never spoke of his combat experiences, except for a single conversation with his wife, on their first date, and one journalistic interview, in 1985, which he granted only upon his wife's incessant urging, for posterity's sake.
A Son's Quest
John Bradley died early in 1994, at the age of 70. Whereupon James, troubled by many questions and few answers, resolved to discover the full story of his father's war experiences. His 4-year effort, which involved tracking down and interviewing surviving witnesses and families of all the flag raisers (encounters that are dramatized in the movie), resulted in the book "Flags of Our Fathers" (New York: Bantam, 2000), coauthored with Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize winner for journalistic criticism.
Eastwood's film follows a screenplay by William Broyles Jr. (who wrote "Jar-head") and Paul Haggis ("Crash"), based on Bradley and Powers' account. Though flawed, "Flags" is a poignant and timely testament to the tragedy of war, a thoughtful reflection on heroism, and a valid representation of postcombat psychosocial problems.
War Writ Large and Small
Returning to the film, back in 1945, we get acquainted with young Doc Bradley and his Marine buddies as they kill time playing cards and joshing one another aboard a troop ship, part of a huge armada closing in on the tiny island fortress. The ensuing invasion is spectacular: hundreds of ships stretching to the horizon; the mass landing of troops and materiel. This montage is shorter but equally as graphic in carnage and confusion as was the Normandy invasion sequence in Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan."
Then we encounter small-scale combat as Marines edge up Mt. Suribachi, at immense cost (according to another surviving flag raiser, Ira Hayes, only 27 of 250 men in his company survived the month-long invasion). Next we witness the two flag raisings on the morning the Marines won control of the mountain: Yes, there were two, a couple hours apart, and it was the second raising that Rosenthal photographed.
The war bond tour that follows--featuring Bradley (played by Ryan Phillippe), Hayes (Adam Beach), and the third surviving flag raiser, Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford)--is in itself an ironic study of the public exploitation of war heroes. Ultimately we learn the separate fates of these three men: Only Bradley lived a relatively long and successful life. Hayes died of alcoholism at 32. Gagnon worked at menial jobs, also became alcoholic, and died at 54.
The conflation of truth, faulty recollections, bad intelligence, and purposeful disinformation that makes up the "fog" of every war is laid bare here, well wrought in the central parable of this film: competing versions of the Iwo Jima flag raising itself. What is the true story here? …