*** ½ (out of four)
It’s easy to call someone a hero. Anytime people do something to help their country or their fellow man that we don’t think we could have done, we want to call them a hero. This may be entirely justified. But how do these heroes feel about being labeled as such and put on a pedestal to be admired?
That’s the question posed by “Flags of our Fathers,” a movie from director Clint Eastwood that is a reverent and thoughtful meditation on the nature of war, patriotism and heroism. It’s the story of the men who were in the famous photograph of the flag-raising during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. The picture was taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal and appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country. It took on a life of its own and became one of the most iconic American images ever captured. Strangely, the photo wasn’t even of the first flag that was put up in that spot.
“Flags of Our Fathers” spends most of its time following the three men who survived the battle and were subsequently brought back to tour the country to ask people to buy war bonds. The men were John Bradley (Ryan Phillipe), Jesse Bradford (Rene Gagnon) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). As depicted in the movie, the men are die-hard patriots but they also feel used. They are made to travel anywhere they are told to give the same speeches and use their celebrity to earn the much-needed revenue.
One incident the movie revisits several times is one where the three Marines are asked to recreate the flag-raising in the middle of a football stadium while surrounded by a screaming crowd. They are told to stand like they did in the photograph and to just pretend their dead comrades are there with them. To the men who had to watch their friends die on the field, this seems like nothing more than a cruel farce.
Phillipe has been gaining lots of well-deserved critical acclaim for his performance, but the standout is Beach, who surely deserves an Oscar nomination this year. Ira is the most conflicted character in the movie. He never wanted to leave the battlefield and feels like he is betraying his fellow soldiers when he is sent on the long public relations trip. He feels guilty for still being alive and receiving all the attention. He spends much of the tour drinking himself into a stupor, which later embarrasses his superiors. At the same time he is being lauded by everyone he meets for being a hero, he is refused service in a restaurant because he is a Native American.
Throughout the tour, the men feel strange about the praise poured onto them. They feel like the real heroes died in the battle and they don’t feel like they did anything that special.
“It’s hard enough being called a hero for saving someone’s life,” Col. Dave Severance says to John Bradley’s son later in life. “But for raising a pole?”
“Flags of Our Fathers” is a deeply moving film. It manages to be profoundly patriotic and critical of government propaganda at the same time. It does this by looking past the war legends and into the souls of the men who lived it. Veterans Day has now passed, but try to see this movie in a theater while you still can.
“Flags of Our Fathers” is rated R. No one under 17 admitted unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian.