The prologue to Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers contains a seemingly benign, table-setting edict: "The right picture can win or lose a war." While this dubious epigram may not be analytically useful, it underscores the tremendous importance attached to a single image in this adaptation of James Bradley and Ron Powers' best-selling, acclaimed account of the life stories of the six soldiers famously photographed raising the American flag at the battle for Iwo Jima.
Following his literary source, Eastwood divides his film into two narratives. First is the lead-up to and execution of one of the bloodiest battles during World War II. Fighting went on for more than a month during February and March of 1945 as the United States sought to wrest control of the strategic outpost from Japan. In the end, 6,821 Americans and more than 18,000 Japanese lost their lives on the 8-square-mile volcanic isle.
Approximately five days into the ground assault, Marines reached the summit of Mount Suribachi and planted the Stars and Stripes. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal was on the scene and his Pulitzer Prize-winning shot instantly became the iconic image of not just America's struggle in the Pacific theater but of the whole war.
The second narrative tracks the photo's aftermath, when it was plastered on 3.5 million posters and used as the symbol for the Seventh War Loan Drive. It was printed on a postage stamp and on the cover of countless magazines and newspapers, and it served as the model for the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va. In sum, it has become possibly the most reproduced photograph of all time.
President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the flag-raisers identified and brought home at the conclusion of the battle. Only three survived--John Bradley (the father of the book's co-author, played by Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Native American Ira Hayes (Adam Beach)--and together they were thrust into a cross-country, barn-storming War Bond tour. The three Yankee doodles were lauded as heroes, hobnobbed with celebrities and corporate tycoons, and participated in a variety of publicity stunts, all so others could profit on not just their courage but, more indirectly and insidiously, the ultimate sacrifice made by their comrades back on Iwo Jima.
What remains is an earnest, informative tome on a military and cultural touchstone. The washed-out hues and technical proficiency of the expansive Iwo Jima land assault (filmed on the black sands of Iceland) hint more toward the influence of Steven Spielberg, this film's executive producer and erstwhile director. Moreover, the bifurcated storyline supplies the tools for both a macro and micro analysis of the impact of war. As illuminated in Bradley's book and depicted onscreen, the trio of returning flag-raisers represent a cross-section of veterans who survived the war: Gagnon constantly and futilely sought to capitalize on his name and fame; Bradley retreated into a stoic refusal to discuss his experiences with the media or even his family; and Hayes fought and ultimately lost an ongoing battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and alcoholism (the story of the Pima Indian having been previously told in 1961's The Outsider, starring Tony Curtis).
It is most unfortunate, then, that this potential gets eroded by a torrent of over-editing and the chronological hop-scotching in an obtrusive screenplay credited to William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis. The setting shifts often and without warning between the island, the home-front, and an author stand-in interviewing actors playing the now-elderly vets, who supply incessant voice-over narration whose only real use is helping to decipher the constantly changing milieu.
It is surprising that Eastwood, the most conventional of directors, would adopt this disorienting style over a more linear approach that would have allowed the characterizations and drama to unfurl and compliment each other. This straight-forward method was used to great effect in Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July, another film about war and its tragic aftermath; and Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff, another film about uncommon valor and the effort by politicians and bureaucrats to exploit it.
This brings us back to the film's opening credo. As a counterpoint to Rosenthal's image, the film offers Eddie Adams' photo of a South Vietnamese general summarily executing a Viet Cong prisoner as evidence of a picture that "lost" a war. Public support is undoubtedly important to any war effort, but is Eastwood letting Vietnam-era politicians and generals off the hook, instead laying the blame on a populace manipulated by the press into a lack of resolve? (What would Eastwood choose as a definitive image for the current Middle East conflict: firemen raising the flag over the rubble of the World Trade Center or the horrors of Abu Ghraib?) Surely Eastwood knows that the outcome of the Vietnam War did not hinge on a single photograph, just as he wouldn't give sole credit for winning WWII to a fervent hoi polloi at the expense of the soldiers who fought it.
Perhaps Eastwood will acknowledge this multiplicity of perspectives in his next film, Letters from Iwo Jima, which aims to tell the story of the battle from the viewpoint of the Japanese fighters and their commander, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. The title alone suggests that, although a picture may speak a thousand words, the message may not always be in English.