Movies: On Duty, Honor and Celebrity

4 minute read
Richard Corliss

They landed on sulfur island–Iwo Jima to the Japanese army that held it–on Feb. 19, 1945. On the fifth day of the death slog (the battle would rage for another five weeks), U.S. troops had commandeered enough of the island to reach the peak of Mount Suribachi. “Put a flag up there,” one officer advised, and a few men did. But some bigwig wanted it as a souvenir, so six other men planted a second pole and raised the Stars and Stripes one more time. That was the tableau captured by photographer Joe Rosenthal–the one that told a war-weary American public that their boys were winning.

In Flags of Our Fathers, the story behind that Iwo Jima image, Clint Eastwood has crafted a bold and meticulous epic. The script, by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, is faithful both to the honor of young men who became warriors in their country’s service and to the tangle of impulses–noble and venal–leading a nation to demand that a war create simple messages and clear-cut heroes. The movie is about the real theater of war: how a battle campaign morphed into a p.r. campaign and, implicitly, how later generations of politicians have used symbols to sell a war. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, anyone?

“When the legend becomes fact,” a cynical newspaperman says in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “print the legend.” Rosenthal’s picture was the war’s definitive photo op. It didn’t matter that the flag raising was about the least dangerous activity any of the men had engaged in on Iwo Jima, or that none of them had raised the first flag. No visages are visible in the photo–an anonymity that added to the shot’s sense of selfless, faceless heroism, as well as giving the War Department’s publicists leeway to fiddle with the facts.

Three survivors from the Suribachi event–John (Doc) Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach)–are brought home to receive a nation’s thanks and to charm the citizens into buying more war bonds. In a packed arena the three re-enact the raising on an imitation Iwo Jima; at a banquet they are served an iced dessert in the shape of the photo. Uncomfortable with praise they never asked for, guilt ridden that they are home and their buddies fighting and dying abroad, they know that the Iwo Jima image is simply an inspirational legend that shrouds the dreadful truth: of young bodies from two nations, lifeless, mangled beyond recognition.

Eastwood choreographs his battle scenes with a brutal vividness that matches the most cauterizing moments of Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down. A young man tries to keep his guts from spilling through the huge wound in his belly. On the beach, a severed head stares unseeing at the sky. More than one good soldier is mowed down by friendly fire. Staying alive was a matter of the most capricious luck. On the Japanese side, some soldiers wanted to control their own awful destiny: they blew themselves up with hand grenades.

Those glimpses of hell have been almost entirely drained of color–just a few yellow flames of mortar and machine-gun fire to guide your unwilling eye to the next fatality. But even in the Stateside scenes, the movie’s colors are desaturated, like 60-year-old photos in a memory book.

Except that the acclaimed veterans don’t want to remember. The hallowed are also the haunted, their nightmares contaminated for decades with the faces of dead comrades. They withdraw into themselves, refuse to speak about the war. They hide their medals as evidence of their crime–that they survived when others didn’t. Or did they? Their war experiences make them, in a way, the living dead.

They are also a vanishing breed: the war hero. Soldiers surely acted exemplarily in Korea, and Vietnam, and Iraq, but each of those conflicts exhausted the rooting interest of the American public, which eventually went looking not for battlefield derring-do but for statesmen who could clean up the mess. Eastwood’s compassionate, cautionary tale speaks eloquently about a time when America needed heroes, and does so when we are no longer sure what they look like–when the indelible photo op of the Iraq war is from Abu Ghraib.

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