At some point during the process of adapting James Bradley's nonfiction book about the battle of Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood decided he'd need two movies to adequately manage the material's scope. The first, Flags of Our Fathers, focuses solely on the American campaign. It uses Joe Rosenthal's celebrated photograph of the raising of the flag as a springboard for a successful war bonds fund-raiser, and debates with timely flair the use of political spin to salvage an unpopular war.
Eastwood's follow-up, Letters from Iwo Jima, arrives in theaters early next year and will recount the battle from Japan's perspective. The director hired first-time screenwriter Iris Yamashita to develop Letters from an idea that screenwriter Paul Haggis proposed. He will employ an all-Asian cast, and will not use any of the actors we meet in Flags. It is yet to be determined whether the two movies will offer legitimate parallels, or exist as separate entities.
That sense of the unknown makes it difficult to completely judge Flags, a very good movie that misses greatness by inches. Are the problems I have with Flags addressed in Letters, or will the second film raise another set of issues that beg for deeper conversation?
Considered on its own merits, Flags boasts impressive accomplishments. The historical recreation of the Pacific Campaign's latter stages is every bit as accurate as digital technology allows. Combat aficionados will appreciate Eastwood's full immersion into battlefield chaos, though the director leaves his soldiers (and us) in the fray longer than we'd prefer.
Flags cinematographer Tom Stern employs the familiar Saving Private Ryan visuals, producing bleak images stripped of color and drained of hope. There is one major difference. This isn't Tom Hanks and Tom Sizemore storming the beach. Eastwood intentionally stocks his platoon with fresh-faced unknowns and marginally recognizable supporting players. They are teenagers. Naïve kids. It's sobering every time Flags lets that reality sink in.
The battle scenes, thankfully, make up only half of Flags. The film finds its eventual purpose after Iwo Jima, when three of the six soldiers pictured in the famous flag-raising photo are shipped back to the States for a fund-raising tour. Public support for the war was at an all-time low, and the U.S. government was in debt trying to fund the conflict. Rosenthal's Iwo Jima photo provided a surge of hope, and the military financiers pounced.
Photos, of course, have different meanings to different people. Where parents, girlfriends, and politicians saw Rosenthal's shot as a turning point in the war, the veterans in the picture saw it as a constant reminder of the atrocities of combat. Adam Beach gives a sympathetic performance as Ira Hayes, a reluctant participant in the Iwo Jima photo who brings too many ghosts back to the mainland.
What Flags misses is the enemy's perspective. Even the most patriotic American war movies spend time with the German, Japanese, Vietnamese, or Iraqi forces our soldiers are strategizing against. Those elements have been removed from Flags and, we assume, saved for Letters. Gun barrels and dead Japanese soldiers are the only representation of the faceless force these men are fighting.
In lieu of a clear-cut enemy to loathe, representatives of our government end up holding the bag of our resentment. We're upset when mustachioed John Slattery, playing the public relations liaison for the war bonds fund-raiser, massages the truth about the men in the famous Iwo Jima photo, even though his intentions of raising money to support the military campaign are for the greater good. Flags doesn't single out a true villain, leaving us in yet another gray area where Eastwood and Haggis prefer to linger.
Perhaps Letters, like Flags, will stand on its own with minimal flaws. We won't know until we finally see it. But something tells me that two good dramas could have been one amazing war masterpiece had Eastwood figured a way to streamline both stories into a single effort.
It's leaning to the left, fellas.