#20 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
This might be the most ambitious project that Clint Eastwood ever took on as a director. It was so ambitious, actually, that it became two movies. He wanted to show both sides of the fighting at Iwo Jima, but there was simply too much material and the two halves were just split into separate films, this and Letters from Iwo Jima. Aside from that, though, there’s still an incredible ambition to this half that deals with the Americans who raised the iconic flag on the fifth day of the month-long battle. That ambition isn’t really matched by the writing, though. What we end up getting is a very handsome and interesting look at the lives of three men but without the kind of emotional attachment this late stage Eastwood would imply.
The film is obviously about heroism, its public face and the private reality of it. That gets manifested across the three men that the US military brings back from the Pacific Theater of the Second World War after the picture of six men raising the flag became a public sensation that the War Department could exploit to help sell war bonds. Chief among them is John Bradley (Ryan Phillipe), a pharmacist’s mate, and Private Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). There is also Private Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), but narratively he feels like extra baggage. The real meat of the story is shared between Bradley and Hayes. Bradley, a navy man, who acts as the primary support to Hayes, a Native American Marine, who is consumed by the guilt of surviving the meat grinder of a battle while being celebrated for an act that felt inconsequential at the time. Rene, by contrast, is happy to be the tool of the War Department, following the instructions of Bud Gerber (John Slattery) to stay on message in his speeches.
This is the first Eastwood film with significant non-linear editing in terms of its storytelling, and I think I see the point of it (it’s most likely something dictated in the script by William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis). It is designed to create a series of contrasts between the celebration of these three men and the realities of the battle, however, it feels like, to me, a crib notes version of the story that tries to spoon-feed the point to the audience rather than letting the drama playout. I don’t really think I need to see the action move back and forth. I’d rather have the more linear narrative play out, giving more concentrated doses with the men in the battle, especially those lost in the fighting, before we get into who was actually there at the flag raising.
Now, all of the action around the ownership of the flag and the multiple raisings is an artefact of the reality, of course, but I’m not sure its prominence actually merits the amount of screentime it has. What’s important is the misattribution of names. In particular, Sergeant Hank Hansen (Paul Walker) helped raise the first flag but not the second, and yet he was given credit for being in that famous photograph even after his death in the battle. This is one of the sources of internal dramatic tension with the three survivors. Their simple act of raising a flag on Mount Suribachi turns into something of a large lie with multiple dimensions. They have to lie about who’s in the picture, even to Hank’s mother. They have to put on a happy face. They have to lead a life of hotels while their compatriots are still fighting half a world away. They have to recreate the event in stadiums to much applause, all while they can easily recall the violence and death that surrounded them.
It’s an interesting portrait of how the three men deal with it. Rene seems to let it all slide off his back, all with his long-term girlfriend at his side. That leaves Bradley and Hayes, and Hayes is in a steady decline, falling into alcoholism that turns him into an embarrassment, made all the worse by anti-Native American discrimination still present in America at the time (it’s a smaller and less sensationalist form of a similar idea that Spike Lee less adroitly handled in Miracle of St. Anna). However, there doesn’t really seem to be much of a dramatic structure around the events as they play out, and things just kind of end up stopping after a certain point with the war finally over.
The movie has a melancholic feel to it from beginning to end, but it’s the final act of the film that ends up recounting how everyone played out the rest of their lives, doesn’t have the kind of emotional gut punch that Eastwood demonstrated capable of managing in both Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, as well as earlier in Unforgiven. I think it’s the structure ultimately that’s to blame. It obfuscates character a surprising amount. I don’t need a typical Don Simpson three-act structure to get me going in a film, but the ultimate downfall of Hayes feels like it’s the emotional endpoint of the film (Adam Beach gives the best performance in the film quite easily to help), but it’s in competition with so much else about the details of the battle, even in that late stage of the film, and there’s so much else to go with the melancholic look at everyone’s lives in the decades that followed that it doesn’t anchor the film like it should.
Still, Eastwood proves himself capable of managing a large production like a modern-day war film. He gets good performances from his actors, especially Beach, while bringing his consummate professionalism to the visuals. It just doesn’t hit like it really should. It’s admirable and handsome, but the hints of the kind of emotional connection it could have had, especially through Beach’s performance as Hayes, leave me wanting more.