Footage of Combat

From its post-Saving Private Ryan/Band of Brothers footage of combat on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima to its bland home front drama of soldiers coping with the inner conflicts of their celebrity heroism, the film is so stultifying generic that it is hard not to see it as less about World War II and more about wars in general. Or maybe it is simply the condescending script adapted by Paul Haggis and William Broyles Jr., which, in its exploration of the mythos of the Iwo Jima flag raisers, evokes the soldiers only as nothing more than by standers. The latter seems a specialty of Haggis, and Adam Beach’s one-man-as-all-of-America’s-Indians (or even as-all-non-whites) character Ira Hayes seems definitely in tune with the kind of broadside social criticism ; here we scoff so easily as soldiers call him “Chief” and a Senator asks him if he used a tomahawk on the Japanese, but far be it for the film it actually interrogate this racism or show its odd clash with battlefield tactics and friendship. And it is just as easy to be irritated with the other two surviving raisers of the flag, Ryan Phillippe’s everyman-good guy Doc and Jesse Bradford’s everyman-coward/fame-seeker Rene Gagnon. These characters, and even more specifically, their story, are so wrought with blandness, so full of the requisite and the tired nostalgic recollection of World War II that has its American soldiers only performing as witnesses to the action and never as full-bodied participants, of offering faux-sage, nostalgia-dripping advice for the honor-ignorant current generation that one assumes the screenwriters and director Clint Eastwood must have something else in mind for Flags

In fact, in about the middle of the film that thing seems to be revealed. First one has to contend with the film flipping back and forth through as many lurching flashbacks, flash-forwards and present-days as inarticulately and illogically as possible. The film shifts with little rhyme or reason, and with a serious problem of maintaining continuity of emotion and drama, from the rote war-is-hell moments on charcoal-hued Iwo Jima to the post-combat lives of Doc, Rene, and Ira, each irritated in their own way about their being declared and represented as national heroes through the iconic photo of the flag raising on the island, and finally to the 1980s were Doc’s anonymous son is apparently gathering word-of-mouth research on what really happened to the men. The big secret is not only that a few of those named as deceased flag raisers were not present at the time, but that the flag in the photo is not the original, first flag raised upon the taking of the island’s brutally fortified Mount Suribachi. That flag was taken down, it is implied, because the battalion commander wanted to keep it out of the hands of a politician who shrewdly saw the importance of the memento. So a second flag was raised, and it was that flag which our trio were acclaimed for raising and it is that “false” symbol that every American is familiar with. But instead of exploring the ideas and weight of nationalistic or patriotic symbols, their arbitrariness and interchangeability, and the government’s bond-raising media campaign capitalizing on the image, Eastwood and his screenwriters seem to feel that the generic drama behind the flag raising, one of such broad, trite gestures of the genre that it could as easily belong both in the realms of low-budget television and in the realm of blatant allegory if provoked in more interesting ways, is remarkable in and of itself.

Flags does not having anything particular to say about current uses of media in representing a war and rallying support—but rather is about all wars, and the “nature” of the hero, the “fact” that there is no such thing, that there are only memories, and, it is implied, horrid memories: veterans and the near-abstract generality of a photo, like the one of Iwo Jima, onto which much meaning is projected that, the film takes strains to make clear, was never there on the top of that hill at the moment of its taking. But it is too hard to fight one’s way through the film’s corny, didactic wisdom, torturously inarticulate editing, and clichéd war footage, just as it is hard to care more about real non-heroes of the story when they are merely caricatured soldiers sent through featureless combat experience. Struggling through all this is the intrigue behind the simulacrum of a patriotic symbol and the media-campaign that supported it, and around which these soldiers blandly fight, curse, regret, and eventually recount their experiences. The film bizarrely pits positive reaction against the fraudulent meaning of the photo against the publically repressed personal recollections of veterans, who correct the idea of heroism, rooting it in the “realness” of their memories. But if these recollections are as reliant on offensive caricatures and broad, nearly artless re-use of hackneyed war representation than perhaps there is a reason the weight of a photo like the one of the flag raising makes the ineptitude of Flags seem all the more gross.


For filming the caves of the Japanese fortifications on Iwo Jima, cinematographer Tom Stern returns to the myopic shadows that distinguished his work in Million Dollar Baby. Like that Clint Eastwood film, the director’s latest, Letters From Iwo Jima, uses Stern’s photography to grant his story the solemn fatalism of a world dimming. Coupled here as it is by a grainy palette very nearly drained of color, the Japanese soldiers holed up on Iwo Jima look like walking ghosts, before our eyes withering on the vine cut off from their loved ones and from their country and fed with a self-destructive ideology that can only end in death. Early in the movie a soldier looks at a picture of “a castle built for a man who had already died,” and in the film the hulking, battered mass of the mountain that overlooks the whole island, Mt. Suribachi, and its bare and starkly lit caves that the soldiers must defend to the death similarly seem like a monument constructed solely for the purpose of honoring the inevitability of the Japanese lives that will there be laid down.

It has often been opined that there is no such thing as a truly anti-war film, Letters From Iwo Jima comes incredibly close, as it applies a formal approach of, for lack of a better word, normalcy, to a human situation truly unromantic and unenviable. This is not the typical ‘war is hell’ mantra, but rather a compassionate living portrait of a mass grave, where nearly every composition and every scene would choke in the stench and fear of death if it were not for Eastwood’s even gate, wise approach, emotional empathy, and refinement of the scale of the picture so that the epic of the island is pared down to a grim, but human, portrait of doomed soldiers.

Letters From Iwo Jima is from the Japanese point of view, it is not strictly about the Japanese fight; rather, it is a film-as-memorial to deaths—any kind of deaths—that occurred during the war. The weaving of minor instances, effects, and motivations of Japan’s nationalism throughout the levels, stages, characters, and singular moments of the island’s battle illustrate that its final, deadly result was indeed rooted to a belief system.

What the film lacks in specific ideological and historical comprehensiveness it gains in its characterizing of the soldiers and officers broadly as emblematic humans rather than overly individualized persons. I do believe that Letters is the more honest side of the battle.