Stanley Kauffmann: In praise of Flags of Our Fathers





A soldier, all alone, climbs the top of a mountain on Iwo Jima. The summit is wide terrain scarred by battle. The field is deserted. The soldier is bewildered. Then we see the same man years later, now white-haired, waking from a nightmare, comforted by his wife beside him. Thus two elements of this film are fixed at once: the time planes and the haunting.

These are the first minutes of Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood's new film about the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. When word came of an Eastwood film on this subject, the blood didn't exactly freeze, but it did become tepid. Did the twenty-first century really need another gung-ho tale of World War II? Eastwood's reply is no. His film is crammed with physical horror and courage in crisis, but the intent is not mere replication of battle. Under the carnage, Eastwood is searching for something deeper than details.

What is collaterally almost as interesting as the film itself is the fact that this searching is going on. This picture about the effects of war, short and long range, comes from an actor-director who earned a large part of his reputation by killing. Yes, he made The Bridges of Madison County and Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby and other exceptions, but the Eastwood persona grew through those Westerns in which his quasi-mystic figure settled people's hashes, as well as through the Dirty Harry series. The man who fixed his Magnum on a crook as he incised the phrase "Make my day" on American fantasy is the man who directed Flags of Our Fathers.

The battle for the island of Iwo Jima is a prime site for Eastwood's concern. One island after another--including Midway and the Solomon Islands--had been secured as stepping-stones toward the invasion of Japan. By February 1945, the United States Army Air Forces argued that Iwo Jima, only eight square miles in size but situated just 760 miles from Tokyo, was essential as a refueling station for bombers. Well aware of this, the Japanese forces fought even more fiercely. There were 22,000 Japanese soldiers on this little patch of ground--which, as the film says, was considered part of Japan itself and therefore holy--and they had been ordered to die rather than surrender. In a month of intense fighting, 18,000 Japanese and 6,000 Americans were killed. Out of this massive slaughter arose an incident that Eastwood uses as a speculum for moral inquiry. But before he gets to it, he gives us the invasion itself. ...

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