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Friday, October 27, 2006

'Flags' flies high with deep impressions

By MIKE McILVAIN

It’s the sign of a very impressive movie when most of its viewers sit quietly afterward to see the still photos and read the end credits.
Most moviegoers seeing “Flags of Our Fathers” did that the night it opened, mesmerized by a combination of gutsy, eye-beckoning cinematography, powerful career-level acting from Adam Beach as the troubled Ira Hayes, and Clint Eastwood’s direction, which served to push plenty of buttons. The more personal links one has to World War II in the Pacific, that war, any war, combat, or just living with a combat veteran – the more buttons pushed inside by “Flags.”
“Flags” also serves as further proof that a photograph can hold strong powers, centered on the famous Joe Rosenthal Associated Press photo of the flag raising on Iwo Jima’s Mt. Suribachi by six Marines on Feb. 23, 1945.
A lesser movie would have simply had tears rolling down cheeks, accompanied by some sniffles, but “Flags” stands a little higher with its pensive effect on the viewer. Although any tears or sniffles wouldn’t draw much of a glance from anyone else watching “Flags” for the first time, as this is probably one we’ll be watching from time-to-time for many years to come.
Ryan Phillippe, playing Navy combat medical corpsman John “Doc” Bradley, opens the movie in a surreal flashback quest for buddy Ralph “Iggy” Ignatowski on Iwo Jima’s black sands at nighttime – with Iceland serving as Iwo Jima because of its similar black sands and moon-like appearance. A much older Bradley, near the end of his life, awakens from the dream in a wide-eyed sweat.
Those close to combat vets might have seen such things before and the cinematography helps bring in those from veterans’ families through its unique ability to appear like moving black and white still photos, without the frames – much like those a WWII vet might have had around the house somewhere.
Constant flashbacks to Iwo Jima leap off and on the screen throughout – much as they do for combat vets throughout the remainder of their lives.
Hayes, Bradley and Rene Gagnon, played by Jesse Bradford, are the only three of the six flag raisers to survive the hellish 35-day battle on that 7 ½-square mile island. They are whisked back to the United States, narrowly escaping going ashore in the Marines’ next battle at Okinawa, to serve as war bond sellers in a crucial drive which netted billions for the effort.
Fresh off the battlefield, they could not forget fellow flag raisers Sgt. Mike Strank, Harlon Block and Franklin Sousley, despite little mention of them by civilians. Strank was played very ably by Barry Pepper, who played the sniper in “Saving Private Ryan,” which also had very realistic and sometimes horrifying battle scenes.
The tour experience is belittling and bitter for Hayes and Bradley, climaxing in the climb up a paper mache Mt. Suribachi before 100,000 at Chicago’s Soldier Field, which was emotionally a tougher climb than the real thing. An angry Hayes bolted from rehearsal to go drink, only to be found by Bradley – angered further by one bar’s refusal to serve liquor “to an Indian” -- just in time to make the show at Soldier Field. Bradley is hit with several flashbacks during the short climb up the paper mache Suribachi.
Gagnon and his girlfriend, soon to be wife, aren’t troubled by the attention and take to it, but he admits that he is no hero because the real heroes are back there on Iwo Jima. Dead. He tells the crowd he was only a runner and helped in the flag raising because the pole was so heavy.
The movie doesn’t skip the fact that the celebrated raising took place on the fifth day of the battle and that what Rosenthal photographed was from the second raising. A big shot wanted the first flag for his private collection and had it sent to him straight off the top, but a replacement was run up by Gagnon right away and photographed as it was raised – sticking in the American consciousness for decades and raising hopes to win the conflict when the country had grown war-weary.
Ironically, Rosenthal didn’t see the photo until sometime later. There was no digital photography in those days and it lacked any faces, which again surprised him. It was just one of several photos he snapped that day.
Hayes’ story of problems with alcohol and unable to deal with the deaths of his friends, weaves throughout the movie, adding an instant of focus on South Texas with his trip to Weslaco to speak to the father of Marine buddy Harlon Block, confirming that it was Block at the bottom of the photo. Hayes left that brief scene, walking north-bound on U.S. Highway 83. Block was initially mistaken for Sgt. Hank Hansen who was in the first group to raise a flag on Suribachi, but the war bond trio was told to say it was Hansen in the photo, which added to their anger. That lie didn’t help when the touring trio met the mothers of Strank, Sousley and Hansen.
Anyone who watches “Flags of Our Fathers” will probably find their own connections even if they didn’t have any direct links. Similarities to the public and its relations to other wars can be seen through various things and this need for heroes is noted at the end, which book co-author James Bradley, son of “Doc” Bradley, discusses in his narrative. We manufacture heroes because we need them, he says.
Flaws are more than exceedingly difficult to spot in this one. Possibly a few lines could have been better said, but in the genre of war movies, and probably beyond, it’s a good 10 of 10 habaneros.

Note: A print version of this review can also be found online at www.laredosnews.com, in pdf, and a print version in the October issue of LareDOS here in Laredo.

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