Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers” and his slightly superior film “Letters From Iwo Jima” both stand up by themselves as great films, but together, Eastwood’s World War II epic is just shy of a masterpiece.
I can’t quite say what my reaction would be had I seen “Flags of Our Fathers” first. Both films deal with common themes from different perspectives, and Eastwood’s ability to make that parallel is brilliant. But “Letters” delves deeper than simply questioning culture’s ideas of heroes and good vs. evil. It finds value to life amidst a war where so much is lost, and to see that story second would make “Flags” feel mediocre in comparison.
This film is anything but. It’s a powerful story about three soldiers lauded as the heroes of Iwo Jima after the famous photo showing them raise the flag served as a symbol of America’s victory. All while parading across the country, the men live with the guilt of pretending to be heroes, of knowing that braver men died on that island in the Pacific and knowing that some of the men the media praised were never actually in the photo.
It’s amazing that through something almost as simple as a photo, screenplay writers William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis (“Crash”) can make a statement about a virtually blind society with the belief that we need to be reassured of victory and the need to lavish praise on a hero or celebrity. While it’s humanity’s crutch, it’s also because of a war that’s run like a business funded by morale. Eastwood proves that even in a losing campaign like Vietnam, it was the same, and there’s no doubt it’s happening in Iraq now.
What is interesting though are the similar themes of the Japanese as illustrated in “Letters.” Out of some need to restore honor to the country, the Japanese soldiers are forced to commit suicide, and only the people who have experienced war know there is no honor to it at all. Perhaps this reason more than any is why I value “Letters” above “Flags.” The Americans destroyed themselves with their lies; the Japanese did it with grenades.
Regardless of which side has the stronger degree of suffering, Eastwood uses an equal amount of action both on and off the battlefield to illustrate that there are no winners in war. And with the combination of both films, his simple message avoids cliché by fully characterizing each side.
Notice how Eastwood uses the same shot in each film and through the use of character and tone alone, provides a different meaning. When we watch “Flags of our Fathers,” the images of guns and turrets rising from underneath the sand and brush make the Japs appear to be a hidden, demonic enemy. In “Letters From Iwo Jima,” General Kuribayashi only orders those guns to fire when the impenetrable, endless American force has filled the beach. Take the massive American Navy; from one perspective they inspire patriotism, and from the other, fear. I imagine few modern filmmakers could make two companion pieces capable of standing alone and each equally relevant.
The one problem with “Flags of Our Fathers” is the ending, one not nearly as moving as the “Letters” finale. The last half-hour switches from narrative to montage flashback from the words of the main character’s son. He continues to tell the heroes remaining, less glamorous story in their post war years when the material required no narration and could speak for itself.
I felt robbed of some emotional impact, and I feel it necessary to rob “Flags of Our Fathers” of its deserving fourth star. Maybe it’s because I saw the counterpart film first. Or maybe it’s because I have the same blind need for a heroic, emotionally charged ending that through this film, Eastwood already warned society and I about.
3 ½ stars