After a string of duds which lasted from 1997 to 2002, director Clint Eastwood continues his current run of excellent pictures with 'Flags of Our Fathers'. Like 'Million Dollar Baby' and 'Mystic River' before it, 'Flags of Our Fathers' leaves an ache in your heart after the final credits and, like both those films, looks set for glory on Oscar night.
Based on the book of the same name by James Bradley, 'Flags of Our Fathers' tells the story of the six US servicemen - five marines and a navy medic - who raised the American flag on Mount Suribachi during the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. While that picture, said to be the most reproduced in history, has become a symbol of US victory and resolve, the flag raising itself was a minor incident and the battle would last a further 32 days. By the end of it three of the flag-raisers were dead, among the survivors was Bradley's father, John 'Doc' Bradley.
Once the power of the image became apparent to the US government and the flag-raisers had been identified, Bradley (Phillippe) and the other two survivors, Ira Hayes (Beach) and Rene Gagnon (Bradford), were taken out of combat duty and brought back to the US. Once returned, they became the public faces of the Seventh America Bond Tour - the US authorities' desperate bid to raise more money for the war.
As the media circus grows ever larger in Eastwood's film, Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon react to their newfound fame in different ways. Bradley tries to keep his emotions on an even keel and get the PR trek over and done with; Gagnon buys in to the celebrity angle - an act to mask his own insecurities - while Native America Hayes, bombarded with racism and angered that he has been pulled out of combat, hits the bottle.
Behind their different responses however, these three very different men have much in common. They are all traumatised, but without the vocabulary to express it; they are all mourning the loss of their dead friends, who they regard as the real heroes, and they all are dismissive of their own roles in the battle. And as the bond tour drags on, so do the mental scars widen and become deeper.
With its lengthy beach landing battle sequence, Eastwood's film will, predictably, be compared to Steven Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan', but they are very different films and what is strong in one is lacking in the other. Spielberg, who produced 'Flags of Our Fathers', had superior pacing in his film whereas Eastwood excels at critiquing the workings of the war machine and how Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon were used as fuel to keep it going. Spielberg's film had a more powerful cast, but it is Beach's performance as Hayes which is the most memorable in either film. And while Spielberg's film will always be remembered for its visceral action sequences, Eastwood's lasting impacting is in its depiction of the aftermath of war on three men.
Filled with faded colours and numerous flashbacks, 'Flags of Our Fathers' leaves you feeling that you're looking through the scrapbook of the trio's lost youth. But the film and the issues it raises also tap into the conflict in the Iraq with the line "The right picture can win or lose a war" one of the most resonant onscreen.
Featuring a beautiful score by Eastwood and one of the most poignant closing images in recent cinema history, 'Flags of Our Fathers' is both a tribute to the six ordinary men behind that photo and an indictment of any system that casts people aside once they've served their purpose. Eastwood's upcoming film, 'Letters from Iwo Jima', which tells the story of the battle from the Japanese perspective, has a lot to measure up to. After watching this, you'll be in no doubt that it will.