Death by narration

“Flags of Our Fathers”

Warner Bros./Dreamworks

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis, based on the book Flags of our Fathers by James Bradley

Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell and Robert Patrick

Rated R/140 minutes

Opens Oct. 20

Three out of four stars

World War II swept up and shook a generation of young Americans who were trained to fight, but when the bullets started to fly, they could only survive.

In Clint Eastwood’s flawed, elegiac war epic “Flags of our Fathers,” Adam Beach delivers an Oscar-nomination-worthy performance as Ira Hayes, one of the five marines who raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima. A famous photograph was taken of that event, which we learn wasn’t as dramatic as we thought. The men raising the flag were tired, sick of being shot at and grumbling about their superiors. They were just like any other soldiers on the battlefield.

The photo of the flag raising is a sensation in America-lifting the spirits of a war-fatigued nation. The three surviving flag-raisers are brought home and hailed as the heroes of Iwo Jima-a burden that a decreasingly sober Hayes is unable to wrap his mind around. He raised a flag and didn’t die. How does that make him any more of a hero than those who fought alongside him?

He and his fellow marine Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and navy corpsman John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) have become icons of optimism in the nation’s eye. The government sees this and puts the begrudging three on a coast-to-coast tour. Gagnon is the men’s mouthpiece, urging Americans to buy bonds to finance the war. He addresses the crowd: “The real heroes are those who died on that beach.”

What makes somebody a hero? More specifically, what makes somebody a war hero? These are the central questions Eastwood poses. A narration at the end of the movie attempts to answer these questions, which I feel is a mistake. Up until that point, Eastwood practices restraint almost to the point of contemplative aloofness-we ponder these characters and their dilemmas more than we feel for them in our hearts. I was willing to give myself over to that emotional trade-off in respect for Eastwood’s sepia-toned visuals that say more about war and heroism than any words can-that’s why the pandering narration in the film’s final moments feels wrong. It loudly announces what was otherwise nicely suggested: that all of these men were heroes in their own definition-busting ways. Tighter editing and less intrusive writing would’ve strengthened that message.

From a technical standpoint, “Flags of Our Fathers” is a masterpiece. Special effects are used unobtrusively to recreate the Battle of Iwo Jima, with its volcanic black sands and legions of battleships firing their cannons at the seemingly impenetrable Mount Suribachi. Even the littlest details are there: Airplanes fly over the beach and we see the landing crafts circling the waters below, waiting for a turn to unload.


The movie has a large ensemble cast with lots of fine performances, but the real standout is Beach. The title of hero is foisted upon his character and all he can think about are the violent atrocities he witnessed in that battle. His decline from stoic to ruined is an emotional island surrounded by a sea full of somber icebergs.

Think of “Million Dollar Baby” crossed with “Saving Private Ryan” and you’ll get a good idea of Eastwood’s tone here. I like that tone and respect his mastery over it, but it just doesn’t emanate much warmth. That’s what I wanted to feel for these heroes.

“It’s a war, boys. War in blue tones.” Fake soldiers wage a war in “Flags of our Fathers.”

“Oh my God, man. I just saw Ethyl Merman undressing. Bayoneette me. Please.” Ned Eisenberg almost vomits in “Flags of our Fathers.”