Clint Eastwood’s devastating Flags of Our Fathers isn’t really a war movie. Or more precisely, it’s much more than a war movie. It’s a meditation on war, on the gap between the nightmarish events experienced by those who fight and the superficial imagery that those outside of war manipulate in the name of politics and patriotism.
It’s the story of an image, the famous photo of American soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima: You’ve seen the picture a thousand times but the ideas behind it – the heroism that you might have taken for granted, just as awestruck observers did when it turned up on every front page back in 1944 - are far more complicated. Used as a symbol of the final rush to victory at the end of World War Two, it’s a powerful icon. But as this film shows, it remains just a symbol, and the gap between that familiar but faceless group struggling with a flagpole and the real lives of the six men in the photo is bitter and heartbreaking.
That Eastwood is a masterful director is no surprise to anyone who’s followed his career, but as he gracefully allowed his own career as an actor to take a backseat, he is becoming increasingly ambitious, backing away from conventional narratives and allowing his films to breathe with their own sense of rhythm and environment. Just as Million Dollar Baby started out as a sports movie and trapped the audience into experiencing something far more deep and disturbing, Flags of Our Fathers starts with a few familiar notes from war movies and nostalgia, but they’re just part of a subtle plan to strip the glamour from the victory rallies and photo opportunities and reveal the real aftermath of war on the men who fought it. Just as his last film considered life and death with insight and depth but without a trace of sentimentality, Eastwood raises issues about war and heroism that few other filmmakers dare to approach.