These are some of the first words spoken in Clint Eastwood's Flags Of Our Fathers:
Most guys I knew would never talk about what happened over there, probably because they were still trying to forget it. They certainly didn't think of themselves as heroes... What we see, and do, in war, the cruelty, is unbelievable. But somehow we gotta make some sense of it. To do that, we need an easy to understand truth, and damn few words.The speaker is a World War Two veteran, and he's addressing a character who will deliver the last, and equally provocative, line of the film.
Those early lines are a pretty bold challenge to conventional presentations of World War Two. Outside of Stud Terkel's book The Good War, and the 1947 film The Best Years Of Our Lives, it's hard to think of many critical views of that war. Even these don't assail the war so much as the notion that there's anything noble about that war and era in American history. Eastwood's film of the American experience of Iwo Jima uses that battle, and the iconic photo of the American flag, as a metaphor for the larger delusions we have about the integrity of war.
Clint Eastwood was on an amazing tear for a few years in the mid 1990s: he followed Unforgiven with A Perfect World, and then pulled The Bridges Of Madison County out of his sleeve. After a few years of lesser films he suddenly turned out 4 of his best-regarded works in the last three years: Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags Of Our Fathers, and Letters From Iwo Jima.
I haven't seen Letters From Iwo Jima yet, but what's amazing to me about that list is not that these are all flawless films (only one of them is) but how great I think they are in spite of almost all having something in them that really bothers me. Bridges Of Madison County and Flags Of Our Fathers each have a flashback structure that gets too heavy handed; Mystic River has that off-putting speech by Laura Linney at the end where she endorses Sean Penn's murder of an innocent guy; the portrayal of Hilary Swank's family in Million Dollar Baby indulges crass stereotypes of poor southern whites.
Unforgiven, though. Holy shit, that's a movie to be reckoned with. Aside from being a morally complicated western about killing-for-hire, it has a subplot about an author who writes exaggerated stories about gunfighters. In some ways it seems unrelated to the rest of the film, but this is what makes Unforgiven a work of genius. This subplot deals with the creation, and the fallacy, of the western archetype (an archetype Clint Eastwood was no small part of building in the first place). The author meets up with Eastwood's William Munny in the closing minutes. Munny is the only character in the film that validates the writer's hyperbolic prose. But by the time they're together we've learned that there's nothing heroic about Munny; he's a lonely alcoholic haunted by and ashamed of his violent past.
In this way, Flags Of Our Fathers reminded me of Unforgiven. It similarly attacks popular notions of violent heroism. It reminds us that the people who fought World War Two, who were elevated to a metaphor by the famous picture at Iwo Jima, were nothing but young kids who would be forever scarred by the experience.
One thing Clint Eastwood does really well is end a film; the man knows how to set up a closing shot for maximum effect. Specifically, think of the ends of Mystic River (the ambiguous gestures between Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon); Space Cowboys (an elderly astronaut spending his last minutes of life watching the Earth from the surface of the moon); Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood privately grieving and memorializing Hilary Swank by eating a piece of pie).
Flags Of Our Fathers likewise goes right for the heart. It ends on the memory of an American Iwo Jima survivor recalling that, after taking the famous picture he and his buddies (most of whom would soon be killed in combat), went swimming off the beach of the island. They're stripping down to their boxers and horsing around in the shallow water while hundreds of American battleships float incongruously in the background. The film's last bit of narration:
Maybe there's no such thing as heroes, maybe there are just people like my dad. I finally came to understand why they were so uncomfortable being called heroes. Heroes are something we create, something we need. It's a way for us to understand something that's almost incomprehensible: how people could sacrifice so much for us... They may have fought for their country, but they died for their friends... If we wish to truly honor these men, we should remember them they way they really were. The way my dad remembered them.
By the way, subsequent to this posting the New York Times offered me a chance to buy the series of photographs taken on Iwo Jima. Here's what they look like if you take them up on the offer: