Hence we have a war-is-hell movie; a tribute to soldierly courage; an analysis of the role of imagery in both propaganda and private and collective memory; a scathing portrait of political exploitation and deceit; a study of social upheaval and injustice; an interrogation of notions of heroism; and an extremely moving account of the sacrifices stoically made by an entire generation, all cohering in one magnificent film. The pivotal narrative moment is the raising of the US flag by a small group of soldiers on Mount Suribachi during the hellish campaign to wrest the isle from 20,000 Japanese troops; but from those few seconds, famously photographed by Associated Press’s Joe Rosenthal and plastered on enough front pages to revive enthusiasm for a flagging war effort, Eastwood’s film radiates in all kinds of directions in terms of character, chronology and theme.
Which means the precise details of the story are sometimes tricky to follow; that’s normal in a genre with endless blood- and mud-spattered young men shouting and struggling their way through noisy carnage, but accentuated here by Eastwood’s typically nocturnal lighting, by the fragmented, multi-perspective narrative, and by many characters being shown both in callow youth and mutely haunted old age. But three soldiers stand out: Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), rushed home by the government to reenact the flag-raising for a hero-hungry public expected to buy war bonds. Switching between their experiences in Iwo Jima and back home, the film probes the gulf between the horrific realities of war and the expedient lies perpetrated by the authorities and temporarily welcomed by a supportive but gullible public an ocean away.
The relevance of all this to today’s situation is crystal-clear, but like everything else in the film, it’s handled with an understatement characteristic of Eastwood at his very best. The movie could hardly be more different from the pat(riotic) sentimentality of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (even though Spielberg here co-produces); here, the feelings run very deep, and dark as dried blood, with Clint aware that some things don’t need to be said and others shouldn’t be shown. Eastwood’s ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’, treating the same conflict from the Japanese perspective, is eagerly awaited.