Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers uses a true story about World War II in order to make timely reminders about sacrifices in wartime. Jesse Bradford, Ryan Philippe, and Adam Beach play three soldiers who appeared in the famous photograph of American troops planting the flag on Iwo Jima. Eastwood economically establishes how this photo affected the mood of the country, but since his tone for the film is not particularly rah-rah, he never indulges in the feelings of patriotism this famous image evokes -- the characters feel it, but the audience does not. Instead Eastwood plunges the viewer into the harsh reality of the invasion. The war footage in Flags of Our Fathers brings to mind the opening passage in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, offering a grunt's eye view of the brutal human cost of war. The carnage becomes so commonplace that viewer must accept this new reality, just as the characters must. These brutal action sequences are intercut with the three soldiers on a homefront tour designed to help sell war bonds. The way the media and the government help shape public sentiment around them recalls certain sequences in The Right Stuff, but where Philip Kaufman's film about the early days of the space program plays those absurdities for comedy, Eastwood's downbeat tone plays those same ironies for tragedy. The audience learns that veterans generally didn't talk about what they saw and what they did, but these three young men are forced to relive their experiences every night before adoring crowds. The survivor's guilt affects each of them differently, most notably Adam Beach as a young man so overcome that he begins drinking himself into oblivion. Beach carries the emotional weight of the film, and Eastwood's measured pacing gives him nowhere to hide. His is a difficult performance that earns much audience sympathy, even though he never once asks for it in the performance. These thematic elements are presented so well that the film suffers when Eastwood gets around to tying up the story's framing device concerning one of the soldier's sons. The interaction between father and son never achieves the depth of the earlier sequences in large part because the audience never sees the veterans raising their kids. The screenwriters miscalculate the audience's interest, leaving a half hour of screentime after an emotional scene involving Beach provides the dramatic climax of the story.
The fact that Spielberg also serves as a producer on the film, alongside Eastwood, forces one to consider how Flags of Our Fathers compares to Saving Private Ryan in more ways than just the reality of the battle sequences. Ryan, released in 1998, was directed by a baby-boomer shaping a love letter to his father. Part of a wave of WWII veterans veneration that includes Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation and the miniseries Band of Brothers, many of these projects felt like boomers attempting to close the generation gap now that they themselves were facing mortality. Flags of Our Fathers, although covering much the same ground thematically, improves upon Ryan for two major reasons. First, Eastwood is old enough to be a World War II veteran himself. He feels no need to sentimentalize these young soldiers, or their reasons for fighting. Secondly, this is a post 9/11 movie, and the culture has been saturated with nearly nonstop reminders that war is hell. Eastwood is reminding audiences that the men on the ground are not thinking about anything other than themselves and their fellow soldiers. Flags of Our Fathers is a sobering reminder that the lessons and experiences of WWII soldiers do not belong only to history, but offer valuable insights for any country that finds itself in a time of war.