As the ending credits rolled on Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” my son G.T. leaned in close, and whispered, “Well? How many?” It is the question he always asks, and I love that he still cares enough about my opinion, to ask it.
You see, I am a bleeding-heart pacifist, cohabitating with a miniature warmonger. There are nicer ways to express this, but none of them demonstrates the political and ideological divide that separates my 14-year-old son and me. For a while, I figured it was one of those phases he’d grow out of. I even gave in to his choice of Summer Youth Programs, and sent him to Camp Pendleton for 10 days, in hopes that a taste of Boot Camp might change his mind. It didn’t. More than ever and more than anything, he wants to be a soldier.
The whole thing might well have become unmanageable, except for the Saturday Afternoon Truce, instated more than a year ago, and resulting in the shared experience of according to my Netflix account history 62 war-related films. What history teachers left out or glossed over during my educational years, this teenaged historian is all too delighted to teach me. So much so that I have to hide the remote, so he can’t pause every few minutes with trivia. “Do you see that plane there? We only used those in the Pacific Theater.” “Wow, OK. Can you hit PLAY again?”
It has been interesting to see how, over time, the wide-scale social messages of war films have shifted. Pre-Vietnam Era films like “Sink the Bismark” and “Tora, Tora, Tora” are stark in their depiction of good and evil, of heroes and villains. Then came the ’70s and ’80s, with films like “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” mucking up all that moral certainty. The ’90s brought us “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” each focused specifically on a group of heroic characters, succeeding in extraordinary circumstances. And there, of course, lies the heart of what has always driven war movies — the making of heroes.
The most compelling element of “Flags of Our Fathers” is how it unpacks the concept of The Hero, examining how they are made, what weight the title carries and what becomes of them as time moves along. For the heroes made in that flash of a bulb on the peak of Mt. Suribachi, time is no great friend. Three of them died on Iwo Jima. Three more survived, returned home to much fanfare, were heralded by the propaganda machine as the face of the war, and then quietly, finally moved off down their different paths, with shared scars and unshakable memories.
In Eastwood’s film of James Bradley’s book, Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach and Jesse Bradford bring the stories of John Bradley, Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon to life, making these honest heroes more than frozen statues in a famous photo. It is an exquisite and painful portrait.
For G.T., this heroism is the very thing he strives towards, to fight alongside his friends for a just cause, to be celebrated as a defender of the brave and the free. But for me, there are always nagging questions. Which causes are just, whose sons and daughters will be sacrificed? And what damage is done to the souls and psyche of those who fight?
Back in the theater, as a still shot of Mt. Suribachi rolled alongside the credits of the film, I whispered to G.T., “Four stars, maybe even four and a half.” He seemed momentarily satisfied, but I knew we would argue later over whether it was a pro or anti-war film, whether it belonged in his column or mine, and I was tempted to give it that other half-star, specifically because I already knew, neither one of us was going to win that argument.