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October 18-24, 2006

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'Flags of Our Fathers'

Flag wavers: Adam Beach (left), Ryan Phillippe and Rene Gagnon tour the country after the famous flag raising at Iwo Jima.


Clint Eastwood weaves multiple plots into story of World War II's most famous image

By Richard von Busack

WHAT IS THIS? A late-period apology for Heartbreak Ridge? Clint Eastwood's mostly illegible Flags of Our Fathers looks like a number of movies blended in one. There's a Citizen Kane-style story of a son trying to get the truth of his late father's life by interviewing his father's comrades at arms. (Harve Presnell, as one of sources, looks the most as if he'd been in a war.) We also see the twin flag plantings on Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima, the second one raised after the visiting secretary of the navy demanded the first flag as a souvenir. The second raising is the more famous image, a photo taken on the fly by the late San Franciscan photographer Joe Rosenthal. Want more? How about the story of the two Marines and one sailor (Adam Beach's Ira Hayes, Jesse Bradford's Rene Gagnon and Ryan Phillippe's Navy corpsman John "Doc" Bradley). Having been photographed raising the flag, the three are ordered to tour the country to raise money for war bonds. The importance of raising the money is explained—wish they could have explained why the government declined to raise its needed revenue by taxing the millionaires who had been fattened by the war.

The most dramatically useful thread in this tangle is the story of Hayes, previously the subject of an obscure Tony Curtis movie, The Outsider. (The way I heard of it was from a minor Johnny Cash ballad, probably based on the film.) Beach plays Hayes in a sort of Kirk Douglas-style grimacing frenzy—the smile of shocked disbelief, confronted by the unguessable treachery of the world. Beach's Hayes, a Native American, has the bruised gentleness of a man so accustomed to racism that he's startled when anyone treats him as a member of a proud race.

The battle scenes are not glorious, which is authentic: they are a series of sneak attacks, with snipers blasting the men from a great height and distance. On higher ground, our soldiers have better aim. Eastwood shoots either at backlot cityscapes or in drained, desaturated color. Iwo Jima is played by Iceland; the grayness complements the computer-generated fleets. The metal-colored skies match Eastwood's game of tin soldiers being shot and lying down. The women never understand what's going on. With the exception of one mother's unbounded grief at a Chicago reception, they are mostly clueless girls left behind. Eastwood brings a worthwhile message that heroism may be a myth—as opposed to the common necessary bravery of men fighting to save the lives of their friends. And maybe there's a reflection of current events; the way the flag raising takes place before the worst of the battle reminds us of Bush's "Mission Accomplished": a celebration before the work was done. Nevertheless, what seems most heartfelt is the discomfort of three fighters having to keep up an image, being made to shake hands and perform, and asked to mount a papier-mâché Suribachi at a rally at Chicago's Soldiers' Field. The sorrows of three men junketing is more heartfelt than the deaths of the many marines who we don't know and whose faces we couldn't see, even if we did know them. War is hell, but celebrity is heller.

Movie Times Flags of Our Fathers (R; 132 min.), directed by Clint Eastwood, written by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, photographed by Tom Stern and starring Adam Beach and Ryan Phillippe, opens Oct. 20.

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