Movie review: 'Flags of Our Fathers'

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2½ stars (out of four)

"We like things nice and simple. Good and evil, heroes and villains," says an Iwo Jima survivor played by Harve Presnell, one of many voices heard in the new Clint Eastwood movie, "Flags of Our Fathers." Eastwood's 27th feature behind the camera, the film is an honorable effort to complicate that simplicity while delivering a mass-audience Greatest Generation tale, to the best of a mature craftsman's abilities.

It's hard not to be moved by many of the scenes, both in battle and stateside. The very first voice heard in the film is that of a vocalist listed in the credits as Don Runner. He sounds a lot like Eastwood; whoever he is, he whisper-sings a few haunting, unaccompanied bars from "I'll Walk Alone," one of the great ballads of the World War II era. "There are dreams I must gather," goes one of the lyrics. It's an inspired way to begin this multipronged story of men haunted by those dreams.

After that the film settles down to business, and the business is uneven. The screenplay's welter of flashbacks makes for an oddly structured story, and the multiplicity of story lines leads to panoramic breadth, as opposed to dramatic depth. Like its source material, "Flags of Our Fathers" is an act of tribute as well as an attempt to relay some harsh wartime truths, up to a point. But on screen the central characters aren't so much characterized as illustrated.

The Joe Rosenthal photo of the Iwo Jima flag-raising, taken on Feb. 23, 1945, and an icon of American heroism ever since, offered war-weary Americans what Presnell's character calls "an easy-to-understand truth." Plenty of lies piled up at the altar of that image. Some reported that it was staged. (It wasn't; it was, however, the second flag raising atop Mt. Suribachi that day.) The New York Times imagined, erroneously, that the six men in the photo (one misidentified) planted the flag under "intense enemy sniper fire."

As a storyteller Eastwood relishes easy-to-understand truths. His superstardom as an actor was built on the image of the uncomplicated, coolly vicious revenge machine, either out West or in Dirty Harry country. In recent years as a director, Eastwood has gone deeper, garnering adulation and awards for scraping old cliches off the hide of a given genre--the Western in "Unforgiven"; the boxing tale in "Million Dollar Baby"--to see what lies beneath.

Based on the book by James Bradley, the son of one of the Iwo Jima flag-raisers, "Flags of Our Fathers" relays the stories of the men who participated in a simple, symbolically charged task involving a few feet of pipe and an American flag, on a sulfurous Japanese island. The battle for that island was extraordinarily bloody. An estimated 21,000 Japanese and almost 7,000 Americans died there.

The photo's fundraising power became instantly clear to a U.S. government strapped for cash. The three surviving flag-planters went out on a bond drive and raised millions. Navy Corpsman John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) of Wisconsin and U.S. Marines Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) of Arizona and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) of New Hampshire were not the best of friends. But they did their duty and planted flag after flag in city after city. In a key sequence the trio clambers up a papier-mache Suribachi at Soldier Field. A handful of stadium exterior shots, carefully framed to avoid the flying-saucer addition, are intercut with on-field footage shot elsewhere and digitally enhanced with'40s-era details.

Like the best of the picture this scene impresses without crying for attention. Recurring near the end, the Soldier Field sequence is among the better; for a moment you don't know if it's the battle or a bond drive re-creation. As a postwar veteran Bradley was haunted by the worst of what he experienced on Iwo Jima. So was Hayes, a Pima Indian who struggled with alcoholism most of his short, grim life. According to Bradley's book and the screenplay by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, the preening Gagnon didn't see much action (he worked as a runner). He was not well-liked: A peacock and a ladies' man, he suffered not from post-traumatic stress, as Bradley and Hayes did, but from a kind of post-celebrity withdrawal.

There's a tremendous amount of material here, and the script covers too much of it, often confusingly. (After the first battle sequence the film takes a misjudged leap forward in time that doesn't scan any more easily on a second viewing.) "Flags" is guided by a series of interviews conducted by author Bradley (played by Tom McCarthy) as he talks to Iwo Jima survivors for his book, while learning more about his own taciturn father (George Grizzard, picking up Phillippe's role). The theme that emerges most strongly is the exploitation of the photograph and of the young men in it, all for a valiant cause. As the men endure the photographers' flashbulbs and glad-handing politicos and military brass (some of them miserably caricatured), the film zooms in and out of flashbacks to Iwo Jima.

Eastwood shot most of this footage in Iceland, which has black sandy beaches akin to Iwo Jima's. The Japanese appear only in fleeting, non-verbal moments, either killing (we see it from the snipers' point of view) or being killed. Eastwood knows not to demonize the enemy combatants; with a World War II story it's simply too late for that sort of "simplicity," although he makes no attempt at dealing with them. The combat scenes are crisp, accomplished, sharply edited by Eastwood's longtime colleague Joel Cox.

Yet something's missing. We keep hearing about the survivors' bone-deep anguish, the cruelties they endured as well as perpetrated. Hayes, well and touchingly played by Beach, confesses in tears: "Some of the things I saw, things I did … they weren't things to be proud of." But we never really see what he's talking about. To date, at least, Eastwood is a director who chooses to venture only so far into the true, lacerating horrors of war.

His next film may change that perception. Eastwood shot a second Iwo Jima-themed film immediately after "Flags." Opening early next year, "Letters From Iwo Jima" features a mostly Japanese cast enacting a story told from the Japanese point of view. It's a fascinating notion, these two projects together as one. Some conflicts--all conflicts, really, which we tend to remember through images that endure long after the last body is buried--demand more than one perspective.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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'Flags of Our Fathers'

Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, based on the book by James Bradley with Ron Powers; cinematography by Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox; production design by Henry Bumstead; music by Clint Eastwood; produced by Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:17. MPAA rating: R (for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language).

John "Doc" Bradley - Ryan Phillippe

Ira Hayes - Adam Beach

Rene Gagnon - Jesse Bradford

Michael Strank - Barry Pepper

Keyes Beech - John Benjamin Hickey

Ralph Ignatowski - Jamie Bell

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